Opening a crack in history

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Barceloneta residents at the demonstration reclaiming El Segle XX building, January 11 2014. Photo by Pedro Mata, Fotomovimiento.

by Santiago Gorostiza

When Aymara people in South-America look ahead they are facing the past. Literally. Researchers who investigated Aymara language and gestures have established that, unlike all the studied cultures and languages of the world, they refer to the past by gesturing ahead, while the future is situated behind oneself. The example of the Aymara indigenous people, when reflecting on how history can be useful for activists participating in socio-environmental conflicts, challenges our preconditioned views. We can put history into the foreground, not just as the background or the context of present events but as a central resource for the present and the future.

“All history is contemporary history”—Benedetto Croce.

But it is not only that we all write and research within the context of our own time. It is also that the stories and narrations that we unveil impact us now. They can affect how we look at the past—but especially, when it involves social movements, they can also shape how we look at the present and at the future, at what is conceived as possible and impossible today and tomorrow.

As the Zapatistas claim, it is necessary to “open a crack” in history. On January 1st 1994, the very same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force, the Zapatistas launched their revolt in the mountains of Southeast Mexico. From their very First Declaration, they emphasised they were the result of 500 years of resistance to colonialism.

A crack also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.

One of the expressions of such resistance is precisely their critique of how history has been written. A history that tells the story of the elites just makes the present state of things seem natural, leaves aside the subalterns and silences their past. Against this type of historical appropriation, Zapatistas claim the need to “open a crack”– to write the history of the exploited. A crack that also disrupts the idea of unidirectional, non-linear history, opening a loophole that challenges views of what is in front of us and what in our backs. A crack that permits us to look to the past ahead—like the Aymara—as memories of the alternative non-disposable future. Once the past is reclaimed, the door to reclaim the future swings open.

Reclaiming silenced pasts is a task to be done both in the archives and the streets, both in libraries and mountains, listening to stories and reading dusty records. It can be about how a revolution was silenced and obliterated from history, as shown in the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot on the late 18th century in Haiti. And also about how dictatorships try to wipe out the memory and heritage of those who opposed them. When, like in Spain, elites have succeeded to remain in power for decades, the stories of disappeared workers and activists and their emancipatory projects frustrated by a 40-year long dictatorship risk being left aside and silenced forever.

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Poet and Barceloneta neighbour Paco Jover, who passed away in 2015, at the demonstration for El Segle XX, January 11, 2014. Source: Photo by Pedro Mata, Fotomovimiento.

The Case of the Segle XX building in Barceloneta

In December 2013, residents of La Barceloneta (Barcelona, Spain) announced a demonstration to reclaim the empty building of the El Segle XX (“The Twentieth Century”) cooperative for its public use. El Segle XX had been founded in 1901, but after years of decline during the Francoist dictatorship, the cooperative was dissolved in the late 1980s and the building was later abandoned.

The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture  since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories.

At least since 2008, the neighbourhood association La Òstia began collecting information about the history of the neighbourhood and interviewing veteran residents. The importance of several cooperatives—El Segle XX among them—as spaces of socialization, consumption, and culture  since the late Nineteenth century soon emerged as a central aspect of the residents’ memories. Later, the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group (Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta) continued the work of the association by diving into archives, recording interviews, organising guided tours, and other activities.Similar projects in other neighbourhoods of the city, such as Sants or Poblenou, supported by the cooperative La Ciutat Invisible, greatly contributed to the impulse of the project.

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Poster “El Segle XX és pel barri” (“The Twentieth Century is for the neighbourhood”). Source: Grup de Recerca de la Memòria Cooperativa de la Barceloneta.

Barceloneta is historically a working-class neighbourhood with low salaries and few public and social facilities, but is now under high touristic pressure. And so the use of the El Segle XX building became a symbolic claim to the municipality.

Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, as part of a wider international movement, cooperatives grew in importance in Barcelona. In Catalonia, cooperatives had their heyday during the democratic period of the Second Republic (1931-1939) when thousands of families became members. Very often, they had their own theatres, bars, and shops. Consumption cooperatives allowed the avoidance of intermediaries between consumers and producers and thus brought urban space closer to the surrounding agricultural environment that fed it.

