Right to the City

On January 11, 2007 at the Japanese American Cultural Community Center
in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles, Gihan Perera, the executive director
of the Miami Workers Center, addressed an energetic crowd of over 100 community
organizers, representing over 30 organizations and 8 major cities. They
came to build a national urban justice movement around the concept of a
Right to the City. The intention was to begin building collective capacity
for local struggles to become a national movement. Perera declared, “We
are leaving here with a game plan. This is a working meeting.” 

The meeting was the result of over a year of work by Perera, Gilda Haas
of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy based in Los Angeles, and Jon Liss,
of Tenants and Workers United/Inquilinos y Tra- bajadores Unidos in Alexandria,
Virginia. Recognizing that urban communities across the country face a
strikingly similar set of challenges and that the condition of under-development
for urban communities of color has national and even global dimensions,
the organizers saw a pressing need for a unified social justice movement
that could take their struggles beyond the local level. 

A core principle for the grassroots organizers was that in this struggle
for social justice and human rights, the city must become a central frame.
And just as the backward nature of urban development policies are the result
of national and transnational capital, so too must the Right to the City
movement be transnational and integrate with ongoing struggles taking place
across the cities of the global South. 

A Right to the City 

The concept of Right to the City (RTC) is most closely associated with
the late radical French social theorist Henri Lefebvre. The principles
of a Right to the City were articulated in 2004 at the Social Forum of
the Americas in Quito, Ecuador and at the World Urban Forum in Barcelona
Spain, through the World Charter on the Right to the City, and put into
action by groups such as the International Alliance of Inhabitants. Right
to the City marks the beginning of an effort by U.S.-based social movements
to become a part of these initiatives and respond collectively to the elite
project of creating “World Cities.” 

At the RTC conference in LA, people acknowledged that there was no consensus
on a definition of RTC, either in social movements or academic circles,
and that beginning to formulate one was one of the primary tasks of the
conference. But some things were clear already. The city is a central battleground
in the new world order. As urban scholars have documented, major cities
have become regional and global command and control centers for transnational
finance capital. The accompanying decline in urban manufacturing economies
in the global North have left many cities with “surplus populations” that,
like the European peasants of the early industrial capitalist era, occupy
valuable land. Coupled with a steady reduction of federal support for urban
areas, the economic shifts in cities have left many communities exposed
to the cruel logic of the market. 

The implications for poor people of color concentrated in cities are clear:
whereas once they were segregated in abandoned downtowns while whites fled
to the suburbs, now they are expected to disperse to the peripheries as
cities are reconfigured by global capital, national real estate markets,
local political elites, and the consumer classes. Their presence in the
urban core in any capacity other than as cheap labor is unwelcome, a blight
on the landscape of the new entertainment en- vironment. 

The hope is that the RTC framework will function as a foundation on which
to build organizational unity from which to launch regional and national
campaigns. Both of these will be key priorities at the upcoming Social
Forum in Atlanta this July. Organizers also see RTC serving as an ideological
framework to help urban residents make sense of the many challenges urban
neo-liberalism throws their way on a daily basis—some of which may appear
unconnected, but which actually link the struggles of these communities

The organizations that came to Los Angeles last January represented the
range of communities under assault: Black, Latino, Asian, LGBT, youth,
women, immigrant, working poor, underemployed, unemployed, and homeless.
Kei Nagao, from the Little Tokyo Service Center in Los Angeles which works
with elderly, low-income Japanese and Korean renters, sees RTC as useful
in articulating changes occurring in Little Tokyo: “Right to the City grounds
the work being done. It helps against the tendency to be overwhelmed by
the range of issues confronting communities.” 

For Sara Mersha, executive director of DARE (Direct Action for Rights and
Equality), RTC productively reveals the limitations of small scale struggles.
“We are frustrated with just pushing for jobs and a small percentage of
housing within projects that are ultimately doing a lot more harm to our
neighborhoods than good.” A Right to the City analysis, she observes, puts
the focus on the colonization of entire communities and highlights the
national and international dimensions of the challenges local communities
face. For Mersha and DARE, based in Providence, Rhode Island, this means
linking the increase in rental and ownership costs, the development of
luxury condos, and the threatened displacement of oppressed communities
of color to the commodification  of land and real estate speculation that
ravages metro regions across much of the globe. 

