Washington Park and the Decline of Democracy


This article originally appeared in Streetvibes, Cincinnati’s street newspaper. I now write regularly for the publication, which is now edited by Justin Jeffre, one of Cincinnati’s most dedicated activists. It’s long, meant to be both a primer on neoliberalism, and what the policies mean for OTR.

The recently renovated Washington Park includes a dog run, green space for concerts and field sports and a playground. But what is missing? At a cursory glance, the deepwater pool, where thousands of children learned to swim for decades, is absent. The basketball hoops are gone as well, but simultaneously most disturbing and least identifiable, is the missing element of democracy. The voices of the citizens of Over-the-Rhine and the surrounding areas have routinely been silenced or ignored. The farcical public forums simply provide cover for 3CDC to move forward with plans for new developments and renovations with the appearance of little prejudice. It doesn’t take too long to realize why, gentrification, a tool for neoliberalism in urban spaces, is at the forefront of the capitalist assault on the city. There is no space for democracy in this process and the various improvements are simply facades for a deeper dynamic. Neoliberal policies first caused the problems of Over-the-Rhine; now the same policies are being called on as a solution. Such contradictions run rampant in the self-defeating logic of redevelopment in the city spearheaded by 3CDC.

To learn about neoliberalism and its problems, we must first look at its predecessor, liberalism (sometimes called classical liberalism). If Neoliberalism is capitalism in the developed form, than liberalism is capitalism in its infancy. South America has historically been the largest testbed for such ideologies. In the 1800’s, as the bourgeois revolutions were happening at home, the colonies became unstable; no longer beholden to a functioning monarchy, old systems of hegemony, or dominance, were revealed to be bankrupt (in more than one way) in the eyes of many settlers and assimilated people. Liberalism was the rallying cry for many at this time: reject the church, reject paternalism and slavery, reject the controlling economic policies of old; open up your minds and open up your markets. In many places this liberating ideology was met with great enthusiasm, but conservatism, the other major ideology, was still a force to be reckoned with and stood as its opposite.

However, the political movements of this era, as in any era, were not just about ideas. As the enlightenment had done in Europe, liberalism exposed the contradictions between the ruling class and the conditions of production in South America. The old ruling elite sat atop thrones built on feudalism and tribute and the kind of stratification necessitated by this relationship was an obstacle to a burgeoning economic paradigm–capitalism. New modes could not be successful in a society still run by the purveyors of the old ideas. Unlike today, the policies of those calling themselves liberal and conservative could be differentiated, each proposing different solutions, enlightened and reactionary, but both represented monolithic structures to be applied from the top onto the existing social orders.

In South America, these social orders were often heavily divided along ethnic lines–creole and native–in a similar way to master and slave. The revolutions, often bloody, that occurred throughout South America in the 19th and early 20th centuries sought to bring an end to these contradictions, but even when liberals made attempts to change the system, they did so using the same top down approach that conservatives worked to protect. Moderate democratic reforms were made and slavery was ended, but these adaptations were not enough to counter the new systems of wages and autocratic rule that sprang up along with the market. And this development was not consistent, while the outdated systems of patronage persisted for generations in areas far away from the cities, in the cities, new unequal economic relationships were being forged. In places like Chile and Bolivia, conservatives sustained the traditions of the hacienda, essentially plantations with a seemingly endless supply of native peasants to exploit, until well into the 20th century. As long as there was a suitable group of workers in the cities and peasants in the countryside, the two competing systems could continue. But as each progressed, the conflicts not only between the systems, but also within them individually, would eventually come to a head.

Through the process of transformation, new agents–industrial workers, miners, railroad workers and even the sizable successor to the feudal peasantry–gained a newfound sense of their place in the economic machinery. They asked questions that challenged capitalist control of the decisions, but in almost every case they were squashed. There are countless examples of this. In the 1950’s, the United Fruit Company called on the government of the United States to intervene when their control of large sections of the Guatemalan economy and civil service was under threat and induced a decades long civil war, using fear and force to pit the citizens against one another. In 1970, Chile elected Salvador Allende, a Socialist, as president. Unfortunately, the pragmatics of his policies in practice and the military and business owners’ (a class which cannot, by definition, exist under socialism) reactionary conspiracies led to a U.S. backed coup in 1973, and the fallout was the dawn of the neoliberal era. The military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet implemented new policies that came out of the Chicago School of economics and was personally overseen by Milton Friedman.

Neither economic nor political democracy existed under Pinochet and the brutality of his policies was the main element keeping him in power. This was a technocracy, a system that openly distrusts the public to choose it own path and calls on the privileged, educated, elite to make all of the important decisions. The army liberated the market from democracy. But this wasn’t a purely liberal event, the neoliberal epoch was the harbinger of a combined conservative and liberal ideology that has come to dominate politics and the economy for nearly 50 years. And it has spread worldwide under the banner of the policies of austerity and petty maxims imploring us to “tighten our belts.” In Chile, capitalism was reintroduced (even though it had never gone away) with the barrel of a gun all while those with their finger on the trigger made claims of progress. This violent, anti-democratic system has, since the beginning, been the hallmark of neoliberalism. On the other hand, cuts to social spending, the foisting up of the free market and the so-called “marketplace of ideas” at the expense of democracy, privatization of major state functions, and the creation of special economic zones and rules are the everyday praxis of neoliberal policy.

