Many Little Kenyon-Barrs

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This is part of a new series exploring the question: “How Does Gentrification Work?”

Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority’s (CMHA) 2014 annual plan calls for the demolition of 1455 units of public housing across Hamilton county. This would disperse the population, probably in excess of 5000 people, throughout the county. CMHA controlled properties stand at 99% occupancy, and the federal funds identified to build new housing are already disbursed, so the residents will likely be given Housing Choice (Section 8) Vouchers and be pushed back into the private housing market. The extent of the plan is striking, with large developments like Stanley Rowe and Winton Terrace set to be vacated and razed along with nearly the entire neighborhood of Millvale, each project accounting for 200 to 500 units of the total amount. There are two primary questions to be explored: Why is the housing being demolished? And where does this fit in with the pattern of displacement at the city-wide level?

To understand housing policy in Cincinnati, one must first understand the city’s geography. Like any modern city in the United States, Cincinnati is heavily segregated. Though neighborhoods like Avondale and Over-the-Rhine (OTR) serve as the de-facto centers of the black population, the city has no main dividing line between black and white halves–in a city that loves to talk about imagined differences between the East and West Side, no given cardinal direction can be identified as the black-side of town. Cincinnati’s black population, about 45% of the total, lives in several pockets strewn throughout the city. Many neighborhoods are upwards of 90% black–Avondale, Bond Hill, Madisonville, Millvale, Villages at Roll Hill (Fay Apartments), The West End and Winton Hills and others. These neighborhood are also among the most impoverished. City wide blacks face very high rates of poverty–46% of blacks compared with 22% of whites are in poverty. Additionally, blacks face high levels of police discrimination and an unfathomable unemployment rate, relying on public services to a much larger degree than their white counterparts. Of the roughly 13,000 families on the waiting list for CMHA assistance, either for vouchers or for public housing, about 12,000 are black.

With its stark delineation of black and white neighborhoods, Cincinnati ranks as one of the top segregated cities in the country. The disparities in the racial makeup of neighborhoods and the way that poverty follows racial segregation, call into question whether residents who would be dispersed under the regime of de-concentration of poverty would be welcome in new communities.

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How does gentrification work?

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800px-All-Neighborhoods-Cincinnati

This is the first in an indefinite number of posts that explore explore individual themes or cases related to gentrification in Cincinnati. They will typically be shorter in length, and attempt to relate the specific back to the generalized theme to create a sense of the broader function of gentrification in our city. This initial post will situate the ideological boundaries of the rhetoric of neoliberal redevelopment and attempt to set up the scaffolding for my criticisms. Broadly, I will approach these questions from a marxist viewpoint, engaging two main points:

  1. The history of gentrified areas, and society in general, is the history of class antagonism (Marx, The Communist Manifesto, Ch 1). For cities, this means
  2. “A process of displacement and dispossession … lies at the core of the urban process under capitalism” (Harvey, Rebel Cities, Ch 1).

There are a number of implications to be made about the urban process of OTR since it’s founding. For one, the neighborhood’s historical status as having a German heritage heavily influences the course of redevelopment in the neighborhood. The centrality of the “space matters” viewpoint in the gentrification process typically means putting forward culturally significant buildings, like Music Hall or the underground breweries, to highlight the artistic and culinary legacy of the German music-makers and beirmeisters. However, the crude architectural focus constitutes a form of commodity fetishism. It disrupts the appreciation or acknowledgement of labor that went into those buildings in the first place, as well as the labor that historically and currently occurs there.

Work in gentrified space becomes a form of cultural expression, as opposed to an economic relation, and workers begin to be seen (and see themselves) as producers of culture rather more than producers of capital. The rockstar mixologists, historic preservationists, angel investors, artisan builders and neighborhood cheerleaders constitute the forefront of this conception of work as a form of cultural and not economic (re)production. And this cultural production affords workers who play along access to amenities which have been, or are becoming, scarce in the neighborhood: affordable apartments, access to transportation as well as reductions in other forms of rent. The point is to remake the notion work in the gentrified neighborhood, so that instead of workers, people are urbanists, urban pioneers and (especially) members of the creative class. The historical gaze, to the point of declaring spaces “historic districts,” obscures the historic antagonism inherent in capitalist production. Worker/boss, landlord/tenant.

