No Public Spaces


7 minutes

For the past week I've started a routine of going to the library from 11am-6pm every day and reading. This was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates' excellent book "Between the World and Me", where he writes:

For the most significant portion of my time at The Mecca [Howard University], I followed a simple ritual. I would walk into the Moorland reading room and fill out three call slips for three different works. I would take a seat at one of these long tables. I would draw out my pen and one of my black-and-white composition books. I would open the books and read, while filling my composition books with notes on my reading, new vocabulary words, and sentences of my own invention. I would arrive in the morning and request, three call slips at a time, the works of every writer I had heard spoken of in classrooms or out on the Yard...

But, you see, my problem is I am not at "The Mecca", which is how Ta-Nehisi refers to Howard University. That is, I am not a student at a historically black university, in fact, Ohio State University's undergrad population is 6.93% black/african american, and 63.8% white. I am counted in those white statistics, because in a shining example of erasure, I have to mark white as an Iranian. Let me be clear that I've never passed as a white person, considered myself a white person, or chose to mark white when Middle Eastern was an option. Nor am I an arab, just like many other MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) people are not arab.

But that's not the point. The point is, the OSU libraries are not a beacon of radical hope for me. I do not find joy in being surrounded by middle-class white people drinking $5 lattes while "studying" (scrolling social media). Not that I particularly judge these people — they are as essential to a library environment as everyone else — they simply don't make a great environment on their own, need some diversity, y'know?

But, a univeristy library population need not necessarily reflect the student body, it is a public university after all, and the library is open to public browsing. And, just to be clear, the OSU library is very large and has a fantastic selection of books to read while you're there even when you're not a student.

Okay? So what's the problem? Where are all of the education-minded immigrants, black people, poorer people? Don't delude yourself that they don't exist, I went to high school with many of them, in a city as big as Columbus there are a ton of people hungry for knowledge that the OSU library provides.

Well, it comes down to what Jane Jacobs calls "Turfing" in The Life and Death of Great American Cities. She defines it as:

Under the Turf system in its historical form, a gang appropriates as its territory certain streets or housing projects or parks — often a combination of the three. Members of other gangs cannot enter this Turf without permission from the Turf-owning gang, or if they do so it is at peril of being beaten or run off.
Turfing is a way to avoid crime without addressing any of the causes of crime. You simply push it onto other communities, keeping it out of your area through the most well-funded gang there is: private police. It is amazing how, even in 1961, Jacobs was criticizing institutions like John Hopkins and the University of Chicago for their turfing (though even back then they were far from the only ones doing it). I have not been to John Hopkins (which I believe does not have a private police force, yet), but I have been to UChicago, which has one of the largest in the country. Frankly, it is terrible, there's a cop on every street corner. I have never been to a more Orwellian nightmare in my life. It is also terrifying how normal it becomes to you after a few days, being watched constantly by an armed gang.

Turfing, alas, seems to be really effective if you have an essentially limitless amount of money to work with. UChicago has been very successful in keeping the 29% of black residents in Chicago out of their campus, which has a deeply disappointing 7% black population. I should also note, when you're there, your food is served by black and brown people, the custodial staff are black and brown people, etc. It's disgusting.

And, OSU's turfing has been similarly effective, with only 7% of students being black, while 29% of Columbus residents are black. That being said, unlike UChicago, which is right next to racially diverse Hyde Park (for now, they've put every effort to gentrifying it in the last 60 years), Columbus has already been successful in segregating poorer residents and residents of color away from OSU. The Columbus University District has only a 7% black population, due to Columbus' racism (redlining, highway & train track construction cutting off black neighborhoods, you get the idea).

Anyway, where am I going with this? Ah, right, libraries. OSU has a turf. They don't like it when people of color or poor people are in their turf, these spaces are hostile to them in a myriad of ways. So, they don't come, and OSU libraries remain a bastion for white middle class coffee drinkers.

That is to say, I decided that the OSU library would not be my version of Ta-Nehisi's Mecca. So, I decided to go to the closest public library, which is an excellent bike ride from my house, very beautiful and safe. It has been mostly a very nice experience, it is in a nice park, and in a shock to no one, libraries and parks reinforce each other very well. It's relatively close to food and a grocery store, and is small enough to be kind of cozy (for those wondering, I'm talking about Whetstone).

The frustrating thing for me is that the library continues to filter the riffraff in ways that piss me off. You're not allowed to come into the library if you have "Improper dress, including bare feet and no shirt." Or, if you have an "Offensive body odor." You're also not allowed to "Bring into the Library more than "three in total bags, backpacks, boxes, carts, wheeled conveyances or other items", a limit I've personally hit with my folding bike, backpack, and rear bag. Sod off it, let people bring as many bags as they fucking want. You're also not allowed to "leave personal belongings unattended or under the care of another customer who is not a family member." Literally why do you care? You're also not allowed to bring "prepared meals", for some reason, snacks are fine, but meals, oh god no, hope you didn't pack a lunch box.

Let's see...what else...oh, right, you're also not allowed to sleep or nap. And you're not allowed to wash your clothes or bathe. Ever spill something on your clothes and then go wash it off? Yeah, that's illegal now. Although, we all know it isn't about that anyway, it's about keeping undesireables out of the library.

And look, I get it, the library exists to be an educational space, and every public service has been stretched far beyond its intentions already. But, there is no other public space for people. This is intentional, we have gutted our cities, and I mean gutted, we have taken a knife and stabbed through the stomach of our cities and have been twisting it ever since. I've been told off twice for food-related incidents in the past week, one time because I was eating (ok, fair enough), and another time because I had a box of food I had no intention of eating inside. I was told to "leave it outside"...this man told me this while I was holding my bike, I'm not some car-driving middle class white person, what the fuck do you mean leave it outside? Leave it where??? And, if you're reading this, trust me, I get it, you're just doing your job, I like you, library worker, you're funny, but these rules drive me mad.

When I say no public space, I mean no public space. This just gets worse and worse as summers get warmer, our streets have no benches. To the point where some people put these improvised benches at bus stops:

A picture of an improvised bench made of concrete blocks and wood planks A similar improvised bench, made out of concrete blocks and two-by-fours

And, and, people used them! I mean, of course they did, it's not like there were any other benches they could use. lol. A picture of someone sitting on the first improvised bench

But, as all good things come to an end, so must the city remove the benches its people built, and now they're gone. So, yeah, I mean, in a society that refuses to even let people sit in 100 degree concrete heat jungle, I don't know why I planned to find inclusive refuge in a library. But, it's still disappointing, I'm tired of living in places where the environment is actively filtering away the riffraff. I love the riffraff, we're cut from the same cloth, and it truly taxes the soul of a society to be this way. This regular, consistent, background cruelty is the American version of North Korean paranoia, when you grow up with it your whole life, it becomes easy, and when it's passed through generations, it might even become genetic. I wonder what that means for white people in the country. Thanks for reading, see you next week.