Category Archives: Housing

Colin ward is Talking Houses

This is a great, quite a short introduction to some of Colin Ward’s thinking about housing. Written from an anarchist viewpoint, it shows just how fruitful this critique can be of a lumbering, one-size-fits-all and paternalistic state building programme (not that I wouldn’t trade that for anything we’ve had since). It also opens up new ways of thinking, planning, building housing better the next time around I think, and of how we might transform what we have left. These are just a handful of insights.

Above all I appreciate his central point, reiterated over and over again (and these are, mind you, a series of talks given in different places over different points of time, so a very accessible way into his thinking, but a little repetitive as well) that the key to it all is dweller control not ownership. You don’t need to own a place to make it home, but we (almost) all have that desire for a safe and secure place that we can make our own. Ward writes:

The application of anarchist ideas to the basic need of human shelter is dweller control and it is evident to me that people draw their inspiration from what other people actually succeed in doing. Not the affluent, who take dweller control for granted because they have freedom of choice, but ordinary fellow citizens facing every kind of difficulty because the system doesn’t cater for their aspirations. (7)

He did so much, like John Turner, to help show just what it was other people were doing.

He describes 3 revolutions in housing expectations bringing us into the present:

  1. Revolution in tenure: Before the first world war the norm, for both rich and poor alike, was renting in the private market. (7)
  2. Revolution in services and housing densities: Domestic service or some level of help common quite far down the social scale, replaced by mechanisation. Density extremely high in city centres. ‘Both demographic changes and decentralisation have had a liberating effect‘ (8)
  3. Revolution in the nature of households: A century of housing for nuclear households, now a minority

He also notes, ‘the landlord-tenant relationship has never, through all of history, been a happy one.‘ (9)

That made me laugh out loud.

The Do It Yourself New Town (1975)

The philosopher Martin Buber begins his essay Society and the State with an observation from the sociologist Robert MacIver that “to identify the social with the political is to be guilty of the grossest of all confusion, which completely bars any understanding of either society or the state”. The political principle, for Buber, is characterised by power, authority, hierarchy, dominion. He sees the social principle wherever men link themselves in an association based on a common or a common interest. (18)

I like that distinction. It’s maybe too long since I read Buber. Ward goes on to describe the long running connection between anarchism and planning, particularly Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes. Geddes, it turns out, knew Kropotkin, Paul and Élisée Reclus. And of course they lived in times of ferment, Ward arguing that part of Howard’s success with the idea of the Garden City was that it came out at the same time as Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops, Blatchford’s Merrie England, and H.G. Wells’ Anticipation. (31)

His view of the Tudor-Walters Report in 1918 in how it moved away from dweller control toward paternal state ownership — rather a different that received wisdom which focuses on its virtues of architecture and attention to the health of the inhabitants such as that of Burnett in his History of Housing. Ward argues instead that it:

froze out all other forms of social housing in favour of direct municipal provision. Today, with public housing in collapse, we are suddenly discovering the virtues of cooperative housing — a notion dear to the heart of Howard and Unwin which has been neglected for sixty years, even though if you go to a country like Denmark where a third of housing is in the hands of tenemant co-operatives they say to the English visitor, “We owe it all to your Rochdale Pioneers.” (22)

Dismantling Whitehall

Always a welcome title, it might be enough on its own. But no. Even at this period, Ward is calling attention to this key dynamic which has only accelerated over time:

Every change in the allocation of funds from the central treasury to local authorities, in the bewildering changes of nomenclature since the 1950s has reduced their ability to decide for themselves. General Grants, Block Grants or Rate Support Grants have each been heralded by sales talk about more local discretion, but in fact each, while apparently giving greater freedom to local authorities, has been used to reduce their freedom of manoeuvre and their ability to select their priorities (49).

It has also, of course, reduced funding time and time again.

Until We Build Again

Again, for Ward the real point is that we needed space for many different kinds of housing — for various forms of cooperatives, self-builds and sweat equity. That we could have had a much different kind of city, with an entirely different relationship between residents and their built environment.

There was a phrase used about Gandhi by Vinoba Bhave. He said, ‘Gandhiji used up all the moral oxygen in India and the British Raj suffocated”. In the same way we might say that the direct provision of housing for rent by local councils used up all the inventive capacity of councils, and the alternatives never got a chance, they were suffocated. Now is the time to nurture the alternatives… (59)

Again the point that people step into responsibility for space if it is offered and they have the resource (though of course, the continual inventiveness around securing resource are legend). These trajectories of investment and decline are made visible street by street:

Most of us are familiar with the paradox that the life or death of buildings was decided by a line drawn on a map on the centreline of a road. One one side houses were demolished as unfit for human habitation, and were eventually replaced by flats that declined from the moment they were occupied. On the other, identical houses were sold off on the private market and improved by their purchases, making use of improvement grants and DIY. There was no magic about their success. It depended on access to resources and upon the opportunity to use one’s own resourcefulness , which is the concomitant of the dweller being in control. (60-61)

He gives a few examples of where alternatives were supported to flourish: some of the policies in Glasgow, supporting co-ops and urban homesteading in Easterhouse, The Lewisham Self Build Association, co-operative development agencies in Liverpool…

Direct Action for Working-Class Housing

I still haven’t read Gorz, he has been on my list for years. Precisely because of quote like this:

Classical socialist doctrine finds it difficult to come to terms with political and social pluralism, understood not simply as a plurality of parties and trade unions but as the co-existence of various ways of working, producing and living, various and distinct cultural areas and levels of social existence…Yet this kind of pluralism precisely conforms to the lived experience and aspirations of the post-industrial proletariat, as well as the major part of the traditional working class. (68)

This dynamic is as visible in housing as anywhere else, where of course the impulses were utopian but they were also imposed top down. For Ward, in evaluating the work of local authorities post-war who believed only large-scale solutions, the results were tragic:

When they ran out of bomb sites they made themselves a second blitz. Colin Jones has shown how the self-confident rush to destroy the past in Glasgow and Liverpool has resulted in a new housing loss and Graham Lomas demonstrated in 1975 how in London more fit houses had been destroyed than had been built since the war. (73)

Anarchy or Order? The Planner’s Dilemma (1985)

Ward writes

… our present misgivings and dilemmas about the role of planning in society are not the product of the energy crisis, nor of the collapse of the job market, nor of the present government’s ideology. They go back to fundamental differences in the world view of those whose version of the origins and functions of planning is that it is a popular movement associated with non-professionals like Ebenezer Howard, Patrick Geddes and F. J. Osborn and the whole garden cities movement that evolved with the TCPA, and those who see it as an extension of the sanitary reforms of the last century and governmental intervention in the housing market, with a hierarchy of professional expertise in local and central government administering the very comprehensive legislation for controlling land use that has accumulated since 1947.

I think this is a key tension in planning (though still struggle a bit with Howard as a proponent of bottom-up popular housing, I don’t know enough about Geddes or Osborn to feel much either way about them). But I do think this has all too often been true — a quote from Bruce Alsop:

It is astonishing with what savagery planners and architects are trying to obliterate working-class cultural and social patterns. Is it because many of them are first generation middle-class technosnobs? (85 – from (Towards a Humane Architecture, 1974)

Part of me responds to these great utopian visions of past planners and some of the brutalist building here in the UK, but I am more at ease with this suspicion in the long run:

If we have to polarise our attitudes between order and disorder, I fear order most, because I know that the order that will be imposed is the order of the secure and privileged. Socialist planners like Sharp thought that they were restraining the disorder of get-rich-quick capitalist entrepreneurs, when in fact they were trampling on the invisible order of those who just want a chance, as J. B. Priestley put it, to “get on with their own lives”. (92)

An Anarchist Approach to Urban Planning

Another great quote — one of the things I have loved about reading these is finding other people to look up and read. Like Giancarlo De Carlo:

The first main attitude is based on two principle arguments. Firstly that authority cannot be a liberating agent — perfectly true; secondly, that man [and of course today he would say man and woman] can do nothing until he is free — a mistaken view. Man cannot be liberated, he must liberate himself, and any progress towards that liberation can only be the conscious expression of his own will. The investigation of the full extent of the region, city and home, is such an activity. To find out the nature of problems and to prepare their solutions is a concrete example of direct action, taking away the powers of authority and giving them back to men [and women].

The attitude of hostility that really means “waiting for the revolution to do it”, does not take into account the fact that the social revolution will be accomplished by clear heads, not by sick and stunted people unable to think of the future because of the problems of the present. It forgets that the revolution begins in the elimination of these evils so as to create the necessary conditions of a free society. (124)

I also love, and had never before heard of, the ‘rungs’ of Arnstein’s ‘Ladder of Participation’. Climbing up from the bottom, these are:

Citizen Control
Delegated Power
Partnership
Placation
Consultation
Informing
Therapy
Manipulation

The top 5 are all too familiar, the top one what we always struggled to achieve. Ward writes:

I have always found Arnstein’s Ladder a very useful measuring-rod which enables us to get behind the barrage of propaganda and decide whether any particular exercise in “public participation” is merely manipulation or therapy, or often deception (which found no place on Arnstein’s ladder — but should have done). (126)

He is also clear about his critique of council housing from this perspective, and aware of where else the critique was coming from:

Because there is a political no-person’s-land which Mrs Thatcher and her advisers are colonising from the Right, and which you and I are colonising from the Left. Don’t be disconcerted about this. The wilderness is a good place to be, just because it’s a location for initiative, experiment, wild hopes and lost causes. (137)

Looking back now I would argue we can say this hope that such a wilderness could be inhabited without being colonised entirely by neoliberalism facilitating real estate as a key economic driver was a lost cause. Looking back now, and in comparing the UK to the States, you could argue that for all its faults, the vast numbers of council houses meant a depressed property market, created conditions in its margins for wild hopes, initiative and experiment no longer possible in many cities across the globe under accelerating financialisation. Not good enough, but better than where we are now. Because I am all for those hopes and experiments, and I do wish resources had been forthcoming to support them in broad, mutually sustaining ways. Even just a bunch of plain old co-ops. I am still a bit mournful reading this:

I don’t think that anyone here will now claim that the role of local authorities is that of a direct provider. We have been through that syndrome for several lifetimes, and it has taken the present government to break the connection, using thoroughly dishonest slogans about “setting the people free” (138)

Depressing, but this importance of dweller control to the dwellers themselves seems to resonate so strongly — what if we had had that impulse from the beginning, where would Right to Buy have been? Would the steady government centralisation of funding and control if not of responsibility have been the same on such a foundation? Could a central government austerity have stripped council after council, community after community of almost everything and given it away to its cronies? Ward could write even then:

Britain is the most unitary, which is to say, centralised, state in Europe, with a few exceptions like Romania or Albania. All political factions are to blame for this. The Left, intoxicated by the idea of conquering state power, rejoiced in being able to override reactionary local authorities. The Right, in spite of a tradition dating back to Edmund Burke, which exalted the local over the central, is equally intoxicated by its current success in finding one way after another of ensuring that local government can be brought to heel by innumerable small administrative measures intended to destroy those Labour Party which it has expanded into an Enemy to be eliminated.

I find this very sinister indeed… (139)

And here we are.

Ward, Colin (1990) Talking Houses. London: Freedom Press.

Red Vienna, A vision of Housing

There may be loads written on this, but very little of it is available in English in anything resembling an affordable edition. Almost nothing. The book I most wanted by Eve Blau The Architecture of “Red Vienna” 1919-1934 starts at £130, still, I found a lovely article by her which this pulls from a bit en masse. But the lack of literature is an immense frustration.

After the electoral victory of the Austrian Social Democratic Worker’s Party (SDAPÖ) in May of 1919 Vienna, the new socialist council accomplished great things to improve the lives of workers. Housing was only one of the things they did, they looked at education and health as well. But more on that is here. The new government under mayors Jakob Reumann and Karl Seitz worked to build as much housing as quickly as they could. And it is splendid. It was ‘organised communally and jointly on a community aid basis‘, designed by architects like Adolf Loos, Josef Frank, Margarete Lihotzky and Franz Schuster and the whole advised by others like Otto Neurath.

