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Gentrification - What it is and how we can fight it

[Note from MN: The particulars in the beginning of the following 2005 article about the face and pace of gentrification and displacement in Los Angeles at that time are now a litany of lost causes. However, the struggle continues today.

     So the perspective on gentrification as a process of re-colonization and social engineering carried out under a consciously white supremacist and anti-democratic strategy is even more valid today and bears re-reading and applying to the new and on-going struggles against displacement in Boyle Heights, the Crenshaw district and throughout the LA Basin.

    About a quarter-million Black people have been dispersed from LA or driven into homelessness under these policies. Already the least-affordable city in the country in terms of the relationship between the average household income and the average cost for housing (purchase or rental), Los Angeles is experiencing another wave of intense commercial development, continuing to use new rail lines as anchors for displacement and construction of high-end residential and commercial towers.

    The bid for another Olympics in Los Angeles promises to heighten this trend still further, as well as the security-surveillance state apparatus that protects it by criminalizing poverty, dissent and resistance, particularly in communities of color.–MN]

Gentrification - What it is and how we can fight it!

by Michael Novick, ARA-LA/PART

(From Turning The Tide, Volume 18 #2, May-June 2005)

    In Echo Park, rents are going through the roof, and the collectively-run bookstore 33-1/3 Books is in a struggle to keep its space.

    In Venice, the city has passed new ordinances clamping down on artistic, cultural and political expression along the Boardwalk, replacing the traditional “free speech zone” with a lottery-system that commercializes the area. At the same time, the largest apartment-owner in the U.S., AIMCO, has bought the historic Lincoln  Place apartments in Venice and has ordered mass evictions.

    In South LA, the LA Times has been carrying out a year-long attack on the King-Drew Medical Center, trying to get the County Board of Supervisors to shut down the hospital built in the wake of the 1965 Watts Rebellion. The facility’s trauma care unit, and the affiliated Charles Drew Medical College are under particular attack, despite the unique services they provide the community.

    Meanwhile, in East LA, mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa and county supervisor Gloria Molina are pitching the construction of a “medical research park,” anchored by County-USC Hospital and paid for with California Stem Cell Research initiative money.

    Neighborhood Councils around Chinatown are struggling over the development of the rail yards in their vicinity. Real estate developers seek power over the LA school board, trying to use school construction to leverage commercial and residential property developments. In Little Tokyo, residents are fighting the construction of a new jail and police headquarters.

    In South Central, the local farmers on a plot of land on 41st and Alameda have won a court injunction against a city effort to turn their land over to private developers.

    What links these diverse and geographically separate struggles together? They are all reflections of the latest round of “gentrification” in L.A., economically-motivated class and colonial warfare over the control of land and the communities on it.

    Beyond King-Drew’s vital service to an impoverished community lies its location at the center of a stretch of prime real estate. Beyond the South Central Farmers provision of healthy, fresh and culturally appropriate fruit and vegetables is the “more profitable” use that can be made of such “wasted” land. 

Beyond the plans of one Echo Park landlord to make a bigger buck from the storefronts lies the effort to “gentrify” the area between Downtown and Hollywood.

    What does “gentrification” mean? The “gentry” were the rich, land-owning class in aristocratic countries in Europe. Who are their modern counterparts? In city after city across the U.S. for several decades, working class neighborhoods and communities of color have been targeted for demolition and reconstruction as havens or enclaves for the well-to-do.

    The pattern is familiar. Property values and rents start to rise. Property taxes go up. Homes and stores become too expensive for the people who have been living in them, and the banks, landlords and tax collectors start forcing poor people of color out to cheaper, outlying areas, often older and deteriorating white working class suburbs. In place of the poor, the Black and immigrant working families, come “urban pioneers” - sometimes artists, young singles without kids, sometimes gay men or lesbians. As they establish a “hip” white beachhead, upscale shops and trendy night-spots begin to appear. In their wake come the “yuppies,” young, upwardly mobile professionals, augmented by older, established families, or retirees looking for a sophisticated environment.

    The misnamed “Community Redevelopment Agency” over the years has played a role in planning this so-called “urban renewal” – which people on the East Coast used to refer to as “Negro removal” – to establish beachheads of commercial property and office buildings to anchor a redefinition of formerly poor neighborhoods.

    When simple economic pressure doesn’t work, more forceful tactics are often used. But it is important to remember that even “everyday economics” like rent and taxes are based on the gun of state power and colonial control. If you don’t pay your rent, bills or taxes, the enforcers come – the police, sheriffs or marshals – to collect or to evict you. In one notorious case here in LA in the 1980s, a Black woman named Eulia Love was killed by the LAPD when she didn’t pay a utility bill!

    In San Francisco’s Mission District 30 years ago, arson fires were combined with subway construction and factory closures to transform the city’s primary “port of entry” for immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America into a neighborhood of condominium apartments for commuters to Silicon Valley to the south. At the same time, the elderly Filipino and Chinese residents of the International Hotel were forcibly evicted in an effort to convert the wharves and Chinatown area into a close-in bedroom community for the financial district and the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange.

