Tag Archives: gentrification

Jan Gehl – the Study of Public Life

Jan Gehl's How to Study Public LifeJan Gehl’s How to Study Public Life had many strengths and a few weaknesses, but for delving into the nitty gritty of how to study public space and the way people use and shape it, both in outlines of practice and a bibliography of others who have done so, this is a great place to start.

I also love that they connect public life with public space, it is not a study of one separate from the other.

A common theme in many of these studies — we really screwed up when we started large-scale planning:

Public life and public space were historically treated as a cohesive unit. Medieval cities grew little by little in accordance with changing needs, in contrast to the rapid tempo of modernism’s large-scale planning (3).

So how do we study what is working and what is not to improve our cities and public space?

You start with the basic questions of how many, who,  where, what, and how long?

There is a great chart of the continuum of ways that we move through space for pleasure and for need — which you may not be able to read here, but the book is full of these beautifully designed charts and graphics that help you think through how you might design a space:

Jan Gehl's How to Study Public Life

A list of different kinds of studies you can adapt to your city, and the primary tools you can use:

  • Counting
  • Mapping (of activities, people and places) Jan Gehl's How to Study Public Life
  • Tracing (how people move across a delimited space)
  • Tracking (shadowing to see how people move through space)
  • Looking for Traces (trails, paths worn through grass)
  • Photographing (time lapse photos are so so cool)
  • Keeping a diaryJan Gehl's How to Study Public Life
  • Test walks

There is a great chapter on all of the different people who have looked at these issues over time, and the source for most of what it is on my list for future reading…it is quite inspiring to see the faces and read some of the words of those who have fought for more liveable cities, ones built around the needs and actual lives of people and that are allowed to emerge from the bottom up rather than being built for motives of profit or static and powerful ideals of how we should live, what cities should be like.

This list is very male, and entirely white so it needs some broadening. It is unable to capture the impact of race for example, shown so clearly in all of its terrible effect in Elijah Anderson’s The Cosmopolitan Canopy for example. It also doesn’t engage at all with theorists like David Harvey or Henri Lefebvre, so important to understanding how capital works to shape cities from above. Funnily he does bring up Sorkin’s book Variations on a Theme Park and mentions Mike Davis as well, but never engages with their key arguments around capitalism and privatisation.

This perhaps explains why Gehl can gaily talk about his work as a consultant for cities like Sydney and London, and particularly the work he did on NY’s Times Square and Cape Town in preparation for the World Cup without also mentioning the huge struggles happening in these places over the question of the right to the city, and the ways in which regeneration of public space that he contributes to has dovetailed with its securitisation, privatisation and mass displacement of the poor and people of colour. So damn frustrating because to do this work well we have to deal with those larger issues, if only to minimise their impacts. At least, in all of those countries listed about where class and race are still huge issues (and perhaps they are not in Copenhagen, I am no judge). If we don’t, we contribute to the social and racial cleansing of our cities, if only by driving up land values and forcing more and more people out of these areas. Ideally we need a fundamental transformation putting social and racial equality along with the right to the city of all residents above the demands of capital and real estate profit.

With that larger critique said, the actual pages and pages of case studies were great (though the whole of this is a little Gehl heavy establishing him within the canon and sometimes repetitive with it, but fair enough), not only as ways to think about and study public space, but as pointers to what makes public spaces work or not — and how planners so often get it completely wrong. These were a few of my favourites.

Good Places to Stand – ‘These studies clearly show what was later described as the edge effect: the fact that people were more likely to stay at the edge of spaces.’ (84)

This naturally means that when a space is too big and open people still hug the edges and the places that are at a more human scale. If only the planners of the Olympic Park had read this.

Who Walks, How Fast, When? – This showed the importance of people taking their time in a space in terms of the feel of it, dawdling made possible by warmer weather in our countries (the opposite in Tucson where heat drives people off the streets): ‘…streets are experienced as more lively in summer than in winter — even when an equal number of people are on the street’ (87)

Many Good Reasons (Studying activities and excuses for being in public spaces)

It was clear early on in the process that people do not always have an obviously practical reason for being in public space. If you ask them directly, they might tell you that they are in town to shop or run errands. The many good reasons and sensible arguments made for being in public space often prove to be rational explanations for activity patterns that weave together errands and pleasure. in this context, rationally explained behaviour can cover stays in public space for the purpose of looking at people and public life in general. (90)

Action Research (from empty stretch of gravel to active playground in one day) — this was a marvelous project to inject life and space for women and children into high-rise social housing (one of the places in this book gender is specifically addressed), where 50 residents and 50 students built an enormous and wonderful adventure playground in an empty stretch of gravel between the high rise and some lame sand boxes.