The settlers’ collectives and cooperatives were in most cases sub-organisations of the SDAPÖ, which was a guarantee that neither anarchy nor a proprietary bourgeois ownership mentality prevailed, but above all that party-political and unified action was encouraged and reinforced, through educational and community-oriented organisational forms such as political and cultural education courses (adult education programme, adult education centres), libraries, clubs, workers’ clubs (Schutzbund) and youth groups (Wiener Kinderfreunde, Rote Falken, Naturfreunde),

From a present-day viewpoint, the formal achievements of “Red Vienna” are of less importance than its social achievements, because the allocation of housing according to the determination of need, i.e. objective urgency, rather than through interest or purse, the instilling of a spirit of community and shared responsibility in a longed-for democratic welfare state by means of architecture and improved living conditions, the demand for healthier, decent housing with local infrastructure, not at the cost of the weak, are (still) real-socialist goals which remain to be achieved today. (Zednicek 11-12)

I found a slightly different take here, from Eve Blau in an article on an earlier exhibition touring the US ‘The Vienna Model: Housing for the 21st Century City’ (would have loved that…)

To begin, it is important to emphasize that the municipal project of Red Vienna was not a housing program, but an urban program. It was a comprehensive urban project that set itself task of making Vienna a more equitable environment for modern urban living. The building program – which involved the construction of 400 buildings known as Gemeindebauten, in which housing, social services and cultural institutions were distributed throughout the city – was the primary instrument of that project.[1] By 1934, when Red Vienna itself came to a violent end with the Austrofascist rout of the socialist administration by Dollfuss and the Heimwehr, 200,000 people – one-tenth of the population of Vienna – had been rehoused, and the city provided with a vast new infrastructure of health and welfare services, clinics, childcare facilities, kindergartens, schools, sports facilities, public libraries, theatres, cinemas, and other institutions.

When the first socialist mayor of Vienna was elected in 1919, the Social Democrats determined to make Red Vienna a model of municipal socialism. “Capitalism,” Robert Danneberg, president of the new Provincial Assembly of Vienna declared, “cannot be abolished from the Town Hall. Yet it is within the power of great cities to perform useful installments of socialist work in the midst of capitalist society.”[2] Red Vienna, in other words, was a project to change society by changing the city (Blau).

Most of the flats built were modest, all had an internal toilet (revolutionary!) but many were lacking other amenities now considered necessary. But they held so much more, and embodied a vision of social transformation:

The Gemeindebauten were conceived as the “social condensers” of Red Vienna, the vehicles for transforming the city. They contained housing, but also the Social Democrats’ extensive new infrastructure of social and cultural institutions that were embedded in them. They therefore created a new network of socio-cultural nodes throughout Vienna. It is important to note that the Social Democrats could not have focused on housing and social infrastructure if the previous Christian Social administration of mayor Karl Lueger (1844-1910) had not put in place the extensive network of technical infrastructure – electricity, gas, drinking water, sewage, tramlines, and a new metropolitan railway – in Vienna a generation earlier. The Social Democrats not only profited, but also learned a great deal from that earlier program (Blau).

Look how much they managed before this brilliant moment was crushed by fascism. Small wonder they campaigned around it.

SDAP’s Election Campaign Poster, 1932 [Design: Siegfried Weyr] © VGA

A striking feature of all “Red Vienna” municipal housing projects is the inscription in red metal lettering: “Built by the Viennese municipal authorities from funds raised through the housing construction tax in the years …” Notwithstanding their stylistic similarities, the municipal developments are characterised by a wide range of architectural solutions and building typologies, whereby, with the typology of the “superblock”, for the first time in urban development morphology both a new building typology in housing construction and a change in scale in Vienna’s urban landscape appear. The homogeneous giant blocks containing over 800 individual flats, but also some big estate settlements with between 400 and 800 settler’s holdings, burst asunder the traditional architectural and structural fabric of the city. The new, unfamiliar “colossal” scale of the municipal developments gave rise to new problems both in terms of urban the planning and also in the way the dimensions of the buildings rage and were handled architecturally. The monumental-emotional excesses of the “superblocks”, which because of their size and mass dominated the urban space, were perceived as a unified “Red Front” against bourgeois-conservative Vienna. (Zednicek 35)

Eve Blau brings out more nuance in this, partly by describing the traditions of architecture, planning and transport design they drew from as well as their goal. I wouldn’t have said they felt all that much like a front, with perhaps the exception of Karl-Marx Hof. They fit the fabric of the city quite well.

At first glance the Gemeindebauten appear to be traditional Central European perimeter blocks that have been monumentalized and provided with large garden courtyards so that they often occupy an entire urban block and sometimes several. Because of their seeming conventionality, the Gemeindebauten were sharply criticized at the time by architects of the modernist avant-garde and by architectural historians later, most notably, Manfredo Tafuri, who criticized them for their apparent lack of typological innovation.[6]

But in fact, they did represent innovation:

By bringing the public space of the city into the interior (and traditionally private space) of the block, the Gemeindebauten effectively turned the traditional urban block of the Central European city inside out.  In so doing, they created hybrid spaces that were both part of the public domain of the city and part of the private and communal space of the new housing blocks. 

The buildings themselves also challenge traditional concepts of boundary and type. Part dwelling space, part institutional space, part commercial space; they are multi-functional, multi-use structures that operate as both housing and urban infrastructural nodes, distributing the social services and cultural facilities provided by the Social Democratic municipality across the city. In short, they reproduced the city while reallocating its spaces and amenities.

and further:

In short, the Gemeindebauten not only appropriated what would normally have been private space in the city (the interiors of the city blocks) for public use, but also created a new kind of commons, a new form of communal space in the city. And they did this without destroying the existing scale and fabric. Today, this kind of commonly owned space has more or less disappeared from the city.

Marvelous.

A display from the exhibition:

We headed to the Ringstrasse of the Proletariat — I mean, we heard that such was its name once upon a time and so of course we did. Not all the buildings we saw are on this map but this is the key grouping:

Franz Domes-Hof

We start from the top, walking down from the Margaretengürtel station. We found these nowhere clearly mapped, so had no idea quite what we were looking for, or how much we would find (and missed one with crazy balconies right across the street).

Ernst Hinterberger Hof

Reumann Hof

This was impressive — nine stories in the center flanked by two smaller blocks of seven stories. The courtyards they hold and the different levels are wonderful, as is the welcoming garden in front of the center building. It was meant to be impressive, ‘since it reflected in idealised form the ideological power-political and cultural reality right at the beginning of “municipal socialism’ (Zednicek 54) .

Architects Hubert Gessner/Josef Bittner, built 1924-26

Metzleinstaler Hof

This feels both subdued and ornate alongside Reumann Hof

Metzleinstaler Hof

Matteotti Hof

There is clearly another in the curve of the road, I thought Matteotti was the end…but we had the biggest yet to come. Still, I appreciated seeing these more I think, one alongside each other you get a real sense of how they are each distinctive yet the characteristics they share.

Karl Marx Hof

This monstrous flagship of the social democratic administration and building ideology bears all the hallmarks of a built political manifesto. The grand gesture already expressly demanded by the municipal planning department when inviting competitive design proposals required a distinctly “triumphal architecture”, which the official town hall architect Karl Ehn implemented in ideal form with his colossal design. The gigantic housing complex of, originally, 1,300 flats with exemplary infrastructural amenities has a facade almost one kilometre in length which gave rise to how the problem of how to deal with the structural dimensions and divide them harmonically… solved through the effective scaling of the structure in individual blocks. The prestige project with its plainly designed and divided blocks was consciously conceived as an antithesis to the otherwise preferred pathos of the “people’s palaces”. (Zednicek 14)

It was built in 3 stages as part of the 2nd 5-year plan of housing constrcution, first occupied in 1930 and completed in 1933. Such an incredible thing after July 1927, the burning of the Palace of Justice and bloody street fighting — which cannot but be connected to the civil war of July 1934.

Pictures from the Red Vienna exhibit website of when it was first built — and by whom!

Karl-Marx-Hof, Commemorative Courtyard with Sculpture „The Sower“, ca. 1930, Photo: Martin Gerlach jun. © Wien Museum
Karl Marx-Hof, Assembly for Gas-, Water and Electricity Systems, ca. 1929 © Wien Museum

This is another settlement all together, but gives a sense of the cooperative building.

Siedlung Rosenhügel, Settlement, 1921 © Wien Museum

And these the books used to track people’s labour:

A model building of a settlement house by Adolf Loos. Splendid

There is a map of course, but it is large and we saw it at the Red Vienna exhibition but could not take it with us…

Blau, Eve (n.d.) Re-visiting Red Vienna as an Urban Project, https://www.austria.org/revisiting-red-vienna.

Zednicek, Walter (2009) Architektur des Roten Wien. Vien: Grasl Druck & Neue Medien.

real estate noir: MacDonald on The Florida Suburbs…

It was one of those Florida houses I find unsympathetic, all block tile, glass, terrazzo, aluminum. They have a surgical coldness. Each one seems to be merely some complex corridor arrangement, a going-through place, an entrance built to some place of a better warmth and privacy that was never constructed. When you pause in these rooms, you have the feeling you are waiting. You feel that a door will open and you will be summoned, and horrid things will happen to you before they let you go. You can not mark these houses with any homely flavor of living. When they are emptied after occupancy, they have the look of places where the blood has recently been washed away.

The yard was scrubby with dried weeds. (40)

MacDonald, John D. ([1964] 1992)The Deep Blue Goodbye. London: Orion.

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

I had a crazy day today. So much work to get through before taking a break. I am so deeply grateful for a life where I can take breaks. Deep excitement about teaching housing, but a bit nervous too. A bureaucratic meeting in which Foucauldian theories of governance became real with an extraordinary intensity. A meeting with the mayor in which it turns out we are all thinking different things about this research. Much needed pints with some of the more awesome academics I know to talk about radical housing and radical research. A long day.

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, after finding it in looking for something else but it came to mind again this evening. I wrote it almost ten years ago and hadn’t read it since then to be honest, and I know it’s not available anymore from Perspectives Journal, who I wrote it for (which explains some of the references). Back before I was an academic. A year after I had left LA, quit organising. I was still thinking about it. For all I’ve learned and written since then I’m still not sure I know more really than I knew then, though I phrase many things differently. Leonardo Vilchis is still my hero, still smarter than me.

In other news, isn’t Killing Eve the best thing you’ve seen on television in ages (I know I’m a little behind on this)? Much as I love Jodie Whitaker…

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification

Introduction:

In August of 2002, two different families came to Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) because the manager of the Morrison Hotel had stopped accepting their rent. As tenant organizers, we had found this to be a common tactic to evade the laws of rent control and illegally force people from their homes. Typically the managers would not accept rent for a couple of months, then tell tenants that they had to leave. If the tenants did not leave they would be evicted in court for non-payment of rent, their only defense a claim that the managers had refused their rent. The managers themselves would contradict this while under oath, if it ever actually went before the judge. Such a tactic generally came into play when an owner was trying to empty a building, either to sell for higher profit, or to rehabilitate it and then rent the apartments at four or five times the original rent.

The Morrison Hotel is a 117-unit building situated only a few blocks from the Los Angeles Convention Center, in the midst of a flurry of new construction and luxury lofts. Famous as the cover of The Doors’ album titled The Morrison Hotel, over the years it had become a residential hotel. Essentially it had become housing of last resort, single rooms, with over half of them sharing public restrooms and showers. The managers sat in a small glass-fronted room facing the doors so that they could monitor everyone who came in or out. Knowing that many managers are unhappy about the presence of tenant organizers in their buildings, we went in on a Sunday morning while they were in church. Upon entering, fleas and insects attacked us, roaches were everywhere, and the smell of sewage was overpowering. Mold covered bathroom walls, paint peeled from the ceilings, plaster cracked, fire doors sat broken, panes of glass were missing from windows and balcony doors. The entire building seemed to be full, with a slight majority of the tenants being families with small children. We met one family of five whose two children had suffered from severe lead poisoning and permanent brain damage due to the flaking paint. While Los Angeles County had ordered the owners to rehabilitate that individual unit, only a few years later it was once again in very poor condition. The owners were not ordered to rehabilitate the rest of the building, nor inform other families of the lead hazards. Apart from families, the other tenants were single individuals or couples on general relief or disability. For all of them, the Morrison Hotel was the housing of last resort before the streets.

