Gentrification and the Library.


These remarks were prepared for a meeting on the “future of our libraries” which was held on March 26 2017.

My name is Ben and I’m a member of Socialist Alternative and the Our Library Our Decision coalition.

When I spoke in August my task was to place the closure and sale of the north building in the context of various other public spaces that had been leased or sold in the last period of redevelopment–like Fountain Square, Washington Park, Music hall–and I acknowledged that the city, 3cdc and redevelopers have been quite successful in reshaping these places for their own profiteering, sometimes even in the face of resistance.

So it was a huge surprise and a victory that is far too rare for us to have beat back the attempt to sell the North building.

What I want to do today is advance a political argument that covers three topics mainly

  1. What factors would lead to things like the sale of the North Building
  2. How we averted that sale, at least for now
  3. And what we’re up against in our movement’s future, both at the library specifically and generally against development profiteers

The sale of the north building in context

The north building sits on prime real estate, it spans almost an entire block and the building itself is in good shape. It’s reasonable to assume that developers have had their eyes set on the space for some time.

When it was built in the 1990’s the city was undergoing a slower, more protracted redevelopment than the kind we see today. Building these large public projects was part and parcel with late stage urban renewal efforts aimed at creating conditions favorable for people to live in the downtown area. The government assumed responsibility for large investment in the redevelopment of the spaces.

But gentrification, which overlaps with the period of urban renewal, isn’t just about a return of people to the city. As Neil Smith, a marxist geographer wrote all the way back in the 1970’s, gentrification is a return of capital to the city. And capital only returns when it sees it can make a large profit.

So 20 years after the north building was constructed, and 15 years on from 3cdc’s complete transformation of South OTR, this particular plot of land represents a space that is underperforming in its ability to generate profits for developers, banks etc, the prevailing logic under capitalism.

Bill Moran, one of the trustee’s of the library, has a son who works for CBRE. The son spoke on the potential sale of the building and exposed the naked logic of capitalist development of these kinds of spaces. I’ll quote him at length:

It is pretty rare for a property that encompasses an entire city block to become available, although a couple recent deals have been done like the newly announced Kroger being only a stones’ throw away, This area is more conducive to midrise development of five- to 10-story buildings rather than the high-rise projects that are expected on Fourth, Fifth and Sixth streets, It creates an opportunity for locally minded developers and end-users who are looking for an urban spot to plant their flag.

What Moran is essentially saying is that the value extracted from the area of the North building is far less than its potential in the eyes of banks and developers.

When we understand gentrification in this way–as developers moving into an area to maximize rent extraction–we can begin to understand why they would develop fountain square, washington park and other places.

We can see why FC cincinnati and its owners who are all developers would prefer a location for its stadium in the West End as opposed to Oakley. In both the short and long terms, the West End has a far greater difference between the amount of rent that is extracted right now, and the potential that exists after investment and redevelopment.

The fact that many of these developers also routinely benefit from tens of millions of dollars in tax abatements only accelerates the race to the bottom of affordable housing and other services that these projects tear to shreds as a matter of normal business operations.

Redevelopment of this kind changes the current use of a place–say low income housing (the library)–to a use that is more profitable–say luxury condos, a soccer stadium, high end stores, and nightlife bars. Even if investment costs seem astronomical in the short term, the owners of these spaces are willing to wait 5 or 10 years to gain back what they put in, and then some. The redevelopers gain, but those that lived in the low income housing to begin with are forced out.

It’s telling, for example, that just a year ago messer construction, one of the biggest firms to benefit from the reshaping of OTR, moved its headquarters to the west end. The press lauded this as the business helping to raise up a community, but it’s not about making them nicer, that’s a secondary consideration, it’s about making them profitable. We can assume that any redevelopment that might have occurred had FC built in the west end would have further lined messers pockets.

Why we won.

I won’t go into too much detail on the specifics of why we won, but I want to highlight a few key points.

Gentrification works because money give banks and developers monopoly control over the properties they own and veto power over community ideas about how a space should be used. This is democracy’s limitation under capitalism.

In the context of the attack on the North Building the Our Library Our Decision coalition formed to organize a fight back.

The primary challenge we faced was that, aside from a few articles in the Enquirer and City Beat, there had been virtually no information provided publicly about the sale of the building. So we had a dual task of discovering the details of the sale and disseminating messaging that would help move people into action.

We learned in our analysis that the numbers that the library was putting forward in relating to physical usage by people and book circulation were being interpreted quite opportunistically and sometimes misrepresented altogether to fit the narrative of the sale.

Our first public meeting exposed the degree to which people saw the sale of the building as a tragedy, and further outreach–tabling, canvassing, etc–which we did extensively in the fall, drove this point home. It was as if people saw the loss of the north building as the loss of a child. And people weren’t buying the claims that no services would be lost and that no square footage would be taken away.

But catching the board and library administration in these lies or exposing the immorality of the sale isn’t enough to go against the momentum behind capitalist redevelopment. Exposing them to the county commissioners, we learned, only got us more meetings for them to ignore us. What we needed was a movement of people that could put a halt to things, so that the sale became untenable to the operation of the board.

The “listening session” that we wrested from them in November was a crucial turning point in the campaign for a number of reasons. For one, it exposed the board once again. The meeting was a farce. They were unwilling to answer our questions directly, and attempted to control the debate through a initial presentation that was largely unrelated to what the audience wanted answer about, they provided a narrow range of topics that we could speak on. They hired a charismatic, well-ironed, PR professional that would run the meeting and they could hide behind.

