Walking along the streets of Philadelphia, I’ve found lots of interesting things tumbling down the road, buried in nooks and crannies, and even built into the sidewalk itself. Since I’m in Philly, a lot of the tumbling tends to be done by an unfortunate amount of trash. The city is also home to that mysterious south Philadephian that has spent the last 30 or so years dropping those little Toynbee tiles into the asphalt, letting the world know about the widespread conspiracy to conceal the secrets of eternal life. Also, scattered about the city, mostly around center city and the University of Pennsylvania campus, you can find these small metal engravings nestled in the bricks and concrete of the street.
They mark the outer edges of the property line, demarcating where the private space of the university or office building ends and the public space of the sidewalk begins. According to the PennCurrent, these plaques simply suggest that while the space within these lines is accessible to the public, it is still a private space not fully dedicated to public use. In other words, they are a subtle reminder that the ground on which you walk is only provisionally yours; it is private space on loan.
The Philadelphia Weekly put out a small blurb on the plaques about a decade ago, noting that they legally protect property owners from losing their rights to the space. According to state law, publicly accessible land can be permanently opened by the streets department if land has been in public use for over 21 years. The placards literally cement in place landholder’s legal entitlement to make decisions about land-use in the city; an everyday reminder of exactly whose space this is. In Philadelphia, it seems, center city and university city continue to be concerned with legally enforcing the use of public spaces. These lines in the sidewalk that often go unnoticed by passersby mark a spatial history that forestalls the expansion, however small, of the urban commons.
The city is full of boundaries. Neighborhoods, planning districts, traffic assessment zones, rivers, city council districts, property lines, sewer pipes, zoning codes, empowerment zones, school districts, telecommunications infrastructure and highways are all part of the large network of spaces and lines that define the boundaries of “the city”. Urban geographers and planners spend quite a bit of time tracing these lines, building maps of investment districts, land-use and transportation corridors. Just as important, though, is who decides to draw them.
I’m interested in the ways that urban spaces are produced, contested and performed. This work will generally follow that theme, with a particular emphasis on building common urban spaces, keeping in mind that “the common” can be many different things in just as many places. I’m always hopeful that instead of being constricted by the lines of the city, we can find new and interesting ways to redraw their complex lives and, by association, our own. I want to erase the “not dedicated” with a hopeful eye towards ripping up some frustratingly limiting placards.