Category Archives: Environment & Justice

Social Justice and the City

1888655Social Justice and the City brings you back to the beginnings of geography’s emergence as a radical project, the point at which a whole branch split away from what Harvey terms ‘liberal formulations’ to work towards the transformation of society. It does it through a series of essays that traverse this change in Harvey’s own thinking, creating a provocative and unique book in my mind, and a good reminder of the fields roots in more positivist economic thinking.

It begins an account surprisingly along the lines of traditional–and what in my mind I classify as neo-liberal urban economics–but really are what Harvey terms liberal. He throws terms around like ‘Pareto optimum’, wields statistical models of equilibrium, treats households as simply consumers though trying to understand the social and psychological housing barriers that people face alongside their distance from the city center (distance was for so long a defining factor in models of home prices). Instead he begins thinking of constellations of factors, notes the ways that transport policies favour suburban areas and the injustice of expecting inner-city residents to adjust their own methods of travel to accommodate this disequilibrium.

Thus slowly he approaches a model that moves away from urban form as a result of simple market forces to take into account politics. He writes:

The realities of political power being what they are, the rich groups will probably thereby grow richer and the poor groups will thereby be deprived. It seems that the current real income distribution in a city system must be viewed as ‘the predictable outcome of the political process’ (Buchanan, 1968b 185 as quoted by Harvey: 73) He draws on Olson and Buchanan to note that small, privileged and well-organised groups are often able to defeat larger groups, and create institutional structures that are closed, effectively marginalising and excluding larger groups. Particularly if they happen to be poor. They become the slum-dwellers, the losers in the city’s pecking-order when it comes to competing for resources and services.

The cultural attitudes of the inner city have always been different from those of the suburbs and it does not seem that these differences are decreasing. Therefore I find it hard to accept either Marcuse’s thesis (1964) that there is a growing homogeneity in cultural values…or the spatial form equivalent of it in which a ‘one-dimensional man’ dwells…(84)

In thinking about how to create a just city in which the ‘spatial organization and the pattern of regional investment should be such as to fulfil the needs of the population’ (107), where needs and resource allocations match, he is forced to leave liberal formulations. He writes that it is unsurprising programmes in the UK and US have failed to eradicate poverty as ‘programmes which seek to alter distribution without altering the capitalist market structure within which income and wealth are generated and distributed, are doomed to failure’ (107). That capital will always flow to where the rates of return are highest, thus capital clearly will flow in a way which bears little relationship to need or to the condition of the least advantaged territory. The result will be the creation of localized pockets of high unfulfilled need, such as those now found in Appalachia or many inner city areas…Thus arises the paradox of capital withdrawing from areas of greatest need to provide for the demands of relatively affluent suburban communities. Under capitalism this is good and rational behaviour—it is what the market reuires for the ‘optimal’ allocation of resources (112).

Then he slams it home:

If it is accepted that the maintenance of scarcity is essential for the functioning of the market system, then it follows that deprivation, appropriation and exploitation are also necessary concomitants of the market system (114).

A new system is needed to obtain what he calls ‘A Just Distribution Justly Achieved: Territorial Social Justice’

1. The distribution of income should be such that (a) the needs of the population within each territory are met, (b) resources are so allocated to maximize interterritorial multiplier effects, and (c) extra resources are allocated to help overcome special difficulties stemming from the physical and social environment.
2. The mechanisms (institutional, organizational, political and economic) should be such that the prospects of the least advantaged territory are as great as they possibly can be.

And so we go on to Part II, Socialist Formulations. The first chapter is ‘Revolutionary and Counter-revolutionary Theory in Geography and the Problem of Ghetto Formation’, and much as I value this work it fails here to deal with race or racial ideologies in any deep manner. I’ve been thinking about what it is about the paradigm within which he is working, both in its liberal and socialist formulations, that limits the vision in this way, prevents the questions I personally find most important after a decade of work in the ‘ghetto’ from even being asked. But to return to Harvey, he starts with Kuhn’s scientific revolutions and then has a wonderful bitchy quote from Johnson (1971) on new theory in academia

On new academic theories: ‘First, it had to attack the central proposition of conservative orthodoxy…with a new but academically acceptable analysis that reversed the proposition…Second, the theory had to appear to be new, yet absorb as much as possible of the valid or at least not readily disputable components of orthodox theory. In this process, it helps greatly to give old concepts new and confusing names, and to emphasize as crucial analytical steps that have previously been taken as platitudinous…Third, the new theory had to have the appropriate degree of difficulty to understand…so that senior academic colleagues would find it neither easy nor worthwhile to study, so that they would waste their efforts on peripheral theoretical issues, and so offer themselves as easy marks for criticism and dismissal but their younger and hungrier colleagues. At the same time the new theory had to appear both difficult enough to challenge the intellectual interest of younger colleagues and students, but actually easy enough for them to master adequately with sufficient investment of intellectual endeavour…Fourth, the new theory had to offer the more gifted and less opportunistic scholars a new methodology more appealing than those currently available…Finally, [it had to offer] an important empirical relationship…to measure (quoting Johnson 1971, 123).

Then he goes on to think what might happen if we get rid of the idea of private property, get rid of the idea of scarcity. He writes:

‘scarcity is socially defined and not naturally determined. A market system becomes possible under conditions of resource scarcity, for only under those conditions can price-fixing commodity exchange markets rise…We therefore find a paradox, namely that wealth is produced under a system which relies upon scarcity for its functioning. It follows that if scarcity is eliminated, the market economy, which is the source of productive wealth under capitalism, will collapse. Yet capitalism is forever increasing its productive capacity. To resolve this dilemma many institutions and mechanisms are formed to ensure that scarcity does not disappear’ (139).

He uses the example of the ghetto to explore this paradox. Owners charge too much rent for appalling conditions, but still don’t make huge profits. The value of property remains low. It experiences the highest rates of overcrowding as well as the highest rates of abandoned buildings. Banks are afraid to lend money due to the uncertainty of the return. And so:

In fact, it is a general characteristic of ghetto housing that if we accept the mores of normal, ethical, entrepreneurial behaviour, there is no way in which we can blame anyone for the objective social conditions which all are willing to characterize as appalling and wasteful of potential housing resources. It is a situation in which we can find all kinds of contradictory statements ‘true’ (140-41).

