Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Washington DC as Global City

Washington, DC is a global city not only because it is the capital of the United States, one of the most powerful countries in the world, but also because it shares many qualities with other 'global cities.' Columbia University sociologist Saskia Sassen is one of the pioneers in the study of global cities, demonstrating how in the current, post-1960s global economy cities like New York, London, and Tokyo take on new roles as the 'brains' managing production that now takes place globally. These global cities provide corporate and financial services performed by highly paid professionals, who then depend on child care, restaurant, entertainment, construction, and other services performed by poorly paid workers. Since she wrote her book, The Global City, many other social scientists have argued that cities in the Global South, such as Jakarta or Rio de Janeiro, are equally global, but in ways different from New York, London, and Tokyo (Goldman and Longhofer 2009). Washington, DC is yet again a different kind of global city.

Investments, labor, and ideas flow through all these cities, but these resources are not distributed evenly across cities or even within cities. Some cities are able to attract large investments and highly-paid professionals (the "creative classes" discussed by Richard Florida) from around the world, while others, like Detroit, find this difficult. Thus, cities now compete with each other on a global playing field. On this competitive field, cities often create areas particularly attractive to international investors and the creative classes. In Washington, DC, examples include the new Waterfront in SW DC, Barracks Row on Capitol Hill, and H St in NE. At the same time, global cities have ever increasing inequalities, as discussed by UN-HABITAT: "major cities in the United States, such as Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington DC, Miami, and New York, have the highest levels of inequality in the country, similar to those in Abidjan, Nairobi, Buenos Aires, and Santiago" (Bratman 2011:1546). The reorientation of city politicians and elites toward global investors and the globally oriented creative classes seems to distract them from the needs of low-income constituents, such as the 50% of the DC households making less than $54,000, and from responsibilities toward the national government (though DC may be different on this last issue).

NYU anthropologist Tom Looser has noticed that professionals moving through global cities tend to be indifferent to their local surroundings, local history, and local culture, and to feel little responsibility for others and for local government in these cities. I think that this is true but in a more complicated way than Looser describes. First, paradoxically, the creative classes demand "unique," "authentic," "local" experiences. So, they would not desire a dinner at a McDonalds or other chain restaurants. However, many restaurants, cafes, and events appear locally distinct, when, in fact, they are owned by major global investors and reflect the global demand of the "creative classes." As a result, we see similar "local" events all around the world -- outdoor movies, gallery walks, business district food fairs, etc.

Second, parts of the creative classes are in fact engaged with DC government and the larger city, but often in a hostile, superficial way. This hostile engagement also follows global patterns. The wonderfully insightful CUNY geographer Neil Smith described the new attitude of cities and professionals moving to cities in the 1990s, a vengeful ("revanchist") attitude against those who were perceived as destroying the city: African Americans, the working class, the poor, recent immigrants, and so on: “The rallying cry of the revanchist city might well be: ‘Who lost the city? And on whom is revenge to be exacted?’” Public discussions in DC swirl around criticisms of specific DC politicians, when we should also examine how the current, post-1960s global economy and the desperate attempts by cities to compete has shaped the District that undermined school funding, reduced working class jobs (yes, there was a working class in DC), and redirected money towards area of commercial development and away from other areas.

Bring up the name "Marion Barry" to a group of professionals and there will be little indifference. Yet, they will not actually engage with the fact that Marion Barry allied early on with white and African American professionals and developers functioning within the rapidly changing global economy. At the same time, Marion Barry also formed a political machine that helped many African Americans, including low-income residents, who would find little support from later mayors. In Black Power, Stokely Carmichael (who partially developed his book's arguments while living in DC) condemned political machines as not truly improving the world for African Americans and/or low-income residents, and called instead for real empowerment -- economic, political, and cultural. Yet, the distortions of the city caused by global urban competition and the fact that political machines were not replaced with a more inclusive political system meant that low-income residents remain neglected in the global city.

Professionals' vengeful attitude towards minorities and the poor/low-income even has some similarities to the attitudes of colonial rulers, similarities recognized by many, including Stokely Carmichael in Black Power and American University's Eve Bratman. In his fascinating Wizards & Scientists, former history professor at  U of Maryland, College Park, Stephan Palmi√© demonstrates the similarities in elites' attitudes towards colonies and ghettos. I found this quotation about witch-hunts in colonial Cuba particularly haunting:
Yet the...witch-hunts were not just expressions of racially structured class conflicts (although they certainly were that, too). They were also, perhaps to an extent not adequately acknowledged, the product of a struggle on the part of Cuban intellectuals and social critics to construe hitherto fairly vague conceptions of cultural Africanity into a social pathogen the extirpation [to pull out from the roots, to remove totally] of which would form a precondition for the achievement of Cuban modernity. (Palmié 2002: 29-30)
This quotation sounded so familiar to the discussions going on about the future of DC. The "creative classes" sound much like the powerful colonial Cuban intellectuals. The "creative classes" involved in public discussions seem to desire to extirpate, to remove totally, low-income African Americans as a social pathogen from the District that would allow the District finally to flourish and be a truly modern, global city. Is this the kind of city we wish to living in? Who has a right to the city?


  1. You're right to note that DC has attracted a lot of money from international investors. However, much of that money is invested in securitized Class A commercial real estate downtown, not properties on H Street NE. H Street, Barracks Row, etc., just attract creative class professional residents, but not international real estate investment.

    Also, you're right to note that "the creative classes demand 'unique,' 'authentic,' 'local' experiences." However, you also say that many of these restaurants are owned by international investors. Can you give a few examples of such places here in DC? There are local chains like Clyde's Restaurant Group, but I doubt they've received any investment from Tokyo financiers.

    Also, you write, "The reorientation of city politicians and elites toward global investors and the globally oriented creative classes seems to distract them from the needs of low-income constituents."

    I'm not sure I agree with that. In fact, 61% ($5.71 billion) of the FY 2013 DC budget goes to human services and public education, budget categories that are overwhelmingly consumed by lower-income residents.

    Secondly, I would argue that appealing to global investors and servicing the needs of low-income residents are complementary. Small jurisdictions need wealth so they can tax the wealth and redistribute it to poorer residents through various services. Without taxable wealth, social services would barely exist.

  2. Good post Johanna. The concepts of revanchism and and poor as polluting are central (and ignored) aspects of explaining the social and spatial forms that we see in many different kinds of ‘world class’ and aspiring world class cities. Ironically (at least superficially) the vanguard cities in this respect are ostensibly liberal ones (e.g. the anti-homeless ordinances in San Francisco and Berkeley, stop and frisk in New York), but the phenomena is truly global. In many cities of the global South, it is the middle class that is often the most viciously anti-poor. They are intimately connected there in ways that produce a particularly ugly politics, but the assaults on the poor in liberal US cities is really no different.

  3. Sf has the higheest minimum wage in the americas. We have also had city wide free health care for years. Also we have the best rent control in the country. We help our poor controversly bettet then any municipality in the Americas. So don't bad mouth us because your city sucks


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