Talking Back

A conversation with Saskia Sassen

By Alexander Pines

Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia, where she teaches Global Urbanism, a look into the development of cities in an increasingly globalized economy. She is best known for coining the term “global city” in the late 1990s. Her most recent book, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, i s a n a ttempt t o u nderstand t oday’s dislocations beyond the usual framework of poverty and injustice. Eager to prove that he had actually remembered what he learned in her class last fall, Senior Editor Alexander Pines, CC ’16, sat down with Professor Sassen, who good-naturedly agreed to an interview despite her nasty cold. 

The Blue and White: I sat in on your lecture this evening and it was interesting to hear you talk about the different ecologies of cities and ways in which the city can fight back in certain respects.

Saskia Sassen: The city talking back, right!

B&W: Thinking of this, I was curious, what are your thoughts on the recent Climate March?

SS: I think it’s fantastic. This is what I was getting at today—how do we mobilize? I really think that the march by itself is just one element. It’s a step, a step in a trajectory. But we need to mobilize people at every level, from great events and everyday practice, those are the two extremes. We need to begin to work more and more with the knowledge from scientists and

technology, engineering—this is all part of the story. It’s a bit sad for me to hear from more conventional planners and your typical urban resident that environmentalism is all about recycling garbage and all that—that’s all great, that’s very important, but there is so much more. One image that I have is that the space, the action space, that gets enabled by policy is really one small part of it. Many people think that that is the project. To me, it seems like there is this whole other zone where scientific and engineering knowledge—to think, what you can do with nanotechnology in the city!—come together to create a new project that more and more people are wrapping their brain around.

B&W: Something that’s been on my mind lately is this book by Michael Sorkin, an architect. You’ve probably heard of it. Twenty Minutes in Manhattan?

SS: I know Michael Sorkin, he’s a friend, but I confess that I haven’t read that particular work. I’m a bit of a geek, so I’m reading more of the biologies and ecologies.

B&W: Gotcha. The basic gist of the book is that he’s describing his walk to work—the first sixty or so pages are him talking about the stairs, for example. He goes on to point out all of the different little things that he notices about the city as he moves through the Village toward his office in TriBeCa. So, I was curious, what do you see on your walk to work? What stands out?

SS: Well, I also live downtown, in the Village. And, especially downtown, it is always worthwhile to look carefully at the street because there are all these artists, you know, who do these street interventions—often very modest. I know this one artist who, when there was a strike by the garbage collector, made these little sculptures of rats and put them by the garbage.

B&W: Rats?

SS: Yes, rats [laughs]. They weren’t big rats; this isn’t Hollywood, it’s New York. Rats are a part of the city that is often invisible (although we’re seeing more and more now). Downtown, you know, the street is a very important space for artists because it forces you to really look, really notice. I don’t so much look at façades—I like them, too, but I’m more interested in these little objects, and it’s like a wave—once you see a few, you begin to notice them in other places.

I must tell you that when I’m walking in the street I very often am looking. Most people when they’re walking on the street, I think, are not looking, but I am actually taking it in and trying to understand these material formations, you know, and what works and what doesn’t work. There are all these things that work in a way that sort of gives you pleasure just to see it. I also now find myself, more and more, looking at all of the spaces that we could use for green purposes.

B&W: Another thing that you brought up in class was this idea of making certain mechanisms of the city visible and ways in which the city could be changed. For you, what’s the ideal, Saskia Sassen city?

SS: Something that’s important to me is the fact that all cities are different and, especially if you’re talking about a very complex, older city, these deep histories of cities keep surfacing in different modes. And different parts of that city, in different epochs. So for me there is no ideal city. I also like the specificities of old cities, or just cities with a history that aren’t necessarily old. Whereas with brand new, plopped down suburbs, there is a lot of the generic as opposed to the specific, and there isn’t the particularity of these histories—which begin with the place where they were built. Port cities, of course, are the classic examples of this.

Having said that, I would also say that a good city is a complex, but incomplete system. An office park can be very dense, but it is closed. The same is true with a lot of high rise residences, you know, one big tower, like those fourteen apartments that they’re going to do in Atlantic Yard [laughs]. They’re going to be huge—fourteen towers of apartments. Is that going to be urban? Or is that just built density?

Another thing that I’m interested in is the notion of public space—there’s a mode in which one conducts oneself differently in, say, the piazza than in the boulevard. Right now I’m especially interested in indeterminate spaces. The street, the generic notion of the street—the square, an empty lot that has been abandoned for a year, whatever—is not a fully defined, fully determined space. These fourteen apartment buildings over-determine that space in a city that needs indeterminacy.

B&W: So, you’re looking for the incomplete.

SS: Yes, but also what is not totally over-determined. The ideal form is that a space is totally mixed-use. I love the way in which a city enables those who want to play with it, those who want to make it talk a different language. That’s what these artists with the rats are doing, in a way. I think we should have a lot of that in the city, and the system, if you will, does something like that when they put in a very interesting sculpture, for example. Chicago’s done amazing stuff—so many great sculptures. Or the beautiful park near the museum downtown. There’s a lot of play there. It’s an explosion of energy and we need so much of that—not everything must be functional. Not being functional sort of comes with this indeterminacy, though we may call it something else, call it playfulness. You following me?

B&W: Yeah, this idea that it’s got a sort of freedom to it, right?

