Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Sharing the (Common)Wealth

The District government has announced that all city libraries will be open seven days a week and remain open for more hours, beginning October 1st! The DC Council approved Mayor Gray’s fiscal year 2014 budget, including an increase in library hours and funding for books and other library materials. The new hours will be Monday through Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Great!! That's the way to share the wealth, or actually let everyone keep the wealth that they collectively create making DC great. This is our commonwealth.

Speaking of the commons, MLK Library just opened its new Digital Commons: a huge room with spaces for meet ups and collaborative creation, smart boards, 50 workstations with outlets for laptops, a 3D printer, a self-publishing book machine, and the latest eReader devices.

Everyone is talking about the commons these days. Business schools long ago realized that networking and collaboration across businesses and other organizations (like universities) is what makes successes like Silicon Valley, as opposed to the usual image a big corporations competing with each other like along Route 128. Activists around the world have also turned to the commons as a solution to many problems.

Here is one interpretation of why so many people are turning to the commons, by David Bollier:
Let me start by giving a brief speculation about why people from so many backgrounds are embracing the commons. First of all, it is a way for people to assert the integrity of their existing communities, or to try to reclaim that integrity. The commons also provides a way to assert a moral relationship to certain resources and people that are endangered by market forces. It’s a way of saying, “That _________ (water, air, software code, cultural tradition) belongs to me. It is part of my life and identity.”

Many people are embracing the commons, too, because it provides a powerful critique of neoliberal capitalism. But it is much more than that. It is a pro-active set of alternatives that work. And therefore it provides a positive, constructive scaffolding for practical alternatives to the prevailing market economy and corrupt political process. But the commons is still more than this. It is not just a policy critique or political philosophy, but equally a distinctive worldview, language and social ethic.
That's a rather non-sociological interpretation, but I think that you can see that DC is part of an evolving global conversation about the commons.

P.S. This view of the commonwealth moves away from the (rather aristocratic) model of "helping" others through charity towards recognizing that everyone is creating wealth together all the time and that DC and other places depend on all this wealth creation, known as commonwealth. Cities are particularly important places of commonwealth generation, since so many people are brought together in different ways. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Gentrified Neighborhoods Threatened!

Yes, The Onion has brought to light a new threat to gentrified neighborhoods like those in Ward 6 -- aristocratization! It seems that aristocrats are pushing out young white professionals from their neighborhoods. See this photo of Brooklyn!
Image from The Onion

From The Onion:
"When you have a bejeweled, buckle-shoed duke willing to pay 11 or 12 times the asking price for a block of renovated brownstones—and usually up front with satchels of solid gold guineas—hardworking white-collar people who only make a few hundred thousand dollars a year simply cannot compete," Kennedy said. "If this trend continues, these exclusive, vibrant communities with their sidewalk caf├ęs and faux dive bars will soon be a thing of the past."...

"A three-block section of [Chicago neighborhood] Wicker Park that once accommodated eight families, two vintage clothing stores, a French cleaners, and a gourmet bakery has been completely razed to make way for a private livery stable and carriage house," Kennedy said. "The space is now entirely unusable for affordable upper-income condominium housing. No one can live there except for the odd stable boy or footman who gets permission to sleep in the hayloft."...
The aristocracy has adamantly dismissed claims that the sweeping changes are detrimental to the merely wealthy who have been displaced, and many persons of noble blood have pointed to aristocratization's benefits. These include lower crime rates attributed to new punishments, such as public floggings and the pillory, which are primarily meted out for maintaining direct eye contact with members of the highest class. 
How will Ward 6 fend off aristocratization? Or has it already succumbed? Watch out for those powdered wigs and horse-drawn carriages.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nelson Mandela Day

Today has been declared Nelson Mandela Day:
The overarching objective of Mandela Day is to inspire individuals to take action to help change the world for the better, and in doing so build a global movement for good. Ultimately it seeks to empower communities everywhere. “Take Action; Inspire Change; Make Every Day a Mandela Day.”
To celebrate Nelson Mandela Day and Nelson Mandela as a former prisoner, I am getting the word out about the great organization DC Books to Prisons, and I myself am going to get organized to send a box of books to a prison library. 

What do prisoners like to read? According to DC Books to Prisons, here are the books in most demand:

  1. Dictionaries (English, Spanish-English) (by far, most popular request)
  2. Spanish Textbooks
  3. Atlases and almanacs
  4. Drawing or art
  5. Science and alternative energy (including science magazines like Discover or Scientific American)
  6. How-to (especially woodworking, plumbing, car mechanics, small motor repair)
  7. GED preparation
  8. Farming and agriculture
  9. Personal finance or starting a business
  10. American Indians, Mayans, or Aztecs
  11. African American, Latin American, or classical (Roman,Greek) history
  1. Westerns
  2. Urban
According to the American Library Association, popular fiction authors include, Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, Donald Goines, Sydney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, Stuart Woods, Jeffrey Deavers, John Grisham, Walter Mosley, all African American writers, all authors of Westerns.

Now, DC Books to Prison can only take paperback books. There are some other rules to follow too. You can also donate stamps, postage money, and time.

