Review: The Politics of Urbanism: Seeing like a City by Warren Magnusson

This review first appeared in the December 2012 issue of Stir Magazine

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Review of
The Politics of Urbanism: Seeing like a City
By Warren Magnusson
Routledge: London and New York, 2011
190 Pages

Reviewer: Chuck Morse

“Under the pavement, the beach!”—when activists in the Situationist International popularized this slogan during the 1968 uprising in Paris, they articulated an ideal that has deep roots on the left: the notion that the city is a realm of freedom that will reward bold insurgents with unexpected delights. This conviction coursed through the same streets nearly a century earlier, during the Paris Commune of 1871, and quite recently in places such as Zuccotti Park and Tahir Square among others. Intuitively, at the very least, most radicals regard the city as a sphere of democratic immediacy and revolutionary possibility.

But theorizing this has been difficult for the Left. Marxists have directed our political attentions to the state, which they regard as the only institution capable of fully transforming society, and thus our grim but obligatory companion. Whereas anarchists, who object to the state on principle, have struggled to envision an alternative means of organizing political life, despite their many gestures in that direction. The state has always seemed to define the limits of our political horizon, our strong urbanist impulses notwithstanding.

Warren Magnusson argues that this is a big mistake in his new book, The Politics of Urbanism: Seeing like a City. In his short but ambitious work, he urges us to expel the state from the center of our political imagination and to replace it with a political vocabulary derived from the city. In his words, we should stop “seeing like a state” and begin “seeing like a city.” Though limited in certain key respects, this text is a significant and innovative attempt to formulate a truly urban outlook. Continue reading

Eating at The Perennial: Climate Change and Capitalism

This piece first appeared on CounterPunch on March 25, 2016.

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Food critics raved about The Perennial when it opened in San Francisco in January. The SF Eater called it a “palace of modern sustainability;” the Chronicle described it as the “restaurant of the future.” Even Wired Magazine sang its praises. They all celebrated its commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, which sits at the center of its identity and impacts everything that it does, from food prep, to food acquisition, to interior design. Considering that we are facing an epochal climate crisis, and that the city is sinking into the ocean, it makes an important and timely statement.

What statement does it make exactly? Curious to check this out, I had a meal there with a friend last week and discovered that its message is significantly more complicated than food writers suggested. It is both more laudable and more objectionable than they indicated.

First, though, it is in the avant-garde of sustainability. While it composts food waste, recycles linens, and distributes water sparingly, this is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. For instance, it created a closed-loop permaculture system with its “aquaponic” greenhouse in West Oakland: the restaurant composts food scraps, which it feeds to the sturgeon and carp in the warehouse; the fish help to nourish the vegetables and lettuce growing there; and then the fish and plants become restaurant food and scraps once again. They have also integrated kernza grains into their menu. Developed by the Land Institute in Kansas, this unique grain grows year-round (unlike most of the grains we eat) and its deep-reaching roots can reduce soil-erosion and even take CO2 out of the atmosphere. Finally, they buy their meat from Marin’s Stemple Creek Ranch, which embraces what is known as “carbon farming”—an approach to harvesting livestock that mitigates climate change. These are their most novel interventions, which they detail on their website, but there are others as well.

Eating at The Perennial is remarkable because little on the surface reveals how different it is from any other high-end eatery. Sitting in a cavernous hall in San Francisco’s mid-Market area, its low-lights and vaulted ceilings evoke a loungy chic typical of expensive restaurants worldwide. It was already busy when we arrived at 6:00 PM and most of the clientele looked like extras from America’s Top Model. The host delivered us to the long wooden “chef’s table,” which sits in front of their well-lit kitchen. We watched Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz, two of the owner-chefs, do their magic while waiting for our food (it was like being on the set of a cooking show). But there was no literature rack by the door, no posters promoting agricultural collectives in Nicaragua; Blondie not Manu Chao played over the speakers. Although the wait staff discreetly handed us a few postcards describing their environmental methods—one with the menu and another with the bill—that was it. Continue reading

Book Review: The Housing Monster

(This review of The Housing Monster by Prole.info first appeared in Anarchist Studies, Vol. 22, No 1. January 2014)

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Anarchists have been wrestling with the politics of the built environment since the middle of the twentieth century, if not earlier. John F. C. Turner wrote influential books on architecture, Colin Ward put out worthy studies of housing and urbanism, and there is a small shelf of anarchist-inspired works on squats. These are the most conspicuous examples, but there are many others.

