Residents of a small town in New Jersey awoke one day to find that all of the trees in their town’s square had been leveled by the city government. So what provoked this sudden aggression against the willowy branches lining the city center?
Well it turns out that the town didn’t have a vendetta against trees, just against the unhoused people using them for shelter during a blazing hot summer.
The city’s mayor, Ray Coles, told the Asbury Park Press, that he wanted to deter people experiencing homelessness from visiting the park because of complaints from other city residents. And if you’re wondering, no, he did not propose building housing or shelters for the people who formerly found refuge in the square.
As drastic as the story of this one town sounds, it’s taking place against the backdrop of a much bigger war on unhoused people in public spaces.
Throughout major cities like Washington, DC and New York, city architects have made it as difficult as possible for people experiencing homelessness to sleep or find any kind of shelter outdoors by creating what’s known as hostile architecture.
Things like little knobs or dividers on park benches or spikes on the sides of buildings, where someone could otherwise sit or sleep, are all designed to prevent people from using them to rest.
None of these efforts to keep people from comfortably existing in public can be divorced from the fact that Black Americans experience homelessness at alarmingly disproportionate rates.
Despite making up 12 percent of the population in the United States, Black Americans make-up 40 percent of the population experiencing homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
In New York City, which has some of the most aggressive examples of hostile architecture, 58 percent of all shelter residents are African-American, and 32 percent are Latino, according to the Coalition for The Homeless.
The fact that a disproportionate number of the folks this type of architecture is designed to keep out of public sight are Black, has a lot of historical resonance with other efforts to use architecture to keep Black people from entering white spaces.
For example, Robert Moses, the man credited with building much of the modern New York City, designed overpasses that were too low for buses to travel under, as a way to block Black residents from traveling to the state’s beaches or parks.
The history of keeping folks who wealthy white people consider undesirable out of public sight, is undeniably intertwined with the current prevalence of hostile architecture.
So the next time you notice a random spike on an otherwise comfortable place to lay down, you’ll know why.