Diary Method — two students spent 24 hours on a street writing down absolutely everything that happened! I am impressed and have some strange wish to do this myself. But I know a number of places, entire cities really, where writing down everyone’s actions would have immediate (and dangerous) consequences. This points to the privileges of working in Denmark I think.

Measuring Fear and Apprehension — sadly not about class or race issues — these don’t exist in these studies as I say — but an interesting way to study the impact of traffic on public life

Active or Passive Facades

‘most of what we take in visually is at eye-level, and in relation to buildings, it is primarily the ground-floor level that catches our eye. Numerous studies have pointed to edges, the transition between building and public space, as significant for how many and which activities take place.’ (104)

Going from 43 to 12 Criteria — a checklist for assessing public space qualities! I love checklists…

(Gehl, Jan & Birgitte Svarre (2013) How to Study Public Life. London: Island Press)

More on building social spaces…

and even more…

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Pop Brixton (and the Q&A last night)

Catchy title, eh? Lambeth’s Cooperative Council put out a call for a project to fill the site of the old ice rink, and the bid to create Grow: Brixton won the competition that ensued over a year ago. Their plan looked like this:

grow-brixton-popes-road-3

The bid was put forward by a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and The Edible Bus Stop, and you can see more of the original plans as covered by the Brixton Buzz here. I liked it, containers are very cool.

They held a live pop-up music and cinema event last summer, which was greatly enjoyed by many and which showed promise to become a genuinely bottom-up all-around good thing for central Brixton.

In July they submitted a planning application for 5-year temporary use of the land on Popes Road  also slated by the council as a site of the future massive redevelopment being orchestrated by Future Brixton.

In September Planning permission was recommended.

And then in December, everything changed as the name became Pop: Brixton, the Edible Bus Stop pulled out of the project. The scale became grander, with less emphasis on food and environment more on business and entrepreneurship.

From the website you can see that the community partner is now The Collective, a property development and management company ‘formed by a group of Millennials on a mission to redefine the way young people live, work and play’ and ‘targeted at ambitious young professionals.’ 

So this evening the crowd awaiting answers from Philippe Castaing, Commercial Director of Pop Brixton, along with Cal Turner (architect and director) and Cllr and Cabinet Member Jack Hopkins was not an entirely happy one.

IMG_2161-2

Their mood did not improve through the evening. Interesting though, was that the muttered outburst and eye rolls and shared knowing smiles weren’t quite in synch, signalling some different sources of frustration and different groups of Brixtonites.

Or Brixtonians. There were some debates about who was more Brixton than who in that upstairs room in the Market House, complicated by not being able to see much less hear everyone, and large sofas that ensured a large physical distance between us.

I failed to get a beer or a seat which would allow me to hear well, as I had trouble getting out of work and arrived a few minutes late. I really needed the beer.

There was a lot of talk from Castaing and Cllr Hopkins about lofty ideals, the councillor used the phrase ‘getting on and up in the world’ three times. Phrases like that grate on me just a bit.

They talked about how hard they have tried to help local people get space there — and if their figures are right they did all right on that count. 85% of businesses owners are Lambeth residents, and 58% from Brixton — those are the figures I noted, but twitter says 65%. I checked the FAQs passed out at the meeting and I am correct.

This first phase is the commercial one, the one where they have to let all of the allotted units at market rates to ensure their own viability and the provision of the subsidised units which have not been filled and will come soon. Even for the commercial units, they scored applicants by (and this also from their FAQs):

  • the quality of their business plan
  • their locality to the project
  • their alignment to Pop’s ethos of supporting the local area
  • their commitment to the local community

Each business also must donate one hour of time to community projects (4 hours a month, it’s hardly going to move mountains is it?) through some kind of time bank, but that clearly is the bit that has not been thought through.

There is no mechanism in place yet, nor any plan for evaluation of if its working, how it is working or its impact. A bit shoddy really, as this aspect of ‘social value’ is the whole point.

The audience was certainly disapproving.

The two key questions the Buzz has been following were answered, though not particularly well. The first: What exactly happened to Grow Brixton?

Cllr Hopkins answered. He stated there had been a public bid won by Grow Brixton, a partnership between Carl Turner Architects and the Edible Bus Stop. The two fell out. Lambeth tried to help them hold together, brought in mediation, it didn’t work.

Carl had the money to step forward and carry on alone, and because this is a pop-up venture the clock was ticking in terms of its time on the site before the major development commences. Given that, they decided to have Carl Turner carry it forward.

He noted nothing was lost from the original bid.

The second question, is how has the plan changed and grown since planning was approved? Carl answered this one.

The original plan was for 33 containers on site, but it was just a sketch design and they were surprised, though delighted to win. They then had to really figure out how to make it happen and how they were going to pay for it.

