Monday, November 29, 2010

Personal Geographies of a Local Yokel

I just looked at a map of my hometown for possibly the first time. And realized that streets I’ve walked, biked, and driven for the last 25 years have names I’ve never known.

This time last year a man passing in a van asked me how to get to Lila Ave. from the back side of the hill where I was walking the dog. Perplexed, I gave him landmark-based directions to get to the one street I suspected started with an L.

According to this map, we were both already on Lila at the time. Or wait, what I *thought* the map said was Lila at first look. On second look, what I always considered the same street growing up is actually two different ones, with two different names, becoming Lila later on. I didn't even construct the streets that way in my head - I understood the continuity, direction, and relative distances of different paths through my town in a completely different way.

Apparently, I am purty ignorant.

Not to mention all the paths I took regularly, that would constitute main thoroughfares in my understanding of my hometown, but which do not constitute roads in an official map-making sense.

This probably means something profound about maps, place, and individual perception. Oh the tyranny of technology over personal histories of lived space! The arbitrary basis for scientific understandings of distance and time!

But my analytical powers are sapped at the moment. So pretend I wrote something profound about it, instead of what I am writing, which is

Hot damn son, that's some crazy shit!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Financial Katrina: The Mortgage and Foreclosure Crisis as a Flashpoint for our Urban Future

About 9 months ago I gave my first conference "presentation" - well a cross between an academic talk and activist workshop. The audio file is up on the website for WCRS Columbus. It was fun - I got to mash up work by David Harvey, the Kirwan Institute, and my own investigations into Ohio's foreclosure crisis, and get people pumped to fight gentrification in Columbus.

It's the 3rd file down, jump to the 4:20 mark to start - everything before that is folks introducing themselves, and the audio quality is bad.

Title: A Financial Katrina: The Mortgage & Foreclosure Crisis as a Flashpoint for our Urban Future
Conference: Confronting Racism: Building United Movements
Held on the Campus of The Ohio State University, May 16th 2009

And by way of teaser, here is an into to the talk...

We all know about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans back in 2005. Many also know that the hurricane caused a disproportionate gutting of poor black neighborhoods, and that these neighborhoods lag behind in bouncing back compared to other areas of the city. Those involved recognize that the city’s response to this situation has the capacity to change the face of New Orleans as we know it, and so fierce political battles rage over how to rebuild, what, and where.

What few people realize is that what happened in New Orleans is happening now in cities all across the country as a result of the mortgage and foreclosure crisis. Lower income communities of color are gutted, houses and apartment complexes sit vacant and deteriorating, and whole swaths of the city are suddenly “up for grabs.” I argue that an appreciation of what is at stake, a “Financial Katrina” in Ohio’s cities, demands a more alarmed response from anyone concerned about urban social justice.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Columbus testimony to the UN Special Rapporteur for Housing

The UN Special Rapporteur for Housing, the paulistana Raquel Rolnik, is visiting the U.S. this week to investigate the housing crisis and take testimony on violations of the human right to housing. A local group I work with, Columbus Housing Justice, submitted testimony about the demolition or sale of nearly half the local public housing stock. Read the testimony and see video of residents HERE - at our blog!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Letter to a young do-gooder

Dear young do-gooder,

So you are facing the choice of a job, a school, a non-profit internship, the peace corps… whatever it is, you want a life with meaning, to do justice, to make change. You are looking for a good fit, something you can belong to that will tell you exactly what you must do to realize your desired world, and provide the opportunity to do it. I hate to break it to you, but don’t hold your breath.

There is no one institution that will magically turn you into who you want to be. Every structure you plug yourself in to, be it a church, a degree program, a political party, or other entity will shape you in certain ways. You will need to unlearn about 30-70% of any institutional socialization experience you receive, or inoculate yourself against this negative share before hand, to be a truly effective and radical agent of justice. I’ve spent too much time joining things and dedicating myself to them believing “THIS is IT!” only to find it isn’t. If you are anything like me – a young idealist – you probably have too. Eventually a critical social eye realizes that the system (for lack of a better word) does not provide a clear channel to teach and nourish those who would be bent on changing it. You are, and should consider yourself to be, a rogue agent: responsible for controlling your own education and for creating alternative spaces for reflection and action with the few you will find who share your values.

There is no one institution that will teach you everything you need to know. The balanced and effective agent for justice must engage in a variety of relationships with different institutions and accumulate a myriad of experiences to learn everything they must learn. The trick is to be savvy - arrive at a sense of the various elements of your personality, skills, and ideals that you must develop. Investigate the institutions you can access – schools, jobs, clubs – what they can and cannot teach you, what they can and cannot position you to do in the future. Identify the ways they could lead you astray by incentivizing activities that ultimately don’t matter. Be prepared to do some bullshit in exchange for the opportunity to grab what you need while you are around, and make sure to do some good for the place and the people before you go. But know where to draw the line when the bullshit starts to take over.