The Housing Monster is part of this tradition. Authored by someone (or some people) identified only as ‘prole.info’, this short, pamphlet-like work uses something that we typically take for granted—the house—as a springboard for a critical meditation on capitalist society as a whole. ‘A house is more than four walls and a roof ’, writes prole.info. ‘From its design and production to the way it is sold, used, resold and eventually demolished, it is crisscrossed by conflict. From the construction site to the neighbourhood, impersonal economic forces and very personal conflicts grow out of each other.’(p 4)

The goal of The Housing Monster is to unpack and clarify these conflicts and show how their resolution requires a revolutionary transformation of the social context that produces them. Modeled loosely on Marx’s analysis of the commodity in Capital, it begins with a discussion of the home as a physical fact, which leads to a discussion of the construction industry and construction work, which leads to a consideration of neighbourhoods and urban planning, which leads to an excursus on attempts at housing alternatives, which leads, finally, to a call to abandon reform and abolish capitalism as a whole. For prole.info, serious reflection on housing pushes us to think beyond the present society.

The Housing Monster operates at a high level of generality and abstraction. Filled with dramatic, black-and-white illustrations and cast in an intimate tone, it intends to explore the intersection of housing, capitalism, and the state as such, not these things in specific geographic or historical contexts. This is a weakness to the degree that prole.info has a tendency to skate over important particulars. Surely housing is different in Bombay and Montreal and New Haven and surely it was different in 1914 as compared to today. Some recognition of these differences would have improved the text.

But the book’s sweeping quality is also a strength. Indeed, what makes it unique is not so much its commentary on specific aspects of housing as its ability to portray it as a vast social process in which capital, labour, and politics interact at various registers and in various hues. It is a dialectical, highly relational work that gestures toward a conflicted, complicated totality of social relations and invites activists to place their work in that context. The implication is that doing so will enable them to ‘relate to each other in new ways … discover abilities we didn’t know we had, and … begin to feel our power’. (p 143)

Th is genre-bending book is probably too zine-like for housing scholars and too scholarly for casual readers. Nonetheless, it is inspired and compelling and carries on the tradition of anti-authoritarian interrogation of the built environment. It does so by reminding us of something that Turner, Ward and others have articulated in their own terms over the years: houses are much more than structures, they are also sites of social struggle and potentially arenas for the assertion of revolutionary aspirations.

~ Chuck Morse

Prole.info, The Housing Monster Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012, 1 47 pp; ISBN-13: 978-1-604865-30-1.

 

 

METROPOLY: The Story of Oakland, California

[This was first published on the Project Oakland on March 21, 2012.]

Introduction: 

Writings about cities are paradoxical: on the one hand, they are part of a worldwide, basically place-less culture of reflection on urban life—known as “urban studies”—and yet, on the other, they interact with the specific city that they study and are a factor in its development. They are simultaneously super global and super local.

Some cities have been more productive of urban self-reflection than others. Residents of London, Paris, and New York have been especially capable of integrating their local experiences into larger debates about urban life as such. For its part, San Francisco has become an important center for urban rumination thanks to writers like Kenneth Rexroth, Rebecca Solnit, and Chris Carlsson. But Oakland has been relatively circumspect in this regard, which is surprising, considering that it has given birth to so many dynamic political and cultural forces.

But the city does have some chronicles and, among them, Warren Hinckle’s “Metropoly: The Story of Oakland” holds an important position. Published in Ramparts Magazine nearly fifty years ago, his article was not the first appraisal of Oakland as a whole, but it was the first to treat it from the perspective of the Left. Though inevitably dated, his depiction of a conflicted, racially stratified city will resonate with contemporary residents, as will his portrayal of anxious, incompetent elites. The essay is part of Oakland’s small but meaningful legacy of urban self-reflection and deserves to be remembered.

~ Chuck Morse

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METROPOLY: The Story of Oakland, California
Ramparts Magazine
February, 1966

AS IF THE CREATION of some perverse master of idle pastimes, Oakland spreads out like a giant game board from the north shore mud flats of San Francisco Bay to the rolling hills of the coastal range. The game is “Metropoly,” and, as it is played in Oakland, it must also be played by anyone living in any American city over 250,000 persons. The object is survival, and the obstacles are chronic unemployment, racial imbalance, cultural deprivation, economic strangulation, educational disparity, housing inadequacy, en trenched power, stultifying bureaucracy, and loss of identity.

Playing rules are simple. If you are among the substandard income families that make up 47 per cent of Oakland’s population, you wait your turn, shake the dice, count your spaces and keep quiet. Go to jail when you are told, only pass Go when you receive permission. Pay your taxes. And above all, don’t rock the board. The rules are more lax if you are one of the elite group which makes 99 per cent of the decisions in Oakland. After all, you know the banker. Since the other players constantly have to land on your property, the rents they pay make it difficult to buy any houses or hotels themselves. Whatever property they do have will be the cheapest on the board, and the odds are that you will end up owning it too.