The planning application was for 50 containers. Since then there have been another 4 or 5 containers added, for a total of 55. He didn’t sound so sure about that as a total.

He said it’s a big site, they went through a long process, and there were no objections in planning. Back when they were still partners with the Edible Bus Stop.

There were questions about how this will affect neighbouring businesses — the response was they believe it will impact them positively, as it will drive increased footfall into this ‘forgotten’ corner of central Brixton.

Cllr Hopkins noted that the council sacking a 1000 workers had had a huge impact on local businesses as it had driven down their takings during the week. No more lunches, no more drinks after work. Anything is good that brings more workers into Brixton.

I mourned a little there for my friends who have lost jobs, and this off-hand acknowledgement of the multiple ways their loss has hit us.

On this same topic, the first audience question was whether they had approached the businesses in the arches about relocating. The answer was yes. Jose in the audience confirmed it, and noted he didn’t follow up on the invitation as he had heard that the rents were quite high.

Anyway, he’s staying in his arch.

Another set question was on how much public funding was in this project, and why. Cllr Hopkins stepped forward.

The funding is mostly in kind as they are giving use of the land free. There have also been ‘small pots’ of money accessed. The one he mentioned was through the move of the Impact Hub now in the Town Hall, and the 166 people currently working out of it, into Pop Brixton. There is some money from the mayor keeping that going, matched by the council.

Will it still be public space? they asked. Oh yes was the reply, everyone is welcome. The gates will only close when the whole complex is closed.

There were some questions and complaints about prices — information not currently available on their website and people felt that for transparencies sake it should be.

Castaing stated that the ‘affordable’ units are currently set at £9 a square foot — while the commercial rents range from £800 to £2500 for a whole container.

Different pricing systems, I am still not sure of the maths. Later a figure of about £60 a square foot for commercial space was thrown out there. This does seem to make the ‘affordable’ space actually affordable, however.

Even if it will come too late to help tenants moving from the Piano House, which is being converted into flats. One of these tenants being thus forced out of Brixton was there.

An artist who felt insulted by the process she was involved in while consulted on the project was also present.

It wasn’t the outcome hoped for by the folks of Pop Brixton. I couldn’t help but feel it was the clash of two different worlds though, and they weren’t being challenged here on what is actually what has everyone so angry.

Within their own frameworks — acceding to austerity and the demands of development and profit and trying to squeeze out of gentrification a few drops of what they can for the community  — this is in fact a good project, and they are doing their their best.

Of course, if you started from what the community needs rather than what little we can do with what we can scrape off of an enterprise that needs to earn a profit, this is not the project that would have emerged. But what the community needs is not going to come out of the neoliberal tool box.

Cllr Hopkins can point to the Tories and say in truth their cuts are devastating, and he has very little power to do anything. What he can’t say is that his party is leading the fight back, has an alternative, or is remotely capable of coming up with one.

Brixton will be lost under their watch, and they don’t even recognise it.

So no one up there understood the anger of the people they were facing who are steadily getting pushed out of a place they love, nor the fact that this development will just help push property prices and rents up even higher. The fear that this will just be another place catering to (and attracting) the wealthy. That the harm it causes in this sense, will most likely far outdo any good it does.

Anyway, in a few years it will be swept away. We need to be asking what happens to those local businesses. As the final speaker noted, pilot projects mean ‘people come in, do their thing, and jet.’ In the face of the massive development about to hit Popes Road, we may almost remember Pop Brixton fondly.

So it was a depressing walk home, and uphill all the way.

[a version posted earlier on Brixton Buzz with more pictures of the containers, I’ll get down there for the opening I think, and take my own]

Save

Change in City, Change in Self

And old post from the old blog (17 July 2008) that for some reason I wanted to preserve separately from this one, but I just finished Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks, and it reminded me of all these old things I had been thinking about, especially this. I haven’t had time to blog this wonderful book yet, but thought I might repost this on a lazy Sunday with only a tweak…

I was thinking today how the city changes…and I find it extraordinary how quickly you get used to changes in the physical landscape around you. I knew downtown L.A. full of parking lots and old buildings full of people. And now it has been built over, it is full of huge new shiny buildings and it is full of all new people. The empty buildings that once contained friends of mine mostly still stand, they are monuments to so many conflicting things: greed, pain, hope, love, struggle…and they stand as anachronisms, though once each was one building among many such. But for all that is now gone? Memory goes with them, I cannot remember what used to be underneath the lofts. I go through my photographs and try to reclaim my own memory of downtown before money claimed it as its own and rebuilt its landscape. I hate not only that they profited so easily and well, but also that I cannot remember what was there before. I hate that we could not manage to force them to build on the beauty and strength that was already there, while working to improve and grow and increase the number of people and services. Everyone has lost, though the ones who destroyed will never know how much, and the people they pushed out know it all to well.

