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October 1, 2017

Saskia Sassen Opens Altman Series with Talk on Cities

by Sarah Siff

Who owns the city? In the case of Detroit, Singapore.

Renowned sociologist Saskia Sassen said her research showed that corporations in the wealthy Asian nation had recently been purchasing tracts of land and empty buildings in the former motor city at a brisk clip.

In a lecture to 200 Miami faculty, staff, students and community members on Sept. 19, Sassen said the acquisition of urban spaces by shell companies and other hidden entities has been alarming city planners and officials, for whom she frequently consults, in places like Detroit, Manhattan, and London.

“People are losing their homes, and meanwhile there are vast buildings sitting empty and generating profits.”

Sassen’s talk, “Who Owns the City?” opened the Humanities Center’s 2017-18 John W. Altman Series after Neil Brenner’s scheduled visit was delayed by Hurricane Irma. She delivered it to a packed room in the Armstrong Student Center’s pavilion.

The hour was devoted to the rapid growth of global finance. Digital trading transactions—70 percent of which are conducted secretly—have been soundly divorced from their material representations, Sassen said. “Buildings are not quite talking to us as they have in the past,” she said.

A poster for Sassen's talk

Many of the downtown buildings seem to be worth more to their hidden purchasers as debt than as spaces to live in, Sassen said. Some residential buildings in Manhattan sit mostly empty, the dwindling number of live-in condo owners mystified by their dark and silent interiors. Of 192 spaces in the Time Warner Center, 122 were purchased through shell companies, as was half of Bloomberg Tower.

Displaying a map of foreign ownership of downtown London, Sassen said that Qatari royals own more of the city than the Queen of England.

The financialization of these buildings globally—that is, their use as debt-related securities—amounts to $217 trillion, more than total global GDP. Sassen said this condition, along with the subprime mortgage crisis, leads to two troubling extremes.

“People are losing their homes, and meanwhile there are vast buildings sitting empty and generating profits,” she said. Meanwhile, corporations also purchase land, extract resources such as water, and leave it behind empty and “dead.” The same process is under way in many municipalities.

The pace of resource extraction—including wealth from medium-income American communities—enabled by the globalizing finance sector is an “extreme condition,” a phrase Sassen often repeated.

The problem manifests in such urban features as the ubiquity of Starbucks. “Do I need a multinational corporation [in order] to have a cup of coffee in my neighborhood? That is the situation,” she said.

But more urgently, it manifests in the symptoms of extreme inequality: poverty, homelessness, and disease. “The power of finance has been huge, and a very destructive power,” Sassen said.


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