October 17, 2007
(Author’s note: This article builds on Laura Hadden’s recent WireTap feature “There Goes the Neighborhood” with a brief introduction to the Right to the City concept, which fosters urban dweller sovereignty. This piece examines gentrification in America’s midsized cities through case studies of Southwest gem Austin, Texas, and the Rust Belt renaissance city Pittsburgh, Pa.)
The U.S. anti-gentrification movement has gained inspiration from a banner-worthy ideology called “Right to the City.” The notion was originally articulated in 1968 by French philosopher Henri Lefebvre. His concept was simple and daring: Return decision-making power in cities back to all urban dwellers.
Lefebvre also promoted the concept of “layers of recognized citizenship,” which endows city folk with authority over all their dwellings, past and present. Lefebvre’s Right to the City concept suggests that one can be a national citizen of India, while being an urban citizen of Los Angeles, thereby layering that urban dweller with all the civic rights and responsibilities of a citizen in both places.
So, why should the movement be studying the Right to the City concept?
First, because gentrification causes urban citizens to feel the glistening, hungry fangs of globalization at home, literally, and Lefebvre’s theory helps us understand our rights, especially in an era of worldwide war.
Additionally, the Right to the City ideology is spreading through the national activist ranks, lately through the work of the Right To The City Alliance (a national advocacy group representing community organizations in nine cities) and the United Nations, sending smoke signals from coast to embattled coast.
Lastly, America’s forgotten treasures, the less heard from midsized and secondary cities that stubbornly maintain alternatives to mainstream cool and nonsustainable development are experiencing virulent land takeovers largely undetected by the movement radar. The Right to the City concept requires citizens to take each other into account and learn from our varied battles the ways of the machine.
Austin, TX: Las Manitas’ struggle for respect
The Austin Chronicle just released its Best of Austin 2007 picks, and the takeover of Las Manitas restaurant won the readers’ poll for best news story. Escuelita Del Alma Learning Center, a sister business on the same block, won the critics’ pick for best community childcare. But both beloved institutions are currently at the bargaining table, trading property rights they can’t spare in exchange for a few more days till their forced evictions.