In 1984 Gerald Suttles wrote an article in The American Journal of Sociology titled "The Cumulative Texture of Local Urban Culture." This article did not get widespread attention, even though it provided an important starting point for understanding urban space. In his article, Suttles argued that the identities of cities are developed through competitive comparisons to other cities and contrasts to prosperous periods of the city's own past. We can add periods of past crisis as important standards for measuring urban identities as well. It might not have been apparent to Suttles during the low points of the urban crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, but the identity of a city is measured against past periods of decline as much as it is weighed against previous golden ages.
While the role of comparisons provides a valuable starting point, our conception of the city needs further elaboration in several regards. First among these is the concept of accumulation. Suttles was, I believe, trying to convey that cultural constructs build on the past. Rather than seeing this as a mere process of accumulation, however, it would be better to develop a concept of residual space. While accumulation provides some insight into the role of historical structures, it has little to offer in addressing the loss of cultural spaces or in explaining the tensions between the past and the future.
The theory of residual space holds that all cultural practices include an element of destruction. The creation of any social space requires the destruction of preexisting spaces, as well as potentially destructive competition with alternative spaces. Likewise, the creation of identity entails resistence to, and a resulting erosion of, the existing identities that would be imposed. Such destruction, however, leaves traces of the original space, portions of which may remain where it was too robust or too peripheral. Residual spaces, these spaces that are left over after a process of social transformation, can take the form of what Foucault described as "heterotopias." .....
Much attention has been paid to "the margins" of society, perhaps rightly so, since they are the source of many of our cultural innovations and they provide a space of relief from whatever problems inhere in mainstream constructs. It seems, however, that much less has been made of the central places of society. This is particularly unfortunate, as common experience has either been characterized as essentially oppressive or left to conservatives' definitions of a natural moral state. Because so many of our central places are residual space, conceptualizing residual space enables us to deal with both the margins and central places in a diverse and dynamic society.
In Marxist theory, "creative destruction" remains underconceptualized. Marx himself never developed a consistent explanation of destruction, and while subsequent theorists like David Harvey have elaborated on the point and given it additional substance, its use has been primarily to show particular ways in which capitalism is often destructive, rather than delving into a more sophisticated understanding of the dynamics at work. One point in particular seems to have eluded full scrutiny: the cost of destruction. Any process of destruction requires costs simply as a form of work; mental efforts are required to remove or replace things, demolition requires labor. This will tend to minimize the amount of space that is destroyed. It has been noted that fixed capital resists destruction; people who own something of value do not want to lose it. Although quite basic from an economic standpoint, the fact that destruction is constrained by the costs of the effort has not been sufficiently accounted for. While it may seem rather obvious that capitalism allows marginal areas to remain because it is not profitable to remove them, an explicit recognition of this point will help to establish connections between socially central places and the margins. Given the Marxist tradition of accounting for marginal spaces through arguments about their capitalist value for "social reproduction," we must recognize that margins may remain where it is simply too costly to remove them, even when they may be entirely detrimental to social reproduction.
While marginal areas may be all that is left of destroyed spaces, and they may even find themselves firmly separated from the space that has replaced them, they often retain their relationship with the residual spaces in the center. Thus strong ties may obstain between declining outlying areas and particular public spaces within a city center. (Whether these constitute linked, but separate spaces, or a single, thin residual space is a matter of interpretation.)
Public space is, in a great many cases, a form of residual space. Streets, squares, and parks can often be better characterized as places that have resisted development than as intentionally planned places, although that may not seem like the case. Take the example of the suburban plat. Developers seek to maximize the area they can sell, which often means reducing the streets to minimum standards, as well as locating them on less desirable portions of the property to whatever extent practical. The resulting public space of the street becomes whatever portion of the natural space was most resistant to development.
We can use Broadway in New York to illustrate residual space. Broadway began as a Native American trail that developed into the principal road from the growing settlement in Lower Manhattan to other villages to the north. When the Commissioner's Grid was laid out in 1811, however, the City sought to impose an abstract geometric space on the island, a process which required the destruction of the existing natural space (by leveling the topography). The Commissioner's Grid also planned on the removal of Broadway, but it proved too difficult to destroy the set of social relations embodied in this space. As a result, Broadway has remained as an irregular avenue that cuts across the Manhattan grid, leaving several awkwardly cut parcels in its wake. These parts of parcels are themselves residual space in many cases. Many of New York's most important public places (Times Square and Herald Square) emerged from the resistance of these parcels to development.
That is not to say that the resistance is always successful, nor that the results will prove to be positive. The Flatiron Building achieved its landmark form through the technical and cultural effort to overcome the resistance of this difficult site. And thus it is that much of our best architecture emerges from the efforts to master residual space. Nevertheless, in other cases residual space ultimately gives way to socially marginal uses, as many of Manhattan's irregular intersections have housed shack-like service stations or trash-strewn parking lots at some point in their history, rather than inspiring iconic skyscrapers.
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