In the greater DC area, we have been blessed with some great prison librarians, such as Glennor Shirley (photo to the left). However, as I understand, the DC Jail does not even have a library! It seems to have a law library, but I am not certain. Well, it would be great if the DC Jail had a library.

As one of the prisoners wrote to DC Books to Prison:
"Thank you for everything that you do. You have no idea how much this not only means to us, but also helps us. Please don't ever stop." – Robert, Tucson AZ
Three cheers for Nelson Mandela and Nelson Mandela Day!

P.S. Here are a list of some possible activities suggested by the Nelson Mandela Day organizers.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Housing for All Summer Movie Series

Housing For All is kicking off its summer movie series "Summer in the City: A documentary series exploring gentrification and urban renewal." On Monday at 7pm in the MLK Library, they will be showing "Southwest Remembered," a documentary abut urban renewal in Southwest DC. In "Urban Renewal and Grief in Ward 6," I wrote about a study of the 23,500 SW residents, who were displaced in the 1950s "in order to build a 'new town in the city' with air-conditioned apartments for middle and upper income groups as well as some 929 public housing units." Does it sound like a mixed-income development?

The movie screen will have a post-view discussion with Brett Williams, professor of anthropology at American University, who helped in the creation of the film. I highly recommend the documentary and the discussion with the great Brett Williams.

Here are the movies in the series:
Southwest Remembered
Tuesday, July 16 at 6:00 PM
Martin Luther King Library: 901 G St NW
The history of urban renewal in Southwest Washington, DC.

Flag Wars
Tuesday, July 23 at 6:00 PM
Martin Luther King Library: 901 G St NW
Tensions rise in a community in Columbus, Ohio, when gay and lesbian white homebuyers move into a working-class black neighborhood.

Holding Ground
Tuesday, August 6 at 6:00 PM
Martin Luther King Library: 901 G St NW
The story of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. In 1985, African-American, Latino, Cape Verdean, and European-American residents in Roxbury, MA united to revitalize their community.

Boom: The Sound of Eviction
Tuesday, August 20 at 6:00 PM
CNHED: 1432 U Street NW
Like DC today, when the dot-com industry was booming in California, it made it hard for existing low-income residents to stay in San Francisco and Oakland.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Greenleaf, Potomac Gardens, Barry Farms -- Don't Believe DC Government Promises

In today's Post, the article "D.C. housing initiative languishes" demonstrated that the New Communities Initiative, HOPE VI, and other affordable housing programs do not fulfill mandated legal obligations to public housing residents. I would recommend that those living in Greenleaf Gardens, Potomac Gardens, Barry Farms, and other public housing projects not believe any future promises made to them by the DC government.

Most of those commenting on the article, however, focused on criticizing public housing residents for getting a supposed free ride. In contrast, commenters on a recent NY Times article "Gentrifying into the Shelters" (about how gentrification of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn was moving large numbers of low-income residents into either homeless shelters or more impoverished areas) realized that gentrification was making all of New York City unaffordable for many residents and had turned Manhattan at least into an "overpriced shopping mall." Maybe DC residents should be more concerned?
  • Considering the fact that affordable housing programs across the United States have not fulfilled their legal obligations not to displace public housing residents, I would argue that the fact that DC public housing residents have been displaced for years is not due to incompentence or to DC's corrupt politicians, but rather it is a systemic problem. City governments are interested in tax revenue and thus in profit-making businesses; affordable housing is just not a priority, unless residents force politicians to make it a priority.
  • Are cities like DC or New York or San Francisco only for the wealthy because they can afford them? The wealthy will always win in competition for housing with moderate and low-income residents. Do you want to live in the city that DC is becoming? Or can you live in the city that DC is becoming? 
  • Many people are calling for a general "Right to the City." Writing about the recent Istanbul protests, journalist Jay Cassano found that protests have been very concerned about the city that that Istanbul is becoming: 
  • "this protest is the latest manifestation of a movement that has been stirring for some time now. The shopping mall is only one component of a plan to entirely redesign Taksim Square into a more car-friendly, tourist-accommodating, and sanitized urban center. Mass protests have also taken place recently to stop the closure of the landmark Emek Cinema..., which is also being converted into (no surprise) a shopping mall."
Maybe DC residents should be similarly concerned? As a former resident of Arthur Capper public housing told me: Arthur Capper “was part of the District of Columbia…like a finger or an arm in the body of the District of Columbia…You just cannot destroy a community and expect the city to thrive and survive." How might we make certain that DC thrives and survives? What might that mean?

In the meantime, here are some ideas about how the DC government can stop displacing our neighbors today.

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?

Friday, July 5, 2013

People want to live in public housing

Many of those who can afford and live in private housing have long called public housing a failed model, but, since public housing began in the DC in the 1930s, thousands of DC residents have sought to live in public housing.

From Southwest...The Little Quadrant That Could blog
From the beginning, the DC housing authority (National Capital Housing Authority, NCHA) planned two- to three-story townhouses for families and, when necessary, mid-rise apartment buildings for seniors. Most public housing authorities saw this as a good model. The extensive hi-rise public housing blocks of Chicago and St. Louis were not the model followed by NCHA officials. Greenleaf Gardens in SW (recent photo to the left) is an example of the NCHA model. Greenleaf was constructed in 1959 and also has a very nice recreation center.