Finally, work your ass off, both in your institutional duties and outside of them, and ask inappropriate amounts of questions at unexpected times. You learn more than you “should” this way, and if you are pulling your weight, people are willing to take the time to answer in revealing ways. Take that insider information, recalibrate your course, and continue to chart your path along the itchy, bumpy, shadowy underbelly of traditional ideas of success. It's really the only path worth taking.

Good luck, and Godspeed.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Jargon in Academia and Organizing

My friend Jane recently wrote a good blog post on the importance and difficulty of communicating across various barriers.

I've been considering how to communicate across disciplines, departments, socio-economic barriers, and cultural identities.... At times, I feel like a chameleon when deciding how to speak to one person or another. What type of slang should I use? Should I cuss? Should I get out my biggest words and stand up straight? Communication is tough.

I took one of the points she made and ran with it, because it is something I have been struggling with too - how to talk about social issues as you move from academia to organizing, specifically what to do about jargon.

I posted my thoughts on Jane's group blog, but I am copying them here because I liked how it came out.


[When out and about in the world...] My working hypothesis is only use jargon or an uncommon word when:

(1) it articulates an important concept that is not captured in another, simpler word or short phrase. Anything beyond this is jargon that shouldn't exist at all, not in academics and not in daily life.

(2) when it adds a necessary level of complexity to the topic or task at hand. Some jargon does deserve to exist, in that it captures a unique concept, but is rarely appropriate to use outside of academic treatments of a subject. Concepts that are laden with historical and structural detail are probably not worth introducing into a conversation if explaining them is not going to clarify the situation at hand. For example, you probably don't need to bring up orientalism when talking about today's immigration policy with your neighbor.

College educated social justice folks often screw up on both points because they fail to strike a balance. Most obviously they overdo it, using jargon that either shouldn't exist at all, or is inappropriate for the topic at hand.

But I want to focus on the less obvious mistake of underdoing it: dumbing things down so severely - either by censoring all uncommon words or jargon, or by oversimplifying a situation - that we fail to realistically depict the thing we are trying to communicate.

These mistakes can lead to paternalist and populist forms of engaging people. We disrespect folks by talking to them in ways that assume they are not capable of generating new and more complex thoughts, or assuming they haven't already. We do a disservice to them when we divide the world unrealistically into black and white, knowing there are shades of gray but thinking the best way to motivate others is to be harshly dualistic.

So I think we can use a little bit of jargon when engaging people if we are savvy about it. For example, it is worth making the sex/gender distinction (for those feminists who use it) when talking to a housewife about enrolling her son in gymnastics, or daughter in hockey.

The bottom line is this: the point of using any jargon should be to open up discussion, to clarify or deepen our understanding of a reality. This is in contrast to the example described by Jane, where the competitive graduate student uses it to close down discussion and obscure realities, thereby "winning" a debate or impressing others by virtue of befuddling them.

My only other thought is that we make sure to engage people conversationally, so any goofy words we want to use come up organically in response to the direction of the conversation. Too often we get into the habit of delivering mini lectures, a holdover from our socialization experience in the university classroom. And as we use any jargon, we should not assume people know what it means. Instead, volunteer to explain any concept as you bring it up, and make sure you have established an environment in which other people know they can feel comfortable interrupting you to ask for clarification. Let them know that doing so means you are being unclear, rather than that they are revealing ignorance.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Deutsche Bank's bad behavior

I first got a bad taste in my mouth for Deutsche Bank, a German-based global investment bank, back in São Paulo as the funder behind the Urban Age São Paulo conference. Upon further investigation it turns out they have an unlikely link to my home community in Ohio. Putting the two together reveals a delicious little hypocrisy that I will unfold for you here...

First to the Brazilian side: Urban Age, funded by Deutsche Bank, is a six-year series of conferences in cities across the globe designed to unite top minds around questions of our global urban future. The 2008 conference was held in and themed around São Paulo, where it faced criticism in the activist community for its elitism. The conference was invitation only, locking out civil society groups and community members who didn't have the "right credentials" even though they requested to attend. And like other swank international conferences on São Paulo urban issues, it included in-depth discussions about squatter settlements, slums, poverty and exclusion, while being both (1) entirely inaccessible to anyone living these realities, and (2) spending enough money on horsdeourves and fancy venues to lift many families out of poverty many times over.

Even the high powered Brazilian architects and urbanists who were invited to participate did so begrudgingly. While they complained in semi-private circles about the academic imperialism of the European organizers, they ultimately played ball for a chance to win the big checks Deutsche Bank hands out for research and projects.

The 2009 conference will be in Istanbul, and I just received an e-mailed "call for entries" for the 2009 Urban Age Award: a "$100,000 USD award for an outstanding project or initiative which improves the physical conditions of a community and the lives of residents in Istanbul."

Other verbage from the e-mail:
The award celebrates the Urban Age mission to connect quality of life to the quality of the urban environment. "Governing a city means managing contradictions. The Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award and the Urban Age conference aim to encourage people to overcome contradictions and work together to take responsibility for their cities." – Wolfgang Nowak, Managing Director, Alfred Herrhausen Society.