I was thinking today too about how I change…and I find it extraordinary how quickly you settle into the new outlines of your mind and forget what its thoughts were before. You hope to be always expanding, growing greater and wiser and stronger as you learn, I fear I might contract if I ever stopped growing…some people do, you see their minds steadily narrowing and fearful of change. And yet suddenly it worried me as loft construction does, how hard it is to remember what you thought before, how you felt before, what it was to be yourself before. It seems to me that to truly grow you must build upon all that you were, and recognize and remember the building. That way you have a hope of bringing people with you, and understanding people who are where you once were — especially in terms of political consciousness. I think too many of us destroy what we discard and do not recognize it as a piece of the foundation and a step to where we have come and a link with those behind. That is too linear a metaphor all together, but the best I can do at the moment…I shall have to create a new metaphor to stand upon the old one and remember how it came to be. As for the dragon boat races…well! The Molinistas were destroyed and there was much jubilation. Here are the boats: I am sure that we won as everyone followed the required ritual to grant us victory This is wishing pain to your enemies (damn Gloria Molina, damn her, he is saying! You came to Belmont highschool and promised things and did jack shit about it! You lie Molina, I can’t believe you are still one of the most powerful women in L.A.! But not in the dragon boat you’re not!), and you impart this wish to your paddle so that it strikes angrily through the water…you then have to commune with your paddle like so Do this and your paddle will know that you love it, and driven by this motivational combination of love and hate, it shall speed you through the water like a…platypus maybe. If you’re lucky an eel. But It shall make you fast, and you shall win. The fried plaintains were delicious, as was the iced coffee…the breakfast (and lunch) of champions. There were Koreans line dancing to Alan Jackson singing about the Chatahoochee on the main stage, it was the zen approach to enlightenment, the equivalent of getting hit alongside the head or your nose tweaked. And the lotus festival hummed and flowed and danced around the lake and I enjoyed myself.

Save

Brixton Central Masterplan: Another Nail in the Coffin?

I love community planning. I love sitting in a group with neighbours I don’t know and thinking about how to make our community better —  from the kinds of community space and green space we need, to where housing for families should go, to pedestrianising streets to what kind of new buildings we should have and how tall they should be. I like thinking about how design can improve people’s lives and bring us closer together as a community, how we can fill community needs and at the same time create spaces where it is easier to meet each other, get to know each other, take care of each other.

I was the at Brixton Central Masterplan workshop on Tuesday, and we did a lot of that. And at the same time we did none of it. Let me explain.

What did I love about the workshop? That about 30 of us came together and sat there from 6:30 (ish) to 9:00 pm on a Tuesday evening with only biscuits to nibble — because you know, I probably wasn’t the only one tired and hungry after a long day of work. But it makes you feel good putting that kind of time in to your own community. I enjoyed hearing about the proposals and discussing in our five groups our reactions, thoughts and dreams about Central Brixton. We were fairly diverse, though probably a little too old, a little too white a group to fully represent Brixton. I doubt many (if any) parents of young children were there (how could they be easily given that time slot?), for example. No youth. But even so, a pretty good group.

Fluid and AECOM, the architectural consultant brought in to help with community participation and planning, put together quite a smooth process that really got some good discussions going. They had wonderful staff (though strangely absent any women) to facilitate at each table, and I enjoyed thinking about all those things I don’t usually think about that are still key to making cities work.

Best of all, I had the chance to think about planning in a room full of community members who seemed to be in broad agreement on the key things that matter most to me. Everyone wanted this development to enhance Brixton for the people here (if we’d had to fight about that I would have not enjoyed this at all), and so it seemed to me there was little argument that:

  • Brixton is awesome the way it is now. We love the mix of people in the community  in terms of its awesome diversity (race, nationality, students, professionals, families etc), its vibrant culture, and the wonderful local businesses and artists that now exist in the market and under the arches.
  • Above all we need truly affordable, genuinely affordable, housing. People who want to stay in the community are getting forced out, and there is not enough affordable housing for families.

Looking into the results of the special consultation Fluid did with the ‘youth’, it’s cool to see they want the same things:

  • “that it is suitable for the current population of Brixton and everyone feels comfortable in it”

  • “that is does not become overcrowded and that everyone knows each other with a family environment”

  • “that Brixton can develop while keeping its originality and diversity”

  • “for it to become safer and gang free, and affordable”

In the consultant’s own findings presented in the graph below, it’s clear that housing is the priority and principal concern for absolutely everyone (It’s that green bar at the top):

20141118-Brixton-Central-What-youve-told-us-720x509

So we talked about how this plan can do all of these wonderful things through design, and especially through easing the housing crisis…

Problem is, it can’t.

