The Rights of Cities

What is the Right to the City movement?  Where did it come from?  Where is it going?  Who are the actors and organizers sculpting this new social structure?  In asking these questions and studying their answers, it’s impossible to not recognize one’s own role in this current wave of civil unrest across the globe.  If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve been involved in the Right to the City movement for some time.

In Turkey, a battle to save the last public green space from the private development of an upscale mall has mushroomed into a national upheaval.  In San Francisco, a similar resistance was so inspired by current events in Istanbul that activists renamed the gardens they hope to save from destruction after the now famous Gezi Park.  The 2008 film ‘The Garden‘ chronicles a community’s heartbreaking struggle to save 14 acres of urban farmland in Los Angeles from a developer hell-bent on proving that nobody should have a free right to land.

Yet beyond street fights over land use, Right to the City encompasses broader circles of urban autonomy.  Here in Portland, a recent scheme orchestrated by high paid lobbyists and so called ‘health’ consultants aimed at dosing Portland’s pristine water supply with fluorosilicic acid was crushed by a popular voter revolt.  Most noted was the fact that the vote against fluoridation was overwhelming in the very communities who allegedly were suffering from a “dental crisis” that only fluoride would fix.  With the fluoridation fight seemingly over, a new front in the water wars has emerged.  Communities are organizing to obtain a waiver that would prevent Portland’s open-air reservoirs from being covered and converted to underground tanks.  Left unchecked, this federally mandated move would pose a series of health risks to Portland’s pristine Bull Run drinking water, and would cost taxpayers over $400 million dollars for the initial construction contract alone.  The current plan to stop the mandate is to remove the Water Bureau from the control of city hall and place it in the hands of a People’s Utility District via ballot measure in May of 2014.

tumblr_moglgsQb261r6m2leo8_1280Condo resisters near Gezi Gardens, San Francisco.  Source: The People’s Record

Like Portland, many cities have seen rapid increases to rent well beyond inflation.  Due to foreclosures and unaffordable increases to housing costs, blue collar workers and people of color are being forced out of their homes.  In response, organizations like We Are Oregon, FUREE, and many Occupy chapters are empowering people to resist evictions and gentrification.  To date, Portland activists have thwarted repeated eviction attempts by police and have helped keep foreclosure resister Alicia Jackson in her home for over a year.

As Gihan Perera, director of the Miami Workers Center puts it, “We are fighting to create new cities from the disaster of the outdated current economic and ecological regime. People are taking matters into their own hands. From workers’ cooperatives amongst taxi cab drivers, day laborers, caterers, and child care providers, to housing cooperatives taking land and rents off the market, people are developing their own productive economic relationships based on principles of mutual aid, shared resourcing, and local control of the means of production. This is a trend toward what academics are now calling ‘practical utopias’.”

Neoliberal policies have seen land and housing designed for poorer working communities replaced with capitalist condos that only the upper class elite can afford.  While gentrification is often seen as a side-effect of development, it is in fact most often the goal.  More profit can be derived from exploiting already marginalized communities with low property values and flipping them into something shiny and expensive.  Gezi park has been criticized as being run down and dirty, the perfect site to ‘redevelop’ as yet another luxury shopping center for the ultra-rich.  From the moment the people of Istanbul said ‘No!’ and began to fight back, the eyes on the ground knew how to articulate the story of what was happening.  The need to correctly frame their conflict within the Right to the City movement was imperative.

945132_566720393350942_865635169_nA commandeered heavy excavator is used to tear down police barridaces in Istanbul. Source unknown.

Published on the independent Jadaliyya, writer and Punks Against Apartheid founder Jay Cassano explained, “The protests began with approximately seventy Right to the City protesters in Gezi Park on 27 May when demolition of the park was set to begin. These activists successfully stopped demolition. Throughout the day, activists planted seedlings in the park as a token of resistance. Numbers swelled and 150 people slept in the park that night as the state regrouped. On 30 May Turkish police gave the occupiers a five in the morning wake-up call in the form of tear gas. In case the message was not clear enough, they also set fire to occupiers’ tents. What likely would have blown over with no lasting impact suddenly ignited into one of the biggest mobilizations in recent Turkish history. But this protest is the latest manifestation of a movement that has been stirring for some time now. The shopping mall is only one component of a plan to entirely redesign Taksim Square into a more car-friendly, tourist-accommodating, and sanitized urban center.”

