How the Mundane Challenges the Neoliberal Death of Public Space: The Unexpectedly Complex Social Lives of Los Angeles Private-Open Spaces

Friday, July 18, 2014: 5:30 PM
Room: 311+312
Oral Presentation
In recent decades, Los Angeles has been a poster child for the neoliberal management of public spaces, choosing privatization, surveillance and uniform design over locally oriented, spontaneous and inclusionary practices. It is believed that this has decreased the number of public spaces in the city, but it has also reduced their quality by limiting access to certain well-behaved socio-economic groups and their activities. When looking back at their history, public spaces have been tools for expressing power in the city and as such, they have been marked by day-to-day negotiations for their representation and appropriation. This suggests that public spaces have never been totally opened, and that their social dimension is an important part of what defines them, in addition to their design and management. Recent research into five public spaces in Downtown L.A. studied mundane sociability through the observation of users, their interactions, and their strategies to control the space within formal surveillance. The results revealed that everyday uses by a variety of visitors weave a complex and dynamic fabric that defines each space. This paper focuses on two privately-owned-publicly-opened spaces, namely Grand Hope Park and the California Plaza, to show how their daily social lives are dynamic and differ one from another. Their social fabrics unfold at dissimilar rhythms, and present a set of unique informal rules negotiated within what seems to be a similar context of formal surveillance. This research challenges the claim of the recent death of public space but also the more recent affirmations regarding a re-appropriation of public space. Daily dynamic uses and interactions have continued to contribute to the development of a complex identity that is unique to each site and that calls for an end to the oversimplification of the definition of “dead” or “lively”, “private” or “public” public spaces.