Within three months, more than 70 of these units would be empty. Not one of them was vacated under the legal requirements of rent control. Some families were evicted in the courts after the managers had withheld all mail informing them of the eviction process against them. The sheriff informed them of their eviction orders when he knocked on their doors. Tenants testified to physical assault, sexual assault, constant insults, and the intimidation of both themselves and their children. Several tenants told of being threatened with the manager’s dog, a pit bull. Threats alone were enough for many to just walk away, others were paid sums ranging from $25 to $4,000 to vacate.

While several tenants who had been threatened verbally were brave enough to come forward to file police reports, the police told them that “until it became physical” they would do nothing. At the same time, the police were being used to keep us—tenant organizers—out of the building.

All of these tactics were set into motion when the owners put the Morrison Hotel up for sale for $8,000,000 and drew up initial plans to convert it into a boutique hotel. They had bought the building for $1,000,000 eight years before, and after years of collecting rent while investing the absolute minimum to keep the building standing, they were looking to gain a substantial profit. The legal system that had failed to ensure the building’s maintenance was used to keep community workers out of the building, and thereby facilitate the owners’ attempt to circumvent California housing law by emptying the building by any means necessary.

This story exposes two things: the first is the changing dynamic of property development and profit in city communities, and the second is the ugly reality that under our legal framework, property rights take precedence over all else in the United States.

And so what better place for radical struggle? In this story, and others like it, lies not only grave injustice, but also what we would call a teachable moment, a place where people can break down for themselves the powerful American mythology of both development and the private property that is so foundational to our current system. What happened in this building (among so many others), exposes the essence of capitalism and its human cost, and demands an alternative vision for our society. Without grasping this
moment, critically analyzing it in light of theory, folding it into a greater movement and building on it, this story is nothing more than a story, and represents a struggle with a beginning and an end that makes little difference in the world as it currently exists, or in the hearts and minds of those who fought. This is the importance of theory for the people.

The importance of these stories for theorists is that they represent the harsh reality as lived by America’s poor and working class. It is the reality in which any radical movement needs to ground itself, and a field of battle where those who suffer the most from capitalism can drive the effort towards changing it. Voline wrote:

The key idea of anarchism is simple: no party, or political or ideological group, even if it sincerely desires to do so, will ever succeed in emancipating the working masses by placing itself above or outside them in order to “govern” or “guide” them. True emancipation can only be brought about by the direct action…of those concerned, the workers themselves, through their own class organizations…and not under the banner of any political party or ideological body. Their emancipation must be based on concrete action and “self-administration,” aided but not controlled by revolutionaries working from within the masses and not from above them…i

The question has always been how can this be achieved? The masses will never organize themselves around abstractions while they have to remove cockroaches from their children’s ears, or try to channel the water from a leaking roof away from their beds. They will organize around their key issues: security in their home and community, justice in their workplace, healthcare, a decent education and a future for their kids. It is the role of the radical organizer to ensure that these struggles open up an understanding of the structural realities that have made them necessary. It is also their role to ensure that each struggle builds community and horizontal organizations that will continue working together after the immediate struggle is resolved, to bring theory and practice together, and to tie local struggle into a greater movement for change.

Several things are required to build such a movement. The first is a deeper understanding of the forces operating in our local communities, the tides of disinvestment and investment that have caused such devastation, and how this fits into the larger framework of capitalism, globalization and neoliberalism. And we need to share lessons learned through practice, to build stronger horizontal organization and greater consciousness of struggle and change. This article will briefly look at the forces behind the new gentrification and how these can be challenged in practice. It will do so through brief case studies of the organizing work of two community-based non-profits in Los Angeles, SAJE, where I worked as an organizer from 2001 to 2007, and Union de Vecinos, through the words of Leonardo Vilchis, a cofounder and organizer. Both organizations are working to organize, to educate, and to build a greater movement for structural change.

SAJE

SAJE (Strategic Actions for a Just Economy) was founded in 1996 to improve economic conditions and opportunities for low-income families in Los Angeles. Initially, SAJE worked with various worker-owned and run cooperatives, and also organized campaigns around banking rights, working to ensure that welfare recipients could open bank accounts rather than being forced to pick up their checks at the local check-cashing outlet. SAJE is also the convener of the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice, which won the largest Community Benefits Agreement of its time against Phillip Anschutz and AEG when they attempted to expand the Staples Center and is now working on issues regarding the University of Southern California’s responsibilities to the surrounding community through what is called the UNIDAD (United Neighbors In
Defense Against Displacement) campaign.

Although winning the Community Benefits Agreement with AEG, there were clear limits to the victory, as the construction of LA Live would lead inevitably to the wholesale displacement of the residents who were supposed to benefit from the agreement. So, SAJE committed itself to working in the Figueroa Corridor, an area consisting of 40 blocks of Figueroa Street that stretch from the Staples Center and downtown Los Angeles on the North, to the University of Southern California on the South. Surrounding this commercial strip and comprising a 12-square-mile area are neighborhoods that house 200,000 people whose median income is 49% of the City’s median. A majority are people of color, among them Latinos, Blacks and recent immigrants. Eighty-six percent are tenants.

Through door-knocking and tenant organizing work, SAJE worked with tenants to fight illegal evictions, harassment, and displacement. It built tenant organizations in both individual buildings and larger community areas, and challenged the city’s redevelopment plans for downtown and South Central.

Union de Vecinos

Union de Vecinos was founded in 1996. It emerged out of a decade of work organizing with the Catholic Church in the tradition of Liberation Theology, and was started as a purely volunteer organization in an effort to save the Pico Aliso housing projects in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles from demolition. Over the past thirteen years, it has grown beyond its initial base in the projects to become a larger network of communities in different parts of Los Angeles County. They work mostly in Boyle Heights, but Union de Vecinos communities can also be found in Hollywood, North Hollywood, South L.A. and Maywood. It is a network that consists at any given time of between 25 and 30 different communities. Leonardo Vilchis defines a community as a small neighborhood, a group of people in a small enough area where it is possible for everyone to know each other. The communities that Union works with organize around the specific needs around their neighborhood. Within these communities, people develop their own programs to improve their neighborhoods and tackle specific issues. All of them come together periodically to organize broader campaigns around the key issues arising from their neighborhood work that affect everyone. Union has also worked to form building committees to address tenant rights issues, the protection of rent control, and the improvement of housing quality.ii

Since 1992, Boyle Heights has lost approximately 2,000 affordable housing units to publicly funded projects, which does not count the displacement caused by private owners and development. There were 1,500 units lost with the destruction of public housing, another 150 units with the construction of a new metro line, and 60 units lost for the building of a new police station.iii

Organizing Methodology:

Who Drives Change

The principal point of departure for both Union and SAJE is that for real and lasting change to be effective, it must be driven by those most affected by injustice. For Union this comes explicitly from the tradition of Liberation Theology and its preferential option for the poor, while for SAJE it is an explicitly theoretical position. For Leonardo Vilchis, this is also a very practical choice:

 … you could do a whole campaign on improving housing in Los Angeles where no tenants would be involved, and where you would raise your voice about the injustices within housing. You could put the data on the table and say this is why this is unfair. You could have all these middle-class people, educated people, college students (in the context of the United States, white people) to organize, and it would be a just cause, it would be the right thing, but I don’t think that that is the point of departure. The point of departure are the tenants themselves and the poor … the analysis, the description of the problem and the solution would be completely different from what this other group of people would make.iv

To build organization in the community you have to start where the people are, and any structures of cooperation have to be based in resolving community problems in ways that community involved actually have faith in. The struggle for bare survival is intense, and it is both a matter of respect and practicality to acknowledge that people will not get involved in anything that does not have an immediate impact on their lives.

It seems a simple enough proposition, and yet the hardest to actually practice for various reasons. The first lies in actually believing that it is possible when everything in a capitalist society tells you it is not. Even among those paying lip service to such an idea, it is difficult for many to put aside the preference and privilege assigned to education and professionalism, and far too often, race and language. And after years of working in the political arena when an organizer can often accomplish something through a few phone calls to City Hall, regular analysis is required to identify when to simply move forward on goals as defined by the community, and when to build capacity by stepping back and allowing people to take it to the city themselves. A clear and collective understanding needs to be built about how those who are educated and who hold professional qualifications should be of service in achieving the solutions as defined by the community, to the problems that the community itself has identified as the most important.

In practice there is a great complexity in this seemingly simple commitment. The poor and working class are constantly under attack on a multitude of fronts ranging from obscure changes in legislation that will have far-reaching negative impacts, to the criminalization of daily activities and the emptying of entire buildings and neighborhoods. It is a world of constant emergency where doing anything but immediately reacting is hard. And there is always the balance between doing anything possible to quickly stop something terrible, and building capacity through longer processes that often move more slowly and involve more risk than an orchestrated campaign following traditional organizing models. It is all too easy to get caught up in a struggle moving at a pace, and being fought at a level of technicality, that results in the poor being simply mobilized in support of an idea or strategy. But it is only through struggle and reflection upon struggle that people and the society they create are transformed.

It is also difficult because too often the poor are not organized. Horizontal structures of direct democracy have to be built in a community to direct the work for change, and this is a long, difficult, often heart-breaking process of many years. This is why we have much to learn from traditional community organizing, despite its self-imposed limits when it comes to real and lasting political change. Groups practicing direct democracy are necessary not only to have collective voice and power, but also to create a space where people can challenge themselves to think critically, to learn and to grow. These are often the only safe places where gender, race, nationality, and class can all be broken down, and the very nature of capitalism understood and rejected. Traditional community organizing has taught us that this doesn’t happen automatically,
and that building power for an oppressed group does not necessarily mean that they are incapable of then becoming oppressive to others.v This makes a guiding ideology and a methodology for making this happen all the more important. The power of such organization to stand up for itself is a beautiful thing when it exerts itself.

Union de Vecinos was founded exactly in a place where people were being silenced, and where the most poor were being pushed away from the decision-making process. There were a lot of people who said that they knew what the problem was with public housing. They were mostly politicians, mostly urban designers, planners, and bureaucrats. And they said the solution for public housing was a) to have more mixed income housing and b) to demolish the projects. And in that process a whole sector of the population was silenced and pushed aside from speaking. If you had asked the people in the projects the solution to public housing, they would’ve come up with a completely different list of answers. They told us yes, we want people to fix our homes. Yes, we want to have nicer services. But we want to stay here. Because, over the years the people who lived in the projects had built a community. Now the bureaucracy wasn’t functioning, the whole system was broken, but the way they solved it was by demolishing it and pushing people out of there. Our community had a different kind of solution. And so Union de Vecinos was started by bringing those people together who were being silenced and ignored by everybody else.

So the idea was to stop the demolition of the projects, to develop a system of relocation that would identify the real people who wanted to move out, and to talk about the preservation of public housing. And we did it totally in the margins, we didn’t have work anymore because the organization I worked for didn’t want us to continue organizing the community. We had to go find other jobs, and the tenants themselves had to do all of the work because we couldn’t be organizing, we could only provide technical support. So it became a strong volunteer organization where everyone was doing the work. We were getting together in the parking lots, in the yards, in people’s living rooms. But as the organization grew, we didn’t have a place to stay, we didn’t have a place to put our papers away, so a group of residents in the projects started saving some money and at some point they called for renting a place, and then we found a place in the community that we started renting. And for me that is very important, because they were the ones who were building the organization, they were the ones who were taking control of this process. We were providing all of the technical support that we could, but we didn’t want to be the ones pushing this, we wanted to know that it was coming from them. So they rented this place, and that is when Union de Vecinos got started. vi

Methodology:

Popular education is also foundational in the methodology of both organizations, closely intertwined as it is with the idea of being driven from below. Based on Paolo Freire’s work and writings, in essence it is a way of collectively building knowledge. It is a teaching methodology that rejects the idea of a student as a vessel to be filled with knowledge, but rather sees a process of learning as an interaction between student and teacher, growing out of the student’s lived experience. It is a collective process of learning, as well as a fundamentally political process of asking why the world is the way that it is, and how we can act together to transform it. Popular education as the basis for a method of organizing that builds critical consciousness and leads to concrete change is exemplified in this quote from Leonardo:

… I think the role of organizer, and I would slash it with organizer /popular educator/facilitator/animator is to bring people together to reflect on their reality, to define their reality, and then based on their own experience and their own condition, to seek for ways to change it in an organized way that deals with the social, economic, political, ideological, race and gender dimensions within the world. To get there the point of departure is the practice of being able to describe your world. …vii

What the popular educator brings to the conversation is the ability to move the description of the world to a critical analysis by asking questions, to move a conversation to an act of transformation. It does not mean remaining trapped in the initial world of students, circling, in the words of Freire, “like moths around a light bulb.”viii Their experience is only the starting point.

