Gentrification and Resistance

Craig Willse

This summer I spent a few weeks in Los Angeles, hanging out with the LA Liberation School, where I facilitated a class on Gentrification and Resistance. An ad-hoc experiment in free education one year in the planning, Lib School met in CIELO galleries/studios–an emerging art space in front, auto body shop in back. Participants in Gentrification and Resistance included community activists and organizers, artists, social workers, youth shelter residents, public school teachers, grad students, and academics. Our conversations gravitated toward two themes. The first, following Neil Smith’s lead, concerned the ways that we understand disinvestment as a stage of gentrification–the abandonment of neighborhoods that drives value down, such that the potential value extracted from new investment becomes great enough to spur speculation and development. Smith called this difference between actual and potential value the rent gap. In our class we thought disinvestment in broad terms–everything from the uneven rollback of city services (like trash pick-up) to school and hospital closings, lack of building code enforcement, and the emptying of buildings and blocks through mass incarceration. The last took us to our second theme–the relationship of prison expansion to gentrification. We talked about the prison system as the largest form of public housing in the United States. In capturing surplus labor populations (following Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s analysis) as well as making neighborhoods vulnerable to gentrification, we analyzed the prison system as propping up urban housing markets in post-industrial consumer economies.

Unfortunately, Los Angeles offered us a too-easy example of the twinning of urban renewal and imprisonment. This summer, the newly revitalized Echo Park Lake was unveiled to much fanfare and much genuine public excitement. Almost simultaneously to the re-opening, the LAPD announced plans for a new gang injunction in the neighborhood. Gang injunctions are civil measures that effectively criminalize being in public and legalize racial profiling. Activists working with the Youth Justice Coalition to fight the gang injunction joined our Lib School class, and recruited class participants to their organizing efforts. Those efforts are on-going.

Just before I left LA, the George Zimmerman verdict was announced. I found myself marching with hundreds of others up Crenshaw Boulevard, finding throughout the crowd newly familiar faces from Liberation School. The mournful but militant protest made a quick decision to move onto an onramp for the 10 Freeway. Some of us nervous, some quite bold, we flooded onto the interstate, shutting it down for maybe half an hour before police aggression drove us up an embankment. I thought about the historic function of freeways in facilitating suburbanization and white flight and destroying “inner” cities. After some confusion, some stand-offs with riot cops, and some “rubber” bullets, we regained momentum and continued to march for hours north to Mid-Wilshire, and then west. People on sidewalks and adjacent buildings waved fists and cheered while passing autos honked. A few cars joined in, rolling along with the back of the march, serving as a kind of community escort. The palpable solidarities fueled the determination of the marchers.

I also managed to make quick stops in a few other cities this summer–New York, Chicago, Seattle, London, Manchester, Glasgow. All echoed DC’s skyline, punctuated with giant cranes busy denying the 2008 mortgage bubble burst with an explosion of “luxury” condo construction. I heard reports from San Francisco of a buying frenzy characterized by apartments going for above asking price, in cash. That market of course is driven by the new tech boom. Google especially is playing a huge role in the remaking of San Francisco: its private bus lines circle the city, taking its employees to Google’s compound an hour away, but allowing them to live (and buy) in San Francisco. With that in mind, I’ll leave us with a bit of queer resistance via San Francisco performers Persia and Daddies Plastik’s take on gentrification, Googlification, whiteness, and desire.