Disruption, yet community reconstitution: subverting the privatization of Latin American plazas

Veronica Crossa

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Crossa, V. (1). Disruption, yet community reconstitution: subverting the privatization of Latin American plazas. GeoJournal, 77(2), 167–183. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10708-009-9328-z

Community centre , Mexico City , plaza , public space , urban neoliberalism

Latin American scholars have recently discussed the privatization of urban public space. A fundamental aspect of this process is the disintegration of communities because it often targets and affects a peculiarly Latin American kind of public space: the plaza. Plazas have traditionally functioned as cultural centres in Latin American cites. They are central meeting points for political groups, sites of civic expression and public resistance, as well as places to purchase relatively cheap goods and services. Plazas are, therefore, sites in which families, neighbours, and political organizations mingle, interact, and also challenge authority. This paper uses these sorts of insights on public space in Latin America to develop a conceptualization of the plaza as a community centre. However, the multiple practices and interactions that occur in these forms of public space have been disrupted by state-led strategies which seek to privatize and sanitize public space, thereby disrupting—or even destroying—the community centre. I use primary materials on Mexico City's Historic centre and its plaza to explore the ways in which this specific type of urban public space has been affected physically and symbolically by a regeneration scheme known as the Programa de Rescate.

Main finding
Plazas can be examined as centers of community formation and places where communities are sustained and overlap. For many of Mexico City’s street vendors, the plaza is their “home,” a place of care for personal and work spheres, and a space for socialization. The struggles against the violence of past and current governments are embodied within the plaza. The Programa de Rescate, an urban regeneration scheme for Mexico City’s Historic Center, has threatened the economic and kin networks that have developed in the plaza, relocating many street vendors and heavily policing those that remain. There are signs that the community center has been reconstituted elsewhere, albeit more dispersed, as some have gone to new enclosed markets and other locations within the city. Still, some street vendors have been able to stay in the plaza following the Programa by forming new cooperative alliances with shop owners, an example of the plaza’s function as a community center making the implementation of neoliberal urban policies difficult. Finally, the author argues that the community-based planning literature overemphasizes communities’ commonalities and stresses that they are also heterogeneous, resulting in subordinated groups like street vendors experiencing and responding to different levels of exclusion.

Description of method used in the article
During a period of 14 months from 2003 to 2004 the researcher studied the Programa de Rescate in Mexico City. The fieldwork involved interviews, archival work, and participant observation of multiple organizations of street vendors in Mexico City's Historic Center. All fieldwork was conducted in Spanish. The researcher also worked at El Colegio de Mexico for a period of 7 months on a project funded by the government of Mexico City and the World Bank.

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