That is certainly the argument that every slumlord I’ve known has made. He looks at Engels, and the parallels in slums from his time and ours, the reality that this is intrinsic to capitalism. And then he looks at what we need to do to end it. What does it entail?

Let me say first what it does not entail. It does not entail yet another empirical investigation of the social conditions in the ghettos. In fact, mapping even more evidence of man’s patent inhumanity to man is counter-revolutionary in the sense that it allows the bleeding heart liberal in us to pretend we are contributing to a solution when in fact we are not (144).

Hell yes. Instead:

This immediate task is nothing more nor less than the self-concious and aware construction of a new paradigm for social geographic thought through a deep and profoiund critique of our existing analytical constructs…our task is to mobilize our powers of thought to formulate concepts and categories, theories and arguments, which we can apply to the task of bringing about a humanizing social change. These concepts and categories cannot be formulated in abstraction. They must be forged realistically with respect to the events and actions as they unfold around us’ (145)

What I love about Harvey, is that this is exactly what he has been doing since he wrote this. Forty years now or so. And unlike many, he recognizes that it is not just academics who are intellectuals, but follows Gramsci in believing that a social movement becomes such when the whole population is acting to ‘reconcile analysis and action’ (149).

He moves on to use value and exchange value, ‘a prevailing source of concern for the political economists of the 19th century’ (153) like Smith and Ricardo and of course, Marx. Land is a very specific kind of commodity, it cannot be moved around at will, no individual can go without occupying space, it changes hands relatively infrequently, investments in built environment have some permanency to them, market exchange happens at one point in time, use over a long period. Its use values are numerous and overlapping:

1. shelter
2. a quantity of space for exclusive use by the occupants
3. privacy
4. a relative location which is accessible to work places, retail opportunities, social services, family and friends, and so on (and this includes the possibility for place of work etc., to be actually in the house)
5. a relative location which is proximate to sources of pollution, areas of congestion, sources of crime and hazard, people viewed with distaste, and so on
6. a neighbourhood location that has physical, social and symbolic (status) characteristics
7. a means for storing and enhancing wealth (159)

He writes that these are formed with respect to the ‘life support system’ of the individual, and lies outside the sphere of political economy. But this alone cannot generate an adequate theory of land use, this happens in ‘those catalytic moments in the urban land-use decision process when use value and exchange value collide to make commodities out of the land and the improvement thereon… (160)

He notes that there is little work done on relating use values to exchange values though much looking at each independently. Within a micro-economic framework there are 5 distinct actors in the housing market: occupiers (‘all occupiers of housing have a similar concern—to procure use values through laying out exchange value’ but also used to store equity – he clearly sees this as a minor consideration in comparison to exchange values for this group, but clearly this store of value is key is producing stability and wealth (163)), realtors (exchange value), landlords (exchange value – exchanging housing for money), developers (‘involved in the process of creating new use values for others in order to realize exchange values for themselves’ 165), financial institutions (interested in gaining exchange values through financing opportunities for the creation or procurement of use values’, when involved in development their decisions are ‘plainly geared to profitability and risk-avoidance’ 165), and government institutions (production of use values through public housing, intervention to support or regulate market, institutional constraints and zoning affect values also). It is also a situation of monopoly, given that there is limited land that is divided between individual landowners who control their own parcels, and thus is formed a class monopoly as those who already have property find it easier to hold it and expand those holdings, to live where they wish and to use land as they will. Thus ‘We therefore arrive at the fundamental conclusion that the rich can command space whereas the poor are trapped in it’ (171). He argues that this serves as a foil to show the short-comings of liberal economic utility-maximization models.

And then there is the fascinating subject of rent—though this section feels somewhat tentative here, and Harvey works it out much more fully in Limits of Capital. But his conclusions are interesting, though I don’t know that I agree with them:

If we argue that rent can dictate use, then this implies that exchange values can determine use values by creating new conditions to which individuals must adapt if they are to survive in society…The capitalist market exchange economy so penetrates every aspect of social and private life that it exerts an almost tyrannical control over the life-support system in which use values are embedded. A dominant mode of production, Marx observed, inevitably creates the conditions of consumption. Therefore, the evolution of urban land-use patterns can be understood only in terms of the general processes whereby society is pushed down some path (it knows not how) towards a pattern of social needs and human relationships (which are neither comprehended nor desired) by the blind forces of an evolving market system. The evolution of urban form is an integral part of this general process and rent, as a measure of the interpenetration of use values and exchange values, contributes notably to the unfolding of this process (190).

He continues:

When use determines value a case can be made for the social rationality of rent as an allocative device that leads to efficient capitalist production patterns…But when value determines use, the allocation takes place under the auspices of rampant speculation, artificially induced scarcities, and the like, and it loses any pretence of having anything at all to do with the efficient organization of production and distribution.

This is an interesting place to start an analysis of urban development from, although he is in conversation here with economists, with the contradictions between rent theory and capital theory, that I am unfamiliar with and that I imagine no longer provide a background for human geographers (if they ever did, though I cannot generalise here beyond myself and my own reading).

The next chapter, ‘Urbanism and the City’ takes us back to urban beginnings, drawing on anthropology and archaeology much as Ed Soja does in Postmetropolis, though with a focus on how the development of surplus value drove the development of the city. He works to bring together the ‘(1) the surplus concept, (2) the mode of economic integration concept and (3) concepts of spatial organization’ (245) to build a framework for ‘interpreting urbanism’ (246). I liked the point that ‘Urbanism, as a general phenomenon, should not be viewed as the history of particular cities, but as the history of the system of cities within, between and around which the surplus circulates’ (250). Always things are in relation to everything else, never static and enclosed.

At the current conjuncture he writes: ‘The contemporary metropolis therefore appears vulnerable, for if the rate at which surplus value is being appropriated at the centre (if profit levels are to be maintained) exceeds the rate at which social product is being created, then financial and economic collapse is inevitable’ (264). Thus ‘the survival of capitalist society and metropolitan centres to which it gives rise thus depends on some countervailing force’ (265). He looks to monopoly arrangements and technological innovation, me, I’m not so sure. But it is certain that much of the expansion of the built environment, particularly the intense suburbanisation of the past decades has been driven by a need to expand the circulation of surplus value as he says. Also that there are large pocket of intense poverty, these communities forming the industrial reserve army (in Marx’s formulation) which serve to stabilise the economy even as they rest on ‘human suffering and degradation’ (272). Given that the market ‘leads different income groups to occupy different locations we can view the geographical patterns in urban residential structure as a tangible geographical expression of a structural condition in the capitalist economy’ (273). This is true on a global level, how awesome is this comment on Sweden? ‘Sweden is in effect an affluent suburb of the global capitalist economy (it even exhibits many of the social and psychological stresses of a typical suburban economy)’ and thus ‘There is no limit to the effectiveness of welfare state policies within a territory, but there is an overall limit to progressive redistribution within the global economy of capitalism as a whole’ (277).