Gentrification As Class

And Race War 

Steve Meacham, a tenant organizer in Boston with City Life/Vida Urbana,
says that the pressures of gentrification are felt all across the metropolitan
area, “There’s no neighborhood not touched by displacement and gentrification.
There is no area of the city that somebody isn’t trying to figure out how
to gentrify.” One of these communities is Roxbury, an historically working
class Black community close to downtown Boston. For 30 years Roxbury was
neglected by the city, but the last 10 years have seen a shift and the
neighborhood has been targeted for “revitalization.” For long-time residents,
this means an increase in rent and home costs, and an influx of wealthier,
whiter neighbors. Khalida Smalls, who lives in Roxbury and is pro- gram
director of ACE (Alternatives for Community and Environment), says the
message to lower income folks is clear: “They are aware white people want
the city back. They’re not wanted here anymore.” 

While there is growing awareness of the wave of gentrification across the
country, many residents, including those in Roxbury, often see the process,
and their own displacement, as inevitable. Indeed, one of the hopes is
that the Right to the City framework can help organizers break this isolation.
Part of the challenge is to raise consciousness around the process of gentrification,
show that it is the work of identifiable processes and actors, that it
is not inevitable, and that it can be resisted. This involves the difficult
but crucial task of popular or participatory education. 

Discussion of ongoing educational efforts at the conference included stressing
the historical dimensions of gentrification and displacement, from the
displacement of the European peasantry to the attempted clearing of Native
America, as well as current efforts in places as varied as Beijing, Nairobi,
London, Rio de Janeiro, and New Orleans. 

Speaking of the role that property speculation plays in the historic Shaw
district of Washington DC, David Haiman of OneDC pointed to the relationship
between organizers and residents. “[Speculation is] something early on
in our organizing here that our residents happened upon. It wasn’t brought
in as theory, but out of our research we were doing in the community. Residents
developed their own theory, that, ‘Well, if people couldn’t speculate on
land we wouldn’t have a lot of these problems that we have in the community.’
And that’s a really tremendously radical approach to development, [and]
that’s where I think our presence is valuable, helping residents uncover
and articulate their own critical analysis like that.” 

Haiman’s example touches on a key issue raised by many of the organizers
at the RTC conference when discussing their popular education experiences.
If these communities, which have been told for years that their neighborhoods
are bad, are somehow a problem, then why are the developers and the city
so eager to get in there? What makes our neighborhoods so attractive to
these people? Why are our communities being pimped? 

The Future 

One of the challenges facing all social justice movements is the tension
between contending with immediate issues (the need to oppose a particular
eviction or public housing conversion) and the structural processes that
lie behind them (the global market in real estate speculation). Successful
movements are those that produce campaigns that simultaneously serve people’s
pressing needs and strike at the roots of their oppression. Invariably
in these campaigns people have mobilized themselves for their own liberation
through the development of an understanding of their shared conditions. 

As the participants in the RTC conference have learned through their own
experiences in struggle, human rights and the security of oppressed communities
are multidimensional. Securing genuine affordable housing may be vital,
for example, but it is a short term victory if the low wage jobs or public
assistance that enable the poor to pay affordable rents disappear. While
a locality may be able to guarantee affordable rents, it often does not
control housing subsidies, or have decisive power over the multinational
corporations that speculate in urban real estate. 

Radical urban social movements have been resisting the commodification
of their lives and the destruction of their homes for centuries. Organizers
at the LA conference expressed a hope that the RTC framework can bring
together urban communities that are once again confronting global capitalism
in the streets of their cities. 


Tony Roshan Samara is assistant professor of sociology and anthropology
at George Mason University. He has been working with the Right to the City
alliance since January 2007.