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The Privatization of Charlotte

by Mark Peres

January 7,2008

Charlotte is in private hands. Under the fiction of private-public partnerships, private concerns have long shaped the direction of the city. Decisions of any consequence are made in corporate boardrooms and chamber offices, from property development to who sits on what board and what initiative gets financed and done. The same decision-makers (if not in actuality than in kind) who see each other at exclusive clubs and events play musical chairs on influential committees reinforcing the same conventional thinking. Planning is centralized, top-down and formulaic, with a seriousness of self-importance that is dismissive of ‘un-vetted’ ideas. Creativity from artists and iconoclasts is fine and a worthy pursuit for brandishing the image of the city, as long as it stays in its place and doesn’t challenge the status quo. The public side of the ‘private-public partnership’ is in name only, weak in practice and by design. After the pretense of debate, elected officials invariably rubber-stamp what is decided by a handful of non-elected, privately-employed ‘civic leaders.’ As a result, we have a city that is good for business, but good for little else. 

So the critique goes.

It is a common lament in cities that are more bourgeois than not, but it is a lament with its own intellectual biases and artistic snobbery. With one foot in the camp of blue-suited civic involvement and another foot in the camp of jeans-wearing skepticism, I’ve been on both sides of the divide. I am devoted to this city. I see in it a profound desire to become greater than it is and to scale to higher stages of self-realization. I prefer the company of solution-oriented citizens who roll up their sleeves to improve the region, who put their time and talent on the line to do cool things (and the gritty work of community building). I count myself among the doers, and can tolerate back-benchers for so long. But I am becoming increasingly concerned about the scripting of the city by unaccountable private interests and its unintended consequences.

Two arguments have recently reinforced my thinking. This past year, Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect and theorist, spoke at the Global Cities exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. He entitled his presentation “Dilemmas in the Evolution of the City” and said the following:

We have to remember that the city used to be a big piece of machinery, and the public realm used to be territory for confrontation, exchange and, perhaps, adjustment. Now, through the shift from public to private, it is no longer that kind of territory, and we want our confrontations to take place elsewhere. In the same vein, we can no longer bear emptiness or neutrality in the city, and every single inch of the city is scripted and forms a scenario, so that we now have an overwhelming intricacy around how cities are organized…..

On the one hand, art is becoming inflated but, on the other, less effective. Protest, of course, is completely contained.

The cleaner the new public realm, the more perfect it is and the more likely it is that suffering…happen[s] at its edges…..We have turned the city into a surface where no square inch is left unspoken for within the context of some kind of vision. In settings such as this, we are not supposed to misbehave, to die, to beg, to fight….

Th[e] eerie abstraction of the generic haunts us, and is also translated into a nomenclature that perpetuates the language of stylishness and quality without being able to deliver the reality of it. In that sense, therefore, there is a ‘virtuality' to our current relationship with the city that is extremely hard to overcome.

This past year also saw the publication of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his book, Taleb argues that most of the consequential events in the world are rare and unpredictable. Taleb contends that central planning of human affairs is delusional and destructive of bottom-up, positive, serendipitous events. As Taleb states, “History does not crawl. It jumps.”

Charlotte needs to allow for the unscripted: for the people and happenings one is not looking for to change the world.

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