We Buy Ugly Houses Too
Mid-century US urban development was notorious for breaking up communities inhabited by the poor and people of color. Frequently urban realignments were structured to make way for general civic projects like highways, but racism and class discrimination inevitably guided their specific placement. The State’s power of eminent domain made it feasible to condemn entire neighborhoods for the four-lane blacktop, a kind of public work that simplified new housing construction for a specific private sector. To serve consumers who might purchase suburban houses, a new kind of “public” was conjured, one that needed roads. The matter of which public benefits from urban development is a matter of perspective. It is a decision that should emerge from vigorous debates, but increasingly many cities simply rework their plans for the benefit of those with the most dough. The word, “public” then, effectively refers to a shrinking piece of the demographic pie. Since two decades, the use of strict cost-benefit analysis to structure city finance has seemingly excused governments and their private “partners” from any commitment to maintaining a heterogeneous urban fabric.
This responsibility was further relieved by Kelo v. New London, CT, a 2005 Supreme Court review of a city’s power to determine the best “public purpose” of land within its jurisdiction. The Court ruled that New London could take a home from a private owner and give it to a private developer to build a mall. Brazenly demonstrating that citizen rights are unequal in the face of speculative capital, the Court incidentally wiped away any remaining cultural sanctimony about middle class home ownership. And even before Kelo, Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority was condemning entire neighborhoods, often owner-occupied, so that friendly developers could spruce up Philly’s self-image as a city worthy of international investment.1 While Philly became “world-class,” displaced residents were forced to hotels, and finally to neighborhoods far from their original homes.2 Meanwhile, urban pioneers could purchase fresh condos built on the seized land with low interest loans, ten-year property tax break incentives, and private security ensuring the regenerated neighborhood’s safety. Such feats of engineered social stratification and their naturalization in the landscape are the core subject of Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, nineteen case studies of neoliberal rakishness edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk.
Dreamworlds probes the material and affective impact of the public sphere’s eclipse and of geographical dialectics: rural/urban/suburban, confined/exposed, rich/poor, global/local. These studies include gated enclaves in Hong Kong simulating 1950s Californian suburbs, the ultimate duty-free zone of Dubai, monastic retreats for work-weary high-rollers, urban centers in South America “normalized” for global capital through the violent extermination of the opposition, and Brazil’s scintillatingly unfair land distribution policies. In Beijing, expenditures on extravagant Olympic structures outstrip all prior Games budgets, and afterwards, facilities built partially with public money—on confiscated property—will be commercialized as private ventures. While examples like Philly produce a numbed standoff between the poor and middle classes, the studies in this lurid travelogue pick out social and economic divisions at the extremes. They illustrate the new regimes of architecture, infrastructure, visuality and fortification, shielding a fabulously wealthy minority from the three billion global citizens making less than two dollars a day.3 This book sets out to show how landscapes at the limits of social and economic division already look.
Construction as Warfare
The construction industries play a crucial role in creating these miracle islands of wealth. Contractors, importers, manufacturers and land speculators benefit exponentially from structural adjustments by absorbing incentives offered to both the public and private sphere for property improvement. In Dreamland, Timothy Mitchell explains how the IMF’s 1990 financial restructuring of Cairo helped elite family groups with networks bridging government and business direct obscene funds into pet projects. In a Kabul ruined by decades of occupation, corruption is even more transparent. Anthony Fontenot and Ajmal Maiwandi describe in Capital of Chaos how the weapons and cash provided by the US to warlords since 2001 have fueled speculative orgies. Flamboyant housing compounds are being constructed with these monies, subsidized further by a renewed post-Taliban opium trade. They are priced, not as homes for the multitudes of repatriating Afghani refugees, but to absorb the inflated lodging budgets of UN and NGO reconstruction workers. The authors write that in an atmosphere of land grabs, cronyism and ostentatious display, the rebuilding of Afghani social and material infrastructures is purely phantasmagoric, while “what is being constructed in Afghanistan is the construction industry itself.”4
World Class Fear