Architectural fetishism also serves to sever ties with the actual communities who bear the brunt of the negative aspects of gentrification. In OTR and the surrounding area, low income tenants of old buildings are less important than the ghosts of the original, authentic inhabitants. To the property owner, they are less valuable, and to the cultural connoisseur, they are something to be ignored, pitied or demonized–many times all three are applied opportunistically. Recent examples of this are the case of the Metropole Hotel, Washington Park and Washington Park Elementary, the barricading of McMicken Street, the Drop Inn Center and the Rothenburg School. These are the most high profile cases, and some will be addressed individually (or already have been).

Architectural fetishism also serves to sever ties with the actual communities who bear the brunt of the negative aspects of gentrification.

Large publicly funded projects might stir up debate, but there are many individual cases of small to medium sized buildings with a smaller number of tenants whose removal goes unnoticed. I want to bring attention to these as well. These cases draw out the notion that there are two OTR’s and help to illustrate the issues that residents face when dealing with market-driven reforms in the neighborhood.

Take, for example 1501 Vine street, which currently houses Smitty’s clothing store and, until very recently, several units of affordable but unsubsidized housing. This building is one of dozens that have changed owners over the years as the redevelopment of Vine creeps northward, and the new owner opted to redevelop the apartments into either higher priced units or (more likely) condominiums, which at that location could sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. While quick action prevented the unlawful expedited eviction of these residents, as well as winning several concessions from the new owner, the general story–lower income residents being removed to make way for more profitable development–again occurred there. The rupturing of the neighborhood means these stories are rarely told and seldom heard. What the people who are removed become, even if they were to become homeless and live in the street right outside their old property, is spaceless and obsolete in the new social order.

This dynamic is beginning to reach very extreme levels that are explored in China Miéville’s novel The City and The City, which describes two cities occupying the same physical space, and the complicated rituals of denial of the others that residents of each city went through to avoid the real of the situation. But for OTR, this arrangement isn’t permanent. I have previously critiqued the notion of an economic diversity, concluding that capitalism’s inherent instability, caused by its need to grow and consume, makes a steady state of competing classes a fleeting goal. Even for new residents who work in the neighborhood and live in less expensive market-rate housing, the ability to live there is threatened by the changing class makeup caused by continued real estate development.

Capitalism requires land and growth; in reality the patchwork, crosshatch cities in Miéville’s book are just a stage in the actual homogenization of the neighborhood toward wealthier stratas, driving the others into spaces doomed to be lower class, underserved and forgotten about until they too are ripe for redevelopment. One doesn’t have to look far to see the creep–the move to demolish low-quality public housing on Linn street and disperse the residents and burgeoning underground art scene in the north-western section of the basin, known as the “Brighton” dsisctrict, are indicative of the spread of gentrification across Central Parkway into the West End.

While this process does take a cultural form, redevelopment is not about rekindling a lost german culture or even obliterating a black/appalachian one, it is about generating profits for property owners, both business owners and land owners. This is the central point: profits are the cause of neighborhood conflicts. Homogenization alone isn’t necessarily a bad thing except that it is trending in the wrong direction. The sensible reversal of gentrification should thus be a reversal of this trend, to move toward the stability of a single class–a working class neighborhood and city–that is actually free of class, free of class antagonism and free of conflict. Under this regime, profits would fall under democratic control, and would be able to be spent for human need, which there is a lot of in gentrified neighborhoods, instead being recycled back into the system for the pursuit of more profits.