I hate to lose that feel-good vibe, that I-contributed feeling, that excitement of imagining Brixton even better than it is. But this development is not building housing for people who live here now. The council is treating the three developments — Brixton Central, Brixton Hill and Somerleyton Rd — as one development in their treatment of housing. They are looking at building 750 new homes across all three with 40% of those being ‘affordable’. The consultants made the point that the term ‘affordable’ does not actually quite mean ‘affordable’.

People at my own table really struggled with this terminology — and I think that’s kind of the point of it. To confuse the issue, to confuse people, to redefine a word so that it sounds good while meaning what developers want it to mean. Because affordable doesn’t actually mean affordable now, you have to say ‘genuinely affordable’ or talk about ‘target rents’ to actually mean what you think you mean. So ‘experts’ can throw around the word affordable and get nods from everyone in the room who don’t actually understand that they are using a specialist definition that describes 80% of market rent, which means 1 bedroom flats renting for over £1000 pcm.

The current average market rates in Brixton according to home.co.uk, a rental website that tracks actual letting information and properties for rent in real time, are currently:

No. of properties Average rent Median rent
One bedroom 188 £1,345 pcm £1,352 pcm
Two bedrooms 278 £1,672 pcm £1,603 pcm
Three bedrooms 84 £2,319 pcm £2,264 pcm
Four bedrooms 27 £3,085 pcm £2,947 pcm
Five bedrooms 7 £3,736 pcm £3,640 pcm

So when we say ‘affordable’, we mean approximately 80% of these kinds of rents — no actual numbers on rents have ever been presented at any point in these consultations, and I am embarrassed that I have failed to ask for them. For the flats built as part of the Olympic development in Stratford, ‘affordable’ rents are between £1,244 and £1,688 a month.

So what are families to do with this? What are their kids supposed to do when it comes time to move into their own place? What are older single people (or those of us surviving at a distance from our partners like myself) supposed to do, who don’t really enjoy want to live in shared flats their entire lives? This housing, even the ‘affordable’ 40% is geared to bring wealthier people from outside into Brixton — admitted as much by the projections that this new residential population will be injecting a few more million into our economy through their spending.

This housing is not for us. I’m not even one of the 20,000 people on their waiting list.

When you ask, the council will say that it is building some ‘genuinely affordable’, ‘target rate’ housing, but that’s only in the Somerleyton development. So 40% of those 250 flats will be ‘genuinely affordable’, all the rest will not be. 100 affordable flats out of all this millions of pounds of development.

So 650 flats mostly for newcomers to Brixton, a huge new makeover for the central area, a revamping of the overground train station — which it desperately needs but this will only make Brixton more attractive to people working in the city — a refurbishing of local business facilities which is great, but I fear that it puts the smaller businesses I love even more at risk. This will of course have a ripple effect on speculation and land values, putting even more pressures on rents and forcing people out.

I asked about that, and Tom Bridgman, delivery lead on Regeneration for Lambeth Council, said fairly patronisingly that mine was one view. But their view was that building more homes at market rent will decrease the pressure on all of the housing. Besides, they were following the mandate of the mayor to build more housing. Which was just so crazy I didn’t really have an immediate snappy response. Trickle-down housing? Really? A Labour council happy to carry out Tory housing policy?

If Brixton was an island in the sea this might possibly make sense, but it’s part of London, and thus one of the hottest property markets in THE WHOLE WORLD. Our problem is not a lack of housing in London–look around you, we have a horizon full of cranes being used to build more housing. Our problem is a lack of housing people can afford.This is from a recent article in the New York Times:

With property at a premium, it’s renters who are paying full market value just to stay where they are. The average home in London costs nearly 20 times the average salary in Britain. The imperative to get a return on that capital investment is passed on to the renter. According to the housing charity Shelter, Londoners spend nearly three-fifths of their monthly income on rent.

London’s housing is no longer for those who need it but for those primarily concerned with accumulating capital. When bricks are cash and houses are savings accounts, the meaning of the word “affordable” is warped beyond all recognition.

So this development might be helping some of the young professionals roaming the city who can’t pay the even higher rents required to live in the new Nine Elms developments in Vauxhall or those massive towers going up in Chelsea or Limehouse. They can’t afford those because they are all being bought up by investment banks and elites from around the world as real estate investments or occasional crash pads, not as homes to love and cherish in a community they care about and want to make better. This is the worst case scenario, that these flats will be bought by such investors and left to sit completely empty, or occupied for a few months of the year or from Monday through Thursday. The best case scenario under this plan is that we’ll get an influx of the youthful white middle-classes, which will not help ease the demand for genuinely affordable housing coming from people who live in Brixton now. How can this not transform even further the vibrant culture and diversity we love and that we are losing?

