National Civil Right Museum in Memphis, TN

With his history in building privately owned public spaces (POPS) in order to drive his towers higher, Donald Trump has been a controversial figure in conversations about public space long before his inauguration or even his candidacy. The role of Trump Tower POPS—with or without benches, merchandise, or unpermitted closures—pales in comparison to the role another infamous structure of his plays in how public-space practitioners must approach our work moving forward.

Full proposals for the US-Mexico border wall were due last week. John Burnett has described the wording of the Department of Homeland Security’s design-build contract for the wall as “something the military would use in a war.” As with most grand structures, the wall is at least as symbolic as it is utilitarian. It accompanies a slew of policies and insults leveled at immigrants by the current Administration and—if built—will be a monument to xenophobia, racism, and isolationism.

On the other hand, many of us who work in and with public space are drawn to public space because it represents precisely the opposite values. While a border wall signifies closure and the keeping out of difference, public spaces are sites where people come together both in spite of and because of—but more often with a casual, though really quite extraordinary, lack of regard for—difference.

Already, rampant xenophobia and harsh policies have scared people away from the public realm. Quoted in a recent City Limits article, Make the Road NY housing activist Jennifer Gray-Brumskine said of Staten Island’s North Shore: “The community is in a state of fear...people in apartments locked up. They’re not coming outside for days because they’re afraid they will get arrested and deported.” While New York City is designated a sanctuary city, fingerprints and other information collected after arrests—even for small broken-windows crimes and/or when charges are ultimately dropped—are accessible by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and can lead to deportation. 

A militaristic border wall, threats of deportation, and ramped up hostility combine to form a vast infrastructure of fear and harassment directed toward immigrants and people believed to be immigrants. Contributing to this infrastructure of fear while the federal government builds a monument to that same fear undercuts New York City’s “sanctuary city” status.

I applaud Public Advocate Letitia James’ call for the City to refuse to do business with entities involved in the design and build of the border wall. Amending the “responsible bidder” provision as she advises would be a strong statement against the wall and what it represents. If we’re to truly be a sanctuary city, though, our non-compliance with ICE and refusal to work with those involved in the border wall must be complemented with the active building of sanctuary. How can we build our public spaces into public sanctuaries: sites where the claim of “sanctuary city” is actualized?

The Majority, a coalition of more than 50 organizations committed to the multi-racial, cross-movement fight for justice, freedom and the right to live fully, with dignity and respect, reminds us: "What many of us working toward building equity and justice know, is that when people who aren’t shackled by systemic barriers join forces, support and uplift those who are, it works to unleash the power residing within those marginalized communities." The Majority launched the Beyond the Moment campaign yesterday, April 4th—the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

Beyond the Moment urges us to embrace our differences to build a bold, broad, and big movement, and what better place to do that than in the public spaces where our differences collide? As both public-space practitioners and users of public space, we must take a critical look at how we engage with the public spaces around us—be it through design, policy, stewardship, or simply being—and work to build them into sanctuaries of openness, anti-racism, and civic engagement.

The community is in a state of fear...people in apartments locked up. They’re not coming outside for days because they’re afraid they will get arrested and deported.

Jennifer Gray-Brumskine, Make the Road NY housing activist