The Congress-controlled DC government through the 1960s displaced thousands of people from SW and other parts of DC (to remove "slums," build highways, etc) and housed only a portion of those who needed housing. By 1962, 8,000 families were on the NCHA waiting list. NCHA's decision to build the few mid-rise buildings in the system seems to be the result of the resistance by most of DC, especially the area west of Rock Creek Park, to public housing construction of any kind. As a result, the NCHA could never build enough public housing to house those displaced by government programs, as well as the thousands of others in need of public housing (such as WWII veterans, the disabled, minimum-wage workers, and so on).

In addition, the Congress-controlled DC government did not allocate adequate funds to maintain public housing. The residents soon suffered from the lack of maintenance. By 1969, NCHA was one of 15 major housing authorities experiencing financial difficulties. They increased rents in 1969, but the residents protested. According to the NCHA's 1974 Annual Report, in 1969, "Financial problems made it necessary for the Authority to reduce extraordinary maintenance and capital improvements in order to keep the budget in balance." So, the Home-Rule DC government inherited this poorly maintained, indebted system, which the new, Home-Rule government renovated in serious and innovative ways in spite of the difficulties caused by national and global economic crises of the mid- to late 1970s.

In spite of the problems, DC residents still seek to live in public housing. Today, the waiting list has 70,000 individuals.[1] Why? As one Potomac Gardens resident said at a meeting, she was just like everyone else in the room; she went to work and put her sons through college; she just didn't have enough money to afford non-public housing. Are there other benefits that public housing residents acquire through public housing?

Let's not destroy public housing.  By looking at the writings of the inspiration to new urbanism, Jane Jacobs, we can understand that Jane Jacobs would have never approved of the demolition of public housing projects and the creation of the mixed-income projects funded by the HOPE VI program. She would never have approved the massive displacement of public housing residents by HOPE VI. Today, HOPE VI programs have new names, but they have similar results.

Instead, Jacobs suggests that low-income housing projects be salvaged by reweaving them into the city fabric. This reweaving is not done by erasing the housing project and displacing all its residents. Instead, in chapter 20 "Salvaging Projects" of her The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she argued that cities should:
  • Design new streets around the public housing that connect with streets beyond the project. The ground floors of the public housing should be redesigned to incorporate street-side uses, and new street-side buildings could be incorporated into open spaces. These street-side buildings of shops, offices, etc. should connect up with lively streets nearby.
  • Use vendors with carts to provide services and liveliness, if funds are not available for redesigns.
  • Improve safety inside public housing by employing residents as elevator attendants during the day and night.
  • Abandon maximum income limits, so that people can remain as they advance economically.
  • Make gradual, rather than cataclysmic, investments in public housing and the surrounding areas.
Rather than demolish and displace, as HOPE VI has done and other programs are now doing, we might instead consider Jane Jacobs' steps to keep public housing and allow the residents to benefit from the improvements in the city that they have helped to create.

[1] Mike DeBonis, “Public Housing waiting list to close April 12,” Washington Post, April 4, 2013.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Fellow Sociologist and Great Neighbor -- Peter Bug

Image from Washington Post
The Washington Post recently had an article about our great neighbor and fellow Ward 6 sociologist, John "Peter Bug" Matthews. He has been teaching shoe repair in Spingarn High School, and his program is being moved to the newly reopened Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School. Many Arthur Capper Public Housing residents went to Phelps, where they learned shoe repair and other vocational skills decades ago. 

The article focused on his work teaching shoe repair, but this Destiny-Pride, Inc. interview examines his contributions to DC more broadly. As I discussed before, here are some items particularly relevant to this blog:
  • Mr. Matthews is a fifth generation DC resident, an alumnus of Tyler Elementary School, and a great community organizer. 
  • Mr. Matthews has a degree in sociology and anthropology from Federal City College, which opened its doors in 1968 and later became part of UDC.
  • Mr. Matthews worked alongside his college friend Carroll "Skeezie" Payne helping kids at Potomac Gardens and at Tyler. As part of the Roving Leaders Program, they sought to engage at-risk youth in constructive activities. This 1989 Post article talks about Potomac Gardens children spending "large chunks of their time visiting with Carroll (Skeezie) Payne, a city housing worker who has become an ex-officio grandfather to many of the youngsters in the project." Mr. Matthews did a lot of work organizing residents of Potomac Gardens, Arthur Capper, and other public housing in Ward 6.
  • Mr. Matthews nearly founded a shoe manufacturing company for Timberland in the area, which only required matching funds that the DC government failed to provide. The failure of this project "was one of the tragedies of the dream that we thought we were going to fulfill." 
He and his colleagues at Peter Bug Shoe Repair Academy (at 13th and E St SE) can repair any kind of shoe, even shoes that you thought could never be repaired. Also, their shop is so pleasant. You might also make it in time to get some BBQ right off the grill. Bring your shoes to Peter Bug!