Finding the ‘Right to the City’ During a Pandemic

What is there to do in a city when the essential commercial and cultural infrastructures are limited or taken out of the equation? A new imagination can be born out of the ashes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Date: December 4, 2020
Author and photographs: Taylor Dorrell

    As the pandemic rages through the United States, Ohio and Columbus, the slow acceleration of restrictions, most recently the curfew, raise an essential question: what is there to do in a city when the essential commercial and cultural infrastructures are limited or taken out of the equation? Can a city, can Columbus, satisfy those human needs that surpass exchange value, commerce and profit? Perhaps now is the most illuminating time to ask this question.

    It would appear that the answer would be a blunt no. How can these needs that transcend capital be fulfilled when simple survival appears to be in jeopardy. Evictions have been continuing throughout the pandemic with hunger, poverty and homelessness increasing with no real end in sight even after the distribution of a vaccine.

    But we witnessed something early in the pandemic. What is being labeled as ‘war-time communism’, or the government mobilizing to supply the very means that are supposed to be fought by individuals in the market - the same mobilization that our two-party system preaches is impossible (try to imagine Mitch Mconnel announcing $1 trillion stimulus to end poverty in the U.S.) - Trump taking over the private sector, supplying a form of universal basic income, propping up the entire economy, supplying bare necessities, etc... It’s as the saying goes, in a crisis we’re all socialists.

    In our current situation, however, one in which the government appears to have given up, what alternative is there to the failing free market? Texas’ Republican lieutenant governor suggested in March that we sacrifice the elderly to save the economy, sounding very familiar perhaps to Latin American countries like Chile where US backed dictators who generally claimed that ‘yes, deregulation, privatization and political repression/torture will kill and starve many of you in the short term, but companies and stocks will eventually come out on top’. This kind of market driven barbarity is perfectly illuminated by the Tyson managers and supervisors who placed bets on how many employees would get COVID-19 and how many would die while the stock market boomed and billionaires set new records for wealth (the irony is that the managers who have no say in work conditions will be blamed as the higher ups sit at home comfortably).

    It appears that the federal government has followed the Texas lieutenant governor’s plan of a neoliberal sacrifice for the economy since no stimulus has been passed since March. Left on its own, however, the free-market forces seem to come up extremely short and the situation is only getting worse - even with the sacrifice of 2,000 Americans a day. What other option is there besides war-time communism or the current barbarity of human sacrifice in the name of the free-market? This is the exact question Slovanian philosopher Slavoj Zizek asks, observing that ‘A common sooth now in circulation is that, since we are all now in this crisis together, we should forget about politics and just work in unison to save ourselves. This notion is false: true politics are needed now—decisions about solidarity are eminently political.’1

    Although the benefits for average Americans that were a product of the short-term war-time communism wasn’t long lasting - and there has been a relative lack in real political revolutions so far in response to the failure of the state and private sectors to help (other than DSA members increasing and the mass BLM protests that have since simmered down) - can that glimmer of war-time communism spill over into the imagination of citizens? Can the misery being produced during this pandemic create the necessary conditions to imagine something new? If so, how does this imagination come to fruition? Or is the better question where can this imagination be sparked?

Hilliard Homes, Chicago, Illinois, 2020.

    This is the question 20th century French philosopher Henri Lefebvre posed. There are ‘specific needs which are not satisfied by those commercial and cultural infrastructures… This refers to the need for creative activity, for the oeuvre [creative works] (not only of products and consumable material goods), of the need for information, symbolism, the imaginary and play…’ He asks, ‘Would not specific urban needs be those of qualified places, places of simultaneity and encounters, places where exchange would not go through exchange value, commerce and profit? Would there not also be the need for a time for these encounters, these exchanges?’2 

    It might unexpectedly be the Covid-19 pandemic that provides some of this time, although depriving us of the encounters and exchanges (excluding the virtual), but what of the spaces? The landscape of cities that are built on the foundation, or base, of capital? Submerged in, as David Harvey put it, ‘[t]he multiple degenerate utopias that now surround us - the shopping malls and the ‘bourgeois’ commercialized utopias of the suburbs being paradigmat,’ Harvey adds that these spaces and non-places ‘do as much to signal the end of history as the collapse of the Berlin Wall ever did. They instantiate rather than critique the idea that ‘there is no alternative,’ save those given by the conjoining of technological fantasies, commodity culture, and endless capital accumulation.’3 

