The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion: Signs of the Times

Interboro

In the storefront window of an otherwise unremarkable real estate office a few blocks from our office in Downtown Brooklyn, one can witness—amid the clutter of posters advertising eye-poppingly-priced triple-mint brownstones, full-service starters, Newswalk duplexes, and other “picturesque Park Slope gems”.

Here are two ubiquitous signs making two very different—if not contradictory—statements about urban space and how people should use it. The sign on the right, which advertises the real estate office’s compliance with the Fair Housing Act’s mandate that it not discriminate on the grounds of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin, is the open housing movement’s most prominent emblem—its presence in real estate offices, lending institutions, and apartment buildings across the country the spoil of a patient, hard-fought victory in the ongoing struggle to make more communities more accessible to more people.

The smaller sign on the left is a prominent emblem earned by the agents of another struggle, namely the struggle to limit your constitutional right to assemble. Quite contrary to the sign on the right, the sign on the left marks an attempt to make a space less accessible.

The “equal housing opportunity” sign is serious business. It represents a policy that in turn represents a national housing strategy that regulates housing everywhere in the U.S. The “No Loitering” Sign doesn’t really represent a policy at all: while most municipalities have loitering ordinances that vaguely prohibit, for example, “remain[ing] in any one place with no apparent purpose,” “No Loitering” Signs don’t designate officially recognized “No Loitering” zones, even when they proclaim, presumably in an effort to sound more official, how many feet from the sign one can’t loiter. Posting an “equal housing opportunity” sign is required by law: failure to display it prominently is evidence of a discriminatory housing practice and can result in a lawsuit. Posting a “No Loitering” Sign is at best a guerilla tactic—an attempt to regulate a space that isn’t necessarily the sign poster’s to regulate. [1]

Redrawing the Lines

These ordinary and otherwise unremarkable artifacts give a small glimpse into the everyday struggles over who gets to live, hang out, work, or play where and for how long. They illustrate that access to urban space is governed by a diverse, contingent, and often contradictory set of policies, practices, and physical artifacts. Legitimate and illegitimate, official and unofficial, strategic and tactical, intentional and habitual, these policies, practices, and physical artifacts are the subject of this book. Without trying to be comprehensive, the book examines a few of them that, like the “No Loitering” Sign and the Fair Housing Act, have been used by planners, policymakers, developers, real estate brokers, community activists, and other urban actors to draw, erase, or redraw the lines that divide. The book inventories these weapons of exclusion and inclusion, describes how they have been used, assesses their legacy, and speculates about how they might be deployed (or retired) for the sake of more open cities in which more people have more access to more places.

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[1] This is one reason why “No Loitering” signs come in all shapes and sizes. Handmade versions are fairly common, but the less artistically inclined can order one from compliancesigns.com, where there are 81 varieties to choose from. “Equal housing opportunity” signs, on the other hand, come in exactly one size: its parameters are rigidly spelled out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which insists that it be 11 inches by 14 inches and that it contain some version of the logo and the accompanying text in all caps.
[2] The community does not allow pets.
[3] An interesting example can be seen in the third season of HBO’s celebrated Baltimore-based television show The Wire, in which Major Bunny Colvin, a maverick police officer frustrated by the futility of the city’s war on drugs, undertakes a radical experiment: without consulting the mayor or police commissioner, he rounds up the city’s drug dealers, brings them to a block of vacant lots in an abandoned neighborhood in West Baltimore, and tells them that the block is now a “free zone,” where dealing or taking drugs will be tolerated. What comes to be known as “Hamsterdam” quickly devolves into something rather hellish looking, but the experiment succeeds in radically reducing crime in the rest of the city: for the first time in years, residents sit on the stoops of their rowhouses, talk to each other, water their flowers, and watch their children play in the streets without the fear of drug-related violence. Police resume the community patrolling that was abandoned decades ago, and at community meetings, people start complaining about loud motorcycles instead of shootings.
[4] Frug, Gerald E. “Legalizing Openness.” In Open City: Designing Coexistence, edited by Kees Christiaanse, Tim Rieniets, and Jennifer Sigler. Amsterdam: SUN Publishers, 2009.
[5] The U.S. Census estimates that the 63124 zip code (which roughly corresponds to Ladue) had a 0% infant mortality rate, compared with a 22.7% infant mortality rate for the 63107 zip code (which roughly corresponds to St. Louis Place). The Census-estimated bachelor’s degree attainment for the 63124 zip code was 38.44%; for the 63107 zip code, it was 9.40%. The Census-estimated median household income in 2015 in the 63124 zip code was $146,721; for the 63107 zip code, it was $30,363. The Census-estimated median housing value of owner households in 2015 in the 63124 zip code was $632,463; for the 63107 zip code, it was $73,405. According to data released by For the Sake of All, life expectancy in the 63124 zip code in 2015 was 86.1; it was 70.6 for African Americans born in St. Louis City. See Purnell, J. Q., G. J. Camberos, and R. P. Fields, eds. For the Sake of All: A Report on the Health and Well-Being of African Americans in St. Louis—And Why It Matters for Everyone. St. Louis: Washington University in St. Louis and St. Louis University, 2014.
[6] School integration.
[7] Bishop, Bill, and Robert G. Cushing. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
[8] Frug, Gerald E. City Making: Building Communities Without Building Walls. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
[9] Kimmelman, Michael. Foreword. In Shiffman, R. Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space. Oakland, CA: New Village Press, 2012.
[10] Young, Iris Marion. “City Life and Difference.” In Metropolis: Center and Symbol of Our Times, edited by Philip P. Kasinitz. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
[11] Deen Freelon, Charlton D. McIlwain, and Meredith D. Clark write in Beyond The Hashtags (Center for Media and Social Impact, 2016): “For more than a year, #Blacklivesmatter was only a hashtag, and not a very popular one: it was used in only 48 public tweets in June 2014 and in 398 tweets in July 2014. But by August 2014 that number had skyrocketed to 52,288, partly due to the slogan’s frequent use in the context of the Ferguson protests.” The authors identified 4,312,599 public tweets with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter between June 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016.
[12] Briggs, Xavier De Souza. The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2005.
[13] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Racist Housing Policies That Built Ferguson.” Atlantic. October 17, 2014, accessed August 2016.
[14] Budds, Diana. “How Urban Design Perpetuates Racial Inequality—And What We Can Do About It.” Fast Company Design. July 18, 2016, accessed August 2016.
[15] Scott Brown, Denise, and Robert Venturi. “Coop City: Learning To Like It.” Progressive Architecture. February 1970.