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?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Farmers' Markets and Social Entrepreneurship

On Saturday, I visited both farmers' markets in Ward 8. The farmers' market shuttle bus made this relatively easy, and I would highly recommend taking the shuttle to see the markets and the wide area that the shuttle covers. FYI: due to lack of further funds, next Saturday's shuttle will be the last one of the season.

The St. Elizabeth's market is small and on an amazing location. It would be particularly interesting to visit the market and go on an organized tour of the expansive campus of St. Elizabeth's (one of the buildings is pictured to the left). The market at THEARC is larger and is definitely worth visiting. THEARC is a wonderful community center that probably was originally for Parklands public housing across the street. On Saturday, Parklands looked particularly beautiful. THEARC (pictured to the right) includes activities organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Levine School of Music, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Washington Ballet (a ballet class was just letting out while I was there), as well as health, parenting, and educational services. I talked with Michael, the director of the market, who said that kids visiting the market were so excited to learn how to open pea pods and to choose their own apples. I thought: yeah, sure. Then, I got on the shuttle with a mother, her 10-year old son (I think that might have been his age), and her 2-month old. When I asked the 10-year old how he liked the market, he said, "I learned how to eat snap peas!" Then, he proceeded to tell me the recipes he learned for cooking eggplant and green tomatoes. The most important part of each recipe was: "Then, the next step is you eat them!" At the market, I saw numerous young kids happily eating whole apples. THEARC space is very inviting and encourages kids to investigate.

The experience reminded me of a discussion we had in class about Logan and Molotch's Urban Fortunes. In the book, the authors talk about how "use value" (how we use land, buildings, and communities in our daily lives for shelter, for friendship, and so on) often comes into conflict with "exchange values" (how we seek to make money off land, building, and communities to pay for retirement, to make a living, or, for some people, to make a fortune). For nearly a decade, Ward 8 did not have a grocery store because grocery stores did not find it economically advantageous to work there; exchange values trumped residents' use values. In contrast, farmers' markets are businesses that try to bring together use values and exchange values, which can mean that the businesses are less profitable but they help low-income people get access to fresh food. Farmers' markets are part of the social entrepreneurship movement, which also includes micro-finance discussed by Muhammad Yunus' Banker to the Poor and is presented as a new form of capitalism. Social entrepreneurs seek to create new markets/economies that are more inclusive and accessible.

However, as discussed in my previous post "What is Neoliberalism? Is there Neoliberalism in Ward 6?," social scientists have criticized such market-based programs in part because these programs cannot provide solutions to the root causes of increasing inequality; rather they mobilize often flighty (especially during economic crises) philanthropic funds to attempt to deal with basic issues of hunger and malnutrition. Are there alternative programs that might help reduce inequality and poverty in Ward 8, as well as in Ward 6?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Co-ops in DC

Today, at the Ward 8 Farmers' Market (@ THEARC), I'll be handing out flyers for DC Co-op Day, which takes place on Saturday, October 27th at UDC. Everyone is invited, but space is limited, so register soon if you want to attend. A group of us are writing histories of various cooperatives in DC. We have also put together an "Evolving History of DC Cooperatives":

"Washington, DC has had a long history of cooperatives. In part, this was because African Americans have sought to form cooperatives as a way create economic and political freedom. As Jessica Gordon Nembhard has argued, “African Americans have used cooperative economic development as a strategy in the struggle for economic stability and independence.” In 1907, W.E.B. Dubois (pictured at the right) spoke in favor of a wide range of cooperatives and alternative economic institutions. Cooperatives would remain a key institution in the toolbox of African American social movements. Washington, DC remains a central location for these social movements and thus would have a rich cooperative history." Read more

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Neil Smith on Lefebvre

It is sad for us all that CUNY geographer Neil Smith passed away just a few days ago. His idea of the "revanchist city" has been so helpful for me, but he wrote so many enlightening works. I happened to pick up Neil Smith's foreword to Henri Lefebvre's The Urban Revolution and quite liked the following quotation:
Whereas space came alive in early-twentieth-century art, physics, and mathematics, in social theory and philosophy it was a quite different story. Space there was more often synonymous with rigidity, immobility, stasis; space itself had become a blind field [places used as practices that obscure constitutive sociospatial relations, practices that obscure the ways that city residents create or constitute the city themselves, making it instead appear as if, for example, city government or developers constitute it]. For Lefebvre, by contrast, space holds the promise of liberation: liberation from the tyranny of time apart from anything else, but also from social repression and exploitation, from self-imprisoning categories -- liberation into desire. Space is radically open for Lefebvre; he refuses precisely the closure of space that so dominated western thinking and in some circles continues to do so.
Many people flock to cities, especially large cities, because they liberate us from so many constraints, including self-imprisoning ones. If one looks at the early urban studies of the Chicago School from the 1920s and 1930s, one sees how those sociologists understood the city as dying and immobilized into separate, alienating neighborhoods. The blind field obscured city residents' practices that constituted the city. Is it possible to think about DC urban space as radically open, moving beyond time, exploitation, and self-imprisoning categories? Thanks to Neil Smith for his many writings.