16 HARPER’S MAGAZINE / JANUARY 2012
city” was theorized as a radical “cry and demand”by the French urbanist and philosopher HenriLefebvre. In one of his
nal texts, Lefebvre la-mented the end of the traditional city: nobodytoday could write as gaily and lyrically about citylife as Apollinaire had once written about Paris.The more the city had grown and spread itstentacles, the more degraded social relations hadbecome. For Lefebvre, the “menace” was that thisamorphous monster would become a planetarymetamorphosis, totally out of control. As hith-erto rural worlds had been urbanized, traditionalforms of work—secure, decent-paying jobs—seemed to melt into air. Once, people had mi-grated to the city looking for steady factory jobs;but those industries had gone belly-up or clearedout to somewhere cheaper.Millions of peasants and smallholders, thrownoff their land by agribusiness or the dynamics of the world market, came to an alien habitat thatwas now neither meaningfully urban nor rural. Avicious process of dispossession, sucking peopleinto the city while spitting others out of the gen-trifying center, forced poor urban old-timers andvulnerable newcomers onto an expanding periph-ery. At the same time, the notions of citizen andcity-dweller had been wrenched apart. Cities’inhabitants now experience a tragic form of prox-imity without sociability. Lefebvre’s tonalitythroughout the essay is Céline-like in its journeyto the end of the night; yet he could not resist afew Whitmanesque
ourishes, throwing out one
nal thought about what a new democratic vistamight look like. The “right to the city,” he con-cluded, now implied “nothing less than a newrevolutionary conception of citizenship,” in whichcity-dweller and citizen would some-how embrace one another again.
he proposition raised as many questionsas it answered. Right to what city? If urban so-ciety is everywhere, does this mean the right tothe metropolitan region, the whole urban ag-glomeration, or just the right to the city’sdowntown? Even if we accept the “urban” as aspecific terrain for political struggle, whatwould the right to the city actually look like?Would it resemble the Paris Commune, a greatfestival of merriment, people storming into thecenter of town (when there was still a center),occupying it, tearing down statues, abolishingrents for a while? Would this really destabilize“the system”?In twentieth-century revolutionary traditions,moreover, wresting control of urban areas wasoften the icing on the cake, the social movement’s
ing, as revolutionary currents
owedfrom the countryside onto the urban streets. RégisDebray described the city as the “empty head,”deaf to the plight of those who feel accumulationby dispossession the most, in rural hinterlands,mountain jungles, and abandoned
Mao,Che, Castro, Ortega, and Subcomandante Marcoswould doubtless concur: the city does not so muchradicalize as neutralize popular elements.Consider the relative conformity of the world’surban populations today: unemployed, underem-ployed, and multi-employed attendants, cut off from the past yet somehow excluded from thefuture, deadened by hustling a living. This is ageneration of urban dwellers for whom the “rightto the city” serves no purpose—either as a work-[Debate]
SOMETHING INTHE WAY
From comments made at a July 27, 2011, meeting of the Aberdeen, Washington, city council, about a proposal to rename the North Aberdeen Bridge aftercity native Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and guitaristof the band Nirvana, who committed suicide in 1994.The city, which quotes Nirvana’s “Come as You Are”on its welcome sign, voted instead to name a smalllanding near the bridge after Cobain.
I don’t think Kurt earned a bridge.How many times has Kurt Cobain slept underthat bridge? Anybody know? Maybe once?Twice? Three times?In the books that I have read about Mr. Co-bain, he didn’t really care for Aberdeen, so it’s aslap in the face to the people who do like Aber-deen, like myself, like our mayor. He didn’t real-ly think we were that wonderful, obviously.One of the things to consider is that some of his best work was done sitting on a toilet seat ashe injected himself with heroin.What Kurt Cobain is to this city is jobs, jobs,jobs. We have hundreds of people Kurt Cobain’sage who are now in their forties and they comehere, they stop all the time in town, they get anice cream cone or sandwich—that’s jobs here.If someone decides to shoot himself on thatproperty, and it hits my house, I’ll be talking tothe city of Aberdeen to
nd out who’s insuringthat property.