Roopa Singh

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.

The Daily Texan further reported that “land development on the 200 block of Congress Avenue threatens to displace three local businesses: Las Manitas Avenue Café, Escuelita del Alma Learning Center and the retail arm of Tesoros Trading Co. A $185 million deal announced a few weeks ago between the landowner Finley Co. and White Lodging Services Corp. would tear down the businesses to make way for three Marriott International Inc. hotels.” Behind the headlines, a trio of devoted community activists worked to save their neighborhood.

A matriarch crew, including Cynthia Perez, a founder of the Indigenous Women’s Network, has been holding it down for the movement on the 200 block of Congress Avenue in downtown Austin, Texas, since 1981. Three women of color, sisters Cynthia and Libby Perez, and Dina Flores, life partners with Cynthia, run three entities between them. La Peña sits majestically on the northern corner, a nonprofit arts organization with a world-class gallery consistently showcasing marginalized art in schools and youth prisons throughout the city.

Las Manitas Avenue Café is the for-profit sentry on the southern corner, a restaurant, political watering hole and underground railroad station for immigrants, cooking culturally relevant food and funneling money to La Peña when funding gets lean. In the middle of the block is the beloved Escuelita del Alma Learning Center, a for-profit, community, Spanish immersion day care for the children of employees on the block and in downtown. All three entities face uncertain futures.

“What we’re asking for is managed growth, mixed use growth that actually represents balance,” asserted Cynthia. When I asked her why she turned down a special, one-time, forgivable relocation grant of $750,000 from the City of Austin she replied, “People don’t understand. They’re going: ‘This is for you and no one else affected, this is for you to shut you up.”

Despite the real need for fiscal support, the Perez sisters and Dina Flores declined the grant, which the local press picked up and spun as a wedge issue between these three business and other threatened establishments run by people of color in Austin. Two thousand miles away, likeminded civic activists were mobilizing to save one of the Northeast’s most significant historic districts.

Pittsburgh, Pa.: Battle for the Hill

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s historic Hill District was home to Sugar Top (a must stop spot on the national jazz circuit), the champion Pittsburgh Crawfords (a Negro National League baseball team), writers like August Wilson, and a pre-eminent national Black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, for whom W.E.B Dubois, the Hon. Elijah Mohammed and Zora Neal Hurston wrote.

Public television station WQED’s historical guide summarized the importance of the district: “From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Hill District thrived and was one of the most prosperous and influential black neighborhoods in America. It was thriving, bustling, and safe–a center for music, art and literature.”

But in 1955, post WWII “redevelopment” in the Hill displaced over 8,000 residents, 1,239 black families, 312 white. Between this displacement and the industrial corporate abandonment that turned the entire region from the Manufacturing Belt into the Rust Belt, the historic Hill watched its population fall from over 50,000 in 1950 to 15,000 in 1990. So in 2006, when the City of Pittsburgh opened up a bidding process for a new casino and hockey stadium mega-complex with eyes on the Hill, resident activists like Dr. Kimberly Ellis sat bolt upright in their seats at the sound of redevelopment knocking on their doors again.

Out of three bids placed, only one proposed entry into an existing neighborhood, and once again, the Hill District was the target. Folks on the Hill began to mobilize, spurred on by Dr. Ellis and other community activists who demanded a seat at the city bargaining table. Their petitions, marches, and arts-based activism efforts persisted with a definitive vision for what the Hill should become.

And on December 21, 2006, they won. The city of Pittsburgh chose to award the lucrative stadium-casino contract to a bidder whose plans focused on a preexisting industrial parcel.

Says Dr. Ellis, “Fifty years ago my ancestors stood on Freedom Corner and said ‘Not another inch!’ and literally and figuratively saved my community from further destruction of ‘urban renewal.’ [And here again] we just saved our community, plain and simple. Now we have the opportunity for some real development to happen.”

Lessons on gentrification

I asked Valerie Taing, national organizer, The Right To The City Alliance, what her vision is for an ideal city. Valerie replied, “A city where everything is controlled by, developed by, and meets the needs of the people that live there, and I get to sit on a porch and build with elders.”

As the Austin and Pittsburgh examples show, if it ain’t corporations on the gentrification takeover, it’s smaller developers or individuals. As the economic dynamics of midsized cities around the United States change, power brokers will continue their direct targeting of historic neighborhoods and populations. Neither Austin or Pittsburgh is in the position to lose these vibrant businesses and cultural districts. But as our national progressive, anti-gentrification movement grows, mindful of Lefebvre’s innovative concepts, there’s hope that empowered citizens’s rights and dreams will eventually be respected.

Roopa Singh is an urban citizen with village tendencies who currently resides in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is a political poet, an adjunct professor of international political science at Pace University and a theater instructor with South Asian Youth Action. Visit her blog, with “All the News That’s Fit to Flip.”