[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Anti-Gentrification Rebels (WireTap Magazine)
jancius at ohio.edu
Fri Oct 19 15:30:50 EDT 2007
By Roopa Singh , WireTap
Posted on October 17, 2007, Printed on October 19, 2007
(Author's note: This article builds on Laura Hadden's recent WireTap
feature "There Goes the Neighborhood" with a brief introduction to the
Right to the City concept, which fosters urban dweller sovereignty.
This piece examines gentrification in America's midsized cities
through case studies of Southwest gem Austin, Texas, and the Rust Belt
renaissance city Pittsburgh, Pa.)
The U.S. anti-gentrification movement has gained inspiration from a
banner-worthy ideology called "Right to the City." The notion was
originally articulated in 1968 by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre.
His concept was simple and daring: Return decision-making power in
cities back to all urban dwellers.
Lefebvre also promoted the concept of "layers of recognized
citizenship," which endows city folk with authority over all their
dwellings, past and present. Lefebvre's Right to the City concept
suggests that one can be a national citizen of India, while being an
urban citizen of Los Angeles, thereby layering that urban dweller with
all the civic rights and responsibilities of a citizen in both places.
So, why should the movement be studying the Right to the City concept?
First, because gentrification causes urban citizens to feel the
glistening, hungry fangs of globalization at home, literally, and
Lefebvre's theory helps us understand our rights, especially in an era
of worldwide war.
Additionally, the Right to the City ideology is spreading through the
national activist ranks, lately through the work of the Right To The
City Alliance (a national advocacy group representing community
organizations in nine cities) and the United Nations, sending smoke
signals from coast to embattled coast.
Lastly, America's forgotten treasures, the less heard from midsized
and secondary cities that stubbornly maintain alternatives to
mainstream cool and nonsustainable development are experiencing
virulent land takeovers largely undetected by the movement radar. The
Right to the City concept requires citizens to take each other into
account and learn from our varied battles the ways of the machine.
Austin, TX: Las Manitas' struggle for respect
The Austin Chronicle just released its Best of Austin 2007 picks, and
the takeover of Las Manitas restaurant won the readers' poll for best
news story. Escuelita Del Alma Learning Center, a sister business on
the same block, won the critics' pick for best community childcare.
But both beloved institutions are currently at the bargaining table,
trading property rights they can't spare in exchange for a few more
days till their forced evictions.
The Daily Texan further reported that "land development on the 200
block of Congress Avenue threatens to displace three local businesses:
Las Manitas Avenue Café, Escuelita del Alma Learning Center and the
retail arm of Tesoros Trading Co. A $185 million deal announced a few
weeks ago between the landowner Finley Co. and White Lodging Services
Corp. would tear down the businesses to make way for three Marriott
International Inc. hotels." Behind the headlines, a trio of devoted
community activists worked to save their neighborhood.
A matriarch crew, including Cynthia Perez, a founder of the Indigenous
Women's Network, has been holding it down for the movement on the 200
block of Congress Avenue in downtown Austin, Texas, since 1981. Three
women of color, sisters Cynthia and Libby Perez, and Dina Flores, life
partners with Cynthia, run three entities between them. La Peña sits
majestically on the northern corner, a nonprofit arts organization
with a world-class gallery consistently showcasing marginalized art in
schools and youth prisons throughout the city.
Las Manitas Avenue Café is the for-profit sentry on the southern
corner, a restaurant, political watering hole and underground railroad
station for immigrants, cooking culturally relevant food and funneling
money to La Peña when funding gets lean. In the middle of the block is
the beloved Escuelita del Alma Learning Center, a for-profit,
community, Spanish immersion day care for the children of employees on
the block and in downtown. All three entities face uncertain futures.
"What we're asking for is managed growth, mixed use growth that
actually represents balance," asserted Cynthia. When I asked her why
she turned down a special, one-time, forgivable relocation grant of
$750,000 from the City of Austin she replied, "People don't
understand. They're going: 'This is for you and no one else affected,
this is for you to shut you up."
Despite the real need for fiscal support, the Perez sisters and Dina
Flores declined the grant, which the local press picked up and spun as
a wedge issue between these three business and other threatened
establishments run by people of color in Austin. Two thousand miles
away, likeminded civic activists were mobilizing to save one of the
Northeast's most significant historic districts.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: Battle for the Hill
Pittsburgh, Pa.'s historic Hill District was home to Sugar Top (a must
stop spot on the national jazz circuit), the champion Pittsburgh
Crawfords (a Negro National League baseball team), writers like August
Wilson, and a pre-eminent national Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh
Courier, for whom W.E.B Dubois, the Hon. Elijah Mohammed and Zora Neal
Public television station WQED's historical guide summarized the
importance of the district: "From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Hill
District thrived and was one of the most prosperous and influential
black neighborhoods in America. It was thriving, bustling, and safe --
a center for music, art and literature."
But in 1955, post WWII "redevelopment" in the Hill displaced over
8,000 residents, 1,239 black families, 312 white. Between this
displacement and the industrial corporate abandonment that turned the
entire region from the Manufacturing Belt into the Rust Belt, the
historic Hill watched its population fall from over 50,000 in 1950 to
15,000 in 1990. So in 2006, when the City of Pittsburgh opened up a
bidding process for a new casino and hockey stadium mega-complex with
eyes on the Hill, resident activists like Dr. Kimberly Ellis sat bolt
upright in their seats at the sound of redevelopment knocking on their
Out of three bids placed, only one proposed entry into an existing
neighborhood, and once again, the Hill District was the target. Folks
on the Hill began to mobilize, spurred on by Dr. Ellis and other
community activists who demanded a seat at the city bargaining table.
Their petitions, marches, and arts-based activism efforts persisted
with a definitive vision for what the Hill should become.
And on Dec. 21, 2006, they won. The city of Pittsburgh chose to award
the lucrative stadium-casino contract to a bidder whose plans focused
on a preexisting industrial parcel.
Says Dr. Ellis, "Fifty years ago my ancestors stood on Freedom Corner
and said 'Not another inch!' and literally and figuratively saved my
community from further destruction of 'urban renewal.' [And here
again] we just saved our community, plain and simple. Now we have the
opportunity for some real development to happen."
Lessons on gentrification
I asked Valerie Taing, national organizer, The Right To The City
Alliance, what her vision is for an ideal city. Valerie replied, "A
city where everything is controlled by, developed by, and meets the
needs of the people that live there, and I get to sit on a porch and
build with elders."
As the Austin and Pittsburgh examples show, if it ain't corporations
on the gentrification takeover, it's smaller developers or
individuals. As the economic dynamics of midsized cities around the
United States change, power brokers will continue their direct
targeting of historic neighborhoods and populations. Neither Austin or
Pittsburgh is in the position to lose these vibrant businesses and
cultural districts. But as our national progressive,
anti-gentrification movement grows, mindful of Lefebvre's innovative
concepts, there's hope that empowered citizens's rights and dreams
will eventually be respected.
Roopa Singh is an urban citizen with village tendencies who currently
resides in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is a political poet, an adjunct
professor of international political science at Pace University and a
theater instructor with South Asian Youth Action. Visit her blog, with
"All the News That's Fit to Flip."
(c) 2007 Wiretap Magazine. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.wiretapmag.org/stories/43269/
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