He hasn’t moved far from what could be called economic determinism, though he does later. Still, this follows the whole base-superstructure orthodoxy: ‘Issues stemming form the economic basis of society will frequently be translated into political and ideological issues…for example, issues of unemployment may be translated into issues of racial or ethnic discrimination in the job market’ (279). He says later on ‘In a conflict between the evolution of the economic basis of society and elements in the superstructure, it is the latter that have to give way, adapt, or be eliminated’ (292). Thus base is defining in the ultimate sense.

He ends with some interesting thinking around Marxism itself, that to me seems very Althusserian along the lines of Hall, though he draws on Piaget (1979) and Ollman (1972) who I haven’t read. So Ontology – the theory of what exists. He quotes Ollman as saying ‘the twin pillars of Marx’s ontology are his conception of reality as a totality of internally related parts, and his conception of these parts as expandable relations such that each one in its fullness can represent the totality (p 8, quoted on page 288). Thus ‘Capitalism…seeks to shape the elements and relationships within itself in such a way that capitalism is reproduced as an ongoing system. Consequently, we can interpret the relationships within the totality according to the way in which they function to preserve and reproduce it’. Which I like, though ‘capitalism’ as a thing doesn’t exist to do anything, it is a set of relations between actors and instititions so it’s all a little more complex. But I agree with where this leads us in terms of uncovering Marx’s ontology ‘that research has to be directed in discovering the transformation rules whereby society is constantly being restructured, rather than ‘causes’, in the isolated sense that follows from a presupposition of atomistic association, or to identifying ‘stages’ or ‘descriptive laws’…’ (289).

To Market To Market

It takes some work finding your way to Covent House, New Covent Garden. A bit of adventure in fact, walking down a residential road taking on faith that there is a gate at the other end of it, though you can see nothing until you are there. At the gate. Tucked down just before you hit the dead end. You walk through it and into an industrial world of large buildings and wide asphalt spaces and trucks. Pedestrian wanderers feel out of place, even after hours — I imagined the busy chaos it must be at peak times. But I arrived easily and safely and the talk by the lovely Helen Evans was so interesting, and opened up so many things I want to look into further.

It was immigration — the arrival of the Huguenots and the Dutch — that saw the real beginnings of intensive horticulture along the south bank of the Thames, and a shift from house gardens to growing produce for market. South London for many years was known for produce: the famous Battersea bundles, or asparagus, the growth of ‘simples’ or herbs like lavender on Lavender Hill. Artichokes, saffron, musk melon, even grapes and the now little known medlar tree (apparently for good reason as the fruit can’t be eaten until it is rotting off the tree and even then it was said it’s not very nice. I need to find some) grown as cash crops and easily transported to the old Covent Garden market by boats, which brought ‘night soil’ back to be used as fertiliser on their return journey.

Medlar Tree

I liked the sound of musk melons as well, what are those I asked myself? Turns out it is a general term for a variety of melon, cucumis melo, that includes the canteloupe and honeydew. Not as exciting as I’d hoped, but delicious, even if I’m slightly allergic to them.

This system of growing vegetables on one bank of the river, transporting them by boat to the city on the other side, and bringing back fertiliser underlines the sustainability of past systems of food production that we have left far behind — but should probably consider returning to again where possible. Interesting that climate change has already had enough of an effect that more crops are being grown in the UK for market that never used to be, like figs. Instead the New Covent Garden is part of a worldwide food system that is a little bit crazy. With the huge growth of London, the fruit/vegetable/flower market by the 1960s had long outgrown old Covent Garden, where essentially all produce was being brought, bought up by local produce shops, and redistributed again. The suburbanisation of South London meant that trucks rather than boats became the main vehicle for transportation. I can’t even imagine the chaos on the Strand. So it was moved to this new site, developed for access by large trucks moving produce from large farm to large clearing center to growing supermarket.

This all changed again very shortly after the new site was built (they moved in 1974). Ever larger supermarket chains developed their own increasingly globalised delivery system (talk about unsustainability), and dealt directly with large market farms around the world for their produce, cutting out New Covent Garden almost entirely. So the customer base is now almost entirely smaller consumers of bulk fresh fruit and veg: restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools. I started to get really jealous when she described the multiple varieties of fruit and veg the market deals with, not tied down to the ‘perfection’ sold by the supermarkets. The stuff grown because it lasts longer on the shelf and looks most like the ideal and always picked too soon. Instead you can buy tastier and messier mangoes, apples of multiple varieties, small and sweet strawberries — oh, delicious delicious! But only in bulk, and only early in the morning.

She had a fabulous chart of food fashion over the decades as well, the shifting trends in consumption, the date that Jazz apples were first introduced, when kiwis became a ‘thing’, when peppers and courgettes were still marginal (known as queer gear in the trade — curious). Apparently there is a move by cauliflower growers to bring it back into everyday cuisine because sales have fallen so steeply (so go buy some cauliflower!). There are now tourist trails through the rhubarb sheds of Yorkshire ( I am so on that). I learned so much, not least from the awesome little notebook we received that has the fruit and veg in season month by month — you can get a chart here. There are so many reason to buy seasonal and locally-grown food, taste and the future of the planet principle among them.

She had alluded to the Nine Elms development and the development of the market itself several times, which made my heart sink because I hate everything about the Nine Elms development and didn’t want to hear about the market getting moved on because the real estate it’s sitting on is too valuable for just fruit and veg. I was relieved to hear that it’s not getting moved on, though it is getting redeveloped. I’m always suspicious of that, but undoubtedly the market needs a thorough updating given the changes in food distribution systems. It seems like they’ve worked out a fairly good deal, financed through selling 20 of their 57 acres (where the flower market is now). I need to look into it more, and the plans and such are all here on their website, but from their perspective it will better cater to their actual clientele, have more capacity to sell direct to the public, and have a better venue for education and their own garden. I still hate that it’s part of this massive influx of cold high rise luxury development, I wonder what will happen to the very nice estate I walked past to get there, I fear that the new ‘public’ the developers at least are preparing for is a very different one than the folks living there now.


