Friday, February 15, 2013

Warning: Save the Shelter and the People (II)

Yesterday, I sent out a warning ("Warning: Save the Shelter and the People") because signs had appeared of the impending displacement of homeless shelter residents analyzed in the social science literature. As I mentioned in my previous post, we have to be very careful that criticisms of the homeless shelter at the DC General Hospital site are not used to dismantle the shelter. On Wednesday, our Cities and Globalization Working Group had discussed three fascinating articles on similar displacements in very different cities. It was surprising that the authors independently found the same mechanisms and trends, but these are, in fact, global mechanisms and trends.

Negative images of slums, homeless shelters, public housing, and a variety of informal areas, as well as of the people living within them, can make it easy to seize land and displace people. This displacement is often done in the name of "helping" these people. In his article, D. Asher Ghertner, a geography professor at Rutgers University, examines recent court documents regarding slum areas in Delhi and finds that developers are very successful in court cases seeking to remove slums because the city accepts the developers' argument that their new projects are "world class," clean, and green. In contrast, slums -- or homeless shelters or public housing -- are presented as not only filthy, unruly, and polluted, but also as a public nuisance, an "offense to the sense of sight, smell, or hearing." Similarly, in his article, Oren Yiftachel, a geography professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (Israel) studies his hometown Beer Sheva and finds that those living in slum areas (or homeless shelters or public housing) are in the "permanent temporariness" of "gray spaces" that are quietly tolerated but also viewed as "'contamination,' 'criminality,' and 'public danger' to the desired 'order of things.'" According to Ghertner, developers make their claims in court by showing  photographs of the slums, which are then contrasted with the plans of the new developments. Private groups -- developers and nearby homeowners -- can have these slums and the people living in them declared a public nuisance and displaced to other gray spaces. Ghertner argues that cities are now being managed by this world-class aesthetic, "an idealized vision of the world-class city gleaned from refracted images and circulating models of other world-class cities," which can be used to take away shelter and resources needed for survival from residents.

Berkeley urban planning professor Ananya Roy shows in her article that the view of world-class, legal, and orderly city in opposition to the unruly, illegal, filthy areas of slums and other informal areas is a lie. They are all part of the same system. First, many "world-class" developments are, in fact, rather illegal, exceptions are regularly made to the zoning and other laws, which we see often in DC. Second, many gray spaces are also ruled by exception, not providing residents there with the resources or maintenance expected by more wealthy citizens. The law is withdrawn when it is convenient, enforced when it is desirable, and then made ambiguous so that land can be seized (or zoning laws may even be completely rewritten to ease this land seizure). Yiftachel notes that this "selective non-planning" is part of urban planning and is "a form of active or negligent exclusion," which merely manages "profound societal inequalities" and does not seek to reduce or end these inequalities.

Those living in gray spaces have some, possibly dystopian, forms of hope. According to Yiftachel, these residents may enter gray spaces in hopes of they will be chosen to move to a "whitened space" and receive "correction," social upgrading, and "blessed stabilization" of their lives. Those living in the homeless shelter might wish to be chosen to have their own apartment and the stabilization that this brings. In the meantime, living in gray spaces come with considerable dangers. Residents could be severely punished, "throwing the group into financial disaster, property loss, injury or even exile." If they can avoid these dangers, gray zone residents can gain some resources, according to Roy, "through various associational forms but where these associations also require obedience, tribute, contribution and can thus be a 'claustrophobic game.'" So, these hopes are not that utopian.

The global world-class city trend presents those living in gray spaces worldwide -- homeless shelters, slums, public housing, and likely all areas inhabited by the poor -- as in need of cleaning, correction, and "whitening," when, in fact, this means displacing them and possibly putting them in grave danger. How can DC instead provide every resident the "right to the city"?

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