In this way, people “learn to learn,”ix they learn to deconstruct their environment and layers of oppression, and find themselves as creative and critical individuals able to act upon and change the world. It is for organizers to identify the teachable moments as they arise in the work, to leverage the daily struggles into a greater consciousness of the world and the underlying forces that have created it.

 … As organizers and popular educators, anything that the community talks about we see as a point of departure to do a social, political and economic analysis of the world. Anything can do it, a stoplight in an alley can take you to the issues of safety in the community and the need for light illumination and gangs and problems in the community and the social problems that come with gangs and you can follow that thread. Or you can talk about the budgetary reasons why they don’t want to put those lights and how the budget is allocated and where the priorities are and why they choose to put more police instead of more lights on the street and you can have a conversation on that. Or it can take you to going to the local neighborhood watch and asking the chief of police to sign a letter asking for new lights and finding out that the chief of police doesn’t care about putting lights on the street but only about putting people in jail so it leads you to understand the relation of power within the city, within the community, and the police and so on and so forth. So we use that a lot, we use these little moments, these situations, as tools to analyze the whole. … ”x

Leonardo’s description of identifying and using the teachable moment illustrates the key to popular education as a constant practice. Below is a more formal illustration of the methodology for collectivizing experience and continually building on that experience.xi

It provides a classic example of popular education theory in practice, an invaluable way of both adding theory to lived experience in a way that prioritizes one but values both, and of reflecting on past experience to build more effective campaigns in the future in a continually expanding spiral of experience, theory, and action.

The Challenges of Organizing: Organizing building by building:

The combination of traditional community organizing and popular education means that both Union and SAJE work on the issues that people themselves identify, though SAJE has chosen a more explicit focus on housing, development and displacement. The nature of the work requires that much of the organizing has to be done at a building level, side by side with tenants facing harassment, intimidation, and eviction. Working at this level to solve immediate problems gets people involved and offers a great starting point for connecting the issues of daily life to community wide problems, thereby creating a framework for and analysis and understanding of the world. It also carries many limitations however, that somehow have to be overcome for it to build towards a larger movement.
SAJE’s campaign in the Morrison Hotel showed this clearly. After getting in on the Sunday we set a date for the first building meeting at the St. Francis Center, a local service organization with whom we had built a strong partnership. We attempted to get into the Hotel again, but were physically kept out, first by the managers and their pit bull, then by armed security guards hired especially to keep us out. The police continued to take the side of the managers and the guards. The tenants brave enough to invite us in were physically threatened and faced with eviction, had their electricity turned off, and were thereafter prevented from having any visitors at all. In this climate of fear and intimidation, we worked to form a tenant union in the building. Not too many people attended the first meeting, and we essentially introduced ourselves, gave a broad picture of our experience with what was happening in the community, and allowed everyone to speak about the problems they were experiencing. People agreed to bring more of their neighbors to the next meeting, and we continued our attempts to get into the building.

The meetings began growing as people realized that they either had to fight or leave their homes. At the second meeting we began our analysis by putting a piece of paper on the wall and drawing a little cartoon building in the middle. And then we began to draw out who had power over the building. It started with the owners of course, and that is where most people’s initial analysis ended. We didn’t know a lot about the owners at that point, except that everyone had heard they owned a lot of buildings. So we asked the question, who has power over the owners?

And then we began an analysis of the city, drawing out the different structures of the Housing Department and the City Attorney’s Office. Over these we added the city council, made up of 15 elected representatives, the Mayor, and the City Attorney (another elected position in L.A.). We also looked at the County Health Department, and the County Board of Supervisors. We drew in the different state and city laws that protected tenants. And we looked at the city’s accountability to its residents, and the tenant’s own leverage over the owners.

We returned to this drawing to deepen collective analysis of the role and effectiveness of the city as we filed complaints on violations of rent control and habitability regulations. We also carried out participatory research on who exactly the owners were, what else they owned, what their business practices were. We found out that they owned or had owned at least 50 other properties through a complicated network of limited liability companies controlled primarily through the owner’s business, Phoenix Mortgage Corporation. We created a map of their business to be able to both analyze how they worked and who they were. This moved us into a discussion of the practice of rent collection in slum buildings while paying as little as possible in maintenance as one of the ways that these owners made their profit, and the extreme cost of those business practices to tenants. We talked about how the city not only failed to stop this, but often facilitated it, and why. We talked about the changes in the neighborhood and how those had changed the owners’ business practices. We discovered the discrimination in the owner’s business model shown by the differences in how they maintained their apartment buildings in Beverly Hills and their slum buildings concentrated in our own neighborhoods around downtown.

We were also able to see who exactly we were going up against, and the results of earlier attempts, which was important for strategy. As in many slum buildings, the two brothers who were actually responsible for the building’s conditions had distanced themselves from ownership on paper and legal liability as much as possible. The building was officially owned by the Hope Pico Limited Liability Company, which was registered in the state of Illinois and formed in turn by Phoenix Mortgage Company and two money investors. The Danpour brothers were the principals of Phoenix Mortgage, and in investigating them we found that Henry Danpour had two previous convictions for improperly maintaining his buildings. They both owned buildings, either jointly or passed back and forth, that had been identified by various city programs as violating basic habitability requirements. We were able to show that they had been sued multiple times by the tenants in their different buildings, and that several local tenant rights organizations had organized against them. By uncovering these facts together we were able to work with tenants towards a deeper understanding of the structures of oppression. The Morrison Hotel was also perhaps the best example we had of the ineffectiveness of city and county government when it came to enforcing their own codes against private owners. This was further tested by our own collective experience in navigating the city process.

We did similar analyses in each of the buildings that we organized. And every analysis led to deeper discussions of race and class, economics and gentrification. But building work was always intensive, and limited the number of people we could reach. The greatest struggle was always balancing the need to build towards a community-wide response to the problems, while also dealing with a constant level of emergency in the midst of a struggle. The Morrison Hotel was a campaign of extraordinary intensity and required a huge time investment to build trust among tenants, and between tenants and our organization. It was challenging to bring together a population made up of monolingual Spanish speaking families, African American veterans, and a handful of single people of various races, many of whom were rather eccentric, regular drinkers or users of varying levels of drugs, and some mentally ill. All meetings were carried out with simultaneous translation and it took some time to break down the barriers of language and race. Many of the elderly men really did not like small children, and in spite of on-site childcare, there were enough interruptions that it became a point of tension early on. The most effective thing in bridging these tensions was simply regular meetings and discussions, working together towards a common goal and building trust through knowledge of each other. These meetings would immediately address the many personal issues that arose, and, where possible, address them collectively.

Looking back, I know that we seriously under-estimated the investment of time that would be required of us, two years of weekly meetings with tenants, sometimes daily emergency visits to the building, regular one-on-ones, and constant negotiation with the lawyers and city officials who also became involved in the struggle. The symbolic victory was huge when the owner was convicted on 21 criminal counts by a city that had not taken a landlord to trial for decades. And we transformed how the city itself prosecuted problem owners. They began doing the same research that we had done: this resulted in their prosecution of both corporations and the individuals behind those corporations and considering the entire extent of an owner’s holdings when taking them to trial. The city has also begun working in partnership with community organizations.
And yet when looking at the scale of tenant participation, and our ultimate goal of building movement, there is definitely an argument that the Morrison Hotel campaign was a tactical mistake in building a larger base of tenants working together in a long-term way as part of a larger struggle around the causes of displacement in the community. We knew this possibility when we made the difficult decision to jump into a campaign there; we felt in the final analysis that it was too important of a symbol to allow it to fall without any struggle at all. Of all the tenants in the Morrison Hotel, only one leader has remained really active in the struggles of other tenants, though several have remained in touch and supportive of SAJE, donating either money or coming to occasional events. This is an all-too-common issue with many organizers, how to keep people involved in the struggle after their own immediate and pressing issues have been solved.

Overcoming Limitations, Building Structures for Participation:

At SAJE we had always identified this as an issue, and to ensure that our efforts were never limited in scale to a single building, our strategy had been to create a tenant clinic and something we called a Displacement Free Zone. We wanted the clinic to be a place to collectivize tenant experiences, to provide a foundation of knowledge about basic tenant rights and how these fit into a political and economic landscape, and work to build a sense of individual evictions as a community issue. Union de Vecinos has used similar clinics towards the same goal.

… At the clinic when people come together and start sharing their story one after another there is an awareness that we are not alone. There’s an awareness that this is not something that just happened to us because we didn’t pray enough or because we didn’t work hard enough or because they’re racist, there’s also an awareness that this happens because we are not organizing. … xii

Looking back to evaluate our success in these clinics, I believe the area we pulled tenants from was too small. As a result we never had a critical mass together in one place at one time to run a full workshop as we had planned, instead we usually ended up doing more work one-on-one with families, either as they trickled into the clinic, or when they came into the office with emergency situations requiring an immediate response. We were able to achieve some level of education and politicization, but not the strong collective sense of the problem that we hoped for.

We were more effective in building the Displacement Free Zone. As building blocks of the DFZ, we built tenant unions in various buildings, at one point we had eight tenant unions working on campaigns around improving conditions, preventing evictions, and stopping the harassment of tenants by landlords. The buildings themselves had regular meetings where tenants came together to discuss their issues and collectively make decisions on their own campaigns and strategies.

Volunteers from each of the buildings also came to DFZ meetings, which became a space to coordinate support for each other amongst the different buildings and begin to confront the wave of evictions and displacement changing the face of the neighborhood. We carried out an information and education campaign through door-knocking in the neighborhood to let other residents know their rights and where they could find help. This initial committee was gradually expanded to three committees in three different neighborhoods where we were doing building organizing. Although most of the tenants from the different buildings did not really continue in their support of other tenants after the particular campaign in their building had finished, they remained in contact with us and we had a core of people from each of the buildings who remained active in the struggle to improve the conditions in the community for everyone.

This system of working in multiple buildings at once worked reasonably well while the buildings we were involved in did not require a huge investment of our own time. The Morrison Hotel, however, put a huge strain on us, and maintaining active committees while simultaneously supporting campaigns in other buildings proved to be incredibly difficult. I don’t believe we adequately took into account the amount of time needed for tenants with no previous experience in political or community activities to have the confidence and the capacity to run regular meetings and activities on their own. And, of course, I believe we could have done better in giving them the tools required, and in using every meeting as an opportunity for people to develop those skills. It felt at all times as though we were incredibly stretched, and while we had a lot of idealism, our own practical skills were continually developing as none of us had come to the work with much experience either. We definitely learned that certain key skills such as meeting facilitation were incredibly difficult to build in everyone.