But these fears are all for future posts. At the least I am glad the market is remaining, is redeveloping. It is an awesome place.

[the image at top comes from the New Covent Garden food blog, which is also awesome]


Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis

Sugrue - The Origins of the Urban CrisisThomas Sugrue (2005) University of Princeton Press

Stunning really, searing and beautifully thorough research on race, political economy and the urban fabric of Detroit.

He engages with some central questions: what the hell happened to rust belt cities, how did they turn from industrial centers to economic backwaters, how did the ghetto form, how did segregation and racism persist? He then answers these questions, in the process knocking the almost the entire body of literature on the ‘underclass’ out of the ballpark. He does build on those that contained some structural analysis, but looks at a multiplicity of structural forces rather than just one or two (like deindustrialization or racism) and also follows a more historical approach, seeing the origins of the urban crisis in the 1940s and 50s. He does not avoid the question of agency — and there is so much in here about grassroots action — but paraphrases Marx when he says “Economic and racial inequality constrain individual and family choices. They set the limits of human agency. Within the bounds of the possible, individuals and families resist, adapt, or succumb.” His main thesis:

Detroit’s postwar urban crisis emerged as the consequence of two of the most important, interrelated, and unresolved problems in American history: that capitalism generates economic inequality and that African Americans have disproportionately borne the impact of that inequality.

I find his work most interesting in the way he looks at race and space, though I don’t fully agree with his view of race. He writes “Discrimination by race was a central fact of life in the postwar city. But the dimensions, significance, and very meaning of race differed depending on its cultural, political, and economic context. … Racial ideology, a shifting and fluid popular vernacular of race, served as the backdrop to the relationship between blacks and whites in the postwar city.” Discrimination and ideologies of race are indeed shifting things articulated with cultural, political and economic context, but never a backdrop. The opportunity this book misses is a deeper theorisation of the way the events it relates also formed racial ideologies. This is not to deny that ideology also worked on more of a national level, and that ideas of blackness

In mid-twentieth-century Detroit, as in the rest of the nation, racial identities rested on Widely held assumptions about the inferior intelligence of blacks, notions that blacks were physiologically better suited for certain types of work, and stereotypes about black licentiousness, sexual promiscuity, laziness, and dependence.

did not shape history as much as ideas of whiteness

On the other side was the persistent association of whiteness with Americanism, hard work, sexual restraint, and independence. These assumptions about racial difference were
nourished by a newly assertive whiteness

He argues that in addition to culture, “Perhaps most important in shaping the concept of race in the postwar ‘period, I argue, were local and national politics. Race was as much a political as a social construction.” But for me, the most interesting thing about this is that he is the first (that I have seen) to deeply examine how race and space intertwine, and the consequences of this third factor in conceptions of race:

Perceptions of racial differences were not, I argue, wholly, or even primarily, the consequences of popular culture. If they were, they would not have had such extraordinary staying power. In the postwar city, blackness and whiteness assumed a spatial definition. The physical state of African American neighborhoods and white neighborhoods in Detroit reinforced perceptions of race. The completeness of racial segregation made ghettoization seem an inevitable, natural consequence of profound racial differences. The barriers that kept blacks confined to racially isolated, deteriorating, inner-city neighborhoods were largely invisible to white Detroiters. To the majority of untutored white observers, visible poverty, overcrowding, and deteriorating houses were signs of individual moral deficiencies, not manifestations of structural inequalities. White perceptions of black neighborhoods provided seemingly irrefutable confirmation of African American inferiority and set the terms of debates over the inclusion of African Americans in the city’s housing and labor markets.

Much later in the book he goes on to say

“Racial incidents encoded possession and difference in urban space. Residents of postwar Detroit carried with them a cognitive map that helped them negotiate the complex urban landscape. In a large, amorphous twentieth-century city like Detroit, there were few visible landmarks to distinguish one neighborhood from another, But residents imposed onto the city’s featureless topography all sorts of invisible boundaries-boundaries shaped by intimate association, by institutions (like public-school catchment areas or Catholic parish boundaries), by class, and, most importantly, by race.

The sustained violence in Detroit’s neighborhoods was the consummate act in a process of identity formation. White Detroiters invented communities of race in the city that they defined spatially. Race in the postwar city was not just a cultural construction, Instead, whiteness, and by implication blackness, assumed a material dimension, imposed onto the geography of the city. Through the drawing of racial boundaries and through the use of systematic violence to maintain those boundaries, whites reinforced their own fragile racial identity.”

How fascinating is that? And depressing. I read this with a little pit of fear that I would run across family members in the accounts of furious blue collar white Catholic homeowners (I didn’t).
But what makes this book so fantastic is its breadth. It looks at space and segregation, but also at work and the process of deindustrialisation, it looks at struggle — both that of African Americans and the grassroots efforts of whites to preserve their neighborhoods, it looks at layers of party politics both local and national, it looks at developers and real estate agents. It looks at gender, at class divisions in the African American community, at union politics and schisms and the way that race consistently trumped class and how homeownership shifted working class consciousness, at the development of discourses around rights and property and housing, shifts in the meaning of liberalism.

This is scholarship to aspire to, the kind of research we need to understand the complexities of race in our cities today and think about effective struggle, and I look forward to reading it again, as its breadth ensures I will find a whole new excitement in it I am sure.


My Blue Heaven: South Gate and White Working Class Identity

My Blue Heaven - Becky NicolaidesBecky Nicolaides’ My Blue Heaven is a marvelously well researched and incredibly detailed look at the lives of people in South Gate, one which challenges a number of common assumptions about the suburbs while providing evidence for others.

