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BARBED WIRE
And Urban Fortifications

Jacob Shell, 2005

This pair of maps of downtown Brooklyn NY accompanied my urban studies senior thesis, “City of Thorns: Barbed Wire in the Modern Urban Landscape” (Columbia University, 2005). This thesis argued that the presence of barbed wire in ostensibly peaceful, prosperous cities such as 21st century New York is best understood as an extension of the history of urban fortifications and enceintes (walls surrounding cities). If medieval and renaissance-era urban walls were built to keep out “vandals” in the sense of marauding external state enemies, barbed wire in modern cities keeps out “vandals” in the sense of homeless people, squatters, marginalized youth, etc. – that is, social marginalia who are internal to the city itself.

The downtown Brooklyn barbed wire map – the outcome many hours of walking up and down each street in this district – reveals that barbed wire is generally not deployed to protect properties of great value, but rather to protect empty or “unmanaged” spaces: vacant lots, parking lots, and things of this sort. This is an inversion of the situation of the urban enceinte of old, which ringed an entity of great value (the city) but was itself ringed by a kind of void, a “geography of emptiness” as the social geographer Gary McDonough calls it. This void was a zone cleared of development and vegetation, to make approaching enemy soldiers easier targets for canons perched on the city walls.

Lille, France, during the 17th and 18th centuries, had an especially dramatic system of urban fortifications, designed by the Marquis de Vauban, a prolific French military engineer. What I find especially striking here is how the bastions themselves, at least on the map, somewhat resemble barbs.

Detail of Lille fortifications with projectile lines and relationship to fortification morphology. 1708.

The thesis also discusses Silver and Chalfant’s excellent 1983 documentary "Style Wars," which points to the graffiti crisis on the NYC subway system during the 1970s as the original impetus for the barbed enclosure of the city’s less-managed spaces (such as the subway system’s terminal yards).

Still from “Style Wars.” Double fencing around subway yard to repel graffiti vandals.

Other studies exist on the social and technological history of barbed wire, though these consistently focus on barbed wire as a rural or exurban technology:

– Reviel Netz’s “Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity” (Wesleyan, 2009)

– Olivier Razac’s “Barbed Wire: A Political History” (New Press, 2005)

– Alan Krell’s “The Devil’s Rope: A Cultural History of Barbed Wire” (Reaktion, 2002)