Columbus Airport (CMH), 2020.
    Let’s make a detour and examine George W. Bush’s legacy, which has become defined by war crimes and the Great Recession. When Americans erupted over Ellen DeGeneres sitting and joking with him as a friend, it very quickly became evident that there was a new image of the former president as this humanized citizen of everyday life. Since leaving office Bush has become a successful painter and is casually flirted with by many Democrats, mainly due to his criticisms of Trump. While this image has been radically rejected, it nonetheless highlights how a ‘reverse image’ comes into being. In everyday life, weaving through the landscape of Donatos pizzas and highway exit signs, going to and from work everyday, there is, at the same time, an image created in response that transcends the everyday. The very condition of this flow of capital generates its ‘reverse image’. Lefebvre adds that ‘The picture of this generalized misery would not go without a picture of ‘satisfactions’ which hides it and becomes the means to elude it and break free from it.’4 We should, perhaps like Bush during the Iraq War, dream of becoming painters. Painters as a metaphor for transcending the misery of our current crisis with something radically different.

    The means to elude and break free from ‘degenerate utopias’ therefore first starts in the material and subjective experience of everyday life under late capitalism, in its revolutionary forms of production that also produce misery and poverty. But the second step lays somewhere else. Marx supplies us with the solution in his well known quote about architects and bees: ‘But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.’5 There is a back and forth, or a dialectic, between the material and the imagined. It is, in one sense, the material misery that sparks the imagination and at the same time the imagination that creates the material.

    So we arrive at our current predicament in which it appears that alien forces out of our control drive daily material life (curfews, or a lack of curfews, stimulus checks, layoffs, etc.), while at the same time ‘essential workers’ realize subjectively, maybe not collectively yet, that they are indeed essential and hold the power to cause change. In so much isolated, yet virtually connected, downtime during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is possible to really imagine something new, it’s necessary; something political, social, economic, and spatial (not simply escapist as maybe Bush’s painting passion might be). Lefebvre is quick to specify this: ‘That imagination be deployed, not the imaginary of escape and evasion which conveys ideologies, but the imaginary which invests itself in appropriation (of time, space, physiolocal life and desire).’6 

Marblehead, Ohio, 2020.

    While so much physical space sits unoccupied and the flow of capital is diminished, at least in physical spaces, one should ask spatial questions, as the worst architect in relation to the best of the bees should. This is what Fredric Jameson does in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:

    What would be the mark or sign, the index, of a successful resolution for this cognitive but also spatial problem? It could be detected, one would think, in the quality of the new intermediary space itself - the new living space produced by the interaction of the other poles. If that space is meaningful, if you can live in it, if it is somehow comfortable but in a new way, one that opens up historically new and original ways of living - and generates, so to speak, a new Utopian spatial language, a new kind of sentence, a new kind of syntax, radically new words beyond our own grammar - then, one would think, the dilemma, the aporia, has been resolved, if only on the level of space itself.7

    The intermediary space appears general in Jameson’s use; that we can rally around spaces that exist in between poles of meaning. But what of real spatial intermediaries; areas that are left over, whether intentional, unintentional, or through years of use and non-use?

    Here, Slavoj Zizek compares this leftover space to that of the function of the frame in modern painting. Not just the function of the frame that contains the painting, but that of the ‘frame that enframes our perception of the painting.’8 What could be simply called the viewer’s frame (and all the societal and symbolic influences that come with it). ‘The pivotal content of the painting is not rendered in its visible part, but is located in this dis-location of the two frames, in the gap that separates them.’9 Zizek goes on to observe this plays out in the architecture of performance art venues like the Esplanade National Performing Arts Centre in Singapore, quoting Michael Hammond, ‘For many, the real magic of this building is the dramatic sense of place in the “leftover” spaces between the theatres and the enclosure. The curvaceous shapes of these public areas are the by-products of two separate design processes - those of the acoustic - and logistic-driven performing zones, and the climactic - and structure-driven envelope.’10 Zizek asks if this is ‘not a potential utopian space?... The spaces between pillars of a bridge can thus be used by homeless persons for sleeping, even though such spaces were not designed for providing such shelter… And does this procedure not expand to buildings themselves, such that a church or train station might be exapted into an art gallery, etc.?... The struggle is up for grabs here - the struggle over who will appropriate them. These “interstitial spaces” are thus the proper place for utopian dreaming - they remind us of architecture’s great politico-ethical responsibility: much more is at stake in architectural design than may at first appear.’11 

Chess outside the Ohio History Center, 2020.