I love how it details the ways that ideas and meanings of home and community were constructed, and their change over time. My Blue Heaven‘s principal argument is that from the 1920s through WWII, home was primarily a survival strategy for the working class. They bought affordable lots and built homes as and when they could, using extensive yards to grow food, thus provisioning themselves against want outside of the cash economy. At this time, residents felt that lower taxes were more important than school segregation for example, highlighting the precariousness of their living situation. This shifted after World War II, as South Gate came to resemble other suburbs such as Lakewood in its infrastructure and tract housing, and as owner salaries rose and situations improved, their homes became principally investments and marks of status. This led to a very strong feeling around taxes. Thus their bitter struggle against school integration, and defensive posture around residential integration to protect home values.

It is an interesting thing to think about, that poverty should make people less inclined to active racism when there were incentives to the contrary. Yet racism was no less virulent for communities made up of so many Southern migrants:

In 1925, the local booster-editor asserted “Home Gardens is a town of, by and for workingmen — and we want hundreds more of them. The only restrictions are racial — the white race only may own property here,” [27]

But this tension isn’t explored as much as I wished it to be, although the racial tensions post WWII are quite well documented. This is also true of the shift in how individuals saw taxes, and the foundations of Prop 13, and the today’s anti-tax conservatism. It is a fundamental dynamic in American politics, and this is some of the best evidence I’ve seen in terms of understanding how American politics has developed, both in the origins of strong-held opinions on the importance of low taxes:

When boom hit bust in the 1930s, their assumptions about the role of individuals and government began to shift. As both the politics of development and education revealed, residents began with the unspoken assumption that the burden of financing municipal services-from streets to schools-should fall on the backs of individual property owners, including the humble working-class home owner. Embracing an ethos of privatism, they believed property ownership conferred the responsibility of municipal stewardship. All property owners- regardless of wealth-became urban stewards. It was thus up to individuals, not government more broadly, to pay for services. In a poorer suburb like South Gate, residents simply chose to limit these services, to create a modest infrastructure that they could reasonably afford. There was no assumption that urban services were a right, and that they should be financed through a redistributive system of taxation. This reflected their deeply held ideals of individualism, self- help, hard work, plain-folk Americanism’ and anticommunism, an outlook asserting that urban fiscal policy ought to be based on a private approach rather than a collective one.

and then the ways in which discussions around taxes have also become coded in terms of race through the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s

In numerous public statements, “taxes” became a coded reference to civil rights and programs for minorities, an excellent local example of the national trend that saw an overlapping of race and taxes as political issues. “While you work and sweat to protect your earnings and property, the politicians scheme with their minority supporters to put you in a hopeless position to protect yourself against raids of everything you work for…. Today CORE, NAACP, COPE [302] and their like are the only participants who pressure our legislators for the kind of government we have now, while today’s citizen is a drone, quite impotent in local affairs because he stays home, and our taxes continue to go up, up and up,”

It is extraordinary to watch a working class community shift from supporters of EPIC and the New Deal, to supporters of conservative Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. But through this historical view it finally makes some kind of sense…it also contains a lot of more ethnographic and quite fascinating information on daily life, entertainment, and particularly labor. Nicolaides argues that home became the center of people’s lives rather than their work, and explores some of its implications for labor.

Definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in any of these topics, and a beautiful example of an in depth historical view of a single suburb that manages to give insight into key historical forces happening all over the country.

[Nicolaides, Becky M. (2002) My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.]

Daily dose

of tears over coffee, Haiti, I am entirely sadness and rage. Thinking about the way suffering on this scale is always political…the utter inability to deal with famine, flood, earthquakes is always a failure of government. Thinking about Katrina. This insane racism and fear of black people that in both cases has demanded blockade, occupation and armed soldiers rather than the provision of food, water. medicine, shelter…and thus they fulfill their own prophecies of hate and desperation. People know that the mobilization of 12,000 warm to bodies to guard and secure could more easily have provided for their actual needs. I watch soldiers stand around with huge semi-automatics filling their hands when there are bodies and medicines to be dug out of rubble, shelter to be built…as a human I find this utterly inconceivable. As a cynic, I find it all too believable. There is no middle ground between these two sides, which I find to be just another cost of the world we live in.

Where LA’s stolen water comes from, the wonder of Owens Valley

The Coso Mountain range to the east of Owens Valley is a line of volcanoes that erupted again and again, spewing out massive flows of black basalt. The whole area was a center of volcanic activity, creating a landscape of wonder framed against the Eastern Sierra Nevadas

To the north is an incredible cinder cone of deep red, gases and minerals forced violently up from the earth’s core through the hole they blasted in its crust. It reminds you that we mindlessly bang around atop a layer of earth floating above a seething bubbling mass of magma and gas. And only 500,000 years ago it swelled from below, shot upwards, rebuilt the landscape. And here I stand simply marveling at it.

There used to be a lake here, and a river. The river ran down the valley, and when a new lava flow sent it coursing across the black basalt, it sought out weaknesses and devoured them, it polished hard surfaces smooth, it carved amazing forms as it fell forty feet down a basalt shelf, and created one of the more amazing things I have ever seen

I tried, and admit I mostly failed, to capture its beauty and the strange fascination of it. Heat radiates from the rocks, flows about them in eddies and swirls as water once did. This place burns your palms with a deep tingling life as you climb into it, it cuts your skin with its razored lines of grace. And from every angle you discover new shadows and curves, a dark unfurling of stone.

There is no water here now, it was stolen, and the land lies arid and dry as you see it, though abounding with life in gorgeous color.

The land itself was stolen from the Paiutes, they irrigated small farms here from a fast running river, and collected obsidian. When first soldiers and then the homesteading act opened up the land to white settlers, small farmers and prospectors moved here, side by side with land speculators.

Frederick Eaton became mayor of Los Angeles in 1898, and appointed his friend William Mulholland as head of the new Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Together they started what are now fondly known as the California Water Wars. Especially to those who have forgotten that they are ongoing.

LA required water to become the sprawling sucking metropolis that it is today, and the two saw that the Owens Valley had water in abundance. Remember Chinatown? Eaton was a close friend of the agent working for the Bureau of Land Reclamation, who was there to build a network of irigation canals to help small farmers. He bought up much of the land (it all ended up belonging to LA), and Eaton got Teddy Roosevelt to cancel the irrigation project. By 1905 the city of LA had enough land to build the aqueduct through tactics that were varied, creative, and often nefarious. As icing on the cake of venality, the initial run of water went to the San Fernando Valley to water the fields of another close friend, and turn worthless real estate into an agricultural gold mine overnight.