Now with the world’s eyes on Istanbul, many felt that their voices would be marginalized if it appeared their street insurrection was about saving a small bunch of trees.  In response, media and memes were launched to affirm that this “wasn’t about a park”, that instead “this is about democracy.”  To correct this, urbanist writer Ivan Blecic countered brilliantly, “There is nothing wrong had it all been only about a park. It’s perfectly ok, even more than that.  [This is] an attempt of appropriation of the common goods through forms of modern enclosures where public spaces, places, the environment are taken away from the sphere of the public and are subjected to the logic of private profit-making.  As long as they are commons, they provide some public service and are by definition under some societal jurisdiction.  The question of the commons is the question about the quality of our democracy.  So, the slogan could’ve well been: ‘This is about a park, therefore this is about democracy.'”

When we think about what makes a city, usually the first thing people think of is tall buildings.  Skyscrapers.  Skylines.  The view.  Many developers tend to see the city from a godlike perspective, looking down on maps and models picking the choicest place to build something brand new.  But so often they fail to grasp the scale and scope of life on the street, where people share space, perusing small shops, walking, laughing, exploring.  These socially cherished spaces have diminished greatly as cars have taken over streets and the affordability of living in dense urban centers has become less attainable for the majority of citizens the world over.  Rapid urbanization as a growth machine has maintained the goal of generating more wealth for the rich, not building better cities for those already living in them.

tumblr_moglgsQb261r6m2leo1_1280Source: The People’s Record

People love their cities.  The city offers the vast richness of human experience in a concentrated area.  While cities exist out of economic goals, the cultural connectivity is what truly draws us together despite the grit and pollution we suffer.  What truly drives us mad though, is the feeling that we cannot control the direction of our lives within these spaces.  Feeling that we cannot even control what chemicals our city forces us to ingest, too, continues to inspire many unpolitical people into activism – eager to fight against systems of corrupt capital to regain authority over body and life.

As with Gezi Park, the title of solidarity for San Francisco’s Gezi Gardens points to the connectivity that urban activists are developing in a digital age where images from Istanbul are witnessed globally in real time.  We sense we are together in this struggle for our cities.  That it is the people who fight to make urban fabric pleasurable and unpredictable that outshine the glimmering towers developers so fetishize.

What’s more, the Gezi Gardens occupation shows how much of a threat direct action truly can be to the capital growth machine.  From The People’s Record: “Gezi Gardens was an autonomous open green space for providing food for the surrounding neighborhood & was recently sold by the city to a private developer to create 180 luxury condominiums.  Although the developer has mentioned building low-income housing, investors usually put that money toward shanty housing in other parts of the city to further gentrify neighborhoods and kick out poor people of color to make way for things like trendy upscale boutiques.  The gardens were supposed to host a Liberate Our Land festival this weekend, complete with hydroponic workshops, basic gardening teach-ins, local music, and food.  But in the early hours of Thursday morning, more than 100 riot cops stormed the farm with batons & guns drawn. Citizen journalists were threatened with arrest for filming the raid as four occupiers were arrested.  Yesterday, Gezi Gardens supporters marched around the farm, shutting down two intersections during rush hour. The National Park Service was also called to the space after hummingbird carcasses were found, as well as nesting crows in the eucalyptus trees, so the construction and demolishing has been halted (for now)!”

tumblr_mohhu46XXs1ste7qoo1_1280Defiant Turks flash victory signs and middle fingers.  Source: Jenna Pope

‘Rebel Cities’ author David Harvey asks the question “How do you organize an entire city?”  The answer, it would appear, is simply show up.  If we make a loud enough noise with a big enough crowd, the media will be there.  If we push hard enough, change will happen.  It is inevitable.  For too long the decisions about how our cities are built and maintained have been made by those in power with little accountability to the people.  Their mandates have controlled our lives because in part we did not resist.  But recent local and world events have made it clear we have more power than we’d previously thought.  Instead of being products of our environment, we can make our urban environment a product of us.

As the anonymous quotation goes, “We occupy everything because everything is ours. We demand nothing because they have nothing to give us.”  This is true on so many levels.

Our rights to the city are what we make them.  We can choose the quality of the water we drink and what kinds of homes we want built.  We can prevent the destruction of our parks and use our streets the way we choose.  We are the city and the city is us.  Our rights to the city are in every way the rights of the city.  We can revolt against neoliberal capitalist agendas.  We can resist corporate developers and their systems of gentrification.  People powered politics must take the reigns of our city before Portland becomes a sterile wasteland of condos and BMWs.  We can build on our historical successes.  We can create a rebel metropolis.

See you in the streets.

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