The Los Angeles plaza appears like a regular public park. It has some greenery, a couple of benches and a playground. It is a wonderful Parkour spot because it offers a lot of different surfaces and sand and grass for soft landings. I grew up close to it and made my first tentative steps into Parkour on this spot.
But a closer look reveals that this is not a public space at all. As part of the glamorization of the area around the Zoologischer Garten a lot of public spaces were privatized. A conglomerate of business of the area, mostly the usual suspects of global companies like H&M, Zara, Nike and so on, are in charge of this space. The plaza was sold to the City AG, this conglomerate of neighbouring businesses, and while it appears to be public it is geared towards a public defined as consumers and tourists. A sign at the entrance of the park now lists the “house rules,” such as “no eating, no drinking, no being there after dark.” What is taking form here since 2014 is a so called “Business Improvement District” (BID).
European cities, and especially Berlin, used to be juxtaposed with urban developments in the US. While New York had to suffer dividedness and social polarization, European cities were described as more integrated, homogeneous, and inclusive. But since about a decade Berlin is experiencing similar trends of polarization and new lines of division within the city. What becomes more and more apparent are “novel boundaries, which are separating newly emerging islands of wealth and upgraded spaces from their surrounding bleaker environment” as Margit Mayer, a critical urban studies scholar, puts it. She calls this process insular gentrification and the Los Angeles Platz is a visible sign of this.
As Traceurs we only encounter these new authorities when we get expelled from this spot, which happens at least to me regularly. But more marginalized communities face even greater discrimination. The police established so called operative groups, that are responsible for groups like the homeless, drug addicts, or beggars. These units employ various tactics to keep the place “safe and secure”, meaning clean and free of any disturbance for the consuming public and hinder or even prevent the outreach work of drug counselling and social aid organizations. Poverty is no longer depicted as a social problem but exclusively as a threat to the public order.
What is emerging, slowly, is a take over of private interest into something so central to the public as public spaces. Non-productive people, like the homeless, beggars, but to a certain extend also skateboarders, street artists and Parkour practitioners, are not well liked in private spaces geared towards consumption. As long as the artists of public space don’t participate in the celebration of consumer culture through advertisement, shows or galleries they are subject to marginalization just as much as other vulnerable populations. Mayer concludes doom-laden that we are observing an emergence of “islands of luxury and zones of upscale urbanites cut off and divided by multiple boundaries from marginal, downgraded zones that are concentrating nearby.” The Los Angeles Platz is only one phenomena of what a unleashed capitalism does to public space as the tentacles of the shopping malls reach out to colonize what was previously public. The neoliberal urban politics of the past ten years start to show their destructive effects on public life and social inclusion.
Eick, V. (1998) Neue Sicherheitsstrukturen im »neuen« Berlin – Warehousing öffentlichen Raums und staatlicher Gewalt. PROKLA. Zeitschrift für kritische Sozialwissenschaft, Heft 110, 28. Jg. 1998, Nr.1, 95-118.
Mayer, M. (2006) New Lines of Division in the New Berlin. In Lenz, G. et al. (eds.) Towards a New Metropolitanism: Reconstituting Public Culture, Urban Citizenship, and the Multicultural Imaginery in New York and Berlin. Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg, 171-183.