Land, Dispersal, and Culture without People

Gentrification is a social force with its own reasons, justifications, and rules. It is one of the last remaining engines of blatant racism left to prosper openly in Northern and liberal urban areas like Chicago, New York, LA, and Portland. A primary reason for its thriving despite the harm it causes Black and Brown people is that gentrification is an economic powerhouse. But another driving reason is the very fact it harms Black and Brown communities.

That is to say, especially since the 1960’s, we’ve not liked organized poor people. And the one resource that poor people have when the capitalists have stolen our labor power and landlords, taxes, service companies, and mercs have taken what’s left, is organized power. The management political class in our communities do not represent us – they serve other powers, higher powers: namely, organized money. So the greatest wheel-house we have left for political power is the ability to be and the manifestation of being organized. That is how we survive. When people have little else, we depend on each other. Institutions serve their own self-survival needs, so while the poor often have access to institutions, the institutions are not at their beck-and-call; they tend to follow and obey the money. Often, our connection with economic and social institutions is of exploitation. Being very poor is to be marginalized from and within economic and social institutions even when they are ostensibly for our service.

However, if we only asked the city to merely deliver meager social services and fix potholes, the engines and friends at city hall would not mind so much. But when we demand that things be taken care of, that the wheels of justice be churned in our direction, that we receive jobs and programs, that the cops stop harassing and killing our young ones, that our parks are maintained, that our schools are furnished, lit, full of trained, positive teachers, books, and toilet paper, then the city, being first and foremost an extension of the bourgeoisie, aim to destroy our mechanisms of power and protest. That is to say, our communities.

We can of course afford to resource the communities after People of Color leave it*, but to do so while they reside here is to use government coffers.That, to neoliberals, would be too much welfare. Apparently, investing in communities is only ok if done with private money backed by public funds when there is private money to be made. That way, money stays fluid and can be detached from communities. As liberal economist Paul Krugman put it while talking about Puerto Rico recently (emphasis mine):

The safety net is there to protect people, not places. If a regional economy is left stranded by the shifting tides of globalization, well, that’s going to happen now and then. What’s important is that workers be able to find opportunities somewhere, and that those unable for whatever reason to take advantage of these opportunities be protected from extreme hardship.

[h/t to Rod Thomas for the find]

Of course this understanding erases place and the reality of a people connected to that place. It removes land from community and community from land.

For Puerto Rico, this is troubling for many reasons. While Puerto Ricans from the mid-20th century until currently have tended to migrate continuously between the island (colony) and the mainland (colonizer) – with my neighborhood Humboldt Park being a mainstay in the ever-transition – Puerto Rico is rightly considered home to most BorinquenXs. Their current debt crisis is a divestment leading to an undoing of the collective, spiritual home while gentrification was a divestment that lead to an undoing of the communitative, material home.

So, land of poor communities can not be protected, thus poor communities cannot be either. Somehow we can protect the people without protecting their communities. This is White Neoliberal Thought in action.

But not only that, we’ve learned we can also keep the legacy of the cultures of people of color alive, while at the same time killing off the communities of people of color. We can in effect maintain Latin-American drinks at prices most LatinXs cannot afford in an area currently swiping itself clean of LatinXs.


MUCH LATIN! via Chicago Eatery

According to hyper local site DNAinfo/Chicago, “Estereo Bringing Latin-American Drinks, Vibe To Logan Square.” This is a very nice gesture from the same restaurant group that brought us such authentically LatinX restaurants as “Sportsman’s Club, Lone Wolf, Bar DeVille and Pub Royale among others” as Logan Square (adjacent to Humboldt Park) is running out of Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and various other LatinXs/Latin-Americans. I mean, what kind of vibe do LatinXs produce in their own space anyway, rite?

What this story and location eventually reminded me of was the habit of Indian mascotry, where American sports corporations, capitalists and fans claim to “honor the legacy” of Native Americans while parading around as cartoon versions of Natives. Meanwhile, actual, human Natives live in abject poverty on ‘trust’ lands overseen by the US government. These topics are not in the least unrelated.