However, following the military coup that unleashed the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and with the victory of Franco over the Republicans, cooperatives never regained the activity hey had had before. In fact, during the conflict, Barcelona was on the Republican side and Barceloneta was bombed so heavily that it had to be evacuated. El Segle XX was hit by Fascist bombings and reduced to ashes. Although the building was rebuilt after the war, its activity languished during the dictatorship, and most cooperatives were dissolved and their buildings sold. After the cooperative slowly dissolved, the El Segle XX building passed to private hands in the 1990s.

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Leaflet of Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography. Source: Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta.

Although the land on which the building is built was categorised by the City Council as a public facility, rumours of private commercial projects for the building started circulating. Already feeling increased pressure from gentrification and tourism, residents were getting uneasy.

In the final days of 2013, two weeks before a scheduled demonstration, an apparently fortuitous fire damaged part of the building. This event fostered a united front of the associations and residents of the quarter, and just a few weeks later, more than 30 organisations signed a statement asking the District to either expropriate or buy the Segle XX building. They also demanded a transparent investigation of the fire and the legal state of the building property, as well as the commitment of the City Council to keep the building categorized as a public facility.

Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.

At the end of the demonstration in front of the El Segle XX building, several residents intervened by emphasising the historical role of the cooperative in Barceloneta. The march ended with two posters plastered on the wall of the building. One vindicated the historical memory of cooperativism with a quote from 1899; the other was a blank poster to be filled by participants with their ideas for the future uses of the space, under the title “What do we want for El Segle XX?” (“Què volem per al Segle XX?”). In the same fashion, the website of the Barceloneta Cooperative Memory Research Group, whose members had an active role in the march, stated clearly their views on the uses of the memory of cooperativism:

“More than an exercise of historical memory, it comes to us as a memory of the future: the practices of cooperation give us a powerful tool to face a present of cutbacks in social services and to build a shared future”.

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Residents of Barceloneta in front of the El Segle XX building at the end of a demonstration, January 11, 2014. Source: El Periódico.

 

Unearthing stories of the past, reconnecting struggles for the future

In a rapidly changing barri (neighbourhood), with growing pressure from luxury tourism stimulating higher rents and pushing former residents out, associations have resorted to historical research to enhance their struggles. Recording memories, collecting scans of old pictures and newspapers, finding old records or mapping places that have disappeared, residents have found a way to narrate their own story.

As highlighted by activist researcher Emma Alari, participatory mapping has been an essential tool in the neighbourhood’s struggles. Maps were used by Barceloneta’s residents to display the different threats suffered by the neighbourhood. The collaboration with mapping activists Iconoclasistas, who illustrated the dangers faced by the neighbourhood by creating a map for the residents, is a good example of this.

But mapping can also be a historical project. By mapping both long- and recently-disappeared places in “Geografia Esborrada de la Barceloneta” (“Barceloneta’s Deleted Geography”), residents not only narrate their history but configure an emotional geography of the barri, which binds together the stories of squatted houses already demolished with the story of buildings like El Segle XX or the Escola del Mar, a wood-constructed school on the seaside, which was burnt by Fascist bombings during the Spanish Civil War.

Such stories are disseminated by walking and talking together with residents (on organised guided tours), and through making audio recordings available online. These stories weave new connections between the past, the present, and the imagined futures. The guided tours in particular provide chances for interaction between those researching the history of the neighbourhood and their inhabitants, confronting and enriching each other’s stories. Residents’ relations to the space are connected with historical research about its uses by past social movements.

After years of actions and campaigns in the neighbourhood, the Barcelona City Council has finally committed to starting the process of expropriation of the El Segle XX building to give it back to the barri. The struggle, however, is far from over. As the recuperation of the building is close to becoming a reality, the neighbourhood association/assembly  is designing  its own project for the uses of the building through a grassroots process. In a major open meeting in the square, residents wrote their ideas for the future uses of the cooperative building on several large-size copies of the 1939 project drawings to rebuild the cooperative after the war, which had been located in the archives.

Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time.

This wasn’t just a practical way to collect all the ideas for the different floors of the building and a reminder of the building’s past. It was also a symbolic gesture: the maps of the project to rebuild El Segle XX after the Fascist bombings and the occupation of Barcelona in 1939 were recycled 76 years later to discuss an alternative future with the barri’s residents. The past can be a resource for imagining alternative futures—in a very material way.