Union de Vecinos has been more successful in creating a large base of members that are working actively, many of them with minimal support from the organizers. This only underlines the importance of successful organizers sharing their experience and knowledge. Over two decades of working in the neighborhood, Union de Vecinos’ organizers have created a broad feeling of community that is not always necessarily active, but can come together when necessary. As Leonardo puts it:

 … Overall we have between 25 and 30 committees. It fluctuates because in the community, you know, people aren’t as involved if nothing is happening. Sometimes if an alley was the core of the problem in that community and you take care of that and there are no gang members and there are no buildings with problems, then people … well, they’re still your friends, they’re still part of your larger community even though they feel they no longer need to meet as a committee for a while. Just like with your friends, you don’t always see each other all the time. So those communities disappear and then others emerge in the process … xiii

They also grow in an organic way, through the members themselves talking to their neighbors. And over time there are now a number of committees able to maintain themselves on their own, though Union de Vecinos stays in regular contact with all of them.

…The way they (the committees) develop is that our members talk to other members, they learn about the issues and invite us to some meetings. Now sometimes it happens that they hold their own meetings and invite us to come and talk to them, and then they continue their meetings and we don’t see them for three months and then they invite us again. Our goal as organizers, our goal as staff to this organization, is to be in touch with the people in every committee, and to keep an ongoing relationship with every committee… ”xiv

It is this loose structure of keeping involved those wanting to be active, creating a space that allows committees and people involved to come and go, to take time off if burned out and easily pick up again, and building skill and capacity in individuals that has allowed such a small staff to build an impressive network of grassroots organization.

The committees also vary tremendously in size depending on the community and the people involved, but they have been successful as long as a core group of people are committed to the long-term and big-picture struggle. At SAJE it certainly took us a while to learn how to start building movement while also winning battles. Again, as Leonardo puts clearly:

 … The smallest committee is six people, but going back to the traditional organizing model, we do pay attention to the balance of power. We want to have an impact, we want to have influence in the community. So if it is six people who just want to meet with us and talk to us about their problems but they’re not involved in anything in the community, and don’t want to be involved we really don’t work too much with them. But if it is six people who are involved and who are able to move the community we work with them. … ”xv

When we first started doing the tenant organizing at SAJE, we more than once invested a lot of time in helping individual families who weren’t at all interested in giving back to the greater community. By doing this we made a great difference in individual lives, but it did not contribute to building something larger. In the face of desperate need, it is often difficult to limit your own involvement. It is only through commitment to the bigger picture that this becomes possible.

Building Scale:

The biggest keys in building the numbers and level of organization needed to have an impact on the larger problems facing a local community seem to come down to a few key principles. The first is to organize around what the people in the affected neighborhood want to organize around, typically things that are immediately relevant and meaningful in their lives and capable of providing concrete victories. The second is to target your efforts to those who share a similar commitment to you, and will help you organize something greater than a single victory. The third is to create fluid yet stable horizontal structures that allow people to be involved over a long-term period, and can be reanimated if the community becomes inactive for a time. And the last is simply to make a long-term commitment to a community and to individual development; what Union de Vecinos has created was built by key organizers’ working in the same community over a span of twenty years.

Yet even so, many of the problems that organizers face have roots far distant from the local level. Local action can be capable of only so much when facing the regional, national and global economic realities that define life in the inner city. One of the most vital areas of study is how to build cohesive and useful coalitions of organizations on every scale, from the city to the region to the state to the nation to the globe.

For organizations and groups committed to being driven by those they are organizing, this presents a particularly difficult problem. There is a risk that pressure could be brought to bear from the top down and coalition work turn into a simple mobilization of local residents. To prevent this from happening while still facilitating useful work, safeguards and a strict decision-making process must be set in place. At the same time, the process must be as streamlined as possible to reduce the additional burden of work on already overburdened organizers or it will simply not be possible. The process and the work must always be immediately relevant, reinforcing the need for theory and big-picture strategies. And best practices for integrating high-level campaigns with those working on the ground need to be investigated, developed, and shared. Both SAJE and Union de Vecinos are members of various coalitions on a city-wide level, and for the past two years have been part of a new and promising national coalition of organizations and theorists called Right To The City. This is certainly an area where much more needs to be written, and their efforts to build national organization amongst organizations that are committed to radical community organizing needs to be evaluated and shared.

Conclusion:

The eternal organizing problem is the unending succession of emergencies, of actions, of things that must be done. There is never enough time to do everything that requires doing, and making the effort to lift your head to look where you are going often seems impossible. This problem is compounded when you have to sort through the huge amount of theory and political thought that is not grounded in practice, and does not serve community building in immediately meaningful ways. This is no reflection on the usefulness of theory in understanding the world, simply that for those immersed in grassroots work, it is hard to find time and space to reflect on the abstract.

There is also very little written on the practice of radical community organizing, and the difficulties in creating sustainable and long-term horizontal community organization. There is even less on how to use every meeting and every campaign, however small, to constantly build towards a scale of involvement and power that can
have a real impact.

This essay is a beginning attempt to start thinking through what I have learned over years of work, and is only a very small contribution towards how we can more concretely respond to overwhelming challenges while remaining true to the belief that real change must come from the masses. How we can undermine the dominant ideas of private property, and propose alternatives. How we can create sustainable communities of critical analysis and action that operate through direct democracy. It has possibly raised more questions than provided answers and the ultimate question is whether such work could ever be enough. I don’t know that it is a question that can be answered, but it should be raised by anyone committed to these ideals as way to measure our own efforts and the usefulness of our theory. To organize certainly requires a great faith in the knowledge and abilities of the poor and working class, but also a recognition of the organizer’s place in a long line of people working for social justice both leading up to this time, and taking over after we are gone. I want to end with Leonardo’s answer to the question of what he thought was the most important advice he could give to other organizers:

“ …We have to understand that we are not operating on the time of the here and now. We are operating at the time of history, so these things take a lot of time. We need to think in terms of generations. A lot of times I think that the leaders that we are working with right now, the adults in the community, are not the main beneficiaries of this process. It is the kids who grow up in an environment where their parents are organized, where their parents come to these barbecues that Union de Vecinos is organizing, and who come to these actions. These kids grow up in a completely different world than they would have if they hadn’t been part of this movement, and that’s what I’m kind of hoping for in terms of the work of Union de Vecinos. Our results are not the stuff that we did 10 years ago, it’s the stuff that will happen in 20 years, and for that you have to have a different kind of patience.

You need to think in terms of making history, that you’re part of a historical process, of a social process. Social processes don’t get developed overnight. You’re talking about changing culture, changing values, changing society, changing the way everything is organized. And that is also why we are different in terms of a community organization. In most community organizations you only work in terms of the specific, the achievable, and the measurable. If it is not specific, if it is not achievable, if it is not measurable you don’t do it. We do here. We do it because it may not be specific, but it may be meaningful. And if it is meaningful it appeals to your consciousness, and if it appeals to your consciousness it changes how you look at the world, and if it changes how you look at the world it changes how you act on that world … there are signs of hope everywhere, we need to pay attention to them, we need to build on them, we need to become stronger every time we are part of them. But still, it is going to take time. … ”xvi

Works Cited

Arnold, Rick et al, Educating for Change. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991.

Fisher, Robert. Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Guerin, Daniel. Anarchism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970.

Truax, Eileen. “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.

Notes

i Volin, cited in Daniel Guerin, Anarchism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 37.
ii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
iii Eileen Truax “Proposicion B en Boyle Heights,” La Opinion, Oct 11, 2008.
iv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
v Fisher, 65.
vi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
vii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
viii Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Continuum, 1995), p. 70.
ix Freire, 81.
x Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xi Rick Arnold et al, Educating for Change (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1991), p. 38.
xii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiii Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xiv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xv Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.
xvi Leonardo Vilchis, interview by author, Los Angeles, California, July 2008.

Driven From Below: A look at tenant organizing and the new gentrification
Perspectives Journal, 2009

Decline and Fall: Waugh’s hilarious thoughts on marriage and home

I’ve never read Waugh, I found this a hilarious, biting satire, and enjoyed it greatly to my no small surprise.

They should have told me about marriage. They should have told me that at the end of that gay journey and flower-strewn path were the hideous lights of home and the voices of children. I should have been warned of the great lavender-scented bed that was laid out for me, of the wisteria at the windows, of all the intimacy and confidence of the family life…Our life is lived between two homes. We emerge for a little into the light, and then the front door closes. The chintz curtains shut out the sun, and the hearth glows with the fire of home, while upstairs, above our heads, are enacted again the awful accidents of adolescence. There’s a home and a family waiting for every one of is, we can’t escape, try how we may. It’s the seed of life we carry about with us like our skeletons, each one of us unconsciously pregnant with desirable villa residences. There’s no escape. As individuals we simply do not exist. We are just potential home-builders, beavers, and ants… (102)

And an extra thrown in:

for anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul-destroying.

Waugh, Evelin ([1928] 1968] Decline and Fall. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin. Books

Gilding the Ghetto: Poverty and Poverty Programmes in the 60s and 70s

I’m not the only one who thinks this is extraordinary, but it is still something that maybe not everyone reads and it really is worth spending some time with Gilding the Ghetto, published in 1977. It’s a strange moment to be reading it really, after so many years of austerity, facing many of the same issues with the same roots, but in vastly different contexts. Still, both periods were framed in terms of crisis.

Towards the end of 1976 among the endless reminders of Britain’s economic predicament another theme was brought to public attention: the urban crisis.

This is how it opens – but they are quick to note that this urban crisis was not new — crisis was never new. Forty years later that shit is still not new.

Anyway, In the late 60s and early 70s a number of projects were started — and I found them fascinating so explore them in potentially boring detail here. For the most part they were attempted, they were awesome, but then they were finished and buried, and this cycle is so familiar.

Yet today there is an official silence about these programmes of the late 1960s and early seventies. A striking silence.

This report goes back to the early stage. Written by a group of workers from the National Community Development Project it tries to make sense of the spate of government ‘poverty initiatives’ beginning in 1968 of which CDP was a part. It is written from inside but, we hope, for an outside world. It comes from our own experience as some of the state’s ‘poverty’ workers, and from the doubts that experience raised in our minds about what our employers were really intending.

This sounds so familiar:

The Home Office, with James Callaghan as Home Secretary, embarked on CDP in 1969. The idea was to collaborate with local authorities in setting up local projects, each with a five- year lifespan as ‘a neighbourhood-based experiment aimed at finding new ways of meeting the needs of people living in areas of high social deprivation’. There were to be twelve projects … Their brief rested on three important assumptions. Firstly, that it was the ‘deprived’ themselves who were the cause of ‘urban deprivation’. Secondly, the problem could best be solved by overcoming these people’s apathy and promoting self-help. Thirdly, locally-based research into the problems would serve to bring about changes in local and central government policy.

Makes me really angry of course. Also unsurprising:

A few months’ field-work in areas suffering long-term economic decline and high unemployment was enough to provoke the first teams of CDP workers to question the Home Office’s original assumptions. There might certainly be in these areas a higher proportion of the sick and the elderly for whom a better co-ordination of services would undoubtedly be helpful, but the vast majority were ordinary working-class men and women who, through forces outside their control, happened to be living in areas where bad housing conditions, redundancies, lay-offs, and low wages were commonplace.

So they started organizing the people they were working with, using their research to pressure local authorities and councillors and investigating the structural issues at play – and that’s when they were shut down and buried really. In 1973 a central CDP Information and Intelligence Unit was set up and published a series of (probably embarrassing to the government) reports: The Poverty of the Improvement Programme, Whatever Happened to Council Housing? Profits against Houses and the Costs of Industrial Change. In 1974 central government asked for a review of the programme, with a goal of controlling, curtailing and closing down. (5)

Only six weeks after publishing the highly critical report on the government’s public spending cuts, Cutting the Welfare State (Who Profits), the Home Secretary ordered the closure of the unit.

This pamphlet was written in 1977, when a few projects were still running out their time, but finding it hard to coordinate work or collectively make sense of the findings.

This report is part of that attempt. Though it is not an account of our experience – that is to be found in the various local and inter-project reports — it tries to locate and explain that experience in the context of the series of government moves of which CDP was one….Still we hope that our analysis will help to clarify for others as it has for us, the role of government in relation to both the demands of the economy and pressures from the working class, and the part that such programmes we describe here as the ‘Poverty Programme’ play in maintaining the status quo. (6)

Part 1: The Poverty Programme

The men behind all of this top down malarky, well the men still look the same. Glasses are different of course.