The Homestead Act gave collective Indian land to private, White citizens of the United States. The way they were able to maintain this control and keep this control for White Supremacist Capitalism is by erasing all other people from ownership of the land.

LatinXs and Black Americans have “culture” that White America can mine while stealing their work power, detaining them, and dispersing them like riot police. Effective redlining, mass incarceration, immigration raids and sending back refugee children to their imminent deaths are only a part of the tactic. What does it mean that Black and Brown Americans always have worked the land but rarely own the land? When they do own land, they are dispersed from it via gentrification.

American Empire continually steals Indian lands. Think of pipelines and water rights. Think of the lack of sovereignty of Indian spaces. Meanwhile its inhabitants and corporations steal Indian “culture” (How many folks say their great-grandmother is half-Cherokee and spout ridiculous “Indian” chants? The ‘sexy Indian’ costume) and turn a people into mythological cartoons and costumes.


And it’s not just conservatives, sports fans, and Dan Snyder that do this racist mascotry.

Gentrification – retaining cultural elements while destroying or erasing the community that it is situated from – is consuming to destroy.  It is a win-win for racist capitalism: consuming of land and cultures of color and an assassination of communities of color.

Gentrification is cultural genocide.

  • A different argument should be made for white rural areas that were jutted after mining. It’s a different engine itself and looks and works differently, but some of the same factors are in play. In this case, public resources stripped for private profit and delivered to public consumption using wage slave labor. And, now what?

Evangelicals, Suburbia, and the Mark of Cain

Cain and Abel is the prototypical story of brotherly jealousy-cum-murder. Agrarian brother versus shepherd brother. Both fight over the acceptance of land use, but the Lord finds the shepherd’s sacrifices acceptable and not the vegetable ones. Herds wander, but farmers stay put. I’ve been considering this since my pastor made note of not only how this story ends for Abel, but also how it ends for Cain.

For murdering his brother, Cain cannot remain in his fields – he must wander the country as a vagabond, with his special protection mark. But after some years, he settles again and builds a city.

I am reading this as a critique from a largely shepherding community of the very civilizations that they encountered: Egypt, Babylon, Ninevah. Cities have the mark of Cain impressed on them. Cities are birthed in violence, and that is something to remember in how we approach living situations. Cities have long been the epicenter of violence – both on the creating and receiving ends.

This violence is not borne of the citizens, but of the mechanisms of which civilization bears – industry, empire, colonization, economic injustice and disparity, pollution, exploitation.

And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.
Jeremiah 29:7 (NLT)

The biblical and prophetic witness to the Abels of Israel was to “work for peace” while in the cities. This command I would argue would be extended to all of the people of God. We see it being repeated in Jonah and God’s concern for the inhabitants of the empirical/colonial/conquering city of Ninevah. We are also told to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, which I think is important considering the blood shed by the colonial and conquering Israeli government.

And yet, White Evangelicals – my own background – were among the primary White Flighters, those who not only left the cities to rot under the violence but took with them tools and resources needed to deal with that violence. As if White Evangelicals could leave the Mark of Cain behind them.

They refused to work for the peace of the city and were, en masse, culpable for the unrest, for the insatiable poverty, for the decay, for the water turn-offs.

Retired Cruiser

Retired Cruiser – Chuttlesworth, via Flickr

When White Evangelicals come into the city, it is often as another form of colonialism and conquering. Their churches act as if they’re carrying out terra nullius upon the spiritual landscape. We city folks are aboriginals to be converted and our churches like our rights to our land are void and nonexistent. It’s religious gentrification, values colonialism of white, middle class suburbia. Our values are not valid, our concerns are not valid. People who left us and took the money with them come back with money, to spend on each other as they push us out of the way of our own homes and dismantle our communities.

The missionaries of Spain and England came as emissaries of a military overtaking. The missionaries of suburbia are emissaries of real estate developers and gentrifiers.

So when Evangelicals borne of a post-Cain-ian suburbia complain about living in the city and how the suburbs were so much better, so much safer, so much cleaner, so much better for kids, I sigh. It happens often. Very often. Suburbia may be the womb of contemporary Evangelicalism, but it is also built upon the backs of those left within the city. It is us who have spent these years fighting the crippling effects that their removal have left. It is us that have invested in this city. It is our labor that have created the wealth of suburbia and it is suburbia that has refused to give it back.

