Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space

The history of the working class of Hell’s Kitchen, New York, explored through the prism of subjectivities of space, is a project that promises more than it is able deliver, in Joseph Varga’s Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space

Joseph J. Varga, Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space: Class Struggles and Progressive Reform in New York City, 1894-1914 (Monthly Review Press 2013), 269pp.

The terrain of Joseph Varga’s Hell’s Kitchen is undeniably both fascinating and important. An understanding of how class consciousness forms, and class struggle is played out, must necessarily investigate issues contained in the notion of ‘urban space’ in order to avoid limited and mechanistic analysis, which would lead to bad politics. Class is not purely a phenomenon of the workplace, but is a social relationship, and involves all aspects of life, and so social spaces, from housing to health, transport to entertainment. Capitalism is not simply an economic system, but shapes all aspects of society around it, partly through its own drive to commodify everything, but also through the ruling class’ own grasp of the need to control and manipulate the mass of people, proletarian and otherwise.

Exploring how urban space is formed as part of capitalism and the class struggle is thus a subject which has captured the attention of many activists over the years. Varga certainly has some gritty tales to tell of the history of the Hell’s Kitchen (the middle-west side of Manhattan), as well as an interesting account of the involvement of Progressive reformers in the area. The Progressives in this period of US history can be broadly compared to the Fabians in Britain, but while the latter were, in distinction, self-declared socialists, both were very much middle-class reformers, and despite terminological differences, were concerned with making existing capitalist society function more smoothly.

Hell’s Kitchen, as an ‘unrespectable’ working-class and industrial area was an obvious target for reformers. The impact of the Progressives was double edged. On the one hand, there were undeniable improvements to the quality of life that could follow from housing reform and other measures, but the plans were not simply for the benefit of the local people. There was a strong element of social control involved; the working class were to be improved alongside the urban space around them. Thus Varga quotes one contemporary social worker saying it was hoped that ‘the appearance of respectability would create the desire for respectability’ among the people of Hell’s Kitchen (p.20).

The Progressive project is one side of the discussion here, but the other side is the more intractable nature of the area itself, and the extent to which it resisted the impositions of the reformers. This is not simply about working-class resistance however, and indeed part of the story here is how ‘the retreat to urban trenches’ was the ‘mediating force that prevented lasting solidarity’ (p.38). That is to say that the formation of ethnically exclusive neighbourhoods, alongside the limitation of class struggle to the workplace, prevented the development and expression of a fully developed class consciousness in the wider social sense (see pp.37-9). These issues are tied into periodic theoretical discussions of the nature of urban space, and particularly into engagements with the work of Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey. This is all a rich area for discussion, but while there are undoubtedly strengths to some of the research here, the book does not always add up to the sum of its parts.

On the impact of the Progressives, there is much interesting material, but it is a significant area where some of the theoretical ambitions fail to come through clearly. Varga criticises Harvey for his analysis of the ‘dismal logic of capitalist production’ where ‘the needs of accumulation directly influence the conceptions of urban planners’ thus enabling the reproduction of class relations (p.33). Varga demands that an extended concept of ‘representational space’ be introduced, going beyond Lefebvre ‘to view representational space as the active locus of spatial production’ (p.34). This, it is admitted, is ‘not necessarily a liberating or emancipating concept’, but it certainly is meant to be, in his formulation, an emphasis on the subjective aspect of the construction of ‘urban space’ by its inhabitants. The point against Harvey would seem to be that he denies this in favour of the ‘dismal logic’ of capital.

Varga argues that ‘forms of governmentality in the production of space are not the result of top-down efforts at control and domination’, and the impression could be taken that he means, here and elsewhere, that the subjectivity of ‘representational space’ contains a form of class struggle frustrating the efforts of forces like that of Progressive reform (p.36). Varga points to examples like a model apartment intended for respectable families becoming ‘a haven for “bohemian” women’, or an example of an abandoned building being squatted. However, the argument is modified by the observation that ‘governmental control through the restructuring of urban space relies upon an already existing set of customs, practices, and histories among the population’, so that ‘attempts at control can have unintended consequences when the conceptual visions of urban planners clash with the needs of urban residents’ (p.36). These observations are fair enough, but do not seem to amount to a strong critique of arguments that capital does structure the formation of urban space. It seems simply that, capitalist society being contradictory, this domination is not being pressed on a blank slate or with predictable results, through any number of haphazard reactions. It does not, in itself, amount to an exploration of a clear form of ‘class struggle’, as announced in the subtitle.

