Category Archives: urbanity

Highway to Hell

Twice a week, I wake up at 6am to prepare for my commute in to work at the College of Staten Island. A colleague who also lives in Queens picks me up and we drive together to Staten Island in his car. To get there we take the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), a portion of Interstate 278.

The BQE is a product of the New Deal era, when the state sought to pull the region out of economic depression through massive public works. It staggers the mind to think about how much political will had to be mustered to carve such a highway out of the densely packed city neighborhoods it traverses. Like so much of the rest of the automotive infrastructure of New York City, the titanic figure of Robert Moses led this campaign. In blasting the BQE through the city, Moses helped create the mindset for the petroculture of the postwar period, a culture based on limitless consumption and growth. To drive on this highway is to step into a time machine to an era that is fast receding.

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Today, the BQE is in a state of advanced disrepair. As the photographs I took during one recent commute show, the highway is filled with potholes. Portions of the siding of the road and of overpasses like the Kosciuszko Bridge have fallen off. Construction work on the highway is constant, but the overall quality of the road never seems to improve. The construction that does take place is massively understaffed; long stretches of the highway are under renovation, but only four or five workers are visible laboring to make these changes.

The BQE also traverses some of the worst toxic sites in NYC, including the Newtown Creek, a bucolic sounding stream that divides Queens and Brooklyn and is one of the most polluted waterways in the country – it’s been an EPA Superfund site since 2010 -, and the Gowanus Canal, which should be a Superfund site as well because of its polluted state, except that developers don’t want to scare off potential residents.

I worry about the amount of pollution my body absorbs during these commutes. Seeing all this rotting infrastructure and the massive congestion of the roadway twice a week also makes me worry about the level of toxicity simply living in a city involves. At the same time, I’m aware that most other cities in the world have much higher levels of pollution.

The decaying BQE offers a powerful symbol of the state of US empire. It’s the ugly, toxic product of a fossil fuel age that we cling to at our own peril. Like so many others, I remain shackled to this highway because of the constraints of life in NYC. What will it take to imagine viable alternatives to a highway like the BQE, ways of moving about the world and maintaining propinquity without the myths and destructive material realities of petroculture?

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Cities in Conflict

With the ongoing uprisings in Cairo and other cities in the Arab world, the role of cities as crucibles for social egypttransformation and conflict is clearer than ever. Urban dwellers across the globe are more intent than ever on claiming what the great French theorist Henri Lefebvre called the right to the city.

In tandem with such democratizing current, however, today’s megacities are also sites for various forms of escalating inequality and violence. From urban warfare among drug cartels in cities such as Medellin, to increasing interpersonal violence against women, to the many forms of imperial destruction visited on far too many cities around the world today, cities are sites for a variety of key conflicts today.

This sgunemester I’m teaching a seminar at the CUNY Graduate Center that focuses on urban culture in the global South. The topic of conflict features prominently on the syllabus, a copy of which can be found here: ENGL 86600 syllabus.

Fortuitously, the OpenDemocracy project has just started an essay series on the topic of Cities in Conflict. The site describes the brief of the series in the following terms:

The Cities in Conflict series seeks to examine the manner in which cities are conceptualised, planned or contested as sites of conflict, security or resistance. With increasing public awareness of cities’ role in hosting globally significant conflicts and social upheaval, whether in Cairo, Athens or Mumbai, the series will look to examine the city as a key terrain of conflict and a politics of spatial securitization. In particular the series will scale down mainstream media security discourse to the urban/local level – examining the everyday, covert ruminations of urban conflict.

Contributors to the series include some of today’s foremost analysts of urban conflict.  Well worth checking out!

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The Banality of Evil: The Photography of David Goldblatt

I just went to see a fantastic career retrospective exhibition of the South African photographer David Goldblatt at the Jewish Museum here in NYC.

Goldblatt came to maturity during the darkest days of the apartheid era, and his photographs document the oppression meted out to the non-white majority in South Africa in the most visceral way.  Here, for example, is a shot of his of a young man recently out of police detention.  The severity of the interrogation methods routinely employed by the South African police are glaringly apparent in the two casts which encase the young man’s arms.

We see all of the homicidal violence of the apartheid regime in Goldblatt’s photographs.  In this photo, for example, victims of a government death squad lie splayed alongside their car.  Such documentary images were crucially important to record during the apartheid era given the government’s attempt to suppress all records of its campaign of secret violence against internal critics and activists.  In Deborah Hoffmann and Frances Reid’s brilliant documentary record of the Truth and Reconciliation Commision, a film called Long Night’s Journey into Day, we see the pain inflicted on a group of mothers whose sons have disappeared, leaving no trace to mourn.