SS: Yes, and that one can be a maker—you can make something.

B&W: You can engage with the city, yeah.

SS: Yes, you can make urban farming, you can make the sorts of sculpture that go beyond pure function, et cetera. It all requires a lot of diversity, that’s why I love downtown. I find the Columbia University a bit corporate, you know?

B&W: [laughing quietly] Yes.

SS: It exudes a certain kind of … I think it’s also very nice.

B&W: Yeah, the architecture has a sort of “home” recognition to it whenever I get back uptown, which can be nice. But then we can’t really go on the lawns—

SS: You can’t go on the lawns?

B&W: If there isn’t a green flag, technically no. They’re gated off, too. There’s no real space for us to make the campus ours in any real way.

SS: You know, Harvard University’s main yard has these walls too, but it’s usable. The grass is totally run down, but it looks used, which is sort of nice. It doesn’t look perfect.

B&W: So, considering Columbia and the campus, what are your thoughts on Manhattanville, especially with respect to all of the work you’ve done with expulsion and displacement?

SS: I am always troubled when a community that had very few means and had to work very hard to make their neighborhood—and not just a neighborhood, but a neighborhood sub-economy—is rendered invisible in the discussion. It seems as though the issue on Columbia’s end was, we’ll just give them new housing, and it’s just much more than that. This was an area where these people made a culture, they made an economy—everything partial and modest— but they made it. And not to recognize that is, to me, very problematic.

The question of evicting them in general, solely because there’s a more powerful actor, is problematic. But it’s also true that this is the history of cities—they keep destroying and reinventing. Look at a city like London, which has a lot of very old buildings. All of these structures have been redone, you know, it’s not a museum. The city is a pretty brutal space. And I can understand that Columbia needed that space. What I profoundly object to is the lack of recognition, that it’s not just about the little buildings in that neighborhood, it was a space of collective making.

Of course, this is the story of a lot of places, like the famous Dharavi Slum in India. They destroyed a whole part of it and put all of the people in these high rise buildings with very narrow spaces in-between, which meant that they couldn’t keep on doing their weaving, which had been a critical source of income. The spaces that they were moved to just couldn’t provide what they needed, and the economy ended up being destroyed. An economy, you know, is much more than just making money—it’s pride in your work, especially for craftspeople. What I find most objectionable (since practically speaking we know in cities that you’re continually destroying stuff and you have to expand) is the lack of recognition of the making that those people have done, that this is not just about housing.

I have a little project that I’m doing, sort of off on the side, about the cosmopolitanism of the city. We tend to think of cosmopolitanism as being in the center—downtown, Manhattan. I argue that it is partly made in all these little communities that we see as being non-cosmopolitan, we see them as being “fake” somehow, but they have produced elements that then travel. I have this image of a trade route. They travel from the neighborhood and eventually are cleansed, in a sense, and made more abstract. The “pure” cosmopolitan center is a bit of a fiction, which gets me back to what I objected to so much, this lack of understanding on the part of the people in power, who think, “They are not like we are. We make this, we do that.” They do, too. 

Pushing this argument more, and this notion that the cosmopolitan is of the center, the urbanity is partly fed by all of these different communities. That in this route, this trade route of sorts, these bits of culture get lost and made more abstract.

You know Bach, the great Bach? That was dance music! That came from the people. He just translated it into something else, something more abstract that can then circulate in a certain group. Our cities wouldn’t be nearly as exciting and as cosmopolitan as they are if they didn’t have these different communities.

B&W: Coming back to the sort of ways in which the city has reshaped itself, I remember you talking about your, well, I guess they might be called odd [Sassen laughs] research methods from when you first started out? Hanging out in weird places in the 80s [Sassen laughs even louder], things like that. Could you talk about what you used to do and maybe how that’s changed?

SS: In New York, when I was working on The Global City [the book Sassen is best known for], I was trying to get help from the professional planners and the urbanists. They were a certain kind of crowd—in the system, they were maybe also professors. I remember going up to a group of them and saying, “I would really like to gain access to Wall Street and do some interviews with financiers. I gather that you’re all writing about this,” and they laughed me away. I was very young—and looked younger than I was—and perhaps I looked more foreign then, or stupid to them.

Then, and I’ll never forget this, one of them said, “You can go at night.” Of course, at that time, Wall Street was not a 24-hour operation. At night what you had were the cleaners, the janitors. Most of these people were Dominicans and I had already made contact with them—I grew up in Latin America—and so I decided, okay, I’ll go at night.

B&W: I was sort of a janitor in high school, actually.

SS: You were a janitor? Ha! Well, then as you’d know, these janitors inhabit the whole space throughout their work—the suite of the CEO, everywhere. So I came at night, and I asked if I could have lunch with them, which would have been at midnight. During this time I was wondering, for whom are these people cleaning? In this period, all of the big insurance companies, the banks, the corporate offices, they were all leaving. Forty-one thousand jobs were lost in corporate sectors in Manhattan.

So these janitors, they said, “Come, we’ll show you!” What I saw was a lot of small, beautiful, elegant, boutique-style companies, foreign and American. They looked like very specialized advising consultants, finance, all these small little organizations. I began to understand that a whole new economy was installing itself within this older built environment, and if you were on the outside, all you could see was the old, the crumbling, but the inside was building itself back up—it was alive.

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