By 1913 the aqueduct was built (it now carries 315 million gallons a day to LA). By 1924 the lake was dry. And in the despair of 1924, 40 men united to dynamite the aqueduct


6 moths later residents seized the Alabama Gates spillway and released the water back into the lake. But that was the end of even small victories until the 1990s. The uprising failed as US uprisings always seem to do.

In 1972 LADWP built a second aqueduct, draining surface water. The original vegetation died, and even now the alkali meadows continue to expand. There are salt beds where water used to be, and the wind picks up their dust of carcinogenic nickel, cadmium and arsenic to fling it across the valley. The EPA stated that when the wind blows across the lake bed, this valley becomes the single largest source of particulate matter pollution. In the 1990s and again in 2003, local activists, the Sierra Club and Inyo County won an agreement that a tiny percentage of the water must be diverted back into the valley, but it is tiny…for more on what is being down today take a look at the valiant Owens River Committee.

And read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner for the whole story, this is obviously a most horrific simplification.


The streets and strikes of Clifton

Apart from being the final resting place of Santa Teresita, and an old nesting place of white vigilantism as shown by the case of the kidnapped Catholic orphans, Clifton is a photographer’s delight and full of ever more stories. Here is Chase Creek Street, with my folks wandering romantically hand in hand

They escaped the heat over ice cream while I reveled in it, down one of the more amazing Arizonan streets I have encountered, with buildings well loved (where boarding rooms and banana splits and guns are available) side by side with buildings now derelict. And I have so much love for the derelict

Here there is an opulence of decay I’ve seldom found, as the buildings of old mining towns are usually ruins or rigorously and shinily preserved for the tourists. This place is just itself instead, still standing in spite of everything and even ready to make a come back.

Though there are ruins here too…

And I wondered very sadly when exactly it was that the bar shut down, El Rey, here I am in spirit…

With all the attitude a bar tan cabron requires, I am sure que sigue siendo el rey (aunque no mas adentro, because outside? Oh no)…

I would have a given a great deal to have gotten in though! Even more for a cold bohemia.

I lost all of my attitude in the jail. It was blasted out of solid rock long ago, and sits by the side of the main road with an iron gate swinging open. It is wired for light, but there are no light bulbs, so you go down about 10 steep stairs into a cave of absolute blackness…there is a small room off of which there are three cells with horrible iron doors. Using the flash of my camera I got this picture

Of course, I never saw it like this, just the quickest of glimpses in the camera light, and the fear growing and growing every second. You can see nothing in the darkness, but you know the cells are there, and there is no way to know if they are empty. There is one window in the rock that lights up the cell on the right and I crept over to it, but the fear of what lay behind my back, maybe just the fear filling the whole place up like a well, kept me out…and I fought it and lost and scampered back up the stairs as fast as I could possible go.

The story goes that the man who blasted it into being was the first man locked inside of it, he started shooting his gun into the air at the opening celebration after the townsfolk refused to toast him for his good work. Anyone who could think such a place was a good idea definitely deserved to spend some quality time there.

The employment in Clifton all comes from the earth, from copper and gold, and the huge pit mine in Morenci only a couple of miles away. It belongs to Phelps-Dodge…funny to think that I did a great deal of work for them in the old family business of Orbis Geographics…they even now hold maps I hand colored, and never paid on time if memory serves me correctly!

But here is one of the well-kept buildings along Chase Creek St.

There is a long history of strikes, and a history just as long of atrocities committed by mining companies and local government against striking miners in Arizona…not that we ever learned any of it in school. One of the best resources on this is Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miner’s Strike of 1983 Recast Labor Management Relations in America by Jonathan Rosenblum, which contains a great general history of labor and copper. There was a strike in Clifton, Morenci and Metcalf in 1915-16 led by the Western Federation of Miners.

Then Jerome and Bisbee, 1917: The IWW organized and called a strike, a very successful strike. President Wilson had refused to send in federal troops at local request, and appointed the Arizona governor to mediate instead, just imagine… In Jerome, where the IWW was striking against PD, over 100 men were kidnapped by vigilantes and held in the county jail, before being moved by train and dumped in Needles, CA. In Bisbee the strike was against the owners of the Copper Queen mine. 1,186 men (some of whom were neither miners nor on strike) were rounded up at gun point by vigilantes and put in cattle cars still full of manure and trucked into New Mexico. Many then continued to be held there by the federal government for months. An IWW organizer, Jim Brew, was shot when he resisted the round up, after shooting one of the ‘deputies’. It is believed that Walter Douglas, president of Phelps Dodge and son of the owner of Bisbee’s Copper Queen mine, orchestrated the actions as a way to break organized labor in the state, which he did. The cattle cars belonged to him, and he probably supplied the guns…he was indicted, but charges were dropped. And armed guards were stationed at the entrances of Bisbee and Douglas, to pass them required a passport signed by Sheriff Wheeler…so almost none of the men ever returned. You can read more here.

Back in Clifton, Morenci, and Metcalf a union was again organized in the early 1940s. Mexicans were still not allowed to hold any of the more skilled jobs. When David Velasquez began helping the Bulldozers shovel what he had once shoveled by hand he became eligible to join the Operating Engineers under the AFL. He tried to join, but they old him that Mexican ‘boys’ would be better in their own union, called the Federated Labor Union. There was no possibility of rising into the better jobs. So he and Andres Padilla organized a branch of the CIO, meeting secretly along the river. After two years they won certification, Morenci Miners local 616 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter workers. Originally they represented all miners, but racism divided the union and crafts split from it; Mine Mill became known as the Mexican union. In 1946 Mexican American veterans returning home from the war gave the impetus for a strike, seeking health benefits and equal wages for all races. Mine Mill won its first contract. And then followed a long period of strength and broad activist unionism (if only all unions could say the same) in spite of  the witch-hunt for communists, where union leadership was put on trial by the CIO itself. It suffered constant attack from the federal government, as well as hostility from other unions who all looked to appropriate its membership. In 1967 it merged with the steelworkers.

In 1982 PD announced it was laying off 3400 workers in Arizona and Texas. Negotiations began, and in July of 1983 a strike was called, and a picket line formed at the Morenci pit. Morenci is entirely a company town…workers were evicted, harassed, arrested, put under surveillance by the Arizona Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency. Very creepy, but Arizona likes to know what dissidents are up to, particularly when they dare to stop mining. Local government was entirely on the side of PD, putting injunctions on pickets and protests. PD announced it was hiring replacement workers, and 1,000 people gathered at the gate to the mine to prevent it. PD shut down production.