A handful of home secretaries: top left, James Callaghan; right,
Robert Carr; bottom left, Roy Jenkins; right, Merlyn Rees. The
Home Office led the field in urban deprivation but it was a series
of official reports that triggered off the activity.

The Welfare state was under pressure, government unsure what to do, this all sounds familiar too. It was an experiment— the word comes up again and again — conducted with very limited resources in many separate laboratories. The central state drew in the local authorities, disregarding their traditional departmental boundaries. ‘Citizen involvement’ and ‘participation’ were recurring themes. Most important, all the schemes took as their testing grounds, small, working-class districts of Britain’s big cities and older industrial towns. These were the ‘areas of special need’ which had first come to the centre of official concern; soon they were being called ‘pockets of deprivation’. (9) In describing the programming that emerged in response, James Callaghan, Home Secretary said it was:

to provide for the care of our citizens who live in the poorest or most overcrowded parts of our cities and towns. It is intended to arrest, in so far as it is possible by financial means, and reverse the downward spiral which afflicts so many of these areas. There is a deadly quagmire of need and apathy. Hansard, 2.12.68 (10)

Quagmire. Right. Still, I’m only just beginning to realise what a big deal it has been, the centralisation of funds and control over programmes, so this is important

Responsibility for Urban Aid was located in the Community Relations Department of the Home Office, the department also responsible for the Community Relations Commission. The money made available for Urban Aid was not an extra government grant, but money already existing in the Rate Support Grant which was taken out of the general allocation and put into the Special Grant category. This allowed the government to have for the first time some direct control over what was going on ‘at the grass roots’. Local authorities could apply for grants from this Special Grant for specific projects which could be financed for up to five years on a 75/25% basis (10)

It still seems to have been quite decentralised, and going into quality programmes:

As the local authorities grasped the new idea and sent back descriptions of the areas they regarded as being ‘of special social need’ the kinds of projects supported through the Urban Aid Programme widened in scope. From the nursery schools, day nurseries and children’s homes, family advice centres and language classes for immigrants of the earlier phases, it had extended its embrace to many more informal kinds of organisation by the later phases. The Home Office actively encouraged local authorities to support autonomous forms of organisation that were already active in their areas. Women’s Aid centres, holiday play schemes, housing and neighbourhood advice centres, family planning projects were all included in later phases of the Urban Aid Programme. (11)

But of course there was never enough funding

there have been around five times more applications made than those granted. In 1971 for instance the London Borough of Lambeth submitted applications for projects to cost £103,500 – only £13,650 of this was approved (11)

In 1969 the Home Office set up its version of ‘action research’:  This included an array of programmes: Urban Aid (a neighbourhood-based experiment aimed at finding new ways of meeting the needs of people living in areas of high social deprivation; by bringing together the work of all the social services under the leadership of a special project team and also by tapping resources of self help and mutual help which may exist among the people in the neighbourhoods. Home Office Press Release 16.7.69 (12)); the Educational Priority Area (EPA) action-research project; Neighbourhood Schemes intensively targeting money into small deprived areas to complement the other programming; and the National Community Development Project. In the words of civil servant Derek Morell who pushed this through:

The whole project is aimed against fragmentation … The starting point of the project is that ours is a fragmented, disintegrating society. But the project aims at evolutionary changes, not revolution. Depersonalisation is another problem. The technical juggernaut is taking over and we are no longer the masters. The most difficult step will be how to discover how to perform the crucial task of raising the people of Hillfields from a fatalistic dependence on ‘the council’ to self-sufficiency and independence –Minutes, 14.7.69

That all sounds familiar too. And as if it were a race, the Department of the Environment announced in quick succession its own ‘total approach’ scheme: the Six Towns Studies.

In our approach to the environment, we have endeavoured in the first two years under the new DoE to make a switch of resources to bad areas .. . I believe that the next most important step for any department is to bring about a total approach to the urban problem. In the past the attitude has been a series of fragmented decisions not properly co-ordinated and not bringing about the improvement of urban areas which is necessary. –Peter Walker, then Secretary of State for the Environment, in the Budget Debate 1972, quoted in Community Action No.8. (13)

The Department of Health and Social Security (Sir Keith Joseph Minister), then set up a working party to explore ‘whether the cycle of transmitted deprivation would be a fruitful area of research’…investigating how ‘deprivation’ is passed on through the family. (13) Ah, how I love to hate that old chestnut. 1973 brought Quality of Life Studies, courtesy of the Department of the Environment, looking at improving access to leisure activities. They were a bit worried about how to coordinate it all by then, so created the Urban Deprivation Unit (UDU), and the Comprehensive Community Programmes. These were all partnerships between local and national government, but the European Economic Community (EEC) was also involved, and sponsored its own ‘Poverty Programme’ focused on the ‘chronically poor’. The research proliferated.

2. The (non) eradication of poverty

The aims of the EEC programme sound familiar: ‘to develop clearer perceptions of a complex problem and pioneer new techniques for tackling it‘.

The results? Mixed. The effort – beggars belief really.

The inner city areas of Liverpool are the delight of every deprivation theorist. They have been treated with each of the government’s urban deprivation programmes in turn, sometimes with several at a time. An EPA in 1969, a CDP in 1970, a Neighbourhood Scheme in 1971, an Inner Area Study in 1973 which then sponsored an Area Management experiment have all been tried there, and up to 1974 £1,707,213 had been spent on a stunning total of 146 different Urban Aid projects.

And yet:

In 1968 when the poverty initiatives came to town, 25,000 people were registered as out of work on Merseyside. Four years later their numbers had more than doubled with 52,000 people unemployed. Today, 85,600 men and women, 11.3% of Merseyside’s population, are out of work. Even these telling city-wide figures cover up the real story of the inner-city areas. There the predicament of would-be workers is even worse with up to 20% unemployed and up to 30% among younger people. (19)

It’s all structural, innit. No one wants to tackle that though.

Both the CDP and the Inner Area Study agreed that immediate action was needed to tackle inner-Liverpool’s housing crisis. But though the message of their reports became more insistent, the actual housing output declined. (20)

It all boils down to this, always and everywhere seems like:

The poverty initiatives then have clearly not made any great inroads on inner-Liverpool’s real material problems. All they have done is to restate, usually in academic terms, what the people who live there have known for a long time.

Let’s just repeat that, because we are still doing it.

All they have done is to restate, usually in academic terms, what the people who live there have known for a long time.

Right, to continue:

If you live on Merseyside you have a better than average chance of being made redundant, being on the dole for a long time, living in slum conditions, being evicted, and forced to wait over six months for hospital treatment. Your children are more likely to die in infancy, or when, after getting no nursery schooling, they finally get to school, of being in larger classes in worse buildings, only to emerge finally onto the dole. Over 10,000 people leave Liverpool each year as a way of avoiding these problems. Those who are left can debate them in the neighbourhood councils and area management experiments left behind by the ‘poverty projects’. But, as they well know, talk is not going to make any impact on the worsening situation that faces them. (20)

12.5%  households were still without hot water in 1966, though that had dropped to 6.5% by 1971 (21). Homelessness figures, though, were rising:

Homelessness has doubled since 1970. On an average day in that year there were 12,874 people applying for temporary accommodation throughout Britain: by 1975 this had increased to 25,120 people a day. Meanwhile there are one million households still on local authority housing waiting lists throughout England while in London alone the total number on the housing waiting list increased from 152,000 in 1965 to 233,000 in 1974. (21)

So what change was achieved?

The problems of ‘deprivation’ then would seem to be as acute as ever for those who live them, and the prospects are bleak. Neither the poverty initiatives, nor the government’s more general policies towards the poor could be said to have had much impact on the problems facing the people who live in the older urban areas. But the programmes have always been small compared to the size of these. Not so much geared to solving the problems, they set out to provide the basis on which policy at both central and local government levels could be improved. Did the EPAs, Inner Area Studies, CDPs and the rest at least succeed in this respect? When it came to it neither Tory nor Labour governments seem to have taken much notice of the major policy recommendations emerging from the programmes although several years have now passed since their first reports were available. (22)

For housing specifically:

In housing too the pattern is much the same. One of the major recommendations of all three Inner Area Studies was the need for more spending on house improvement, with changes in policy to allow poorer owner-occupiers to take up improvement grants and more powers to enable local authorities to ensure that rented property was improved. The local authorities got their greater powers in 1974, as part of the Housing Action Areas scheme, but powers alone are useless without money, and they have now been denied the resources to carry out these proposals at all as government spending on improvement grants has gradually been cut back from £195.2m in 19734 to £85.8m in 1975-6. (23)

1976 brought in a renewed period of cuts — more money going to the ‘urban problem’, but not as much as was being cut in other spending in face of national economic crisis.  So – it’s structural inequality. A great quote from the quote from the Liverpool Inner Area Study:

A number of issues emerge from this description of inner area characteristics and the work carried out by Inner Area Studies. The chief one is the poverty and neglect of the area and its people in every sense. To a great extent this poverty is a reflection of inequalities in society as a whole. Clearly the scale and character of the problem is too great for policies concerned solely and specifically with inner areas to be effective. Any fundamental change must come through policies concerned with the distribution of wealth and the allocation of resources. IAS/L1/6 Third Study Review, Nov. 1974. (24)

Next post — the larger political economy of the 1960s, and just why all this spending on certain kinds of solutions could never provide the right answers. I can’t believe we’re still having that conversation, but the CDP did it masterfully.

Young and Willmott on Leaving the Slums for the Estate

I know they are listed as Young and Willmott but that simply is impossible to roll off the tongue, I shall try and probably once again fail to write it this way in part two on Family and Kinship in East London (1957). From the densely woven networks of family described in part 1, held together in crowded rooms and turnings by living with parents or next door to them, by every day visits, shared meals, shared chores, shared lives, to spacious new council homes built on 44 acres near Epping Forest. This is how everything changed, and as Young and Willmott write, what better way to understand the importance of residence?

From Bethnal Green to Greenleigh (Debden)

Less than twenty miles away from Bethnal Green, the automatic doors of the tube train open on to the new land of Greenleigh. On one side of the railway are cows at pasture. On the other, the new housing estate. Instead of the shops of Bethnal Green there is the shopping centre at the Parade; instead of the street barrows piled high with fruit, fish, and dresses, instead of the cries of the costermongers from Spitalfields to Old Ford, there are orderly self-service stores in the marble halls of the great combines. In place of the gaunt buildings rising above narrow streets of narrow houses, there are up-to-date semi-detached residences. Bethnal Green encases the history of three hundred years. Cottages built for the descendants of Huguenot refugees, with their wide weavers’ windows and peeling plaster, stand next to Victorian red-brick on one side and massive blocks of Edwardian charity on the other. Greenleigh belongs firmly to the aesthetics of this mid-century. Built since the war to a single plan, it is all of one piece. Though the Council has mixed different types of houses, row upon row look practically identical, each beside a concrete road, each enclosed by a fence, each with its little patch of flower garden at front and larger patch of vegetable garden at back, each with expansive front windows covered over with net curtains; all built, owned, and guarded by a single responsible landlord.

Instead of the hundred fussy, fading little pubs of the borough, there are just the neon lights and armchairs of the Merchant Venturer and the Yeoman Arms. Instead of the barrel organ in Bethnal Green Road there is an electrically amplified musical box in a mechanical ice-cream van. In place of tiny workshops squeezed into a thousand back-yards rise the first few glass and concrete factories which will soon give work to Greenleigh’s children. Instead of the sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries, there are the drawn-out roads and spacious open ground of the usual low-density estate. Instead of the flat land of East London, the gentle hills of Essex.

‘When I first came,’ said Mrs Sandeman, ‘I cried for weeks, it was so lonely. It was a shock to see such a deep hill going up to the shops.’ (121-122)

That gives such a beautiful sense of the differences, albeit a very particular view of them. But the scale is quite incredible.