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Planning the future of the El Segle XX cooperative on the base of the 1939 maps located in the municipal archive. Photo by Santiago Gorostiza.

While some would see a gloomy and nostalgic flavour in this struggle, activists explicitly state that they don’t intend to idealise, nor to romanticise, a return to a static lost past. They want to learn lessons about past experiences tried and failed, understand past hopes for imagined futures, explore the daily life and the problems of the neighbourhood in the past and its connections to today. Michael Löwy has suggested that Walter Benjamin used “nostalgia for the past as a revolutionary method for the critique of the present”. Nostalgia, often dismissed as over-romanticization, can also be an emotion connected to transformation and even revolution. Past experiences are opportunities for reinvention, possibilities for alliances across time. Stories like the one told by the El Segle XX building can be, as Italian authors Wu Ming and Vitaliano Ravagli have asserted, “axes of war to be unearthed”.

A version of the article appeared previously on the Entitle Blog. This post is also part of a series sharing chapters from the edited volume Political Ecology for Civil Society. Santiago Gorostiza’s contribution is included in the chapter on social movements. We are eager to receive comments from readers and especially from activists and civil actors themselves, on how this work could be improved, both in terms of useful content, richness of examples, format, presentation and overall accessibility.

Santiago Gorostiza is a PhD candidate trained both as an Environmental Scientist and as a Historian. He investigates socioenvironmental conflicts during the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship. His research interests include urban geography, the environmental history of war and the role of historical research in political ecology.


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Broadway, New Haven

 

 

by Michael Lee-Murphy

Sunday May 17 was graduation day for Yale University. The day is more properly called commencement, and refers to the time when Yale graduates commence the part of their lives when they don’t live in New Haven. The day was marked by the full closure of several blocks of downtown, massive police presence, and sun dresses. The interchange of I-91 and I-95 was completely closed for a full half hour to allow for the escape of Joe Biden, who had addressed the graduating class.

I was on the corner of York Street and Broadway when Biden’s motorcade happened to pass. It’s been a pastime of many in New Haven to complain that Yale’s recent restructuring of the Broadway strip has been to effectively keep the non-White and poorer populations of the predominantly Black Dixwell neighborhood away from Yale. This was at the very least the result, if not the outright goal, of the University’s buying up of most of the property on the block. An article in Sunday’s paper, however, laid bare the racism at the heart of Yale’s machinations. Ethnic and economic cleansing was the desire as well as the result.

Sunday’s edition of the New Haven Register featured a front page with two stories both running several thousand words in length about what a great place Yale is, and what the school has done for New Haven. You could read in the paper what the cops and the secret service were telling you in the street through barricades and wags of the finger. Stay away, this is not for you.

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The stories hung under the massive blue headline IVY + ELM, a photo of the Sterling Memorial Library and the text:Yale pumps more than $2B a year into city, region. The headline cleverly merges the city and the region as if the divided politics of the two in real life isn’t one of the big problems about urban policy in Connecticut.

One of the stories, by Yale beat reporter Ed Stannard, ran just over 3,000 words. The headline in the print edition gave us two words for the act Yale has performed upon Broadway. “Yale the star of rebuilding Broadway,” read the print version, while the web version of the story reads “Yale University and New Haven team up to remake Broadway for retail, restaurants.” Already there are some interesting differences between the version of the story meant for single day consumption, and the version archived to the internet.

“Remake” means “make something again, or differently.” Rebuild means “build (something) again after it has been damaged or destroyed.” So which act has Yale performed upon Broadway?

Yale’s Vice President for New Haven Affairs Bruce Alexander, of whom the article is essentially a profile, gives us yet a third word for the act Yale has performed upon Broadway. From the article:

“Alexander said he was walking on York Street near Broadway and noticing litter and storefronts such as barbershops and liquor stores. Since Yalies went through the area on their way to the Yale Co-op, he thought it needed an upgrade.”

An upgrade. A remake. A rebuild.

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The Broadway of the 80s (?)

When was Broadway damaged or destroyed so as to be rebuilt? Why would the Sunday print edition of the paper need to imply that it was? The headline and the article itself was quite obviously geared toward the parents of Yale students in town for the weekend, looking for a souvenir of the day. The choice of headline, articles, and layout reflects what is a truism about Connecticut’s cities in general: they are not built for the people that live in them, especially in the era of late capitalism.