The Deutsche Bank Urban Age award was created to encourage people to take responsibility for their cities and form new alliances.

So the themes are: innovative project, improved quality of urban life, and taking responsibility for our cities.

Wouldn't it be great if the same themes guiding Deutche Bank's Urban Age awards guided its own business practices?

Now we come to Ohio. Here the Deutsche Bank has been one of several large out-of-town banks wreaking havoc on our communities: foreclosing on properties willy-nilly and then re-purchasing them at sheriff sales, yet refusing responsibility for keeping the vacant buildings up to code so they are not a danger to neighbors. From a November 25, 2007 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer:

About one of every eight properties bought in Hamilton County this year was purchased at a sheriff's sale, the Enquirer analysis shows. Since 2003, the number of properties purchased by a bank or investor at a sheriff's sale and not yet resold has almost doubled - to 2,695 as of August.

Deutsche Bank National Trust purchased the most properties - 265 - this year through Oct. 31.

The German banking giant didn't own a single parcel in Hamilton County in 2004, but now is the second-largest owner of single-family homes in the county, after the federal government. The bank owned 188 properties last week, and is taking on an average of nine or 10 newly foreclosed properties each week, according to the Hamilton County Auditor's records.

And yet Deutsche Bank denies owning any houses here.

John T. Gallagher, a bank spokesman in New York City, would not comment on the bank's ownership or maintenance of properties. Instead, he issued a written statement that said the bank acts only as trustee for securitization trusts - investment pools that buy up risky subprime mortgages in bulk on Wall Street.

That position - while helping Deutsche Bank evade responsibility for maintaining properties - could put a halt to its foreclosures across Ohio.

Last month, a federal judge in Cleveland ruled that Deutsche Bank can't have it both ways: Either it owns a property, in which case it must maintain it; or it doesn't, in which case it shouldn't be foreclosing on it.

U.S. District Judge Christopher A. Boyko sharply criticized financial institutions for their handling of foreclosures. He said the banks "rush to foreclose" and then "sit on the deed, avoiding responsibility for maintaining the property while reaping the financial benefits of interest running on a judgment."

When the Deutsche bank plays absentee trustee, the financial price for maintaining the property (in some instances, ultimately demolishing it) falls on our already cash strapped local governments. Neighbors or the city end up cutting the grass, boarding the windows, sealing the doors, maintaining the facade, and clearing scrap. This same Enquirer article found the collective bill owed to the city by absentee banks for foreclosed properties totaled $201,237 at the time. Today it is surely much higher. Add this to the value lost in neighbors' homes because of vacant houses down the street, and to rising homelessness as a result of foreclosures on properties, and the damage to our communities go through the roof.

Such crimes by Deutsche Bank are found all over Ohio, not just in Cincinnati. The company owns around 970 foreclosed properties in Cuyahoga County, most of which sit vacant. And in 2007, Deutsche Bank had 14 of its foreclosures thrown out of court for failure to show it even owned the mortgage when it filed foreclosure against the homeowners. This is foreclosure fraud, plain and simple.

One community in Cincinnati is fighting back. In 2007, Price Hill saw 300 of its homes foreclosed upon. Many of those homes, and those already sitting vacant, were owned by Deutsche Bank, which subsequently refused to address the code violations that began to rack up on the vacant properties. So Price Hill Will, a local group that works to revitalize the neighborhood, is suing for damages incurred by the city and neighborhood residents. The outcome of the lawsuit is still pending.

What if the Deutsche Bank lived up to the same criteria it sets for Urban Age grant hopefuls? The bank could start an urban homesteading program for its vacant properties: if a family agreed to get the house up to code within one year, it could have the property turned over to them for a small fee (say, $100). The city could pitch in and waive the code violation fees for all properties that were granted to homesteaders.

I think I've got a proposal for their 2009 Urban Age Award here - anyone want to help me write it?

Monday, March 30, 2009

The OTHER Wall

Talk about horrible, inhumane ideas. Construction has begun on a Gaza-style wall in Rio de Janeiro that is designed to cut off several favelas from expanding into nearby forest land, simultaneously causing further segregation between the slums and other neighborhoods in the city.

Wall construction, with condominiums in background. Photo from O Globo

"By year-end the Rio de Janeiro state government wants to build almost 7 miles (11 km) of walls to contain 19 communities. It will spend 40 million reais ($17.6 million) and have to relocate 550 houses, Lazzoli said." Read full story here.

That money could be used for upgrades that residents actually need in public services, health, education, and police reform. It's 2009, you would think officials would have enough basic economic sense to know that the massive unmet demand for low-income housing will not magically disappear if you build a wall.

This is another example of abuses that favelados continue to endure, even after the democratic transition turned them from a persecuted underclass without any substantive rights into ostensible "citizens" with votes.

Just another symbol of how democracy is often woefully insufficient to protect the basic interests of the marginalized urban poor.