Between 1931 and 1955 nearly 11,000 families containing over 40,000 people were rehoused from Bethnal Green on L.C.C. estates, many of them outside the county.’ (124)

People did, many of them, choose to come of course. Part of the study was to understand just why. The reasons were many, but not, for the most part, weaker attachments to their family.

lf the migrants did not have weaker kinship attachments than other people, why did they come? The main reason is {quite simple. The attraction is the house. Our couples left two or three damp rooms built in the last century for the ‘industrious classes ‘, and were suddenly transported to a spacious modern home. Instead of the tap in the backyard, there was a bathroom with hot and cold water. Instead of the gas stove on the landing, a real kitchen with a sink and a larder. Instead of the narrow living room with stained wallpaper and shaky floorboards, a newly painted lounge heated by a modern solid-fuel grate. And instead of the street for their children to play in, fields and trees and open country. The contrast is all the sharper because the new residents had, in the main, come from Bethnal Green’s worst houses. (126)

But the council in general had much more to do with it:

But, in general, the L.C.C.’s view of who needed it most decided who went. Our informants were mostly at the top of the L.C.C.’s housing list – they were living in the most overcrowded or the most unhealthy houses in the borough – and that is why they were selected. (127)

One of the tenants told them — ‘If we could take the house with us, we’d go back like a shot.’ (127)

For many, as with so many families, it was about the generations to come, not the generations they had left behind.

‘Everything seems quieter here, more calmer,’ said Mrs Vince. ‘The fresh air hits you when you come out of the station.’ Many people value the air and fields even more for their children than for themselves. Greenleigh is generally thought ‘better for the kiddies’.

So even where they left their kin with regret, the people were not deserting family so much as acting for it, on behalf of the younger rather than the older generation. (128)

But many did not stay.

Many migrants in fact decided that they had made the wrong decision, and left the estate, most of them to return to the East End. Altogether, from the opening of the Greenleigh estate until March, 1956, 26 percent of the tenants who had come there moved away again. (129)

The Family at Greenleigh

So what changed? Any friendly community feeling did not survive the scale of changing community. Everyone found the neighbors snobbish, stand-offish. Talked about the terrible loneliness. Some got part-time jobs just to survive it — one of those said ‘If I didn’t go to work I’d get melancholic.’ Her verdict on Greenleigh — ‘It’s like being in a box to die out here.’ (133)

The study found a great sense of loss, particularly women missing mothers. Most of the men continued to work in Bethnal Green as there were no jobs out near the estate, so suddenly they become the ones maintaining family ties. What made me most sad — it wasn’t distance or time that kept women from their wider families, but the cost of transport. In times of trouble they had no support, there was no one to lend money to tide people over, help when sick or pregnant, help with kids. Visiting was not a thing that was done.

Their study of Bethnal Green showed just how much happened in public spaces, not private ones, and these were precisely the spaces missing in the new estates.

One reason people have so little to do with neighbors is the absence of places to meet them. In Bethnal Green there is one pub for every 400 people, and one shop for every 44 (or one for every 14 households). At Greenleigh there is one pub for 5,000 people, and one shop for 300.

They had no cinemas, so could not congregate there either. This combination of distance and television changed things. Young & Willmott write:

The growth of television compensates for the absence of amenities outside the home, and serves to support the family in its isolation. (143)

Rents were also higher there on the council estate, often by 3 times. That in addition to fares meant people were trapped there.

Keeping Themselves to Themselves

Willmott and Young found people in Greenleigh eager to talk about their neighbours, how unfriendly they found them, and they always compared back to their community in Bethnal Green.

At Greenleigh they neither share long residence with their fellow tenants nor as a rule have kin to serve as bridges between the family and the wider community. These two vital interlocked conditions of friendship are missing, and their absence goes far to explain the attitude we have illustrated. (150)

They believed this to be partly due to the fact that everyone moving in at the same time, and there was no existing community for them to integrate into. While Willmott and Young describe their expectations that things would have improved over the few years between interviews, nothing really had changed. They blame a lack of density — a bit of catch phrase these days.

One reason it is taking so long is that the estate is so strung out — the number of people per acre at Greenleigh being only one-fifth what it is in Bethnal Green — and low density does not encourage sociability. (153)

The new big homes reinforced a feeling of what people lack, rather than all that they had. They were spending more on filling homes with objects, rather than entertainment and going out as they had before.

There is also a facsinating aside on time and space — in Bethnal Green people tended to be very informal, did ‘not need a highly-developed time sense…because it does not matter greatly whether her goes round to Mum’s at 10 o’clock or at 11. If Mum is not there someone will explain where she has gone‘ (157). This was not at all true of Greenleigh. Much of the difference lay in how close things were in Bethnal Green, with everything walking distance. In Greenleigh, life required a car and a telephone to ‘overcome geography and organize a more scattered life into a manageable whole (158)’.

The impact of this was quite profound, particularly on mental health, and particularly for women. This should not have been stuck in a footnote really:

Footnote 1, p 158: The chief psychiatrist at a local hospital told us that the loneliness of the women on this and other housing estates was the immediate, precipitating cause of so many of them coming to his department for treatment.

This lack of relationships, of knowing people, meant both a growing formality, as well as increased reliance on visual clues for judging strangers.

In a community of long-standing, status, in so far as it is determined by job and income and education, is more or less irrelevant to a person’s worth. He is judged instead, if he is judged at all, more in the round, as a person … How different is Greenleigh…Where nearly everyone is a stranger, there is no means of uncovering personality. (161-162)

They continue

Their relationships are window-to-window, not face-to-face. Their need for respect is just as strong as it ever was, but instead of  being able to find satisfaction in actual, living relationships, through the personal respect that accompanies almost any steady himan interaction, they have to turn to the other kind of respect which is awarded, by some strange sort of common understanding, for the quantity and quality of possessions which which the person surrounds himself (163-164)

They also note the lack of forward planning in the planning process for the estate itself…it has been developed as a community where people cannot age. When people’s children are grown where will they live? Nowhere for them to move close by, almost certain that enough existing units will not become vacant over the normal course of things, and it was council policy to prioritise outside people from the list rather than children. Willmott and Young note the protest that this raised among residents, a local association writing of the LCC in 1955 ‘We are in opposition to the view that people are simply units to be moved around the face of the earth in line with the impersonal schemes of some “Big Brother”...’

W&Y continue

The method by which the council has eased the housing shortage in the middle of the century is bound to create a further shortage in its last quarter. (168)

They weren’t wrong.

Movement between classes

They wanted to check and make sure that this growing sense of the importance of geography was not in fact more a function of social mobility, which leads to a rather interesting way to better understand class. Again, Willmott and Young trace sense of loss and disintegration of a sense of community it primarily back to the geography of the built environment — as people tend to seek out larger houses, they must look elsewhere. The authors write:

The East does not provide ‘middle-class’ people with ‘middle-class’ places to live, and such migration may therefore be more common than it would be in districts with more of a mixture of classes. (172)

In conclusion, though, of all of it.

…very few people wish to leave the East End. (186)

While the houses were better, Willmott and Young look at the networks of support, and find they are absent on the new estates. They have the best description of  the daughters’ new plight,  engaged in the ‘arduous…puzzling…monotonous‘ work of child rearing, while older people were cut off from remaining useful and part of the family. Willmott and Young are highly critical.

It seems that when the balance of a three-generation family is disturbed, the task of caring for dependents at both ends of life, always one of the great and indispensable functions of any society, becomes less manageable. (196)

So one key recommendation is to support these connections rather than tear them apart. Central to that there follows the need to maintain communities intact, and save as many of the existing houses as possible, updating the fabric, giving people new bathrooms, lavatories and kitchens.

I cannot help but agree with them, and wish this had been policy for the past few decades so as to build on the strengths of working class communities, rather than the opposite.

Young, Michael and Willmott, Peter ([1957] 1979) Family and Kinship in East London. Manchester: Penguin Books.

The Importance of Residence: Willmott and Young on Bethnal Green

Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s Family and Kinship in East London is an incredible book, and I am just sorry I didn’t get round to reading it while working in East London though it has been on my list to read for what feels like forever. There are a number of critiques of the book, based primarily on the ‘rosy’ views of working class life. Looking backwards it is hard to tell of course, but it seemed to me it captures much of what continues to be good about working class life…and there is enough here to show that such closeness of community is many-sided and not to everyone’s taste. I thought back to Morrison’s writings on East London, which accentuated the narrowness of life, the gossip in those Mean Streets. I don’t know that either is wrong or right, they can sit together in the richness of how people experience life. For myself, it is always the generousness of my class that has impressed me. Anyway.

This is quite a stupendous piece of research. Amazingly I found a pdf of some of the original survey instruments (original link here, another copy of the docs here)… very cool. But what I love most is they seemed to have actually listened to people, rather than categorising them, and in their work to have explored the intersections of family, home and neighbourhood in quite brilliant ways.

This book is about the effect of one of the newest upon one of the oldest of our social institutions. The new is the housing estate, hundreds of which have been built since the war. In the last century people moved into the cities; in this they have been moving steadily out again, towards the countryside from which their ancestors came. (11)

They write too, that ‘We were least prepared for what we found in the borough’. Because what did they expect? The familiar tale of the ‘good old days’ now gone.  They believed old patterns of wide extended families and support networks had disappeared over the course of industrialization and modernisation undergone in East London, but instead:

We were surprised to discover that the wider family, far from having disappeared, was still very much alive in the middle of London. This finding seemed to us of more interest than anything we had been led to expect, all the more so when it transpired that the absence of relatives seemed to be as significant on the estate as their presence in the borough.

and the last line, a rather fascinating methodological note

We decided, although we hit on it more or less accidentally, to make our main subject the wider family. (12)

This is perhaps why I didn’t prioritise this book, being less interested in constructions of family and more in community and home. But I was terribly wrong about that. In addition to tackling the myth f the destruction of familial networks, they take on others. Bethnal Green’ 54,000 residents in 1955 were almost all working class, but only 8% of population found to be Jewish, ‘contrary to popular opinion‘. So on to what they did find.

Kinship in Bethnal Green

The begin with a review of earlier studies — Charles Booth among others, who described barefoot children, undernourished babies, young moths sick and hungry. The majority of these blamed poverty, blamed the poor, and above all men for spending money on things they shouldn’t, particularly nights down the pub etc. This is the image of the brutal working class man, tales of drunkenness and forced sex, bruises, pregnancies.

Even though we may think the accounts overdrawn, and distrust the representativeness of the families they describe, we cannot ignore the historical evidence, all the more so since the notion still survives that the working-class man is a sort of absentee husband, sharing with his wife neither responsibility nor affection…(19)

But you look at the evidence drawn from their interviews, it is the falling death rate that seems the biggest factor in families remaining families — 29% of those born before 1890 came from homes broken up before they turned 15 by the death of a parent, as compared to 2% from divorce or separation. That is a crazy figure. It was still 19% for those born between 1921 and 1933, compared to 1% divorce and separation.

It had never occurred to me before to think seriously of how young people died, to understand what that meant for the living. To remember how soon this all began changing.

Still — things were improving — despite people living longer, more housing was being made available. In 1931 there were 3 households to every 2 dwellings. 1941, 4 households to every 5 dwellings. More space, less hard wear of space. More comfortable spaces you might want to spend time in as opposed to down the pub. It never occurred to me to think of that much either.

Nor labour patterns and rights, but of course those were also definitive.

The spread of the five-day week has created the ‘week-end’, a new term and a new experience for the working man. (24)

You can see, of course, why I should love this book, bringing all these structural factors together to understand just what life lived within their constraints might mean. It is also full of those details you only get with qualitative work. Like the descriptions of the rise of cinema and wireless — a lovely section on the impact it has had on naming children! No longer names that have always been in the family. Aspirations were changing in other ways — work for example. Primarily for sons, but I love the snark in this reply:

I’d like him to take up chemistry. It’s completely unproductive and therefore well paid. (29)

Young and Willmott continue:

A sizeable minority of men in Bethnal Green take a very different view from white-collar people about the status of manual work, placing jobs such as company director and chartered accountant towards the bottom of the scale and manual jobs, like agricultural laborer, coal miner, and bricklayer, towards the top. These men regard business managers with disfavour because ‘They’re not doing anything. They get their money for walking around’ … Agricultural laborers, on the other hand, they value highly because ‘you can’t do without grub’; coal-miners because ‘without coal, industry stops’; and bricklayers because ‘you’ve got to have houses’. But even some of the men that take this view are anxious that their children should get as good a technical education as possible. (29)

That is one of the best statements of how the world should work I have ever read.