“Poor people will not be allowed to ruin the mall. People of color will not be allowed to ruin the mall. Barbershops will not be allowed to ruin the mall. New Haven is a mall and Yale kids are its customers.”

The article doesn’t say when Alexander had this stroll along York Street and slouched toward Broadway, but Alexander has been Yale’s downtown property man since the late 1990s.  Before he came to Yale, Alexander negotiated with cities throughout America to build malls for the Rouse Company. The complaint of many that Broadway now feels like a mall rather than a city block is not a curmudgeonly gripe about the good ol’ days: that has been Yale’s goal for Broadway from the start.

Brian McGrath, the business manager of Chapel West Special Services District — a sub-municipal development organization with its own taxation and zoning policies, currently trying to change the name of the Dwight neighborhood to Chapel West — illuminated to the Yale Herald in 2012 Yale’s philosophy behind the redevelopment.

“If you want synergy, and you want the maximum number of customers, you need to run it like a mall. You need everyone opening and closing at the same time. You have some stores that close early? That’s going to ruin your mall. You can’t have a customer leaving trash on the sidewalk—that’s going to ruin your mall. You can’t have a customer attracting bums—that’s going to ruin your mall.”

This fear of their mall being ruined led Yale to force out a number of undesirable businesses along the road. Streetview on Google Maps has a feature which allows you to take a cyberstroll down Broadway and compare what the street looked like in 2008 to what it looks like now. The Yale Co-op, a locally owned bookstore, was forced out in favor of a Barnes & Noble branch. Next door, the new Apple store gleams into the night, and happily offers workshops to the New Haven Police Department. Next to the Apple store is the building York Sq Cinema used to share with a store selling Yale themed clothing. York Sq closed in 2005 and the building is now entirely Campus Customs. Cutler’s Record Store. Quality Wine and Liquors. Even the Au Bon Pain at the intersection with York was seen to be not fit for Yale’s purposes when Yale decided not to renew its lease back in 2013.

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The Broadway of the mind

Yale has had varying degrees of involvement with the closure of these businesses — Yale said it loved Cutler’s — but at the very least, the Art House theater, record store crowd ain’t the J Crew Kiko Milano crowd.

There were usually homeless people outside or inside the Au Bon Pain. Now they are gone. No longer will the homeless of New Haven be allowed to ruin the mall. Now the location is a “Emporium DNA,” where you can get a pair of shiny trousers for the price of a month’s rent.

But for Win Davis, the executive Director of the Town Green Special Services District,  it is the Apple store that is the jewel in the shitcrown that is the new Broadway. The store is “a huge get. … That’s a huge bellwether for our retail community and what is difficult about retail and something that Yale has helped us overcome is talking with people and getting people to come to town despite the census data.”

There are only two possibilities for what “despite the census data” means here: either despite the people of color, or despite the poor people. In New Haven’s segregation, there is significant overlap between the two categories.

Poor people will not be allowed to ruin the mall. People of color will not be allowed to ruin the mall. Barbershops will not be allowed to ruin the mall. New Haven is a mall and Yale kids are its customers.

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The Broadway ripe for ruin

 

It is further unclear in the above quote which “people” Davis was trying to convince to come to New Haven. Either he means national chains who want to sell their high-end shit despite the fact that 25% of New Haven residents live below the poverty line, or suburban types who would come into town, but have been looking at the census data and doing reconnaissance on the skin color of the people that live there and they don’t like what they see. Let us keep the community away so we can bring in a retail community, which along with synergy is an unspeakably horrible phrase that only signals the destruction of things we hold dear.

The remaking of Broadway as a mall is in fact a very old tradition in New Haven, representing no new ideas. As Mandi Isaacs Jackson details in her book Model City Blues, the 1960s saw an effort to “remake” New Haven as “New England’s Newest City,” as if there was no New Haven that existed before.

Here’s a 1960 pamphlet from New Haven’s Redevelopment Agency replicated in Jackson’s book, with an army of zombie housewife shoppers lurching toward New Haven.

