When I arrived to San Salvador in December for a three-month stay, I asked a neighbor for recommendations on where to go jogging. It was his preference, he said, to avoid leaving the house whenever possible, but I could try the parking lot of the soccer stadium, which—like so many places in the Salvadoran capital—came equipped with a bevy of armed security guards.
To be sure, for the average Salvadoran, the obstacles to maneuvering in public cannot be overstated. In a city that consistently ranks among the most violent and homicidal in the world, the innumerable invisible borders delineating territory controlled by rival gangs means that an act as simple as crossing the street can literally be a death sentence.
On a recent excursion to San Salvador’s historic center—site of the Metropolitan Cathedral—I spoke with a man in his late forties who requested anonymity before remarking that, despite the government’s much vaunted “rehabilitation” of the area, “one block west of the cathedral is one gang and one block north of the cathedral is another gang.” For him, he said, navigating the boundaries was not as much of an issue as it was for his 19-year-old son, who, on account of his age, was automatically presumed by gang members to be from an opposing gang.
Moreover, because his son resides in a San Salvador neighborhood presided over by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)—and because his place of residence is specified on the national ID Salvadorans are required to carry—encounters with members of the Barrio 18 gang can be particularly perilous. But it’s not only the gangs, the man was careful to emphasize; there’s also a “criminalization of youth” by Salvadoran security forces, who are well known for their habit of antagonizing young men—thereby further cramping the freedom of public movement for that demographic. Then, of course, there’s the habit of extrajudicially assassinating people and passing off the carnage as gang-related shootouts.
In short, individual movement in San Salvador is a process of self-circumscription based on calculations involving a variety of factors and mental maps of invisible barriers—although there are plenty of visible ones, too, including the ubiquitous private security guards with guns who stand sentry outside of pretty much every establishment under the sun, razor wire ornamenting the tops of buildings, and gated communities with watchtowers and other amenities that give one the impression of approaching a military base. According to a February 2019 manual on public space, in the 14 municipalities that comprise the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador, women restrict their movements in accordance with a fear of sexual and other violence, as well as a cultural perception of public space as “masculine”—thanks to which women are blamed for whatever aggression they might endure out in the open, whether for wearing “inappropriate” clothing or circulating at improper hours. A young woman I spoke with in the historic center said that, when frequenting that particular area, she confined her movements to approximately one block.
But just how much public space is there in San Salvador? The manual, published in conjunction with the metropolitan area’s Council of Mayors and Planning Office, notes that, while there are numerous indications of the positive role public space plays in terms of social cohesion and violence prevention, the Salvadoran capital boasts only 3.3 meters squared per inhabitant—far below the World Bank and World Health Organization’s recommendation of at least 10 meters squared. And yet it’s debatable how reflective of reality even that 3.3 figure is when so much of what is considered public space is effectively off-limits for much of the population.
Now, forty years after the start of El Salvador’s devastating 12-year civil war, during which more than 75,000 people were killed, one of the root causes of the conflict—egregious socioeconomic inequality—is still rampant. The upper classes fortify their residences and businesses against the violence outside, but in doing so help perpetuate a system that effectively criminalizes poverty and obliterates the possibility of societal reconciliation. It bears underscoring, too, that condemning the poor to lives of physical misery—in which their very existence is under constant threat—is itself a form of institutionalized violence.
Traveling between San Salvador’s bastions of wealth and gang-controlled communities like San Bartolo, Ilopango—where garbage trucks won’t enter due to fears of being extorted, and trash clogs the streets—one might recall historian and urban theorist Mike Davis’ 1990 essay “Fortress Los Angeles: The Militarization of Urban Space.” In it, he detailed how the “obsession with security has supplanted hopes for urban reform and social integration,” resulting in “‘fortress cities’ brutally divided into ‘fortified cells’ of affluence and ‘places of terror’ where police battle the criminalized poor.”
As part of his exploration of the brutality of LA, Davis incidentally referenced the phenomenon of young refugees from El Salvador “washing, swimming, even drinking from the sewer effluent.” Los Angeles, of course, is where MS-13 and Barrio 18 formed in the first place as a means of communal defense for Salvadorans fleeing the civil war. When the war ended in 1992, the US—which had played no small part in backing right-wing terror during the conflict—undertook mass deportations of gang members. Brutality, it seems, knows no borders.
While my own obvious status as a foreigner here in San Salvador exempts me from many of the spatial regulations that govern Salvadoran lives, the near-asphyxiating lack of public space has given me ample room to ponder similarities with another postwar society near and dear to my heart: Beirut, where urban militarization and other forms of territorial conquest have also thwarted social integration. (And speaking of conquest, my inaugural visit to Lebanon took place in 2006 in the aftermath of Israel’s murderous summer assault, when a friend and I undertook to hitchhike through the rubble.)
Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended shortly before El Salvador’s, in 1990, likewise counted among its causes severe socioeconomic injustice. However, unrest on this front was quickly channeled into sectarian strife by the very warlords who remain in power to this day—despite having massive quantities of blood on their hands from a conflict that killed some 150,000 people. Like the Salvadoran civil war, Lebanon’s converted substantial segments of the population into internally displaced persons or refugees.
As part of Beirut’s postwar reconstruction, the notorious Green Line—formerly the no man’s land separating primarily Christian East Beirut from Muslim West Beirut—was to host a “vibrant” new downtown featuring “landscaped public space” to help “reconnect the city” and serve as a venue for public reconciliation. This, at least, is what was promised in the master plan of Solidere, the company founded by billionaire Rafik Hariri—Lebanon’s second postwar prime minister, assassinated in 2005—that was preferentially tasked with rebuilding the city center.
But downtown Beirut remains largely closed and unwelcoming as a public space, having been converted instead into an ode to obscene wealth, complete with multimillion-dollar apartments, prohibitively expensive dining and shopping options, and—surprise, surprise—a paucity of people. Call it a no man’s land of luxury. And if the aseptic, soul-crushing, and wallet-annihilating nature of the place were not deterrent enough for the average poor inhabitant of Lebanon, there’s also a fluctuating arrangement of soldiers, police, barbed wire, cement barricades, and other impediments to entry to underscore that this is a militarized border between haves and have-nots.
Elsewhere in the concrete jungle of the Lebanese capital—where greenish spots the size of ping-pong tables are euphemistically designated “parks” and “gardens”—public space is also hard to come by. This has to do with not only the (often illegal) appropriation of every last millimeter of territory by Lebanon’s ruling elite for their own lucrative endeavors but also with the ongoing sectarianization of space, which can similarly cause Beirut residents to limit their own movements. Case in point: in a Muslim-majority country of eighteen recognized religious sects and over a million Palestinian and Syrian refugees, how many people really want to hang out in the vicinity of a right-wing Christian Phalangist monument involving a kneeling figure performing a fascist salute?
Even Horsh Beirut, a glorious pine forest located at the intersection of Sunni, Shia, and Christian areas in the city, was until relatively recently closed to the general public, open only to foreigners (read: white Westerners like me) and Lebanese with the proper connections. But boundaries have a way of becoming ingrained, and to this day you’ll often see more people walking or jogging around the concrete perimeter of the park—at the mercy of car exhaust and incessant honking—than inside it.
Just as Salvadorans are forcibly defined in society according to their neighborhood of residence and other factors they might not choose to self-identify by, inhabitants of Lebanon are forcibly defined by sectarian orientation—whether or not they possess any actual religious inclinations—which can often be gleaned by last name or village of origin. During Lebanon’s mini-civil war of 2008, for example, I was in Beirut with a Palestinian-Lebanese friend named Hassan; as we attempted to make our way through the chaos by car to south Lebanon, we were swarmed by a group of Druze men who, infuriated by a recent lethal showdown between Druze and Shia factions, demanded to know Hassan’s sectarian affiliation.
In this case—thanks to the sacred rules of Lebanese sectarianism—his Palestinian ID automatically defined him as Sunni, which meant that no violence befell us and we were allowed to proceed to the next impromptu checkpoint, all of them uncomfortable reminders of the ID card-based killings that took place during the actual civil war. Ultimately, of course, the whole sectarian business works to enforce the stranglehold on power by the country’s ruling elite, who exploit the divide-and-conquer tradition to maintain the status quo. All the better for them if there’s no public space in which a cross-sectarian, cohesive public identity might form. Granted, the current Lebanese uprising against austerity measures and government malfeasance may shake things up.
Which brings us back to San Salvador and the upbeat young man who suggested to me that, if I wanted to walk freely and securely, I could simply walk in the mall. And yet this “freedom” hardly applies across the board, as reiterated by another young Salvadoran who told me of being repeatedly harassed by guards in malls for having tattoos. The 2019 manual published by the Council of Mayors and Planning Office of the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador furthermore notes that, in addition to detrimental processes of gentrification and the privatization of public space—which essentially condemn poor areas to insecurity—there’s also the substitution of public space with “malls or other infrastructure in which the ‘right of admission’ applies.”
In his essay on Fortress Los Angeles, Davis wrote of the “quest for spatial discrimination” and the homogenizing tendencies of the “designers of malls and pseudopublic space… They set up architectural and semiotic barriers that filter out the ‘undesirables.’ They enclose the mass that remains, directing its circulation with behaviorist ferocity.” The ideal result: “a veritable commercial symphony of swarming, consuming monads moving from one cash-point to another.”
In other words: hell on earth.
For his part, Ali Madanipour—a professor of urban design at Newcastle University—writes that “for cities to work, there is an undeniable need for public space.” In that sense, neither San Salvador nor Beirut works. For an international neoliberal elite that thrives by thwarting human solidarity and maintaining the tyranny of capital at all costs, however, you might say that they work very well indeed.