10.03.2014

The People’s Playground

We aim to reclaim the city as a space for struggle and solidarity in pursuit of needs and wants.

Remeike Forbes / Jacobin

If you’re a hip urban dweller, liberal pundits figure you’re ready to hit the swingset now that it’s fall. “Wait Your Turn for the Swings at Boston’s Adult Playground,” admonishes a recent headline in the Atlantic’s CityLab, an outlet both symptomatic of and beholden to the neoliberalization of the city. The site in question is not an outdoor burlesque, but an actual playground with lighted swings for techie entrepreneurs in South Boston’s new “Innovation District.”

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the city was home to socialist ambitions, the site of mass politics that aimed to change the world. But these days, it’s more likely to be championed by technocrats like Michael Bloomberg and Edward Glaeser or blogged about at outlets like CityLab, whose vision of urban life is more concerned with disruptive “solutions” than class struggle.

Radical critics were once at the forefront of urban thought and practice: in the 1950s and 60s, groups like the Situationists sought to counter the convention and alienation of life under capitalism by imbuing the city with the sense that everyday life held possibility, that it could be inventive and extraordinary.

But without strong left movements working to transform the realm of possibility at a structural level, playfulness and spontaneity have proved easily coopted and commodified. In the “creative city,” it’s capitalists who break down barriers between work and leisure, encouraging us to value experience, reject routine, and treat urban space as a giant playground to be explored.

Meanwhile, Jane Jacobs-style urbanism has become all too adaptable to liberal appropriation. Her celebration of mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods has been used in the service of gentrifying, high-income developments. Jacobs’s praise of the human connection in small-scale communities has likewise been assimilated into theories of the city as creative, productive, and prosperous — prime territory for the growth of capital.

But of course, for many people, life in today’s privatized cities is anything but emancipatory. The rhetoric of the modern city belies the same old dirty politics hidden within gleaming algorithms, techno-efficient policies, and sharing economies.

In this issue, we explore how neoliberalism creeps into the city in the form of fun and games, from SimCity to the Olympics; how private property gains ground as public housing is destroyed and new life forms are created; and how developers and investors suck up profits through wonky zoning laws and financing schemes. Beneath progressive technocracy lurks the mechanics of class society.

We look to the socialist cities of the past and those to come. We aim to reclaim the city as a space for struggle and solidarity in pursuit of needs and wants: public housing, parks, decent work, and plentiful leisure — with the possibility of an occasional escape. To realize the city’s emancipatory promise will require mass movements led by workers, challenges to property rights in its many forms, and feminist reimaginings of urban space and work.

The task of our generation of socialists is to make this alternative a reality — moving beyond the creative-class politics of Richard Florida into the renewed working-class politics of the future.