And on August 19th, 1983, the National Guard and state troopers were called in to break the strike. They arrived with military vehicles, helicopters, tanks. They forced entry for the scabs. 10 days later they arrested 10 miners in Ajo for ‘rioting’. And that was really the end, though the strike dragged on slowly until February of 86 when the NLRB rejected the unions appeal to stop decertification.

It is often seen as the great symbol of defeat for American Unions. And here is what the pit looks like now:

It has engulfed the towns of Morenci and Metcalf, swallowed them up and lost them forever in the search for more copper. And I suppose you could say, for a moment, it swallowed the labor movement as well. But just for the moment.

[also posted at]


Santa Teresita and Clifton, AZ

Santa Teresita de Cabora…that is how she was known to the thousands who loved her, and believed she could cure the sick, the blind and the lame. So we went on a quest to find Teresa Urrea today,  one of the more extraordinary figure of the Southwest borderlands. It was inspired by reading Ringside to the Revolution by David Romo (which you should read, without a doubt)…but when we started looking we found so much more.


Her life defies summary, but I shall try. In 1873 she was born in Culiacan, Mexico, the illegitimate daughter of a Yaqui woman named Cayetana Chavez and the local landowner, Tomas Urrea. She worked with the local curandera…known alternatively as Huila (a Yaqui name) or Maria Sonora (a Yori name, we shall disregard it). While an adolescent she went into a coma, her father ordered a coffin, and the story goes that the night before her burial she suddenly sat up. She said that they should keep the coffin as someone else would die within 3 (or possibly 5 days). She was right, and they buried Huila.

From that time on she was famed for her healing powers, powers both of traditional medicine and faith. She never charged for her service. And the thousands came…so many that Porfirio Diaz feared her powers in leading an insurrection and expelled her from the country…revolution was already boiling along the borders among the Yaqui, the Mayo, the Tomochic. And they revolted up and down down the border in her name, they carried her photograph cut out from the papers next to their hearts. Federales saw her mounted on a white horse leading them, even though she was hundreds of miles away. They were called the Teresista Rebellions, and although I grew up an hour from Nogales, I never knew the Teresistas had risen there.

Diaz said that El Paso was too close, so she moved to Clifton…she traveled, always attracting thousands seeking healing. And she returned to Clifton when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, she built a house there, and died in 1906, peacefully, she was only 33. 400 people attended her body from the church to the grave.

And yet today no one is sure where she is buried. And that is quite a story.

Apparently in the Clifton area there were three cemeteries. There was the whites only cemetery (known simply as the Clifton cemetery, though now it is officially called the Ward’s Canyon cemetery.) There was the Mexican cemetery. And there was the Catholic cemetery. Clifton is a mining town, only a few miles from Morenci, and the largest pit mine in the country. At some point Phelps Dodge decided that there was copper under the Mexican cemetery, and they wanted it. And so they dug it up and dumped all of the bodies from there into…an unmarked place. Supposedly in the whites only cemetery, though that puzzles me really, it would have made much more sense to have put them in the Catholic cemetery, especially as apparently that now belongs to PD as well. And since it was unmarked…it is hard to say.

It’s unimaginable really, especially given the relationship Mexican families have with their dead. It fills me with a kind of fury. But segregation even in death is enough to do that. And there’s the lovely story in the Roadside History of Arizona (full of interesting facts, though nothing about such things as strikes, civil unrest, Mexican saints or etc etc)… in 1904, 40 orphans were brought to the town by New York nuns, happy that they had found good Catholic families willing to adopt them. Sadly, the children were white, the families Mexican, and the good whitefolk of Clifton couldn’t have that. Vigilantes took custody of the kids, and every court up to the Supreme Court supported them in their efforts. Vigilantes are nothing new around here, nor is government support for them.

And so here is the cemetery that was once whites only

You can see Morenci’s open pit in the background. We thought that Teresa’s grave had been (provisionally) identified and marked, we wandered up and down, and found nothing. The graveyard is on a steep hillside, with many of the graves themselves forming the terracing, and the ultimate disposition of bones over years of torrential summer rains an interesting thought. Below is one of the spots I thought they might have dumped a load of calcium and dream rich dirt.

It contrasts with the more worthy sections…

Even Mr. Greenlee for whom the county is named is buried here. Under a small pyramid of rock. I don’t think he would have appreciated PD’s idea, it makes me doubt that they managed to bury an unnamed load of Mexicans here. But perhaps they did, and the outrage was great enough from both communities (united if only in this), that that is what forced them to relocate graves properly when the towns of Morenci and Metcalf were claimed by the pit as well.

We navigated at temperatures of 103 or so…and even hating the idea of a white’s only cemetery (though it isn’t quite at this point…), it was still haunting and some things were impossibly sad, like this, hid amidst great marble headstones

6 years old, chiseled by unskilled hand…and then I found this one a few steps away

Born and died the same day. And you realize how hard and bleak and terrible life could be, for everyone. But heartbreaking as they are, the Chapmans got to keep their headstones. Teresa Urrea has been erased.

So we headed into town to ask where the grave could be found. We started at the courthouse, moved to the recorder’s office, and there met Berta who was amazing and took us to the library over her lunch break, where she had started a file on Teresa. And all of a sudden I started liking Clifton again. I have photocopies now of the original article from The Copper Era (nice title, no?) from January 18, 1906, announcing her death. And a handful of others published in local papers, and one with a picture of a grave they think just might be Teresa’s.  We returned to the cemetery, to the grave we thought just might be the grave in the picture of what just might be the grave of Teresa Urrea. It was missing the wooden cross though….And we left our flowers, red plastic roses, and fresh white calla lilies, deciding that she would be understanding if we hadn’t found her, and anyone else who might be buried there would be happy.

And then we headed into downtown Clifton, up to Morenci…but more on that later. Another stirring tale of racism, labor strikes, evil mining companies…exciting stuff!

And last thing, a brilliant fictionalized book about Teresa is by Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird’s Daughter.