Look out

As Jackson writes,

“[G]eographer Don Mitchell argues that inherent in spaces like the new downtown “shopping mecca” is the ‘perceived need for order, surveillance, and control over the behavior of the public.’ The primary aim of corporate planners, like those who planned New Haven’s new downtown shopping, parking, and hotel center, argued Mitchell, was to impose ‘limits and controls on spatial interaction.’ In this way, public spaces such as malls, shopping centers, and redeveloped downtowns become what Mitchell calls ‘spaces of controlled spectacle.’ But Mitchell also asserts that such spaces have never actually been inclusive, even in their most basic early forms–such as the forum of ancient Rome or the colonial town square. It was only through what he calls ‘concerted social protest and conflict’ that they were opened up. ‘Spaces were only public,’ he asserts, ‘to the degree that they were taken and made public.’”

Broadway must be made public again. They’ve ruined Broadway by making it a mall. We have to ruin it back.

Later Jackson quotes historian Eric Hobsbawm, who says that “the rebuilding and reorganization of cities is one of three strategies employed by the state to counter urban insurrections.”

Indeed, during New Haven’s last major insurrection of May Day 1970, Liggett’s (where the $1000 shiny pants store is now) boarded up and demanded freedom for the imprisoned Black Panthers of the city.

Broadway’s past and possible future
Broadway’s past and possible future

Broadway is just one block in Yale’s master plan. Of Yale’s properties, only $108 million’s worth is taxable, bringing in $4.49 million in tax into New Haven. Yale owns a separate $2.5 billion dollars worth of property that goes untaxed. Here is a map of their empire.

The arguments defending Yale’s designs for large parts of the city usually feature some variation of this: “New Haven without Yale would be Bridgeport or Hartford.” Whether this is more insulting and condescending to the people of New Haven who have no involvement with Yale, or to the people of Hartford and Bridgeport is an open question. The other argument is often, “We need Yale for the money it brings in to the city.” This argument is a variation on the first, and we hear it parroted anytime Yale buys up another street (literally), or forces out a locally owned store for a high-end chain.

This is the nerdish warbling of a company stooge, and it makes us all look like assholes. As a friend pointed out in a Facebook discussion about this, that argument almost completely overlooks the fact that the money Yale brings into New Haven is meant to be circulated within Yale’s properties. The whole point of the rebranding of Chapel Street and Broadway as “The Shops at Yale” is that Yale money never gets spent at something that is not Yale-owned, and furthermore to keep non-Yale people away from the area. (Observe the closing of the Anchor, as an example.) The other work the argument performs is that it turns every complaint about Yale’s behavior into an argument about Yale’s existence. This this the Stockholm syndrome of a hostage. We need them, so we can’t criticize them.

Certainly it strikes me as the same type of thinking that would operate in the coal towns of Appalachia, where, robbed and exploited by the company store, the townsfolk plead with the company to be nice to them.

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Is New Haven a place of its own, or is it a company town? (And let’s be clear: Yale is a company as much as or even more than it is a University. Its University Properties real estate holding company has done things like buying out locally owned stores and leaving the storefront vacant because they didn’t like the fact that booze was being sold so close to campus.)

What is the purpose of New Haven? Is it for the people that live there to be able to live happy lives, or is it for Yale to crank out raw materials and provide these raw materials with ample shopping opportunities?

Let’s ruin the mall. They haven’t won yet. Skate it like Jim Greco did in the 1990s. Wear punk patches. Be drunk. Sneer. Don’t buy. Don’t cede.

Michael Lee-Murphy is a reporter and writer based in New England, USA. He has written for Jacobin, Ricochet Media, and Maisonneuve Magazine.

This story originally appeared on Michael Lee-Murphy’s blog, A Furious Return to Basics.

 

“My neighbors…”

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photo and words by Cindy Milstein, chalk by Lisa Ganser

Just as I was about to snap this photo, two guys walking by stopped to read the pavement, too, and said, “Another arson. They keep happening here in the Mission.” They hadn’t noticed me, but our eyes met after the one spoke, and I nodded agreement. We all had a worn look about us, deep in those eyes of ours.

I took my picture.

The chalking is becoming too routine on the dirty concrete in my neighborhood. I know who does it, carefully, with solemn respect and raw pain. Chalking, as public and plain as the mourning in the Mission, but likely washed away by tears and time, not rain.

There is a lack of rain here. Drought they call it, as in a period that “causes extensive damage.” Yet there is no lack of people “getting killed and displaced by fires, gentrification & police.”

