While riding with my daughter the other morning, we traveled down the new above-ground park-slash-bike/jogging trail called conversely The Bloomingdale Trail and The 606. While grabbing some water on the way up the 606, I noticed the trail was extra busy, with many joggers and walkers as it was such a brilliant, nice day. Two joggers I noticed in particular were white women just coming out of an Uber driven by a black woman. The moment was too delicious for simple irony, yet too bitter to b satisfying.
For those unfamiliar with the history of the Bloomingdale Trail, a railroad line heavy with cargo used to pass through the Chicago neighborhoods of Bucktown, Logan Square, and Humboldt Park. While the lines it adjoins to the west are still in heavy use, over the last fifteen or so years, the nearly three mile stretch grew weeds and would occasionally host the straggling jogger.
About ten years ago, members of the Logan Square and Humboldt Park communities would meet to discuss plans for how to use the railway to benefit the neighborhoods. At this time, both neighborhoods were largely working class LatinX and – with the exception of the large and beautiful Humboldt Park and the boulevard system running through it – possessed very little green or public space. So they began a dream of turning the infrastructure of the railway into a pedestrian park.
This dream was fast-tracked some years later under Mayor Rahm Emanuel when he realized this park was a way to build up a tax revenue base. Which is to say it was a good way to build more outside interest in an area already facing massive gentrification. The months surrounding its opening saw people being priced out of their homes as nearby rents dramatically increased 40-100% and long-term homeowners were scared off by the prospect of substantially higher tax rates.
What is becoming common knowledge in gentrified Chicago is that our city uses good things to draw in wealthier and wealthier people – not just to build a tax base, but to drive the poor apart from their collective actions so there is little recourse left but to give up. It is systemic disengagement and disunion of Black and Brown communities. This is especially lethal as Black and Brown communities cannot rely on common or familial wealth, nor of basic services. Thus they must and do rely on support networks in their communities.
So gentrification isn’t making the community better, it’s using long-delayed improvements of the community which were called by the community to displace and fracture that same living and fighting community and replace it with a permanently mobile economic force. One that either cannot or does not need to fight back.
What gentrification does to black and brown communities, however, the Sharing Economy as highlighted by Uber does to worker communities.
The taxi business has largely been run by immigrants and, while far from perfect, has been a means for people of color to survive when few other options are available. Because of the intimacy of the ride, the dangers of the road, the semi-freelancing of the gig, the potential violence that drivers face, the taxi business relied on safeguards such as unionization, licensing, and medallion-winning to protect the consumer and the worker.
Most of these regulations have been sidestepped by the would-be taxis in the ride-sharing business. When Uber and Lyft, et al, came to Chicago, the neoliberal administration headed by Emanuel did away with most of those regulations. But they came with technology that made it easier and faster to hail a cab, as well as an economic structure that made too much sense on the face of it. In its introductory phase, the cost of a ride in an Uber was considerably cheaper than one in a taxicab. Outside of the share that is given to Uber for the technology and use, the rest is given to the driver-owner, who is not leasing a car but using their own. Of course, this model is only possible because the driver is not an employee (and thus the costs of living are transferred to someone else, such as other employers, the drivers, and the government) and thus Uber gets to have and eat its cake.
However, in a model learned from Wal-Mart, as this cheaper model of taxiing begins to saturate the market, it forces out the old cab drivers and their unions – the communities that they built up. As the competition is being gutted, Uber raises the fees for both the consumer and the contractor. This has already started happening at certain peak hours, where costs are exponentially higher.
So Uber will eventually out-Uber itself as a de-unionized, untrained, and even unvetted workforce rises to replace an older community of working class people of color, only to themselves be ushered out by more desperate people looking for even fewer scraps.
In short, more working class women of color will be driving more professional class white people to a park dreamt up by working class women of color but implemented by professional class white people in order to drive out the working class women of color – but for less and less payout.
The Age of Late Neoliberalism is especially adept at not just taking crises and turning them into opportunities for the Investor Class, but also at taking lovely things – often things we create – and turning those against us. See for instance how the city of Chicago turns neighborhood parks into music festivals (often featuring artists of color from working class roots) as an aid in gentrification and homeless erasure. Or how art, artists, and art fests have been used to displace Logan Square residents (while LatinX and Black art are still drastically underfunded starting at the school level). Notice how a Logan Square developer/evil landlord boasts about investing in neighborhood as a means to drastically raise rents.
Despite these tactics, enjoy the beautiful and the lovely. I travel the 606 with pride, as do many WCPOC. This is our neighborhood. We’ve lived here and suffered the worst through disinvestment and we should have good things available to us without guilt. Like your music and your coffee shops. But it is to say that the tools of the Neoliberal Age toward its anti-communal goals are tricky, and we must recognize them to navigate them and beat them to the punch.
Enjoy your day. Party. And fight.