Secondly it allowed us to take matters in our own hands. We openly disagreed with the format of the meeting, we encouraged people to speak their mind on the sale. We encouraged clapping, which was banned. We took a show of hands to register the public’s disagreement with the sale. And the result was that about 90 percent of the room of well over 100 was on our side. In a sense, we ran the meeting.

We gained control of the momentum of the campaign, put ourselves a step ahead of the board, and gained some control over the narrative in the press, who until that point had just been presenting the various facts of the case, with an occasional quote from us. The reporting after that meeting was all about the fact that the board had lost face and the public was mad at them.

The firing of workers after that meeting only sunk the board deeper in the hole. And our continued hammering of them, meetings, press conferences, tabling and public appeal keep the mass pressure on them.

It was a statement that if you don’t concede we will make your job impossible.

Other successful movements have used such a tactic–I think the latest example if that of the Coalition formed against FC Cincinnati. Through a disrupting of the process of rubber stamping that the Community Council had come to be used to, they had to reckon with new crowds in the same way that the library board had to. Its telling that the president of the council has taken to slandering the mass enfranchisement efforts of the Homeless Coalition as “unethical,” saying nothing of the fact that people have to pay to cast an unbinding vote on potentially cataclysmic redevelopment of their neighborhoods. Control of school board is another thing altogether and their betrayal of the people of the west end will certainly have ramifications.


But in all of these kinds of cases, including our own at the library, victories are only temporary victories so long as capitalist redevelopers see dollar signs hovering over these locations. A political writer for the Enquirer, Jason Williams, had an extremely cynical take in relation to the stadium in the West End, essentially saying that redevelopment was going to happen anyway, so residents should get on board, lest they fare like people pushed out of OTR.

This position, coming from a place of a privileged and detached newspaper reporter is true in a sense.

The tendency under capitalism to target places like the North Building for development isn’t going away. Public spaces are spaces where the potential rent to be paid on a redeveloped use value far exceeds the basically non-existent rent paid on the current use value–thus these are always going to be among the first places that capital flows. The investment potential is just too good to pass up.

For fountain square, this means a new garage with higher prices on individual parking spots, more and better accessible shops and restaurants around and on the square, and the ability for the square to be parceled out and rented to various events piece by piece, hour by hour. All improvements on the old inadequate, more public, character of the square.

So we have to be ready to protect these places.

We have many cases of betrayal that can be used to demonstrate the board and administration’s true nature: Court Motley’s gives us the clearest example of the way that all of the library employees are faced with exploitation, discrimination and oppression. The deskless model is the first step to making automating the job of librarians and making the library like netflix. Accommodating employees like Court represents a roadblock to this, and is also indicative of an library who, like any capitalist operation, has an administration who forces its will from the top down. More concerned with its bottom line than the provision of services, the library administration decided it was easier to fire Court, than to provide them accommodations.

One of our current initiatives in OLOD is to try to get a seat on the board of trustees. There are benefits to such a move but we also have to acknowledge the limitations. While we have a voice and be present in any future decision, and even have a hand in the administrative operations of the library. We will also run into the brick walls of tendencies of capitalism to target public spaces, to defund public services, to drive down wages, and gamble with the lives of ordinary people. Having all of the board positions in our hands won’t prevent this logic from consuming the library in the long term, unless we can change the logic with a movement of people.

The removal of the tables in the overpass atrium show the way that the people who “dine in”–use the public space as just that–aren’t seen as using the library in a legitimate way. These users are representative of some 2/3s of all library users. And if they are coming for these people, as they have come for the people who are homeless and use the library as a shelter from the cold days, you can bet they will come for the core operations, even checking out books, soon enough.

We have to be on guard and building, to win more victories but also to be ready to challenge the root of this tendency. To fight against capitalism and be prepared with a true democratic alternative that can puta stop it it once and for all.

For patrons, like those who had their chess games disrupted, that means disrupting the move to turn the library into a purely transactional institution. This is a public space and public spaces need to be defended in order to stay that way.

For workers at the library that means creating institutions of workplace democracy which can begin at the point of talking to coworkers about job conditions. Basic structures of intra-employee solidarity can incubate institutions of defense–perhaps even unions–which would be the best tools to protect employees from retaliation and discrimination.

For both groups it means exploiting moments of crisis, like we saw around the sale of north building, to undermine the power of the unaccountable board and building a group that can pose an alternative pole. Of creating a condition of two competing authorities, when only one can give the actual orders. The Our Library, Our Decision coalition is not a competing authority, certainly not by itself, but we can help to build it with the workers. This entails a much longer-term project, but is absolutely necessary.

Movements like these give fertile ground for the building of democratic institutions that can replace those that currently run not just our library but of our society in generally. These organizations can amount to the socialist alternative to the capitalist system if we do things right.

To save the library, to stop the cataclysmic redevelopment of the west end–for good–has to mean ending capitalism.

We call for:

  • Reinstating Court Motley with back pay, never accommodated and unjustly fired for their disability.
  • Expanding the services of the library and fully funding every department and every branch. Critical support for the library levy.
  • An end to wreckless redevelopment and the use of tax abatements to line the pockets of redevelopers. For community controlled redevelopment.
  • For library patrons and organized workers to link up in the fight over the democratic control of the library.