Minutes later, as I tried taking another shot, this time of the haphazard array of flowers clinging desperately to the padlocked security gate pulled tight across the front of the charred liquor store at Treat and 24th streets, another couple of folks strolled by, walked past, and then turned back toward me.

“What happened?” they inquired, as if somehow they knew that I would obviously know. Maybe it was those serious eyes of mine.

Burned household objects litter the street still in two big mounds, one to each side of this corner store’s entry, like sentries, like graves, smelling as if still smoldering, still dangerous.

The blackened piles are remnants of life, tossed quickly out windows in haste, one imagines, to battle flames. Yet they feel an affront now, left as if warning sign for others — by landlord? by city? by police? — as a way to spark further fear for the marginalized and precarious in this neighborhood.

Mostly, it feels like a violation, an injury, a dishonor toward the people who used to call these things “home.” This is not a fitting part of the communal makeshift shrine and quiet witnessing, quiet processing, that’s going on in between the smelly, messy heaps of disaster.

Indeed, one can still hardly take in a breath for the stench of it all.

“A 13-year-old, Amal Shaibi, died last night from smoke inhalation during the fire last week,” I tell this second pair of passersby. “Her 38-year-old dad, Mohamed Shaibi, died a couple nights ago. I heard the 13-year-old helped a younger sibling out a smoke-filled window during the heat of the blaze.”

I go into detail, too much probably, weaving in nearby evictions, nearby harassment by landlords and immigration agents and plainclothes cops, who also murdered 21-year-old Amilcar Perez-Lopez only about a block and a half away, only about three weeks ago, and wander further afield to offer the story of the enormous fire on Mission at 22nd streets that killed one and dehoused many dozens of longtime, low-income, mostly Latino residents. I repeat the words heard often these days here: arson. “Or that’s what everyone thinks, at least those who think about and are impacted by gentrification.”

I can’t quite tell if they wanted to hear this thoroughly interconnected story, but they listen eagerly, and thank me profusely. They aren’t from this neighborhood, so all this seems like news to them. I can’t quite tell, either, if it touched their hearts or not, or was simply spectacle after a nice dinner and evening walk.

Earlier today, at a public hearing at city hall about all the fires of late, politicians fell over themselves to congratulate city workers for bravery, courage, and hard work. The workers fell over themselves to cover each other least they’d made any mistakes, and speak of how they are objective in determining the cause of fires. The politician who called the hearing for his district, David Campos, mentioned that people in the neighborhood have “conspiracy theories,” by which he dismissed any thought of arson even as he vaguely noted that such theories arise from “what’s happening in the Mission,” by which I assume he means gentrification and eviction by whatever means necessary.

The closest that any of these officials, all feigning investigative vigilance, got to touching on what nearly everyone at risk of disposal in the Mission believes — that the fires are part and parcel of dispossession — was when they danced around how sometimes landlords don’t keep their buildings up to fire codes in terms of safety.

This is, I think, arson as well, by any means, whether flagrant conflagrations are the result of landlord “negligence,” or secondary-degree burning of buildings comes in the form of winking away code violations until rent-stabilized apartments, say, catch fire.

Funny, people in the Mission observe, how the huge 3-story building at Mission and 22nd got thoroughly destroyed but the extremely expensive new Vida apartment complex right next door — literally touching each other — didn’t seem to receive even a scratch.

All “conspiracy theories,” mind you, but they have a certain ring of reality down on the street level, especially around 24th and Mission these days.

Meanwhile, on Treat and 24th, two shopkeepers across the street from the vacant burned building, with plastic blowing out its windows now, tell me they are collecting funds for the family. “They keep refusing money, though. So we’re encouraging cards. But yes, we’ll insist they take the money for all their health expenses.” They explain how the family returned earlier today, briefly, and said they were doing OK.

I imagine they can barely begin to understand how they are doing, and hope they somehow didn’t notice those two sprawling heaps of burned objects, so they won’t become a memory, when memories return.

Grief settles slowly, like ash.

This family is now a woman, wife, and mom, now in a wheelchair from her own injuries, now with one husband less and one child less, no home, and no family business below it. She is left with two kids, ages six and sixteen, and too much pain to almost comprehend.