    Los Angeles is no stranger to this process of gentrification, which is really a process of colonization and re-colonization. The Black community in Venice, CA - the only Black and working class beach town on the California coast - has been targeted for police abuse. The FACE program - federally-assisted code enforcement - came in, by means of which city zoning enforcement is used to try to drive long-standing homeowners out by citing them for multiple violations of municipal codes. This manifestation of the “broken windows” school of aggressive policing is designed to criminalize poverty even among homeowners. It is paralleled by police harassment of the homeless in the area, through ordinances that make most activity illegal for people without dwellings.

    For example, it is now a crime to smoke at the beach or boardwalk in Venice. The police are out weekly enforcing the new commercialized “free speech zone” along the boardwalk. The Venice situation illustrates clearly the connection between armed state power and the economic interests they serve. In cities, the police operate as an army of occupation in poor and oppressed communities of color, and as internal border guards for more privileged areas. In the “contested” areas of gentrification, the cops and the courts are a key element, along with the banks and the “urban pioneer” settler colonists, in carrying out a “re-conquest.”

    Two notable past examples of this process in L.A. were the construction of Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine, which displaced a thriving Mexicano community; and before that, the forced removal of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the expropriation of their property (not only in LA but along the entire Pacific coast).

    But the latest crescendo reflects a specific political use of gentrification as part of a counter-insurgency strategy by the ruling elite. This is based on a theory called “spatial de-concentration,” put forward in the 1970s by a major theoretician of the Trilateral Commission, Samuel Huntington. The Trilateral Commission is a private association of representative of the financiers and industrialists of the U.S., Western Europe and Japan, and their political mouthpieces. Most of the top leaders of the US government beginning at least with the Carter Administration, have been members of the Trilateral Commission.

    The Commission sponsored Huntington and two other “scholars” in a book called “The Crisis of Democracy.” Huntington was one of the architects of the US assassination program in Vietnam, Operation Phoenix, which relied on “strategic hamlets” to contain the Vietnamese people. In the book, he theorizes that the 60s insurgencies and demands of the Black and Mexicano/Puerto Rican/ Latino “underclass,” who had previously been excluded from political discourse, had created a “crisis of democracy.”

    The crisis was TOO MUCH democracy, according to Huntington! Poor people of color placed demands on the system that it could not accommodate or satisfy. (Interestingly, Huntington has more recently become a theoretician of Bush’s “endless war on terror,” which Huntington sees as a vitally necessary “Clash of Civilizations” between Europeans and Afro-Asian Muslims who are incapable of  'absorbing’ western-style democracy.)

    In particular, Huntington identified a threat to the stability of the US political and economic system. In European and Latin American or African cities, the rich commanded the center of the cities and the poor lived in the outskirts, in shantytowns and favelas. US cities, on the other hand, had massive poor and working class communities, mostly of color, right in the urban core or “inner city,” surrounding the downtown office buildings and high rises. The wealthy lived in the outskirts, in suburbs. The urban rebellions of the 60s, beginning here in Watts, taught Huntington that this was extremely dangerous to the rulers. He proposed what he called “spatial de-concentration,” breaking up and dispersing poor, Black, Mexicano/indigenous working class communities and replacing them with more reliable white professionals, managers and business people.

    This strategy was applied in New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere. We saw it operate more recently here in Los Angeles through the crack-cocaine epidemic, which destabilized, devalued and broke up the Black community of south Los Angeles. This caused a huge churning of the real estate market and eventual huge profits for those who bought up Black homes cheap as neighborhoods became unlivable.

    Now the process is underway again, driven both by the same political motivation to break up communities of resistance and the economic motive of turning a handsome profit by driving working families and small business people and cooperative community enterprises out. How can we resist these massive economic forces and the military forces that back them up? 

We have to deepen our ties to each others’ struggles, deepen our understanding of the enemy we face, and deepen our thinking about how to organize and resist. We need to recognize that this is a manifestation of an on-going process of colonization that began with Columbus and continued through the Anglo-American “Manifest Destiny” that coveted the Mexican/indigenous lands to the Pacific, up to today.

    We can begin to unite our forces across the city - Blacks and Mexicanos in South LA, Blacks, homeless, renters and artists in Venice or downtown, Mexicanos and Central Americans in Pico-Union and Boyle Heights, Asians in Chinatown and Little Tokyo. Then we will begin to see the power of the people manifest itself through cooperative economic activity, sharing of resources, political organizing, boycotts and other means. We will begin to understand and to demonstrate that all the wealth of this system that confronts us is stolen from the people and from the land, and that all the power that towers over us and is used to grind us down actually comes FROM the people. It is ours to regain, and to use to protect our communities and the land, water and air that sustain life.

    To discuss these issues with the author, email antiracistaction_la@yahoo.com, write Michael at ARA-LA, PO Box 1055, Culver City CA 90232, or call 323-636-7388.