The problem is that the substance of the material in Hell’s Kitchen tends to emphasise at best the subjective capacity of the rulers, planners and reformers, but not of the ordinary inhabitants of the Middle West Side. The sections on the Progressives in fact seem to show precisely how, for all the good intentions, reformers were ultimately intent ‘that the provision of a proper spatial environment, including park space, would generate a citizen more in line with what they saw as the needs of a modernising economy and complex society’ (p.42). Unless the unwarranted assumption is made that Harvey is a simplistic determinist, it is hard to see how this conclusion about the progressives departs from an analysis of how the ‘logic of capitalist production’ translates into actual social policy and practice.

The extension of the concept of ‘representational space’ does not seem to reveal anything very much about the subjectivity of the workers in Hell’s Kitchen, so much as it fleshes out the reformers’ perspectives, particularly in the section on photography and other types of images, (pp.49-61). There was a great deal of judgmentalism in the Progressives view of the city:

‘So while cramped spaces without proper ventilation and dirty streets lacking maintenance bred disease, criminality, and mortality, they more importantly served as signifiers of a future crisis, particularly concerning the youth. How could these young people grow into proper citizenship, be trusted with liberal “freedoms”, when their values were formed in such spaces’ (p.51).

The Progressive attempt to reform these areas, by the introduction of parks, playgrounds, new tenement laws, ‘and various efforts to open up the cramped spaces of urban working-class neighborhoods to the visibility of middle-class moral judgment,’ can be assessed as largely a failure (p.61). The explanation for this seems really not to lie in the nature of representation, but rather in the class forces involved; reforms introduced through problematic bourgeois motivations and imposed on a population, rather than being gains made by working-class organisation and struggle. It is unclear how far Varga might disagree with this point, but, in any case, the conclusions based on empirical matter often do not seem to bear out or require the theoretical discussions which precede or follow them. A case in point is the observation that while ‘some residents clearly preferred the orderly yet paternalistic atmosphere of model buildings, others chose to avoid the rules, regulations, and screening process such buildings required of tenants’ (p.148).

This does not mean that the book does not contain numerous vivid passages of real, if usually grim, interest. Perhaps a highlight is the account of the corruption and violence of the police in Hell’s Kitchen. The police earned a significant amount of their income through such practices as arresting women on erroneous charges of prostitution, to force them to pay bonds for their release. These were bought from local bondsmen, ‘who then kicked back part of their fees to the arresting officer’ (p.109). Despite progressive efforts at reform of the police, the deeply oppressive behaviour of the force against those perceived as non-respectable continued, and Varga has several stories to tell of the violent results. Yet rather than produce community solidarity against the police, the effect seems to have been to entrench racial violence and hierarchy.

Illustrating this is the story of a riot that had its origins in a police officer’s attempt to arrest an African-American woman, May Enoch, probably to extort bail money. The policeman is injured and latter dies after an altercation with May’s husband. The sequence of events leads to white mobs attacking African Americans, clearly with considerable police protection and support. Varga notes that there were some ‘white witnesses appalled by the lack of protection afforded to black residents’, but the story seems to confirm how far racial hierarchy precluded effective class solidarity. It may be that this grim picture is all that is available from the history of Hell’s Kitchen in 1900, but Varga does appear to take the situation for granted rather than question whether there were any signs of possible alternatives in the society of the area.

Ultimately therefore the account is a deeply pessimistic one. Although Varga seeks to at least nuance the argument that there was a separation of class from community in American society, the conclusion is nevertheless that ethnically structured neighbourhoods meant that urban geography became ‘the mediating force that prevented lasting solidarity’ (pp.37-8). No doubt this is so, but Varga seeks to make a claim that working-class ‘political action can take multiple paths’, while these multiple paths ‘do not necessarily comprise collective organising or community activism’. What is left after this caveat may represent activity by some working-class people, but does not represent political action by the working class, never mind effective opposition to the reproduction of capital in urban space.

In general terms, it is certainly possible to agree with Varga that the production of space is not a purely top-down process, and certainly does involve contested and imagined representations. Yet, the real question is how far the working class has been able, or could be able, to seize control of the shaping of urban space collectively, and overcome debilitating divisions of race and gender hierarchies in particular. Here, the story seems to be one largely of the ways that the nature of urban space interfered with the formation of class consciousness outside the workplace itself.

The individual subjectivities in Varga’s ‘representational space’ may frustrate the idealised plans of reformers, but are, taken as a whole, compliant with the overall systemic logic of capital in the urban space (for example pp.190-1). Atomised subjectivity is merely Pyrrhic, as it will always, one way or another, be corralled for the benefit of capital in general, if not for particular bourgeois projects. Ultimately, where subjectivity can and must play a key role is in the capacity of the working class to act collectively through conscious politicised action to challenge the very real, grim logic of the production of surplus value.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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