Citizens, Consumers and the struggle for the soul of Upstate Communities

I aim in this post to examine the concept of a ‘citizen’ in our Upstate communities and the slow erosion of this idea before the new concept of a ‘consumer.’ Today, we tend to view ‘citizenship’ as a relationship between an individual and a State, a government. By saying “I am a citizen of the United States,” one implies foremost a relationship with the United States government, including both rights and responsibilities. School citizenship classes or larger citizenship campaigns typically aim to increase participation in the activities of the government. This has not, however, always been the case.

The concept of a citizen arose in contrast to the political situation of being a subject. Once, this was the primary form of political allegiance in Western nations (like British Subjects). A subject’s primary loyalty is to a sovereign, such a King, Pope or Emperor. Power emanates from this central figure who is elevated above others. The key is that subjects are related to one another only by their relationship to the sovereign.

Citizenship, however, was originally a relationship between citizens not between citizens and the state. Citizenship permeated every element of life. We can see this fascination with life in a ‘Republican System’ in the writings of authors like Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. This changed the fundamental nature of politics: privileges granted by the sovereign were replaced by (universal) rights, duties given to the sovereign were replaced by responsibilities of the citizen as a member of the community. The state was re-imagined from being the emanation of the power of the sovereign to an agent acting on behalf of the citizenry. While the government was defined by its citizenry, citizenship went far beyond a relationship to the state. These ideals were summed up in the slogans of the era: “All men [sic] are created equal,” and “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.”

As the Enlightenment revolutions (most notably the French) swept the Western world, they also reconfigured the very space of the European cities. The most iconic transformation was the reshaping of Paris by Baron Haussmann. Caldiera writes:

At the core of the conception of urban public life embedded in modern Paris are notions that city space is open to be used and enjoyed by anyone, and that the consumption society it houses may become accesssible to all. Of course, this has never been entirely the case, neither in Paris nor anywhere else… These
modern urban experencies were coupled with a political life in which similar values were fostered. The modern city has been the stage for all types of public demonstrations. In fact, the promise of incorporation into modern society included not only the city and consumption but also the polity. (From “Fortified Enclaves: The New Urban Segregation,” pg 94)
While this promise of universal inclusion has never been achieved, this does not make it any less of a worthwhile goal; the successes (if only partial) of movements like Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation, etc, are because they have forced inclusion, not because they have rejected the possibility of it occuring.

Yet, it is this basic society of inclusion, the ideal of equal citizens working in fraternity [sic] for liberty, that is today under siege in our communities. Across Upstate New York, we can see the creep of the privatization of space. In Buffalo, there are plans for the first gated community in Amherst (here’s an editorial). In Syracuse, DestinNY proposes to create a privately-owned (but publically subsidized) sealed fantasyworld only accessible by car. Barnes and Noble or Borders replaces the public library. Elevated freeways cut across Syracuse, Binghamton and smaller cities of the Mohawk valley, paralyzing neighborhoods and allowing the owners of cars to avoid all contact with the communities they pass over. Yards become ever-larger, separating mcmansions even as suburbs push further away from central cities. Cars become an absolute necessity for moving from one private parking lot to another in order to do basic shopping.

Is this not an outright rejection of the project of citizenship? We are privatizing public space, creating a situation where one’s status as a consumer replaces that of a citizen. No right exists to enter and inhabit these faux-public spaces—it is only one’s position as a potential purchaser. We need to look no further than the 2003 arrest at the Crossgates Mall in Guilderland, NY of a man for wearing a peace t-shirt to see the fragility of the illusion of true public space within the modern mall. It is profit, not the high-minded goals of liberty, equality and love, that guide these consumer-business relationship. The creation of these privatized enclaves (especially fortified areas like gated communities)—and the interrelated withering of true public spaces—“are not environments that generate conditions conducive to demcracy. Rather, they foster inequality and the sense that different groups belong to separate universes and have irreconcilable claims.” (Caldiera 104)

Without true public space, there is no chance for citizens to enact true citizenship, to develope intimate, difficult relationships with one another. Without the enactment of true citizenship upon the ground, our conception of citizenship will continue to wither to a vestigial loyalty to the State and our communities will fade into nothing.

-by Jesse


Anonymous said...

Facinating post. I'd like to check out the read on gated communities.


Waccabuc Steve said...

Thanks for this important and valid perspective and information. I stay out of malls. Public streets, plazas, parks and public mass transit are important to maintain as common shared wealth,and must be open and available for use, gathering, speaking and listening, plus loitering/hanging out. Also needed for playing amateur sports, busking, painting, courting & romance, play, breathing fresh air, exercise, having drinking fountains and toilets available. Public safety and crime prevention must be provided for all these venues too.
Waccabuc NY