Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


Roy Lichtenstein, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE (1965); Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris

Roy Lichtenstein, THIS MUST BE THE PLACE (1965); Galerie Ileana Sonnabend, Paris

The great Lower Manhattan Mosque Brouhaha (LMMB) seems, at first, like plainly a contest between the principled and the pig-headed. By now we all know, but some remain unwilling to admit, that the Park 51 building (sans minarets) two blocks away from 911 “Ground Zero,” is an Islamic cultural center that also has a prayer room. But it festers in imagination, fear, and deliberate hyperbole, and even threatens to influence elections a couple of months away. It manages to cause the President of the United States, defender of the Constitution to mealy-mouth on yet another simple principle—religious freedom.

Plenty, probably enough, probably too much, has been said about this matter already, but the irony of the pretty much the same bellicose segment of the American populace—they were the one’s running around with flags festooned on their trucks and SUVs after 911—unloading vilification and malediction on anything that smacks of Muslim, while the putative national policy in Iraq and Afghanistan is building nations of Muslims that will be friends and fend off the nasty terrorists. Not to be missed is that this is also much the same bunch who are not able to contain their racism in their contempt for an African-American (assuming he can provide a valid birth certificate) President twenty-percent of whom insist he is a Muslim.

Basta! Here we will take a different, admittedly somewhat didactic, angle on the matter. Since I am an urbanist/planner I cannot help but see this issue in land use theory terms. Wait! Don’t run away; this is something we can all relate to because we are all part of it.

Every square foot of land on the face of the earth is geographically unique and territorially mutually exclusive. Check your GPS. A lot of the surface of the earth does not have much social significance other than its own unique coordinates. But there are places that do acquire social significance, which is what makes them places and not just spaces. A place is where something of significance and memory happened. Ground Zero is a place. It has a placenessthat radiates outward, where other land uses are in relation to their distance from or to Ground Zero. Jerusalem has placeness; Rome has placeness; Mecca had placeness; so does Omaha Beach in Normandy, Hollywood, and a lot more places you and I can think of. Some of them are quite personal, like happy places (where you met the love of you life), or sad places,** and many share a collective memory. Place-making is a distinctly human activity, and we can become very attached* and emotional about the places we make.

Sociologists, geographers and land economists have long been interested in the dynamics of urban morphology. The ability to predict the development and changes in land use has utility to both private land developers and to public urban planners. Sociologists, particularly the social ecologists, given their interest in social class and ethnicity, tended to see that land use developed by a process of “invasion and supersession” of neighborhoods by different arriving and displacing racial and ethnic groups. Since new settlements were often near the center this tended to produce what they saw as a city composed of “concentric zones” with neighborhoods like “Little Italy,” “Germantown,” and “The Black Belt” around the core. Geographers looked at different dynamics. They saw that some land uses were attracted to one another, similar land uses that created “agglomeration economies.” Other land uses repulsed one another, the classic example of the residential district and the abattoir. So this attraction/repulsion produced what they called a “multiple nuclei” patter of urban development. Then along came the land economists and their interest in what gives land utility. For them accessibility was the key dynamic in land use form. And so they came up with a “sector theory” that followed the development of the main thoroughfares and the high-rent sectors.

In fact, there is no single theory that is the correct or sufficient one, but it is more appropriate to imagine them overlaid, one upon the other. And to this multi-dimensional theory should be added another dynamic, one that is perhaps most apt in the case of the LMMB. This factor—as it is not a theory—was noted by Walter Firey in his study of Land Use in Central Boston(Harvard Univ. Press, 1947). It was Firey’s phenomenological perspective that considered the “cultural” aspects of land use, the ways in which we values locations for reasons that transcend the economic and purely utilitarian. Included in this perspective is, for example, the symbolic importance of locations or land uses. 
While theorists are looking for the “laws” of land use morphology, those of us who take more partial and personal perspectives with respect to what real estate people call “location, location, location.” For us land uses carry different meanings. There are good and bad, safe and unsafe, upper class and lower class (and slums and ghettos) residential areas and, in many cultures, there is a lot of significance associated with having “a good address.” We live in the public spaces of the city, but within that fabric we also carve out our personal places according to our abilities to location where there is a good view, ease of access to the other land uses (place of work, school, parks, cafes and museums) that are elements of our unique and personal land use relationships.

The case of the LMMB is also instructive about land use because both the public and private uses of urban land have externalities that impact, to varying degrees, surrounding land uses. Hence, we have long recognized (unless you are Ayn Rand) that there is a public need to regulate land use development and behavior. Our protection from the negative externalities of land uses is the basic purpose of the “police power” use of subdivision regulation and zoning. But more to the point of the LMMB is that the “so called” mosque is not only protected by the Constitution’s freedom of religion clause, but it is also “protected speech.” Indeed, and ironically, the mosque is protected as an expression of speech in the same way that the Constitution protects an “adult” bookstore or an X-Rated movies theater.***

But it is when we get to the case of the LMMB that we observe the degree to which the symbolism of a discreet location enters a wider consciousness, one with political force and consequence. While Ground Zero has a poignantly personal meaning for the victims (including many Muslims), families and responders, it has also been “appropriated” as an ideological symbol by persons who might be from South Carolina or Arizona (and who might not otherwise give a tinker’s damn about Lower Manhattan) for political purposes. That just might be taking that “this land is my land . . .” stuff a little too far.
© 2010, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 8.28.2010)
* See, for example, DCJ Archives, 63. 4: The Persistence of Place 1.26.2010
** Cf. Clapp, “Shylock’s Ghetto: The Place of the Play,” PLACES, Vol. 3, No. 2, May ‘86, Pp. 40-6
***Clapp, “‘X’ Marks the Spot: The Problem of the Erogenous Zone of the American City,” REVUE FRANCAISE D’ETUDES AMERICAINES, Vol. 13, No. 36, April 1988,