    Today could be the time to follow behind those in the Harry Potter universe who hesitatingly, but faithfully, run full speed at the brick wall between platform 9 and 10, platform 9¾, emerging into a new world. I have attempted to do this myself; my unhealthy fascination with the Ohio History Center building has drawn me to its surrounding grass area that goes untouched (outside of a few skittish hedgehogs), the top level of Columbus’ airport (CMH) parking garage is a $5 aviation show, the grass space in front of the state house is constantly claimed for political protests and gatherings (in the heat of the George Floyd protests, the space was occupied by like-minded residents just sitting and talking about socio-political issues), etc.. This can, however, just as much, if not more, easily go the other way - recall the dystopian vision of Columbus in the 2018 film Ready Player One with stacks of trailer homes where residents are glued into an escapist video game world - as throughout the pandemic Columbus’ Convention Center has been repurposed as a courtroom to catch up on the backlog of cases, most notably a significant number of evictions. These spaces really are ‘up for grabs here’, they should be scouted and utilized to spark the imagination of the citizen as architect.

   The lesson is clear: until we insurgent architects know the courage of our minds and are prepared to take an equally speculative plunge into some unknown, we too will continue to be the objects of historical geography (like worker bees) rather than active subjects, consciously pushing human possibilities to their limits. What Marx called ‘the real movement’ that will abolish ‘the existing state of things’ is always there for the making and for the taking. That is what gaining the courage of our minds is all about.12
    Harvey’s urgent case for ‘insurgent architects’ is similar to Lefebvre’s characterization of his notion of the right to the city, which he describes as being ‘like a cry and a demand.’ This extends past actual architects and should be expanded to incorporate what the young Marx called ‘world-creators’. At twenty one years old Marx wrote, ‘He who no longer finds pleasure in building the whole world with his own forces, in being a world-creator instead of revolving forever inside his own skin, on him the Spirit has spoken its anathema.’13 

    While the individual arriving at this position is essential, so too is the arrival at the universal. The young Marx goes on to poetically state that ‘when the universal sun has set, does the moth seek the lamp-light of privacy.’ And so the fight for, as Ernst Fischer put it, ‘a new social dawn, for a ‘universal’ sun that would make the lamplight of privacy appear dull by comparison…’14 The dialectic of these two formulations, between the individual and universal, naturally leads to the expansion beyond the role of any one social role, as Lefebvre reminds us:

    The architect, the planner, the sociologist, the economist, the philosopher or the politician cannot out of nothingness create new forms and relations. More precisely, the architect is no more a miracle-worker than the sociologist. Neither can create social relations, although under certain favourable conditions they help trends to be formulated (to take shape). Only social life (praxis) in its global capacity possesses such powers — or does not possess them. The people mentioned above can individually or in teams dear the way; they can also propose, cry out and prepare forms. And also (and especially), through a maieutic nurtured by science, assess acquired experience, provide a lesson from failure and give birth to the possible.15

    The reader should recall that Marx’s statement about the architect and the bee applied to the worst of architects. We should then make a Marxist reading of the 2007 DreamWorks film Bee Movie, seeing it as a challenge, since Barry, a bee, successfully ends the human’s exploitation of slave bee labor through a large court case. But more importantly, remember the ending message of the film after the court case is won and bees get their freedom. The moral of the story was not utopian, but that everything was actually perfect before under slave labor, alternatives don’t work, it’s just nature. This ending message is radically challenged in reality, especially since we, as humans, have put bee populations in jeopardy of extinction under the current modes of production (not to mention the countless other crises climate change has caused). To make a successful sequel, the original Red Scare message has to be completely flipped so that it is even nature itself which requires the radical kind of fight that Barry undertook. Comrade Barry must return to this original fight, but requires more. What could be called the communist imagination that envisions a new system out of necessity. It is here where he must employ the help of human architects.

    It’s fair to say that it will take more than just the worst architectects to imagine what follows this crippling era of neoliberal capitalism.  

1. Slavoj Zizek, Pandemic!, (2020), p 24.
2. Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, (1968), p 57.
3. David Harvey, Spaces of Hope, (2000), p 168.
4. Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, (1968), p 64.
5. Karl Marx, Capital I, (1867), p 177-8. 
6. Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, (1968), p 62.
7. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (1991), p 128.
8. Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times, (2010), p 275
9. Ibid.
10. Michael Hammond, Performing Architecture, (2006), p 65-7.
11. Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times, (2010), p 275, 278.
12. David Harvey, Spaces of Hope, (2000), p 255 
13. M-Engels Gesamt-Ausgabe (MEGA), Vol. I, Berlin, 1932, p. 99.
14. Ibid.
15. Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, (1968), p 59.