July 21, 2016

The 1.7-square-mile restricted “event zone” demarcating this year’s Republican Convention in Cleveland, which includes two smaller, even more restricted “security zones” managed by the Secret Service, would have once seemed out of place in the American landscape. Ideals of open mobility and equal access are written into the land by the Jeffersonian grid that organizes not only the country’s farmland, but also many of its city blocks and streets, including those of Cleveland.

Downtown Cleveland. Photo: Wyliepoon/Flickr

Downtown Cleveland. Photo: Wyliepoon/Flickr

The temporary stronghold around the convention in Cleveland, while not quite reminiscent of Baghdad’s “Green Zone,” is hardly unfamiliar: it’s like airport security, except guns are allowed according to Ohio’s open-carry laws (though not in the two zones controlled by the Secret Service). Guidelines and permits regulating the access and actions of visitors and protestors have turned downtown Cleveland into a kind of gated community. The event zone contains a series of enclaves, culminating in the bastion of Quicken Loans Arena. Presidential space is a category all its own: a portable fortress marked by concentric layers of protection, from hardened vehicles to bodyguards, surveillance, and crowd screening. Since the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy by the Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan, presidential candidates such as Trump and Clinton are afforded Secret Service protection while on the campaign trail. Even the spatial metaphors that describe politics are changing, as the New York Times editorial board recently noted: gone is the G.O.P.’s erstwhile vision of a “big tent” open to all, replaced by calls for a protective “big wall.”

At the heart of Downtown Cleveland—and the restricted convention zone—lies a symbol of the old, embattled ideals of openness. It is the city’s historic, 10-acre Public Square, fresh off a beautiful, $50 million renovation designed by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations. According to an enthusiastic account published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “The new Public Square symbolizes an age in which cities are reshaping urban spaces for people, not automobiles.” Formerly banal traffic islands have given way to inviting surfaces for strolling, reading, playing, picnicking, and maybe even protesting (a speaker’s stage can be reserved for 30 minute slots during the convention). But this excellent new civic space, completed just in time for this week’s convention, only highlights the anti-civic nature of the fortifications erected around it. The reality of downtown Cleveland this week is bag checks, helicopters, and a security force of three thousand police officers, many from out of town, ready to don riot gear if necessary. Can we hope to see more “spaces for people,” as the Plain Dealer hopefully puts it, or more walls and checkpoints?

The security measures in Cleveland are just one example of the widespread acts of enclosure and fortification that are carving up space into defensible units. Additional fissures emerge in the wake of economic redevelopment efforts that exclude poor neighborhoods or effectively exile vulnerable populations. “Uneven development” may be an inherent feature of the capitalist economy, as Neil Smith theorized, and its effects are certainly visible in Cleveland and other cities where pockets of wealth and privilege contrast with ghettoes of deprivation. As social inequality increases, the privileged are likely to install increasingly robust defenses.

Modern space is often described in terms of dissolving boundaries: cities and hinterlands are connected ever more seamlessly by transnational networks of transportation, telecommunications, and free-flowing capital. Henri Lefebvre theorized this process in La Révolution Urbaine (1970), before he could dream that wireless computing would allow us to exchange data seemingly anywhere, anytime. But today, while countless technologies and web-based mobile apps promise to connect us as never before, overcoming spatial constraints, other technologies, both physical and digital, aim at precisely the opposite: imposing or enforcing boundaries. The fragmentation of the public is reflected in the fragmentation of space. Blast-proof buildings, data-shielded rooms, biometric authentication interfaces, biohazard suits, radiation containment sheds, signal-jamming devices, armored vehicles, border fences, and digital firewalls all militate against unwanted movement.

Meanwhile, Yahoo News’s national correspondent Hunter Walker has been walking around the convention floor stalking monsters real and imaginary—the Quicken Loans Arena is a Pokémon Go gym. (He netted Drowzee, Pidgey, Weedle, Spearow, and Gastly; psychic Abra was the one who got away.) There’s something poignant in the absurdity of this: the eagerness to encounter beings in the digital world versus the hostility, fractiousness, and fear seen in the physical preparations for the convention. Trump’s platform invokes issues of boundaries and mobility to reinforce his pretensions to authority. He calls for restrictions on the movement of ethnic and religious outsiders while flaunting his own freedom to jet wherever he pleases. On Tuesday he even skipped the second meeting of the Trump Leadership Council, a group of forty executives from elite companies, without explanation. Informed that Trump had unexpectedly flown back to New York, the group was released onto the Cleveland Browns’ football field to take pictures, as if privileged access to a hard-to-reach space could compensate for privileged access to a hard-to-reach person.


Gideon Fink Shapiro, based in Brooklyn, writes about cities, landscapes, and architecture.