Where People Live

Housing was always an issue given its scarcity, and there follows a long, and brilliantly detailed exploration of how and where people live. After marriage, if the new couple have no home of their own yet, they most often live with the wife’s parents — mother and daughter have a long term bond, can manage in the house together by custom. Willmott and Young write:

Their tenancy is the most valuable property-right many working-class people posses: where the property is privately owned, the rent is low and controlled by law. (33-34)

People inherited tenancies from their parents, sometime going back three generations. This was one of the positive aspects of remaining at home after marriage, but as Young and WiIlmott make clear, most people ‘don’t want to live with them, they want to live near them‘ (35). They include a brilliant quote from Sheldon’s, ‘The Medicine of Old Age’ about similar community in Wolverhampton:

The fact that no less than four per cent of the sample had children living actually next door is astonishing; and there is no doubt that this proportion would have been higher but for the general housing difficulties since 1939, for the opinion was frequently expressed by both generations that this is the best mode of life for the old people, since it enables them to preserve their independence and the married children to lead a separate life, while at the same time ensuring that help is at hand when needed. (36)

This study showed twice as many women as men living in same house with their parents, and twice as many in the same street or block. They talk about the matrilocality of the English working class, and spatially at least this is well born out. (37) They include brilliant little pieces of description of the neighbourhoods they are visiting, and the feel of life there, like their visit to:

a four-roomed house in Minton Street in the middle of the borough. The other houses (but not the two pubs, obviously newer) were all built in the 1870s, of brick which has become a uniform smoke-eaten grey. They are nearly all alike in plan; on the first floor two bedrooms, and on the ground floor a living room, a kitchen, and a small scullery opening on to a yard which has a lavatory at the end of it and patch of earth down one side. Many of the yards are packed with clothes hanging on the line, prams, sheds, boxes of geraniums and pansies, hutches for rabbits and guinea-pigs, lofts for pigeons, and pens for fowls. the only difference between the houses is the colour of the curtains and doorsteps which the wives redden or whiten when they wash down the pavement in front of their doors in the morning. Dilapidated but cosy, damp but friendly, in the eyes of most Bethnal Greeners these cottages are the place, much more so than the huge blocks of tenement buildings standing guard, like dark fortresses, over the little houses . On the warm summer evening of the interview, children were playing hop-scotch or ‘he’ in the roadway while their parents, when not watching the television, were at their open windows. Some of the older people were sitting in upright chairs on the pavement, just in front of the doors, or in the passages leading through to the sculleries, chatting with each other and watching the children at play. (38)

The mother is usually the one who helps get her daughter her own place after marriage — she is the one with connections through the rent collector and through friends. She knows who has died or who is moving out, if she is a good tenant the rent collector can assume her daughter will be too. This means empty apartments go to those from the local area due to this web of connections. Some charitable trusts who owned housing in the area had it as official policy that family gets first chance at flats opening up, in others while not official, that was generally the way things worked. Willmott & Young note too, some of the other arrangements that can be made to reduce animosity over flats where they are scarce, such as letting part to a family who also needs it etc.

This was very different from how the council operated, which is rather fascinating. Willmott &Young noted that at the time of writing the council owned a third of dwelling in the borough and that was increasing. The council worked off of lists not personal connection, and early version of today’s points and priority need. Preference was given to ‘slum’ dwellers and those with high need, and it is easy to see the argument for this, but also you can see what might be lost. In 1957, it was still true that

Bethnal Green suffers from a serious housing shortage. In time, we can hope, it will be much less acute… (42)

Mothers and Daughters

From the above, it is clear just important relationships are. Willmott and Young note the amount of time daughters spend with their mothers, and mothers with their daughters, how it makes no sense to talk about the household as such, particularly given how many meals people share. Again they quote Sheldon on Wolverhampton:

‘In at least 40 per cent of cases they must be regarded as part of a family group, the ramifications of which bear little or no relation to architectural limitations. (48)

I rather love how the family overflows and engulfs the limits of brick walls in that sentence.

There is a multitude of ways listed in which mothers and daughters help each other, but I found this sentence about work quite fascinating:

Part-time work is plentiful in Bethnal Green, both in the small local factories and in the tens of thousands of offices which have to be cleaned in the nearby City, and women are therefore less in need of help from relatives than they would be in many other places. (54)

This would change, I suppose, but it seems to me I have not read much at all that really looks at these employment patterns and the independence such work must have provided. While also being rather shit work.

Husbands and mothers

Another amazing description:

Once arrived in the Hanbury’s front room, most of the guests stood about rather stiffly, holding glasses of beer and sniffing the pickled onions. The Buxtons, that is the bridegroom’s family, were grouped by the window, looking disdainfully at the chipped china dogs on the mantelpiece, the worn linoleum on the floor and the pictures of country scenes which did not quite conceal the damp patches on the wall-paper. (62)

Things liven up though.

You’ll be happy to know that the study found sons to regularly check in on their mothers, it tended to be once a week, and it was often them dropping by on their own. Nice.

The Kinship Network

These are broad, reinforced by regular meetings, but often the mother/oldest sister at their centre, and they tend to dissipate after their death.

The Family in the Economy

More on the many jobs available — it is hard indeed not to think of them as better days:

You do not have to live in Bethnal Green, you only have to take a bus down the main street to notice that this is a place of many industries. You pass tailors’ workshops, furniture makers, Kearley & Tonge’s food warehouse, and near to Allen & Hanbury’s big factory. The borough has by itself a more diversified economy than some countries. But the borough has no frontiers: it belongs to the economy which stretches down both banks of the Thames. At its heart is the largest port in the world, which lines the rives for nearly twenty miles from London Bridge to Tilbury, and supports on every side a web of interconnected industries… (89)

More on immigration, some things don’t change.

Because the East End is a port, and near to the Continent, it is the place where for centuries foreigners have landed to escape from war and persecution in Europe. (89)

Immigration’s connection to employment, though becoming more tenuous

The Huguenots most famously, notes still hand-loom weavers in 1939 and the closure of the last Huguenot silk firm in 1955. Furniture, however, once a spin-off of this trade, still strong though showing signs of winding down…

Several chapters on they have another great story about the Huguenots, where a local resident showed them a document written about the time of the Revolution, some kind of petition to the Governors of the French hospital in Hackney (!) to employ, and treat, his granddaughter. Amazing. But I digress.

Despite this winding down of the furniture trade (though that was still existing in pieces when I worked there), they can still write:

East London is less vulnerable because it has many industries to lean on, and while it cannot avoid being harmed by a general contraction in trade. (91-92)

And they note that those in Bethnal Green able to take the job of their choice. It’s political leanings are no surprise:

Every constituency in East London returns a Labour member to Parliament and every council is controlled by the Labour Party, Bethnal Green regularly electing a complete slate of Labour Councillors almost as a matter of course, The people share their politics; they speak the same language with the same accents; they work with their hands; they have, in short, the same kind of life. These deep-lying bonds between members of a class are also bonds between members of the family. (94)

See? Good old days. Hard to imagine this as Labour now.

One change for the better? Things aren’t quite as openly racist as they used to be:

But for most people the Council is not the prize it was. Security does not now matter enough to offset the low pay. Mr Sanderson, a dustman, explained how far his job had sunk…

Things have got so bad that they recently started about a dozen black men. They’re got the rough and rebel from everywhere. One of the black men was sweeping roads with a cardboard box with eyeholes over his head. The foreman asked him what he was doing that for and he said “Well guv’nor, it’s cold.” If it’s a bad winter, they’ll pack up, go home, and make rum.” (96)

The docks a different story (though probably not in the matter of casual racism), ‘It is a matter of pride to belong to a docker’s family‘. (97) I love this story, though I can’t honestly tell if its racist or not:

There were many well-established families — in a nearby dock, one of these was…known as the ‘Flying Eighteen’, a group of brothers and uncles with legendary sensitivity to the ‘jungle drum beats which let them know a ship was coming up the Thames’. (98)

They always got there first. This closeness of community and family surely has its downside. The study looked at how unions and industries gave preference to members’ sons — Transport and General Workers’ Union, Billingsgate for fish, Covent Garden and Spitalfields for fruit and veg, and Smithfields for meat.  Printing, bookbinding and paper workers the same.

Kinship and Community

Willmott and Young meet some of these challenges head on, at least in terms of the wider white working class:

Since family life is so embracing in Bethnal Green, one might perhaps expect it would be all-embracing… Far from the family excluding ties to outsiders, it acts as an important means of promoting them… The kindred are, if we understand their functions aright, a bridge between the individual and the community… (104)

They give this amazing, cinematic description of Mrs ‘Landon’ doing her half-hour morning’s shopping and telling the name and background of everyone they pass. By her own record of who she saw in a week in the street that she considered herself to ‘know’, there were 63 in total, and 38 were the relatives of someone else she knew. It is in the street, the shop, the pub that people meet each other, NOT in the home, which remains private. But I think much more happened then in public that would now be considered things best kept private.

Again we have another  brilliant description of urban space:

The streets are known as ‘turnings’, and adjoining ones as ‘back-doubles’, Surrounded by their human associations, the words had a glow to them, ‘In our turning we‘, they would say, ‘do this, that, or the other.’ ‘I’ve lived in this turning for fifty years’, said one old man proudly, ‘and here I intend to stay’. The residents of the turning, who usually make up a sort of ‘village’ of 100 or 200 people, have their own places to meet, where few outsiders ever come — practically every turning has its one or two pubs, its two or three shops, and its ‘bookie’s runner’. They organize their own parties…some turnings have little war memorials… (109)

They mention a woman had lived in the same courtyard all of her 62 years, spoke of newcomers with only 18 years residence, shocked to hear the council thought of her court as a slum. Imagine.

Another quote from J.H. Robb Working Class Anti-Semite…I don’t quite know what that is about, will have to look it up, but the quote is a good one:

There is a further localism within the borough. People are apt to look for their friends and their club within a close range. The social settlements draw nearly all their members from within a third of  a mile, while tradition dictates which way borderline streets face for their social life. The main streets are very real social barriers… (110)

So in looking at what holds community together, they write:

The interaction between length of residence and kinship is therefore the crux of our interpretation. Neither is by itself a sufficient explanation. (115)

But above all it is place.

In ending this chapter…If we are to pick out one conclusion, it is the importance of residence.

Marriage, changes of life, all of it

A special cast is given to all these adjustments and readjustments by the fact that they are played out within a limited physical space.  (117)

What better way, they say, to study the importance of residence than to look at what happens to this thick web of connections when there is a change? So on to part two — the new council estate at ‘Greenleigh’, now the truth can come out of the name — the Debden Estate. Why did I think it was the Becontree Estate? Dear oh dear, but it matters not. That will be saved for part 2.

Young, Michael and Willmott, Peter ([1957] 1979) Family and Kinship in East London. Manchester: Penguin Books.

Ibsen and Negotiating the Use of Candles

‘I should not like my dear sister to know, but I am reading the Plays of Ibsen, and I was finishing Hedda Gabler.’

Mrs Bradley nodded comprehendingly.

‘And of course, Ibsen being What he is, and the light in my room being Quite Invisible from my sister’s room, and our having agreed From the First to consider candles a Separate Item so that neither of us need make the burning of them an Affair of Conscience as, of course, we should be obliged to do if they came out of the housekeeping, I read on until past ten o’clock.’ (210)

An incredible passage about the ‘naughtiness’ of both reading late and Ibsen and the constraints on both that the economics of housekeeping can produce, if not carefully negotiated. Also, the wonderful use of capital letters.

Not until now do I realise how much luck it is to be born at a time when we do not have to negotiate the cost of a candle to read as late as we would like…

Mitchell, Gladys ([1935] 2014)The Devil At Saxon Well. London: Vintage Books.