The goal for many cities is to become a global node for capital. To promote Johannesburg, speculators established a new business district in the ‘burbs, evacuating all investment from the old city core. Government elites, following World Bank advice, ransomed off infrastructure to multinationals, creating a new separation: rich from poor. As during apartheid, township residents lack employment, transportation, sanitation, water and electricity, while wealthy agents of capital go to lengths to avoid the violence roiling over from this poverty. In Kabul, public thoroughfares adjacent to the villas of the nouveau riches are blocked by armed patrols. In Managua, Nicaragua, another city seeking global investment, new roadways help the well-heeled travel unmolested between airport and upper class residential and commercial districts—distanced from the misery of the hoi polloi. Such ubiquitous divisions change only in scale and context. In the US, Don Mitchell writes about how the Richmond, Virginia housing authority asserted private policing power over a public way adjacent to public housing, winning a Supreme Court judgment that, as editorialized by the New York Times, “...gives the poor a right the rich have long had; to keep loiterers and potential criminals, out of their homes.” Mitchell writes that, contrary to the Times’ interpretation, such measures don’t protect people’s homes, but they do put an end to street life.5
Central to this book is the question of a future when such logics of social reproduction under neoliberalism become so totalizing as to seem normal. On this point, Davis and Monk contemplate the possibilities of future human solidarity. Essays like Rebecca Schoenkopf’s portrayal of the spoiled Orange County ultra-rich in their secluded gated community, and Monk’s “Hives and Swarms,” in which human life under global competition becomes no more than the administration of territories and tactics, offer little cheer. Nor is there any solace that we don’t inadvertently collude with these isolationist dreamworlds in a daily way, walking down the street, going to the mall. Davis and Monk’s hand as editors and compilers is most rewarding for producing an accumulating image of carelessness as global and insinuatingly powerful. Self-reflexively, Schoenkopf acknowledges the seductions of entitlement: “My own son has not yet reached the age when boys become dicks. Perhaps he will spit with contempt at me. Perhaps he will grow up to be an Orange County boy—his life’s goal so far is of owning a mansion, one in a gated town, perhaps, with his name inscribed on it in solid gold.” For young people, it must seem like there is no alternative, as the visual field offered by a landscape reconstructed for the benefit and convenience of the wealthiest eliminates alternate models for how resources might be distributed or even shared.
Destroy the Meter
Resisting these machinations of the mega-wealthy can seem futile. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) brought the problem of land expropriation to the UN Commission on Human Rights, but gains made in this court of appeal were diluted back in the corrupt atmosphere of Kabul. Patrick Bond writes about how the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF) in Gauteng Province (Johannesburg) is internationally respected and emulated in their battle against metered electricity and water, but also beset by obstacles. APF’s work is dually practical: sharing techniques for dismantling meters, and organizational.
Under privatization, apartheid is absent only in name. Such struggles for access to basic resources, while highly local, must also be conducted at international levels, through pressure demanding that such essential resources are by definition not private. Describing that the successful global rationalization of the market “is a myth reproduced by excluding what they call externalities,” or consequences that might otherwise be called expenses, Timothy Mitchell writes that “…economic discourse works very hard to help format and reproduce the exclusions that make the economy possible.”6 These cases are starkly about material relations and responsibility. Although the French multinational Suez can profit from the installation of water meters in the huts of jobless people in Gauteng, the expense of a cholera epidemic will never appear on their balance sheet. Instead, this disaster will be naturalized, like the forces that created it. The care of the sick will be vested in an entity called the “public,” which has been holed up with a TV and phone voting for the next “American Idol.” Averting further devastations means both holding those profiting from the lives of others accountable for the relations their actions create, and also reaching out to those already anesthetized by social division.
1 George McCollough, Producer, All for the Taking, Video. 2006. This video was instrumental in supporting community education about Philadelphia Mayor Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, the entity that concocted the land takings.
2 Personal conversation with Carolyn Thomas, Philadelphia homeowner.
3 Ignacio Ramonet, “The Politics of Hunger,” La Monde Diplomatique, November 1998. http://mondediplo.com/1998/11/01leader.
4 Fontenot and Maiwandi, “Capital of Chaos” in Evil Paradises, edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk (New York: The New Press, 2007) p. 81.
5 Don Mitchell, “People like Hicks,” ibid. p. 215
6 Timothy Mitchell, Dreamland,” ibid. p. 31.