10 The Undesirables

From: City

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10 THE UNDESIRABLES For most businessmen it is not the dope dealers or muggers who obsess them. It is the winos—a symbol, perhaps, of the man one might become but for the grace of fate. The biggest single obstacle to the provision of better spaces is the undesirables problem. They are themselves not too much of a problem. It is the actions taken to combat them that is the problem. Out of an almost obsessive fear of their presence, civic leaders worry that if a place is made attractive to people it will be attractive to undesirable people. So it is made defensive. There is to be no loitering—what a Calvinist sermon is in those words—and there is to be no eating, no sleeping. So it is that benches are made too short to sleep on, that spikes are put on ledges, that many needed spaces are not provided and the plans for them scuttled. One of the problems in dealing with undesirables is a failure to differentiate. For most businessmen, curiously, it is not muggers, dope dealers, or truly dangerous people that obsess them. It is the winos, derelicts, men who drink out of half-pint bottles in paper bags—the most vulnerable of the city's marginal people, but a symbol, perhaps, of the man one might become but for the grace of fate. When some people speak of these men they smile as if they were telling a dirty joke. For retailers, the list of undesirables is more inclusive. There are the bag women, bag men, people who talk out loud in buses, teenagers, older people, street musicians, street vendors. On one occasion a retailer pointed out several for me: two young women in blue jeans The Undesirables [i57l Incident at St. Patrick's Cathedral [158] CITY taking notes at the corner. "There are some of them," the retailer said. They were two of our researchers. The preoccupation with undesirables is a symptom of another problem. Many corporation executives who make key decisions about the city have surprisingly little acquaintance with the life of its streets and open spaces. From the station they may have to walk only a few blocks to their office building, but once inside, some do not venture out again until it is time to head back to the station. So circumscribed is their territory that many spend a decade or so without straying more than a few blocks off their set pathways. If their office building has a plaza, they are likely to have seen it every day but not to have ever used it themselves. I showed a film to the brass of a large corporation on the life of their plaza. The plaza happened to be a successful one and the executives were fascinated by it—as if it were a far-off island place. They had never known it. If it is a defensive plaza, few other people will have used it either. Places designed in distrust get what was anticipated and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino. You will find winos elsewhere, but it is the empty places they prefer. It is in them that they look conspicuous—almost as if the design had been contrived to make them so. Fear proves itself. Highly elaborate defensive measures are an advance indicator that the corporation may clear out of the city entirely . Long before Union Carbide announced it was leaving New York City for outer suburbia, its building said that it would. Save for an exhibit area, the building was sealed off from the city, with policelike guards with black uniforms and walkie-talkies. Outside were large expanses of paving and not a place to sit. There still is not a place. Manufacturers Hanover Trust, which got the building for a song, put long, black, marble objects on the spaces with the name of the bank on them. But you cannot sit there; the sides are so steeply canted you slide off. The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else. The record is overwhelmingly positive on this score. With few exceptions, center city plazas and small parks are safe places. They mirror expectations. Seagram management is pleased people like its plaza and is quite relaxed about what they do on it. It lets them stick their feet in the pools; it tolerates oddballs and even allows them to sleep...


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