I hope to explore individual issues related to gentrification in Cincinnati and draw out the class conflicts inherent in the system. I will take a broader outlook than just OTR and the basin, looking at the role of redevelopment in areas like Price Hill and Columbia Tuscalum. I will also look at issues like race and racism, the role of policing, and the interplay of other oppressions with class antagonism and the urban process. My hope is that presenting these pieces in shorter, more easily digested forms that will build on one another will allow for a more general grasp of neoliberalism in our city.

Messer blinded by class interests

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Ryan Messer, President of the Over-the-Rhine community council, recently wrote of the need for a party that represents “urban interests.” Such a party, he says, would be fiscally responsible but socially progressive. Messer, who recently married his partner in Washington Park and lives in the highly gentrified area south of Liberty Street, laments the fact that neither the Republican or Democratic party matches the interests of the “urbanists” in the city. Without a shred of irony, Messer describes the process that the basin has undergone over the last decade or so:

In the past, the urban core of a city was predominately [sic] poor and Democratic, but that’s changing as people nationally and locally are moving back to the inner city, driving up property values. Those who are willing to pay a half million dollars or more for a condo tend to lean fiscally right yet embrace such socially progressive issues as urban renewal, transit and same sex marriage. For which party should they vote? The answer, it seems, is neither.

8f36b882638911e3907e121b5d90bda3_8He paints the transformation of Over-the-Rhine and the surrounding area as being of a natural origin, and that the new richer residents are moving in as a result of–not a constituent part of–that process. This description is tone-deaf to actual forces at play in more ways than one. His narrative is completely self-serving, Messer is a property owner and he has flaunted his class interests in the past. During the debate around the streetcar, Messer, a leader in the “Believe in Cincinnati” movement, made issue of the fact that his family’s financial interests were tied to the continuation of the project. He went so far as to threaten a lawsuit in order to “protect” his family’s investments along the proposed route. And in this latest opinion piece he ties Obama winning re-election in 2012 to his and his husband’s ability to file taxes jointly in 2014 (seeming to make the cause of gay marriage out to be over an economic relation, but that’s another discussion).

These show two great disconnects with reality. First, Messer ignores the fact that the majority of the non-voting electorate are the people he identifies as the traditional population of the urban core–”poor and Democratic.” Blacks make up about a 45% of Cincinnati’s population, and about 70% in OTR. This population has faced obstacles to actually being able to vote that harken back to the Jim Crow Era. Black men, disproportionately targeted by the racist and corrupt criminal justice system, the “New Jim Crow,” face high levels of disenfranchisement based on criminal histories, along with a slew of other setbacks coming out of prison that affect their ability to find housing, education and employment.

Even so, in the last presidential election Historic Black turnouts were a key indicator early on of an Obama victory. However, in the area of OTR north of Liberty, which still has largely black streets and is relatively untouched by the gentrification in the neighborhood’s southern half, voter turnout in the last presidential election was lower than black turnout overall (about 40% of registered voters in the precinct turning out, with 66% black turnout nationwide). But Messer’s focus is a different population, a wealthier, more conservative group, which have not been historically apathetic or disenfranchised in the political system in America. On the contrary, this group is representative of policy makers, now and historically.

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The Tragedy of the Alaska Commons

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A tragedy of the commons is occurring in Cincinnati. It’s not the tragedy that economics students learn in courses extolling capitalist forms of resource distribution. This tragedy is real–90 units of permanent supportive housing for people who experience chronic homelessness likely won’t be built on Alaska Avenue in Avondale. And if past experience is any indication of the future, it will be an uphill battle to find a location for the housing anywhere in the city.

The plan to build the housing, called the “Commons at Alaska,” had already passed through several levels of oversight, including garnering the blessing of city council and several other groups both large and small. However, the process was stalled at an April 29th meeting of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), which oversees subsidized housing projects in Hamilton county, when representatives from National Church Residences (NCR), who were behind the proposed housing, asked for 60 to 90 days to re-evaluate the project, primarily to find a new location.

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