“Work for the peace and prosperity of the city” means to work for justice.  Means to partner with us while we seek liberation and peace. To do otherwise isn’t prophetic, isn’t biblical in any sense that is loving.

In Defense of Affordable Housing

This is a repost from a blog I did in March on the now-defunct ChicagoDads site. I am partly doing this in anticipation or celebration of a few events. One is the kick-off of Home Sweet Chicago, a joint venture of neighborhood watchdogs with the implicit goal of asking for more TIF funds in Chicago to be used for affordable housing for those who need them (an informative article from the Sun-Times about HSW and the regrettable practice of “affordable” housing is here). Another biggie is MAPA‘s big event in cooperation with a local After Schools Matter program (they had interviewed several members of the community and are releasing a book about it) at a local hot-spot on Monday night (interestingly enough, right in between my wife’s birthday and our anniversary. I think three years is celebratory, eh?). The third reason, well, that may be the subject of an upcoming post soon.

Affordable housing is all the rage in Chicago recently. As in, some people get viscerally and physically angry about it. They feel that since they put a lot of money down for their property under the auspices that it is an “upcoming” neighborhood, setting aside new buildings for low-income families means that the undeserving get to steal a piece of the retail pie. Meanwhile, those who just invested much money into the fledgling area are swiftly losing their investment, or so some would have them believe.

First off, just a wee bit of education: Affordable housing is not giving away space to lazy, worthless, freeloading individuals or families. Everybody who applies for affordable housing needs to have steady income. They are already contributing members of society. Second, simply because they do not make as much money as some others does not mean that they should be pushed and shoved at the whim of those who can afford to buy and sell houses as if they were dealing in poker chips.

But then the opponents of affordable housing must further be asked: What of the people who have put down family and history and community and business in their area and have invested in it for decades? What if they have worked their tails off day-in and day-out just in order to get by, just to pay rent or mortgage and have barely enough money left over for essentials? What happens when they are forced out of their living arrangements because the area around them is moving in such a rate that they (or their landlords) cannot afford to keep up with, say, the new taxes on their property. So, owners are forced to sell their properties or jack up their rents. All of a sudden, a whole slew of people are looking for cheap apartments and yet has the type of infrastructure that is needed for their families.

So, what these hard-working families are left with is a volatile cocktail with any of the following options:

  • Live even closer to the edge of financial ruin by pulling money out of a safety-net (retirement savings, college savings, insurance, car, etc.)
  • Pull oldest children out of school so that they can earn extra money for family.
  • Move to an area where it is difficult or impossible to commute to current jobs or jobs within their skill set that would pay a decent wage.
  • Move to an area without social, societal, and scholastic infrastructure.
  • Declare bankruptcy and default on loans.
  • Become homeless. Which also may happen as a result of the items listed above over time.

I have shared in both the responsibility and the burden of having many of my students, friends and their families wrestle with these realities. What’s more, any of the above puts more burden on the community and society. A homeless family is primarily concerned about getting basic needs met now, for instance. Contributing to society is not a practical option by the way, Time magazine just ran an article on how 1 out of 50 children is now homeless . That includes a more than 20% jump of Chicago Public Schools students in the last three years that are deemed homeless – with total numbers well above the national average). Bankruptcy and financial ruin means less money. Kids being pulled out of college, high school and sometimes grade school may be necessary in the short-run, but is economically disastrous in the long-haul. Also, when families are cast out of their neighborhoods to other areas, existing school buildings lose students. As they lose students, they lose finances and function (this is happening at an incredible rate here in Logan Square). Soon, the schools have to close down. In the meantime, the new neighborhoods that the families are thrown into do not have the resources to school all of the new children. So, while the one school is being torn down, new schools – and social networks – are going to have to be built in entirely different areas. Not only does this not make financial sense, it doesn’t make ecological sense.

Save the planet, support affordable housing.

-originally posted in