No one in that room wants that to happen, not even the council member sitting at my table. We all want genuinely affordable housing, the more the better. Instead we were part of a process that will serve to legitimise another nail in the coffin of the Brixton we love.

No, it’s too big for that. This might be the coffin itself.

Save

Peter Marcuse and the Right to the City

So we’re in crisis. Things are bad. Davies and Peter Marcuse present two takes on the whys and hows of how we got here, and they aren’t all that different. What is different is that Davies is limited to limited criticism of the existing system, he cannot see beyond it. He joins the cautious optimism that we can correct it, that something simply went very wrong in a system that is perfectly all right, and that with the right technical fixes we can leave all of that behind us. Marcuse looks beyond, as should anyone who has lived through the many crises that our economy has rocked, or has asked questions like why inequality is rising, astronomically. So where does he think that we who live in the city actually want to go, and how is it that we get there?

For a while some intellectuals talked about the “Good City.” A biblical reference, an ideal of what could be but lacking in a way to arrive there, utopia.

There’s also the idea of the “Just City.” On its face none of us would disagree with some justice. But this has been limited in its definition to the goal of inclusion. We need a fair distribution of goods, services, maybe we could even manage opportunities. But we can’t rock the boat too much, the system we have is a good one, just needs a little tweaking.

You can tell I don’t like that one! Neither does Peter Marcuse. So what then? What is neither utopian nor rigidly practical and self-limiting? The Right to the City. Coined by Henri Lefebvre, and please do read Lefebvre, he’s been rocking my world lately, particularly State, Space, World, which is sitting half-read on my desk even now. But his Right to the City is the right to an alternative system, the right to construct an alternative vision of what could be. It is a right that must be demanded, and a vision of radical democracy where we all collectively create our communities together with the rest of our neighbors and those who actually live here.

Some people already have this right. The very wealthy primarily. We need to be clear that this campaign is not for them, it is to ensure that everyone has power in this. I agree with Marcuse that this is important.

And where does the campaign come from? Marcuse argues that there are two groups who will drive this, and begs forgiveness for the inadequacy of the titles. These are:

  • The deprived. The unemployed, the exploited, the poor. Primarily people of colour.
  • The discontented. The artists, the intellectuals, those who see the deep injustice of the world and feel a need to do something about it.

And what is the role of theory in this? Critical urban theory is the glue, it is required to build the mutual understanding of how and why these two different groups need to come together, not to mention the multiple subgroups contained within each of them. We need to come together and fight for our right to the city.

I’m mostly all for it, and I’m sure you shall be hearing more about Right to the City. Marcuse even gave a shout out to the American alliance of that name, having been at the founding of that made me happy. For me, however, it is pivotal that those who Marcuse calls the deprived be the drivers. That those who suffer most from having no rights to their city should be the ones to frame the question and push forward the process of radical democracy that Lefebvre argues is the key factor towards the new city. It is to these demands and this process that the discontented need to ally themselves, and that theory needs to dialogue with in a way that builds each, while building something entirely new and beautiful.

(also published at drpop.org)

Change

I was thinking today how the city changes…and I find it extraordinary how quickly you get used to changes in the physical landscape around you. I knew downtown L.A. full of parking lots and old buildings full of people. And now it has been built over, it is full of huge new shiny buildings and it is full of all new people. The empty buildings that once contained friends of mine mostly still stand, they are monuments to so many conflicting things: greed, pain, hope, love, struggle…and they stand as anachronisms, though once each was one building among many such. But for all that is now gone? Memory goes with them, I cannot remember what used to be underneath the lofts. I go through my photographs and try to reclaim my own memory of downtown before money claimed it as its own and rebuilt its landscape. I hate not only that they profited so easily and well, but also that I cannot remember what was there before. I hate that we could not manage to force them to build on the beauty and strength that was already there, while working to improve and grow and increase the number of people and services. Everyone has lost, though the ones who destroyed will never know how much, and the people they pushed out know it all to well.

I was thinking today about how I change…and I find it extraordinary how quickly you settle into the new outlines of your mind and forget what its thoughts were before. You hope to be always expanding, growing greater and wiser and stronger as you learn, I fear I might contract if I ever stopped growing…some people do, you see their minds steadily narrowing and fearful of change. And yet suddenly it worried me as loft construction does, how hard it is to remember what you thought before, how you felt before, what it was to be yourself before. It seems to me that to truly grow you must build upon all that you were, and recognize and remember the building. That way you have a hope of bringing people with you, and understanding people who are where you once were. I think too many of us destroy what we discard and do not recognize it as a piece of the foundation and a step to where we have come and a link with those behind. That is too linear a metaphor all together, but the best I can do at the moment…I shall have to create a new metaphor to stand upon the old one and remember how it came to be.

