Canyon Cities (Detroit, Oakland, Paris) by Léopold Lambert (2015) / Download them here in high resolution (license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0)
In a recent article entitled “Power Is Logistic: Let’s Shut Down Everything“, I was evoking The Invisible Committee‘s argument according to which sovereign power was now exercised through infrastructure. We were then evoking the various fluxes of bodies, goods and capitals as the vital fluid of a political-economic sovereignty; what we did not examine back then, nevertheless, was the ability for infrastructure, while facilitating some means of communications, to greatly prevents movement in the ‘perpendicularity’ of its axes. Urban highways are thus exemplary of how the infrastructural means of maximizing a movement between the city and its suburbs, simultaneously minimize the movement internal to the same city. Urban populations, in particular the lowest social classes that do not necessarily own a car, find themselves deprived from their “right to the city,” trapped by these axes of segregation cutting the urban fabric like canyons. Whether the municipal intentions were (and still are) to actually segregate these populations through this infrastructure or not, is irrelevant, since the latter’s effects are well-known, and the absence of decision to this matter make mayors and their teams politically responsible for them.
A bit less than a month ago, the University of Oklahoma released aerial photographs of several American Mid-West cities (St Louis, Columbus, Cleveland, Detroit, and more) showing the urban impact of this highway system: photographs from the 1950s are superimposed to recent ones, illustrating precisely the changes operated in the last sixty years. For the purpose of this article, I won’t even evoke the massive policy of eminent domain that must have operated back then to build these highways in the middle of relatively dense cities, and the more or less negotiated evictions that followed. We could however stay within a historical perspective and consider (one more time) how the American highway system found its political paroxysm through the 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act conceived by the Einsenhower administration (see the article “From the Highway to the Pill: Counter-History of the American Suburbia” for instance), which, as its name indicate, was as much a civil as a military infrastructural project. Among other objectives briefly explained in the lastly cited article, the highways were designed and built to be potentially militarized, used for maximizing the US army movement in case of a Soviet invasion — a massive suppression against students, workers and minorities was probably more likely to happen — as well as to allow military aircraft to land if necessary. Admittedly, these last points do not address the canyons formed by the urban highways but, as usual, it seems appropriate to recall the explicit part of military essence in all forms of design.
In my Archipelago drift in the center of Oakland with the three members of Demilit (Bryan Finoki, Nick Sowers, and Javier Arbona), we insisted on this particular axis of segregation (880 and 980 Freeways), reinforced by a thick layer of administrative and police buildings — including the Oakland Police Headquarters recently shut down by the Black Lives Matter movement. In the conversation (around the 51st minute), Bryan explains how West Oakland was the birthplace of the Black Panther Party in 1966. By then the South freeway (880) that cut the center of Oakland from the port already existed and was already segregating the working class from the business/administrative one (see aerial photograph from 1958). The second freeway (980) represented in the photomontage above, was built in the 1970s and achieved to segregate working class and African American population from the center (see aerial photograph from 1980).
North American cities are however not the only examples of such segregative urban canyons; a European city like Paris has replaced its 19th-century military fortifications by a ring highway that operates almost as effectively to prevent the access to the city as the former walls used to (see past article with illustrative photographs). The French capital, an extremely concentric city — in an already centralized country — finds through the “boulevard périphérique” (the ring), an ideal means to filter its internal population (although Paris is a metropolis, the limits of its actual municipality fit almost exactly with the périphérique). The intentionality is blatant this case since the périphérique is mostly underground on the West limit of the city, adjacent to high social class suburbs. On the contrary, the South, East and North of the city, outside of which the quasi-totality of the Parisian working class and migrant populations live, are not only bordered by the highway/wall but the latter is also thicken by an additional layer of structures that operate only during the hours of the day (mostly offices and sport equipment). Through its urban highway (its canyon), Paris is thus a gigantic gated community able to filter its diurnal, and more importantly, nocturnal population.
Highways have therefore this double contradictory role of maximizing the movement of a selected population — one that owns a vehicle — while simultaneously constituting a significant obstacle to all movement perpendicular to its own, thus acting as a form of wall/fault. Besides the arguments given above of deprivation of the “right to the city,” i.e. the filtering of who gets access to the economic/cultural/social resources of the city (like in the case of Oakland and Paris), we may simply argue that digging a fault in the middle of a city (like the one shown in the graphic novel Asterix) fundamentally separates two of its populations/resources from each other. The following (relatively random) photographs thus aim at illustrating how these highways falsely materialize the end of a city, when the latter actually continues a few dozens of yards behind (see the article cited above for the Parisian case):