Sunday, July 7, 2013

Why the social meaning of places in Ward 6 matters

I was wondering why the media presents certain places in bizarrely negative ways, such as by presenting bars and public libraries as soaked in urine and certain landscapes as wastelands. These representations are, in fact, quite controversial here in Ward 6. For example, some saw the Arthur Capper public housing project as a "wasteland," while others thought of it (and still think of it) as a cherished home and "family" (their annual reunion was on Thursday). There is not a consensus about what such spaces mean to different groups. The media is part of a broader struggle over the meanings we give to spaces. Why do these meanings/representations matter?

In his fascinating Black Corona, Columbia University anthropology and African American Studies professor Steven Gregory writes: 
I stress the concrete political and material stakes that are at issue in struggles over "representation"...For it is precisely in struggles over the social meanings of places [like public libraries or local bars or public housing] that we see most clearly the constitutive relations between the symbolic economy of representations and the political economy of urban spaces. As David Harvey [geography professor at City University of New York and intellectual advocate for the Right to the City movement] has pointed out, "The fierce contest over images and counter-images of places is an arena in which the cultural politics of places, the political economy of their development, and the accumulation of a sense of power in place frequently fuse in indistinguishable ways." (pp. 17-18)
These representations and meanings matter because somehow those with economic and political power can use these representations to legitimate actions in their own interests and make such action appear inevitable or natural. So, it appears inevitable that a urine-soaked bar should be replaced or it is natural that a wasteland should be replaced by moving out the low-income residents and an entire community. [It seems, however, the urine-soaked-library image is more about criticizing the past leadership in DC (like criticizing Mayor Anthony Williams??)]. What other images might empower a wider range of DC residents and lead to actions that might include more of our neighbors?

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