Jump to Cincinnati, 3CDC has now had free run of the city core for a decade. They have completely transformed the southern sections of Vine Street. Main Street between Central and Liberty is nearly completely redeveloped as well. The further redevelopment of the Pendleton district and the transformation that will take place around the planned route for the streetcar represent the next frontier in redevelopment. Meanwhile, the shock troops of revitalization are prepping the West End for the inevitable announcement to focus in that area in the next few years.

3CDC was not the first to attempt such a transformation, but the first ten years of this century proved to be some of the most effective in terms of changing the dynamic and demographic of the areas toward the bourgeoisie’s favor. With the closure of the planning department, it is open season for development in the city that invented modern urban planning. This is the era is when neoliberalism claimed Over-the-Rhine for itself. The 2001 uprising, a physical manifestation of the neighborhood calling out for change, was interpreted by the ruling class as pretense for the continued militarization of the area, compounding the issues of existing police policy that seemed to assume all blacks in the area are criminals. Such difficulties existed before the uprising and ultimately led to it. Society’s problematic treatment of black women and men has led to the public’s passive agreement with the necessity of “innovative” ideas and schemes that, if they are not overtly racist, almost always disproportionately negatively affect blacks in OTR and other neighborhoods.

For decades, a forward looking people’s movement has existed in Over-the-Rhine but in only ten years, the reactionary organizations (e.g 3CDC, Downtown Cincinnati Inc., etc) of change have turned their backs on meaningful dialogue, looking back over 100 years to a golden era, forgetting other portions of our history which included racist riots and, if the rumors are true, the origin of the “Jim Crow” character. In policy and rhetoric, 3CDC chooses to look back and does so with blinders, ignoring material conditions in the past and present. They claim the problem is crime and blight while refusing to look toward the root cause of those conditions: built-in inequality in an apparently color-blind, gender-blind and class-blind system.

3CDC cannot succeed within its own framework–the codification of social and economic stratification, or as they like to call it “economic diversity,” only locks in the existing social order. Representatives from 3CDC will spout aphorisms but can’t be expected to deliver on them. In a recent meeting between representatives from the community, the third of four ordered by the court after the Metropole Settlement, Adam Gelter, vice president of development, was quick to agree that affordable housing “is the right thing to do” and said that they wanted to fix the problems of the neighborhood and the organization’s relationship with the poor, but these issues simply can not be rectified within the framework that 3CDC operates in. Solving the problem of poverty doesn’t mean that development should strive to deliver economic diversity and hope for a rising tide, it should mean an end to poverty altogether, first and foremost.

Contrary to the picture that 3CDC likes to paint, the inequality that has existed between the inner-city and the suburbs does not become any more legitimate when sections of the suburban population move back downtown to form an exaggerated juxtaposition. The mere presence of a petit bourgeois influence does not solve the problems of poverty or make it any more normal. This is the precise opposite of a radical understanding of poverty and the role of redevelopment.

Indeed, the gentrification exacerbates the already existing problems produced by poverty and institutional racism. Today, public spaces are created to meet the needs of the new residents and community resources are allocated away from the needs of the existing community. Only the end of the class system can alleviate the disparity. The following is the general understanding of 3CDC and its champions in three parts. 1) That there is no such thing as equitable development; 2) that some, even many, will and must be left in the dust in order for the neighborhood to move forward; and 3) that 3CDC, being the important people they are, have the most well developed and authoritative understanding of the problems of the residents (who are different from them in every way) and the place they live in (which has never been a location of anything but struggle) and thus are in the best position to fix those problems.

Neoliberalism can supply an economy that appears to be functioning, but exploitation still exists, booms and busts still persist and people are given the promise of opportunity while in reality rely more on providence to advance themselves and their families. That a majority of the population still believes in mobility is a tragedy, under neoliberalism, it is a farce. When capitalism enters a time of crisis, it doesn’t typically solve them outright, but rather moves those crises around both geographically and temporally. It does this in a number of ways, whether by offshoring well-paid union jobs or, closer to home, dispersing the groups that are struggling to survive, sometimes across the city, sometimes only a few blocks, and ultimately forcing a section of those groups to turn to what society would deem illegitimate means to live. Who is the legitimate force in this situation? Is it those that, as Chad Munitz once said of residents of a portion of the city, verging on racism, are “very bad people who don’t deserve to live in any neighborhood?” Or is it the neoliberal organizations who resort to exploitation and charity–taking with one hand and giving with the other?

Democracy, giving the oppressed a legitimate voice, is the only tool that can guarantee sustainable development.  Neoliberalism has nothing to offer the aged worker, that is, the majority of the old in poor areas, and it admits this openly. This economic diversity can’t create jobs for all that need them, and not only doesn’t attempt to but requires such disparity. This economic diversity guarantees that, because of the inability for capitalism to achieve full employment, an increasingly large portion of the broader population will be sentenced to a lifetime of precariousness. This economic diversity guarantees that some will struggle throughout not only their productive years, but in the years when they are promised a rest. This economic diversity guarantees the system of “haves and have nots” that those who make it embrace as the most remarkable hallmark of capitalism. Neoliberalism–capitalism–can build a pretty park, but it cannot solve the real problems of Over-the-Rhine.

July 29 2012