As for the dragon boat races…well! The Molinistas were destroyed and there was much jubilation. Here are the boats:

I am sure that we won as everyone followed the required ritual to grant us victory

This is wishing pain to your enemies (damn Gloria Molina, damn her, he is saying! You came to Belmont highschool and promised things and did jack shit about it! You lie Molina, I can’t believe you are still one of the most powerful women in L.A.! But not in the dragon boat you’re not!), and you impart this wish to your paddle so that it strikes angrily through the water…you then have to commune with your paddle like so

Do this and your paddle will know that you love it, and driven by this motivational combination of love and hate, it shall speed you through the water like a…platypus maybe. If you’re lucky an eel. But It shall make you fast, and you shall win.

The fried plaintains were delicious, as was the iced coffee…the breakfast (and lunch) of champions. There were Koreans line dancing to Alan Jackson singing about the Chatahoochee on the main stage, it was the zen approach to enlightenment, the equivalent of getting hit alongside the head or your nose tweaked. And the lotus festival hummed and flowed and danced around the lake and I enjoyed myself.

The Los Angeles Blue Line

I love them I know, and I also know I write about them a lot. I don’t know why the rest of my day doesn’t inspire me the way the ride home does.

I had a lovely evening, spent with friends that I haven’t seen in ages and haven’t really talked to for years, we met up at Masa in Echo Park and then they kicked us out for a hipster wedding party and I damned gentrification and we walked a couple of blocks to Barragan’s. Masa’s used to be called Carmelos, it was a brilliant cuban place that had been there for decades with pink booths and a counter the old men used to sit at and drink their cafe con leche, and they sold magical pasteles de guayava y queso, and platanos and all things nice. Now it’s dark and candlelit with brown booths and tatooed waitstaff and really good microbrews on tap and the food is nice too…it’s just all twice as expensive.

And we drank and told stories of course, and it was just what my heart needed…such evenings are rare in L.A. because they require so much coordination…Almost everyone I love most is here and I feel like I never see them enough. The people I see are on the train. I wanted to write a novel once about the train, how it was a portal to some other place, to some much better place where everything was flipped around and the poor were rich and the sad happy, and the crazy were sane…that the woman in the floor-length faux-fur leopard skin coat was the key, or the old guy passed out in his seat. I never wrote it, the raw reality of the train itself defeated me, this world we have created…

There was a crazy guy playing porter today along the blue line, he was frighteningly crazy, with his lips pulled back and jagged teeth and no touch of awareness in his gaze, he could not speak only yell words barely recognizeable. At each stop he got out and held the door and shouted what might have been all aboard, and ushered the people in who were brave enough to choose his door…we lost him at firestone station as the people poured in and filled the car completely, he continued to hold the door as the warning bells chimed again and again and sacraficed his place so the last family could jump on. It was his moment, and as he watched the train leave he was shining.

My friend with the glasses bearing white 50 cent flags stuck on each side and selling candy with a smooth fast sales pitch that makes everyone smile was on the train today, he had almost sold everything.

A man younger then me sat quietly on the bottom of the steps leading up to the green line, he held a forty in a brown paper bag and threw up to one side casually as though he were just spitting. Once, and again, and once again. The smell of it was sickly, and it mingled with the sour stink of beer to fill the air.

An old guy told me he loved me. He was too drunk to really speak and drink had marked his face as it’s own and I was too sad to do more then smile. He might have meant to say something else, maybe he didn’t love me after all. But his eyes never left my face and when he followed me onto the green line I realized he walked only with great difficulty and a congenital limp…and the fact remained he was frighteningly drunk and therefore unpredictable and I hate to be stared at and I was glad when he got off at the first stop.

My friend from a few weeks ago was on the train as well, the one who had a crush on Hillary Clinton…he had lost the one sock he had, but had acquired shoes that did not fit his swollen feet. He had a large black book with a red logo, and on it he beat an irregular rhythm and sang a song to himself in a language that probably only he could understand. The smell of him was terrible, and his clothes were falling off of him and he was doing far worse then when I saw him last.

I saw everyone with ghetto hard faces, the kind that say don’t fuck with me, I could hurt you. You have to wear it to wall out the overpowering need of others, to protect yourself, to create your own distance from what is around you. If you don’t live here you never see those faces transformed, masks melted away where it is safe, and people return to the way they ought to be. I lost my mask in Scotland, but I feel it creeping into the set of my lips sometimes…when I think about it I do not want it back, but there is a price to pay for that. Unconsciously your face hardens.