All that’s left on this forlorn building — ripe for the plundering for some new, bland, luxury project that has no community — is another chalked sidewalk soon to fade, flowers already beginning to wilt, and a cardboard sign with handwriting briefly attempting to explain the loss, attached on the liquor store door next to a beer ad with an image of the Bay Bridge, on this sad corner of a neighborhood being disappeared.

#LaMission #RestInPower

 

For two news stories about the family, fire, and their needs now, see:
http://missionlocal.org/2015/03/injuries-from-fire-take-13-year-olds-life/

http://missionlocal.org/2015/03/after-fire-shaibi-family-searching-for-2-bedroom-in-mission/

 

Cindy Milstein writes about gentrification struggles, police brutality, anarchism, and capitalism. She’s also actively engaged in “solidarity not charity” forms of anti-displacement and anti-police organizing, ranging from Eviction Free San Francisco to Coffee Not Cops, in her neighborhood, San Francisco’s Mission, alongside fighting her own eviction. Cindy is the author of Anarchism and its Aspirations, coauthor (with Erik Ruin) of Paths toward Utopia, and recently curated the zine “Revolutionary Solidarity: A Critical Reader for Accomplices” following the Ferguson uprising. 

This story originally appeared on Cindy Milstein’s blog, Outside the Circle.

Just what is gentrification anyway?

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In Hanoi, urban gardening is a means of survival. Photography by Aaron Vansintjan

by Aaron Vansintjan

We hear the term ‘gentrification’ often nowadays. The news is full of it. Protests against Google and Microsoft buses, people in Vancouver fighting condo development by burning condosfood co-ops in Brooklyn worried about whether they’re displacing the local Hispanic community. The news almost always frames the wealthy new residents as the culprits, and those unable to afford rising rent and property taxes as victims.

A month ago, I was staying in Tay Ho, a neighbourhood of Hanoi known for its growing expat population. Here I found chain supermarkets, unfinished luxury apartment complexes, brand-new chic boutiques, and dog spas. In between all of this, there remain some thin strips of orchards, garden plots, and vegetable markets hidden in the alleyways. A wealthy and mostly foreign social class seems to be increasingly encroaching on agricultural land. These, I thought right away, are the telltale signs of gentrification.

I wanted to find out more. To start my search, I met up with Roman Szlam. Roman is a volunteer guide for Friends of Vietnam Heritage, an English teacher, a blogger, and also happens to be a walking Wikipedia on the history of Hanoi.

“I’ve noticed everything you’ve noticed,” he noted, recognizing my discomfort. “I see all the farms disappearing, all the high-rises coming in here. All the luxury development.” But Roman didn’t seem too troubled by the changes in Tay Ho.

Apparently, everyone who originally owned land in Tay Ho has been able to sub-lease it at high prices. “Even the farmers,” noted Roman, “who are losing their farms here directly around West lake, tend to be happy. There are no protests from anyone.” What’s more, agriculture in the neighbourhood was primarily for decorative plants – in no way would the sale of this land affect the need for food access in the city.

I wondered whether it was really all that rosy in Tay Ho: were there some people that weren’t as happy as others? Nevertheless, to Roman, the real gentrification problems were occurring in the outskirts of the city and in the city centre.

What’s really happening in Hanoi?

In the early 2000s, Hanoi was facing mounting traffic problems, while the Old Quarter, the prime tourist attraction, was being slowly destroyed by untrammeled development. In 2008, the Vietnamese government allowed Hanoi to expand its borders significantly. To do this, they re-zoned huge swathes of land for commercial and high-income residential uses.

The re-drawing of Hanoi’s borders coincided with a spate of farm acquisitions by the land management department. Officials offered farmers a small payment in return for the land and then leased it to developers – often acquaintances – at inflated prices. In other words, outright corruption. These developers thought it was the perfect time to build houses for Hanoi’s new upper-middle-class. But this didn’t go so well.

“Nobody bought any of these developments,” Roman explained. “As they began to go bankrupt, these people who had borrowed 90 per cent of the money could no longer repay the banks.”

The criminalization of the informal sector, which grew in large part due to land dispossession, in turn sets the conditions for the creation of a cheap new labour market.

At the time, many government-owned corporations had started investing in the stock market. Come the crash of 2008, Vietnam’s banks had no more money, and foreign investors started pulling out, causing a banking crisis that still hasn’t been resolved. What’s more, a group of farmers started making a stink, holding in-your-face protests in front of the government buildings.

