Last year when I walked downtown I frequently stopped to rest on some benches that were placed in a large courtyard between the light rail and the theater. It is a nice sunny spot and it is enhanced by a lovely display of flowers in planters and some funny multicolored pill capsule sculptures. I am not the only one who enjoyed those benches. So did various other tired people: mothers with small children, elderly folks, pregnant women, tourists, students, business people eating lunch, and several homeless people.
This year the benches were gone. I don’t know when they were removed but my guess is that they were taken out to deter the homeless. Deterring the rest of us was just collateral damage. Now as a resting place there is only a low concrete wall that provides no back support. I can also sit on the chairs that are provided outdoors by restaurants and cafes, but the staff really prefer if you are a patron before you do that.
Recently, a friend drew my attention to an article by Alex Andreou in the British newspaper The Guardian which describes the growing appearance of defensive architecture. This is architecture or engineering design that makes places inhospitable to loitering or sleeping in otherwise vacant urban spaces. Often this takes the form of metal spikes embedded in concrete, but the designs vary:
“From ubiquitous protrusions on window ledges to bus-shelter seats that pivot forward, from water sprinklers and loud muzak to hard tubular rests, from metal park benches with solid dividers to forests of pointed cement bollards under bridges, urban spaces are aggressively rejecting soft, human bodies.” (The Guardian)
This year when I returned to San Jose for my winter in the sun, I noticed that the space underneath the highway overpass had been fenced in. Last year it was a sheltered space for some homeless people. Often they were moved on and the place cleared out, but then others would come to reclaim the space. Now this land is occupied by freight containers that seem to come and go at fairly regular intervals. Sometimes the place is full of them, other times it is almost empty. It’s a lot like when the homeless were there, really, except that the containers are fenced in and secured by a locked gate. I can’t help noticing that they are safer and more valued than the people.
I’m not a great fan of the homeless. They tend to leave a lot of mess behind them and they don’t always use the public lavatories. At the same time, repeatedly moving them on is not solving the problem. I know that the city, law enforcement, non-profit groups, and social services have tried their best to help and house as many of the homeless as possible. They have done stellar work. Still there are many who must sleep rough.
I walk about the city a few times every week, and I have never been bothered by the homeless. I see them in their encampments, and pushing their carts, and sometimes panhandling, but I have never felt intimidated or threatened by them. I go through some ethical uncertainty in deciding whether or not to give money or to buy a sandwich when asked, but those are my issues, not theirs. Basically, these people are doing what I would do in their situation.
Solving the economic and social ills that cause homelessness is a task for greater minds than mine, but I hope that defensive architecture does not become the norm. If they put steel spikes on that concrete wall, I will have one less place to rest. They will have defended against all sorts of weary walkers while deterring the socially undesirable; it’s a bit like throwing out the baby with the bath water.
By the way, those pill-shaped sculptures are referred to as Hospitality Art.