Another image of Goldblatt’s from the exhibition documents the appalling policy of forced removals.  In this image, a woman lies in a bed wrapped protectively around her newborn child.  We are privy to this intimate scene because the house (or shack) within which the mother and daughter had been living has been demolished, leaving them asleep under the brutal empty skies of the land.

As these photographs make clear, Goldblatt acted as a witness to the atrocities of apartheid.  What they also underline is his powerful technique of focusing on the quotidian.  Instead, in other words, of training his lens on protests and rallies – the stuff of standard photojournalism – Goldblatt delved into the everyday humiliations, oppressions, hypocrisies and contradictions of life under apartheid.

For me, some of Goldblatt’s most powerful work focuses on whiteness.  The complexity and painfulness of this position is not always apparent.  I recently sat across from a new friend in a small restaurant in Bolivia, for example, discussing what it was like to be white in South Africa.  He was surprised by my talk of the ambivalences and contradictions of white consciousness during the apartheid era in South Africa.  Of course, average white people in South Africa benefited massively from the apartheid regime’s oppression and exploitation of the non-white majority in the country. This needs to be stated up front and with no hesitation.

But while the material advantages conferred on even the poorest whites by the apartheid system are undeniable, that system nonetheless generated a traumatized sensibility among even the most privileged and cocooned of whites.  In the above image, for instance, a white farm kid is caught in an eerily intimate moment with his black nanny.  He stands with his arms on her shoulders.  Even more powerfully, her left hand is wrapped around his foot.  The intimacy in this nonchalant embrace is overwhelming, exacerbated by the fact that both of the subjects are quite beautiful and that the young black woman’s breast is showing through her flimsy jersey.  The boy is on the cusp of adolescence.  Soon, his childish intimacy with his nanny will shift totally.  She will go from being a mother surrogate (perhaps even closer than his real mother) to become part of an alien and threatening race.  The sexuality latent in Goldblatt’s photograph will become something threatening or exploitative in the extreme.

Goldblatt’s photographs of everyday life among Afrikaners are filled with this sense of latent, ominous contradiction.  How, he asks his viewers and South Africans in general, could people go about everyday life in the midst of such an unspeakably evil system?  This is the same question asked by Pumla Godobo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night, a memoir of this member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission encounter with Eugene de Kock, a government assassin known popularly as “Prime Evil.”  Godobo-Madikizela travels to a maximum security prison to interview de Kock after the collapse of apartheid.  What she finds is a man rather than a monster, someone who is gradually coming to repent his crimes.  The upshot is very similar to Hannah Arendt’s account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann after World War II: evil for the most part takes on a totally banal face; average people keep their heads down and focus on the minutiae of everyday life while acting in a manner that is complicit with great evil in many instances in history.

Goldblatt’s images record just such banal evil.  If they were set in the United Kingdom instead of South Africa, they might seem nothing more than dull snapshot-like records of provincial life in the 1960s and ’70s.  But we as viewers know that these photographs are set in South Africa, that the golden-locked boy walking past the supermarket is likely to graduate soon and be conscripted to fight and possibly die in border wars or in suppressing township uprisings.  The teenage beauty pageant contestants are living lives of artificial luxury on the backs of the majority of the South African populace.  The man mowing his lawn on a tranquil Saturday morning lives in a town forcibly purged of black residents.  No doubt on some level these people knew that they were cogs in a truly evil system, but they found stories to tell themselves – stories founded in race and religion – that legitimated their relatively privileged social positions.

Goldblatt also had a quick eye for forms of class stratification within the dominant white class.  Thus, he captures images both of the herrenvolk leaders of the National Party, the architects of apartheid, as well as of the dirt-poor Afrikaner farming families who barely make ends meet, despite the boon of white skin.

Photographs of tragedies such as famine and warfare have largely ceased to shock us.  Since the days of Robert Capa, muckraking photojournalism has lost much of its impact as people have grown accustomed to the society of the spectacle.  Goldblatt’s photographs are different and perhaps remain effective inasmuch as they focus on intimate moments in everyday life that show the vulnerability as well as the bigotry of the South African white tribe.