I biked home through the darkness and the smell of flowers, and laid out on the grass for a while to search for stars. If I could have any power at all, any gift, I do believe I would sacrifice my lifelong dream of flying for the ability to heal people. There are layers upon layers of what is broken and I know the scale of it…but it is the brokenness of my people on the train one by one that breaks my heart.

The next blog shall be funny, I solemnly swear.

Remembering the Morrison Hotel

Sitting at home, watching the documentary Jeff Kauffman did for us on the Morrison Hotel…such a crazy time of my life, all-absorbing life-changing really, I am watching Maria Rivas open up her phone and seeing it crawling with roaches, one of my most disgusting horrific memories…the hallways with their boarded up doors, Mark talking about pulling himself up four flights of stairs, Mark pulling himself out of his wheelchair, he lost a leg because of that damn building, when you’re paralyzed you can’t feel the roaches crawling over your legs, your genitals, can’t tell you have an infection that will mean amputation. I remember the smell, the mold, the fleas that attack you as you walk in and you know are from the fucking rodents, puppy rats the tenants called them because of their size… I remember sneaking in late at night to take photos and document conditions and talk to our folks, the fear and adrenalin as I walked past security dressed in ridiculous clothes. And damn, I remember the day we had our first action and got into the building after months and I have never in my life been so happy, so high really, it lasted for days. I remember the manager sitting on the floor on the 4th floor rocking back and forth with his head in his hands…a small payback for threatening tenants with his pit bull and throwing people into the street but it was something…the remaining tenants cheering us as we roamed the hallways like champions.

I’m sadly one of the stars of the documentary…I wish I spoke better, I feel things so deeply but can’t seem to express myself well out loud, perhaps that’s why I’m a writer I suppose. I am fueled on pure fury, much more so than hope, and I think there’s no way to tell that, funny that you can’t tell how angry I am all of the time…And I look tired, I think I’ve been tired since I first started working, first started fighting with every ounce of strength for a little piece of justice. It’s funny to watch yourself speak. I am so glad, though, that there is some living record of such a long struggle, so glad to see everyone I love, everyone I worked with. Even John Krusynski, he makes me laugh because he is just so ridiculous at times, he’s a psychic you know, and Nasa has been picking up his thoughts by satellite for years. He actually said in his interview that we were a bit annoying at times, that somehow didn’t make it into the finished film. I’m going to miss him. Nor did my stunning analysis of the role of property rights over human rights but that’s alright. Elvis is also missing, he sold out early on and bought some beautiful new clothes we heard…His room was like a tunnel between stacks of papers and sheet music and plastered with music posters of Elvis and the Doors and even a picture of the real Elvis’ mother. he came to all of our meetings with his guitar. Mr Brown is there at the protest, a crochety old veteran who was lost as well when he lost his room, his own place, his home. It was a horrible day the day we had to move him out, I cried. And Sebastian is there at our meeting, an old Italian fisherman, he will never know how much I loved him and I think he left believing we had sold everyone out by taking a deal and that hurts like nothing else. We would have fought all the way if the other tenants had wanted us to, I wanted to fight…but with their kids getting assaulted in the hallways and 90 boarded up rooms and drug deals in the bathrooms…they couldn’t fight anymore. And who were we to demand it when legally we were finished?

The documentary is almost done, nice to see Mark as he was, without his home shithole as it was, he’s lost. He’s been on the streets since then, in and out of the hospital, looking worse every time I see him, how hard is it to understand that a home means more than money and cannot be replaced? There was another tenant with severe mental problems who lived there, we tried and tried to talk to him, other tenants tried to help him, but he would never accept it. he was the last to leave and I don’t think he got any money…He’s homeless now and lives on 30th street near the freeway, only blocks from our office…I wonder if he knows it. I pass him on my bike coming to work in the morning and it makes my soul hurt.

I wonder if the Morrison has given me more hope or less…I know I didn’t have much left inside to give after it, still don’t, definitely need to rest, to recharge…the ending of the Morrison with everyone moving out, a small win more bitter than sweet…and the shooting of Maria’s son, those two unconnected things together have killed a piece of me I think, I wonder if it can come back.

I’m packing this evening, getting rid of more stuff, I suppose it’s a good time to think on all that has been. I am sad, and nothing seems real this evening, even all that I have done, the documentary proves it happened, the tiredness in my bones does as well, and I suppose the hole inside me that appears whenever I cry. My ipod is magically matching my mood on shuffle…shutting the cover on years of your life requires a good soundtrack, did I say I was fucking sad as all hell?