“This huge land grab,” remarked Roman, “became a national scandal. It couldn’t be hidden anymore. There was no money to be had anywhere. Consequently, a lot of the food production around Hanoi has been lost.” In a city where 62 per cent of the vegetables consumed are locally produced, you can imagine the effect on food prices.

Around the same time, the city cleaned up its downtown core by, on the one hand, criminalizing street vendors, and on the other, promoting supermarkets and shutting down two of the city’s open markets, replacing them with high-end – but mostly empty – malls.

Noelani Eidse, a PhD candidate at McGill, has been researching the case of Hanoi’s street vendors and how their livelihood has been affected by land grabs on the urban fringe. “It’s all part of this larger push for Hanoi to become a global city,” Eidse said. “The rationale behind banning vending is that vendors are adding to traffic congestion. A less explicit reason is that vendors are seen as uncivilized and their livelihoods are considered to be anti-modern, and a hindrance to development.”

There is no doubt that gentrification is an international phenomenon, and what links each case is the opening up of markets, privatization of public goods, and collusion between the market and state.

Eidse has found that it’s often the same people who were pushed off their land who are also forced to make a living in other ways. “For a lot of these people,” she explained, “it’s either working in factories or working informally.”

Those who choose informal work, like street vending and trading trash, are now being targeted by these new laws. Arrests and fines are more and more common, making it difficult for these people, mostly women, to practice their livelihood.

In sum, the unfair leasing of farmland to developers, shuttered and empty markets, lack of space for food vendors, and the inaccessibility of supermarkets for most Hanoians, has meant that many people in the city centre are now facing increased food insecurity and precarity. And so, the cycle of dispossession, precarity, and criminalization continues.

The all-too-real effects of gentrification

In Hanoi, top-down decisions to make the city more appealing to foreign investors helped trigger a nationwide banking crisis, followed by a shortage in food production and access locally. This is gentrification at its worst – far more devastating than a fancy boutique in the expat neighbourhood.

The changing of land rights, the corruption that came with privatization of land, and the increase in high-end development projects – all of these happened at about the same time that Vietnam opened its markets to foreign investment and encouraged foreign factories to set up shop. The criminalization of the informal sector, which grew in large part due to land dispossession, in turn sets the conditions for the creation of a cheap new labour market. People have no choice but to start working in the new factories run by foreign corporations.

Before I go on, I have to stress that Hanoi is unique. Vietnam, as a socialist state, also has an unusual land rights system and one-party-closed-door-politics. Pair this with increased liberalization, and a system of state-owned corporations, and you have a one-of-a-kind situation. It is also important to reiterate how sometimes it isn’t all that bad, like in the case of Tay Ho and its wealthy expats.

But it’s striking how these patterns repeat in other cities, like Lagos, Nigeria. Eidse noted that Singapore’s model of development and regulation has been a reference point for Hanoi’s own city planners. Gentrification in London and New York is well-documented. There, social housing and tenant rights were increasingly eroded through active government policies encouraging outsider investment. There is no doubt that gentrification is an international phenomenon, and what links each case is the opening up of markets, privatization of public goods, and collusion between the market and state.

In all cases, gentrification should be understood as the concerted effort, by a coterie of businesspeople and government officials, to profit from communal wealth.

It’s easy to vilify the upper-middle class – those taking the Google bus or the expats moving into the new high-rises – but if you really want to address the problem, you need to follow the money.

In all cases, gentrification should be understood as the concerted effort, by a coterie of businesspeople and government officials, to profit from communal wealth. In Hanoi, this came in the form of land grabs and policies targeting the informal economy, but elsewhere it can happen through the privatization of social housing, or the branding of a city as a haven for the creative class.

It all seems a bit hopeless. Yet, there are plenty of avenues for resistance. In Hanoi, a group of villagers who had been pushed off their land started protesting in ways that made it hard for the media to ignore them, or for the police to beat them up. As a result, they were able to bring national attention to endemic corruption and initiate a series of laws to protect against land seizures.

While gentrification hurts those who have little to start with, those who have lost the most often have the loudest voice. If we want inspiration for future actions, it’s these voices we should listen to. These villagers have it right – they followed the money, smelled something fishy, and created a stink.

This article was originally published in The McGill Daily.