Finally, the Jewish Museum show is particularly powerful as a result of the curatorial decision to present Goldblatt’s work organized along lines similar to the initial publication of much of the material.  We thus see sections devoted to Goldblatt’s early work in the disappearing gold mines of Johannesburg, a project he undertook in collaboration with Nadine Gordimer.  We see his focus on individuals living in small, exclusively white towns.  And we see his photographic dissection of the distorted landscapes and city-scapes of apartheid South Africa.  These unpeopled urban spaces perhaps speak even more than the portraits, poignant as those are.  This is a landscape blighted by the reduction of one portion of the population to the status of non-entities.  Here on the right, for instance, is an image of a butcher shop that has literally been butchered, its right half removed along with the family that lived there as part of the infamous “Group Areas Act” that permitted forced removals.

Yet, in the midst of this desolation, Goldblatt also shows us how oppressed people managed to find solace and strength in the quotidian, in rituals such as a wedding, for example.  For if evil is banal and, in a place such as South Africa, ubiquitous, resistance and hope are equally evident and omnipresent in everyday life.

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The Right to the City

The luxury condo boom is over! Over 4,000 of these condos sit vacant in 9 predominantly low-income NYC communities. Meanwhile, average families in these communities are struggling to hold on to their homes. And homelessness is skyrocketing.

Housing is a human right. At least it used to be, back when NYC was a bastion of social democracy. Today, luxury condo apartments sit vacant while people get turfed out onto the street by unscrupulous investment bankers and other gentrifiers who destroy poor neighborhoods. From 2002 to 2005, NYC lost more than 205,000 units affordable to the typical household. Now, the city is filled with vacant luxury condos that are not available or affordable to those most in need of housing. We need the city to repossess these condos and make them available to the people who need them most – the people who have lived in these neighborhoods for generations!

Today I attended a “Harlem-El Barrio Condo Tour” organized by the Right to the City coalition. The idea of a right to the city comes from the great radical urbanist Henri Lefebvre. In works such as The Urban Revolution, Lefebvre argued that the primary locus of capital accumulation – and, consequently, of social conflict – was shifting from the industrial workplace to the urban tissue itself. Given this development, he argued that future social struggles would hinge on assertions of human rights to dwelling and a decent livelihood in urban spaces. My CUNY colleagues David Harvey, Neil Smith, Ida Susser, and Sharon Zukin (among others) have done a good deal to flesh out Lefebvre’s theoretical ideas.

I’m sure that Lefebvre would be delighted to know that his radical intellectual work is being carried forward in NYC today. But he’d be equally pleased by the work of organic intellectuals like those who led the march today. The organizations that compose the Right to the City coalition canvassed their neighborhoods to learn how many luxury condos sit vacant. They discovered that at least 138 condo buildings exist in the five boroughs. Their developers owe the city a total of $3.8 million in back taxes for unpaid property, water , and sewer taxes.

We went to see a number of these buildings during our “condo tour.” We trooped past Windows on 123, a building on West 123rd street that is currently 100% vacant according to Right to the City’s research. The average cost of an apartment in this building is $831,500. This in an area – Harlem where average income is below $30,000/year.

Here are some of the many, many empty buildings we marched past. The anger among people in the crowd as they saw these vacant buildings was palpable. I spoke with one woman who lived in a building which was demolished to make way for the tower development at the right. Aside from the obscenity of demolishing public housing in order to build unaffordable luxury condos, the marketing of such buildings is immensely offensive. The development pictured at right, for instance, advertises that part of the building will be devoted to the Museum of African Art. So, African Americans are displaced for an African Art museum that will no doubt have such steep admission fees that only visiting European tourists and Upper East-siders will be able to gain entrance.

Right to the City has just released a report that discusses this problem of empty luxury condos in far more detail than I have here. It’s also worth checking out their website for more info about the organization and its goals. Important demands they list include the following:

  • Conversion of empty luxury condos into housing for low-income tenants.
  • Affordability should be defined based on median income of census tract or zip code where the building is located
  • NYC agency or non-profit developer should manage/own the housing rather than private developers
  • There should be an oversight committee including low-income people to ensure that programs are administered fairly and transparently.

For more photos of the march (including lots of vacant buildings in Harlem & El Barrio), check out the gallery I’ve put up on my photos site. It’s very exciting that a movement grounded in such militant research techniques has developed in to oppose practices of dispossession that have dominated NYC for far too many years.

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Urban Planet

United Nations-Habitat, the agency focused on human settlements, recently released its latest bi-annual State of World Cities Report.  The report highlights a number of highly important milestones in human history.