Downtown Los Angeles at night

I suppose this could be the title of a number of posts…

It’s the end of January. The night was cool but not cold, I rolled up the sleeves of my sweatshirt and felt the air sweet against my naked skin. The streets between Mals bar and home are my streets. Along Olive I rode through the darkness, glad I didn’t go home with the car salesman. I turned on Pico, passed the corner where I always used to find Mark, before we lost the Morrison, before he lost his home, before he died.  He’s been on my mind a lot, his county issue wheelchair sits empty at Saje now, right by the back door. I see it and think of him, feel a little of the despair and loss and…I don’t even know what you feel about someone you love who died an alcoholic on the streets. And I passed the Morrison and it’s still boarded up, Hope has never been well lit there. Hope. I don’t want to hope any more, I want to see my way to winning.

I headed towards the convention center, all brightly lit, welcoming people with degrees like mine to network and shmooze and score business deals. It offers shit jobs and shit treatment to all those I work with, stand beside. I belong to neither world, though I look to be part of one, and have chosen to stand in the other. For my job, I became part of the first for a couple of days earlier this year. It made me feel split into two people, uncomfortable in my skin as I walked down carpeted corridors and flashed my badge and talked books. And wished I were chatting to the janitors instead. I felt traitorous. And lonely. I wanted to know someone who understands these things.

Down Figueroa I passed the Staples Center and the new L.A. Live, it is like another city. The other day I was biking down Olympic and suddenly didn’t recognize where I was. I can’t tell you how strange it is to feel that way about a section of street you have worked off and on for 8 years. The Baker Building is gone, all of the families I knew there gone. A skyscraping hotel rises to the left unfinished beneath its giant crane. The cold clean unwelcoming space of LA Live bristles alongside it, over 200 families used to live there in 1998. They tore the buildings down to turn the land into parking lots. And now they have created something that Narnia’s Ice Queen might have built. Though she probably didn’t know enough about surveillance cameras. It’s yet another of LA’s quasi-public spaces, easily controlled for the right kind of people, easily managed with its up-scale chains that represent conspicuous consumption without taste or orginality. Figueroa was crawling with cop cars as the great searchlights proclaimed it the place to be against the night sky. Superficial glitz and implicit violence dominate this city.

I biked through downtown, Orishas on my i-pod, every traffic light against me. Office buildings towered into the sky, their patchwork of lights replacing the stars. The spatial inequalities of this city, the pain and displacement, the contrast between ultimate wealth and ultimate poverty, all of these things carved into my heart. I like biking through the darkness, even though it hurts. It is time and space to think, a way of experiencing LA like no other, a physical release of stress and memory. And it is nice to come home at the end of it. To write.

Unidad Campaign puts the “Public” back into “Public Meeting”

Tonight the City of Los Angeles held a scoping meeting for the Environmental Impact Report on the South L.A. and Southeast L.A. Community Plan. Exciting, right? You’re on the edge of your seats…

Usually there are a handful of people at these meetings. Some men and women in suits. Maybe a handful of people in the community with the time and the money and the training to look into the issues and show up. They represent an incredibly small slice of the community interest, and generally a conservative one.

Tonight was different though. First, a lot of people showed up. A lot.  People not usually at this sort of bureaucratically mind-boggling morass of legal and environmental jargon, why would they be here? It is designed to preserve the facade of participation while keeping people out, to ensure planning is left to the experts who can then do whatever they want to do. These experts spent decades removing almost all services and cutting funding to everything left; tearing down homes to build factories; permitting liquor stores, hourly motels, and strip clubs to march side by side with schools, parks, churches. They used planning to devastate the neighborhood with one hand, and withheld any sort of aid to struggling organizations with the other. The war zone that breaks my heart every day has been the result. And in spite of them, in spite of an absence of jobs and hope, in spite of the crack explosion of an earlier decade and the constant battle of drugs and turf that claims our youth, in spite of high rents for slum housing so overcrowded that people sleep in bathtubs and their beds in shifts, in spite of all this we have created some things that are beautiful. And the goal seems to be to plunk down a lot of high end retail and luxury housing on top of that, pushing people from one slum where they have managed to build networks and community to another that is unknown. At least, that’s what has been happening to date with the city bending over in its eagerness to facilitate it.

So people stood up tonight to reclaim the place of the public in a public meeting. To demand that the city recognize decades of racism, greed and neglect that have resulted in a devastated community. To reclaim their right to continue to live in that community even as they fight to improve it. And to reclaim the word environment…when was it reduced to spotted owls, air quality, density, parking and green space? It is all of these things and they are all important, but how can it not also include the buildings, the people who live within them, and the conditions in which they live?

So it was a meeting of righteous anger, of stories that could make you cry, of great applause for all of the community speakers. And comedy of course. You’d really think that planners would be overjoyed at this break in a life of regulated tedium! Monic gave a ringing list of all the groups and organizations present at the meeting and over 60 of us stood in a show of strength, so the Planning Department’s enforcer got snippy and said we had to “keep the agitation down.” I don’t think he knows what that word means precisely, but Jesus, who spoke next, promised to be gentle. Though perhaps you have to know Jesus to appreciate how funny that was. And then there was someone from the neighborhood council, one of those privileged people who always challenge my belief in the efficacy of direct democracy due to their terrifying ubiquity in all community institutions (I’ll let you imagine the kind of annoying person I mean to escape any libel charges). At any rate, she said she lived in a district that had been recommended for a historical preservation zone as the “18th Street HPOZ”…and then she continued (in shock horror) that she couldn’t BELIEVE that the city had called them that and she OF COURSE would never…ha! 18th street is, of course, one of the biggest L.A. gangs, so it’s just funny all the way around, but the thought of her identifying as 18th street had me rolling. And I wonder if the city planner actually had a sense of humor. No one actually laying down the law in an HPOZ (what colors you can paint your house, how high your fence can be, what windows can be used etc) has ever had one in my experience.

At any rate, it was a good and dare I say enjoyable evening that really shed some light on some of the structural inequality within our city, and perhaps will make a difference.

For folks who need details, LA’s California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) threshold guidelines actually do state that displacement and housing are environmental issues; that’s just been conveniently ignored even though I believe we have pointed it out before. They also look at overcrowding and excessive rent burden (sections C, D and J.2 for all you communities under fire).

For more information or to get involved in an amazing effort you can contact the Unidad/ Unity campaign, You can also check out, or do some reading on the work of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice.