Category Archives: Cities

The Great Neoliberal Split includes transit

Since the 1950s, US policymakers and politicians have built highways and parking spaces on what seems like every corner of the country. Meanwhile, urban transit systems from Boston to San Francisco have suffered massive disinvestment and stigmatization despite their numerous positive externalities (notably, decreased pollution and gridlock) and increasing ridership. While subway and light-rail systems are appreciated and used by many affluent urban residents, bus systems, largely the modes of last resort for poor and underserved communities, are stigmatized by these same urbanites.

Karen Narefsky, the author of the Jacobin piece, goes on to gut an argument made by Jarrett Walker claiming that public transit should be designed with the poor in mind.

Leaving aside the spurious claim that the poor have different needs for a public transportation system than the wealthy (don’t we all want our transit to be clean, safe, extensive, and on time?), public transportation systems cannot function in the long term unless they are used by a majority of their possible constituents, including the poor, the working class, and Walker’s city councilmen and architects. Without the revenue earned through fares, transit systems are forced to rely on alternative and unstable sources of funding, such as high-interest credit swaps and politically vulnerable sales taxes. Urban professionals may not feel inclined to ride the bus, but ignoring that stigma will do little for the long-term viability of public transportation. The reasons that many affluent people disdain buses (they are crowded, unreliable, and subject to street traffic) have not escaped the notice of working-class riders, nor are these riders indifferent; many of them simply have no other choice.

The post is right on and points to an important aspect about urban planning in general: cities work best when the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor all aren’t ashamed to live in them.

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All Politics is Local – and Federal

This weekend I took the time to read several long-form NYT Magazine articles I’d been saving up, and I must admit I was disappointed.  I often look forward to the longer pieces from the paper’s magazine, but the two I focused on were a bit of a disappointment.  This biographical piece on Paul Ryan was informative, though I found the corresponding New Yorker article much more readable and illuminating.  More disappointing was Jonathan Mahler’s “Oakland, the Last Refuge of Radical America,” on the Occupy movement in Oakland, CA.  It was like Mahler was going out of his way to disparage the movement and deny that it had any relevance or legitimate purpose.  He treats Oakland’s occupiers like a bunch of crackpots and anachronisms who should really be seen as a footnote to other problems and processes of the city and the region: huge municipal budget deficits, a dysfunctional police department at risk of falling into federal receivership, and the ostensible inevitability of gentrification, to name the most important.

Many folks involved with Occupy Oakland in some way have penned responses to Mahler’s poor journalism, and of these I just read Darwin Bond-Graham’s “Oakland: Incubator for Meaningful Local Politics.”  Bond-Graham is a sociologist from Oakland, and he argues that Mahler’s piece ignores important pieces of Oakland’s radical history (most notably a Chicano movement rooted in the 1970s and the more recent “Oscar Grant Rebellion,” a response to the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police.  Bond-Graham thinks these omissions illustrate a sloppiness in Mahler’s piece and contribute to the latter’s ignorance of the movement as a powerful instance of and model for local politics:

Occupy Oakland was never about the boring liberal politics of advocating for change from the federal government or other distant forces that could only be appealed to with signs and slogans and moral suasion. For those who have taken part in it, Oakland’s most recent wave of protests was always about taking direct action to confront the immediate and real problems Oaklanders are facing, not just because of the financial crisis, but because of decades of disinvestment, police militarization, and austerity measures imposed by local politicians. Oaklanders were contesting the shut down schools, shuttered libraries, derelict parks, and the policies that have left much of the city in a state of disrepair.

He goes on to describe the recent rehabilitation of an abandoned building as the Victor Martinez People’s Library.  Despite a police crackdown, the library appears to be functioning still.

An older library produced by Occupy Oakland

These are powerful points, as Occupy Oakland’s strength seems to have been adapting protest to local conditions, but I think Bond-Graham’s viewpoint obscures something important as well.  He breezily dismisses the “boring liberal politics of advocating for change from the federal government or other distant forces,” but such a strategy is neither boring nor exclusively “liberal,” nor are its only tools “signs and slogans and moral suasion.”  Like it or not, the United States federal government is the most powerful player in the country, and its interventions in politics and society have a force and a staying power that nothing else does.  Besides producing an aversion to hierarchy and organization, the strong anarchist strains of the Occupy movement also seem to favor an emphasis on the local.  But if Occupy Oakland and similar movements truly aim to challenge, as they claim, transnational capital as well as corrupt local governments, their focus cannot be exclusively local.  Local conditions are, after all, determined by national and transnational forces, too, and the challenge to these forces must be mounted on all these levels.

American radical movements of all sorts have consistently leveraged the power of the federal government, directly or indirectly, to effect change in society.  Radical Republicans in Congress were largely responsible for Reconstruction in the South; left-wing forces in Depression-era America helped provided pressure that contributed to the establishment of the American welfare state under FDR; the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s were instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act and related legislation.  You could of course debate whether these outcomes were ideal or complete, lasting (the gains of Reconstruction were not), or even good.  But the fact remains that the federal government carries weight that nothing else does, and if the left hopes to truly change American politics and society for the better, it must not forget the importance of this central institution.

Photo by Oakland Local

Ta-Nehisi on Adam Davidson on NYC

I was going to write up something about Adam Davidson’s latest NYT piece (“Why Can’t the Bronx Be More Like Brooklyn?“), but Ta-Nehisi, as usual, nailed it:

My first impression of a story entitled “Why Can’t The Bronx Be Like Brooklyn?” is that it’s always worth thinking about people in the Bronx who don’t want to be Brooklyn, and even people in Brooklyn who don’t like what they think Brooklyn is becoming.

Beyond that, I think this is a problem of form. In journalism, if your neighborhood is being populated with cool shops and young single people it’s a ghetto suffering from decades of societal neglect. If it actually is being populated by all the pretty people it’s an enclave which we worry is losing it’s sense of identity.

In any case, if you don’t have a lot of money your neighborhood, your living space, and thus your life, is a problem. This is the only way The Privileged Voice–as a random group of someone’s who need to be fixed. Even if we don’t know how.

It’s worth checking out the story. The question of how different areas of city develop or don’t is an interesting one. I just don’t like the assumption that everyone wants to develop the same way. A lot of us just things like safety and decent schools to not be considered luxury goods.