Most significantly, the report notes that humanity passed a tipping point last year, with over half of the people on the planet now living in cities.

In addition,  urbanization is now unstoppable according to the report.  Anna Tibaijuka, outgoing director of UN-Habitat, is cited in an article in the Guardian as saying: “Just over half the world now lives in cities but by 2050, over 70% of the world will be urban dwellers. By then, only 14% of people in rich countries will live outside cities, and 33% in poor countries.”

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the report, however, is its identification of the endless city.  According to the report, that is, mega-cities around the world are agglomerating into mind-bogglingly vast mega-regions.  The largest of these is in China, where the Hong Kong-Shenhzen-Guangzhou region is home to about 120 million people. Other endless cities have formed in Japan and Brazil and are developing in India, west Africa and elsewhere.

Such endless cities confirm the projections of Henri Lefebvre in The Urban Revolution.  According to the report’s co-author, Eduardo Lopez Moreno, mega-regions rather than countries are now the chief engines of global wealth creation: “Research shows that the world’s largest 40 mega-regions cover only a tiny fraction of the habitable surface of our planet and are home to fewer than 18% of the world’s population [but] account for 66% of all economic activity and about 85% of technological and scientific innovation.”

Although migration from rural areas to cities might make sense given their economic dynamism, endless cities are generating increasing social and environmental problems according to the State of World Cities report.  Instead of developing in a compact, energy-efficient, and relatively egalitarian form, endless cities are increasingly sprawling, eating up land and resources in an unsustainable manner.  According to the report, urban sprawl is the product of a divided, dysfunctional city.

It should not be so surprising, therefore, that the most unequal cities identified by the report are all in South Africa, with Johannesburg, East London, Bloemfontein, and Pretoria leading the world in inequality.  Cities in other parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are less unequal primarily because they tend to be more uniformly poor.  In the developed world, the U.S. has the distinction of having the most unjust cities, with places like New York and Chicago ranking as less equal than Brazzaville in Congo-Brazzaville and Managua in Nicaragua.

This trend towards increasing inequality, segregation, and fortification is one of the greatest challenges we face collectively.  Authors such as Mike Davis have shown us the dystopian reality in Planet of Slums.  In the face of such trends, we urgently need forward-thinking (dare I say utopian) proposals for more just forms of urban development.  One of the most engaging examples I’ve come across in this regard is the architect Richard Rogers‘ book Cities for a Small Planet.  It’s written to be accessible to a general audience and it evades some of the thorny problems of proliferating slums, but at least it’s an attempt to propose solutions to the challenges posed by the endless city.  Also suggestive is Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic’s edited volume The Endless City.

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Mercy Mercy Me

A quick post about the Nature, Ecology, and Society Colloquium that I attended a while back at the CUNY Grad Center.  I was on a panel with my colleague at Queens Melissa Checker and Beryl Thurman, Executive Director of the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island.  My (horrendously bleak) paper is available on the talks section of this site.  Melissa and Beryl both gave excellent talks which I want to discuss briefly here.

Melissa’s talk focused on the urban environmentalism as a form of gentrification.  She looked in detail at community opposition to a greening project in Harlem.  Why, she asked, would people object to projects such as pedestrianization and tree planting?  This question is particularly pertinent in light of the long history of struggles against air pollution in poor communities in NYC such as Harlem and the Bronx.  In answering this question, Melissa suggested that these greening projects often ride roughshod over community priorities such as parking space for church attendance on weekends.  More important, however, is that fact that they often are driven by relatively affluent newcomers to the neighborhood who take a very condescending attitude towards long-time community residents.  Green project can play a pivotal role in driving up property values, which in turn helps to push out many who cannot afford the sky-rocketing rents and taxes associated with gentrification.  Melissa’s discussion suggests that one cannot assume a priori that urban greening efforts such as plaNYC are of benefit to all the city’s residents.

Beryl’s presentation was a bracing call for attention to the embattled shore front communities of working class areas in the city.  Living in Staten Island’s North Shore, which has the distinction of having some of the highest levels of air pollution in the nation, Beryl explained that multiple sources of contamination face poor communities in many parts of NYC.  Among the many form of contamination are tons of uranium ore dumped by the Manhattan Project!  In addition, on the North Shore, storm surges lead businesses that are located on the edge of the NYC harbor to pump out effluent onto the island itself.  It then drains down into the predominantly black and Latino communities who live in the area.  Beryl warned that poor communities in NYC are nearly as vulnerable to significant storm damage as those of New Orleans.  All it takes is a big storm – which is of course far more likely to arrive as weather patterns get more extreme in coming years and decades.

A powerful reminder of our intense (and uneven) vulnerability.

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Explaining racism to my daughter

Amid the many trials and tribulations of life in New York City, one of the quotidian boons has been the fact that my daughter has grown up with an African-American best friend.  In fact, my daughter has always seemed color blind to me; she essentially takes this form of privilege for granted.

How different from my own experience.  Most of the institutions I’ve inhabited since arriving in the U.S. from South Africa in the 1970s have been informally but nonetheless pretty thoroughly segregated.  For instance,  I currently teach in the largest urban public university in the world, the City University of New York (CUNY).  According to a 2007 survey, New York City is 44% white, 25% African-American, 12% Asian American, and 17% Other; Hispanics and Latin@s, who may belong to any of these ethnic groups, make up 27.5% of the above classification.  CUNY’s undergrad population is currently 27.2% white, 28.8% African-American, 27.4% Latin@, and 16.4% Asian Pacific Islander.  CUNY’s student body, in other words, is even more diverse than the city’s population in general.  CUNY faculty, however, are not.  64% are white, 16.5% are African-American, 10% Latin@, and 9.3% Asian Pacific Islander.  As an African-American colleague of mine recently put it in an acerbic moment, the only time he spends all his time around white folks is when he’s at work.

Unfortunately, the stress of the present is taking its toll on my daughter.  As she feels the intense pressure of competition with her peers to get into high schools in the city and surrounding region, I see racial animus coming out in my daughter.  In what seems to be an argument that she’s rehearsed through conversations with friends, she recently railed against the fact that her best friend has been more aggressively courted by some of the same schools she’s applying to, and expressed anger that this was presumably because of her ethnic background.  My attempts to explain the tokenistic character of what remains of affirmative action policies in the U.S., and the persistent structural racism that affects people of color in this country, have been met with mounting scorn.

I believe that my daughter will have access to life situations and educational resources that will transform this worrying trend in her thought.  I’m certain that her life so far has prepared the foundations for anti-racist thought and behavior as an adult.  But I nonetheless think that the recent animus that she’s expressed is characteristic of very disturbing trends within the U.S. and on a global scale.

The conditions are ripe for significant forms of racial backlash.  A recent production by Big Noise Films called “White Power U.S.A.” tracks the resurgence of the white supremacist movement today.  The film makes the point that although contemporary neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups are relatively few in number (30,000 hardcore supporters and 250,000 active sympathizers, according to watchdog organizations), they are actively and successfully building bridges into more “mainstream” wings of the conservative movement in the U.S.  The film highlights, in particular, the broad resonance of anti-immigrant politics during a period of economic downturn, looking in detail at the Minutemen movement in Arizona, which is populated many hardcore white supremacists.  A recent report by the Department of Homeland Security also warns that white supremacist groups are organizing with increasing success within the U.S. military, and notes that Right-wing extremism currently represents the greatest terrorist threat to the U.S.

The election of Barack Obama figures particularly prominently in contemporary white supremacist rhetoric.  At meetings and marches of the Tea Party movement, the rhetoric of white ressentiment is everywhere apparent, in more or less coded form.  The argument that Obama is not an American is pretty common at such rallies, as are calls to “take back America” (implicitly from the people of color who have captured it).  This sort of rhetoric gets massively amplified when it is picked up by commentators on talk radio and the Fox channel.  Precisely the issues that should be galvanizing a progressive movement – the economic melt down, the Wall Street bail out, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – are, according to white supremacist activists quoted in “White Power U.S.A.,” bringing people into their organizations.

I saw precisely the same conditions while living in Italy two years ago.  There, the economic downturn and the splintering of the Left led to the reelection of Silvio Berlusconi, whose electoral coalition included the explicitly xenophobic Northern League in a much-empowered role.  In fact, in the weeks after Berlusconi’s victory at the polls, I saw carabinieri, the Italian paramilitary police force, swoop down on a family of Roma window washers at a traffic light near where I was living.  The inevitable outcome of this upwelling of race baiting politics was evident last weekend when race riots ripped apart a town in Calabria where organized crime syndicates was keeping immigrant laborers in sub-human conditions.

Given the strong likelihood that the downturn will endure and even intensify for average people in the U.S. and Europe, it’s pretty certain that we’re only seeing the beginning of this latest wave of racism.

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