The analogy is familiar, but it applies with dismaying exactitude to life in Oakland, California, where the game of “Metropoly” is being played on a scale slightly below the epic.

[A GEOGRAPHY LESSON]

OAKLAND MAKES A NICE “Metropoly” game board since it is an “All American City.” Look magazine said it was, in 1955, and a plaque from the Look hangs in Oakland’s marble-walled City Hall to prove it. A red, white and blue billboard reminds motorists of this honor as they speed along Oakland’s perimeter on an elevated freeway that. slices across depressed flatlands of marginal industry and decaying housing. The view from the freeway is a city planner’s version of the seventh layer of hell: an ugly, squalid, depressing hodgepodge of commercial neighborhoods, smoke-deadened greenery and neglected residences of Victorian design and Edwardian vintage. The dominant color is gray. At the turn of the century the flatland area was a well-manicured community of bright gingerbread architecture that provided suburban housing, via ferryboat, for the more vital, if more sinful, city of San Francisco across the bay. But Oakland was doomed by its own geography. Its flatlands provide a natural base for industrial expansion of hilly San Francisco, an expansion that assumed forest-fire proportions as the twentieth century pressed on through the catalytic periods of World War I and then, World War II. Continue reading

The Uhuru House and the Battle for Community Control of Housing in the 1980s: Traces of the Oakland Commune

Rent control has a long history in the United States. Implemented by various municipalities during WWI and the federal government during WWII, it was initially a means of addressing wartime “housing emergencies” and neither a source of great controversy nor strongly linked to social protest.  This changed after the tumult of the 1960s, when a new configuration of “the personal” and “the political” emerged that made our homes into sites of contestation in novel ways. Many began to see rent control not only as a tool for regulating a particular financial transaction but also as a means for asserting community—however loosely defined—against capitalism. In California, this impulse was evident in rent control movements in Santa Monica, Berkeley, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and—last but not least—Oakland.

Oakland’s best known tenants’ movement culminated in 2002, when housing activists persuaded voters to approve the “Just Cause” ordinance (Measure EE). Though it did not provide rent control, it gave renters crucial protections against arbitrary (“no cause”) evictions. Fights over this statute took place in the shadow of San Francisco’s dot.com boom and, as such, provided a window into Oakland’s unique response to the seismic shifts in regional real estate that it had occasioned.

Oakland was also the location of a remarkable and largely forgotten campaign for rent control in the 1980s, when activists associated with the Uhuru House put two measures on the ballot that would have revolutionized the city’s approach to housing if they had been approved: Measure 0 (1984) and Measure H (1986), two virtually identical initiatives whose purpose was to create a form of socialized housing under the control of decentralized, autonomous “Community Control Housing Boards” that were to be spread throughout the city. Although Oaklanders rejected both by a large margin, they helped define a pivotal moment in the city’s history. They facilitated the emergence of what Adolph Reed has called the “Black urban regime” by prompting established Black leaders to clarify their attitude toward the radical Black movements that had helped put them in power and, secondly, they foregrounded the rich, decentralist alternatives to liberalism that had begun to appear with increasing frequency.

Oakland and Lionel Wilson

The Uhuru House in 2012. The faces on the building’s facade are (from left to right): Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Omali Yeshitela.

The Uhuru House was (and is) headquarters for a constellation of projects led by Omali Yeshitela, a Pan-African, revolutionary socialist who moved from St. Petersburg, Florida to Oakland in 1981. Positioning itself as a liberator of people of African descent worldwide, his group runs an evolving and elaborate network of organizations and businesses. There is the African People’s Socialist Party (its political wing), the African People’s Solidarity Committee (the Party’s White support group), as well as numerous companies that presumably finance the political endeavors (Uhuru FurnitureUhuru Foods, among others). Like many socialist sects born of the 1960s, the group has a propensity for grandiose rhetoric, which, given its negligible influence on current affairs, suggests an exaggerated sense of self-importance and also that it inhabits a highly idealized political space. Its distance from prevailing political discourse in Oakland was especially conspicuous when it lauded Lovelle Mixon as a hero because he murdered four policemen after a traffic stop in 2008. Continue reading

Book Review: Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden

This first appeared on the Civil Eats blog on November 2, 2011.

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The notion that politics only takes place in the voting booth or halls of state basically evaporated in the 1960s. We now know that political acts occur in a range of settings: in our neighborhoods, bedrooms, kitchens, and, yes, even in our gardens.

The use of gardens as a means of social engagement and a forum in which to articulate oppositional ideas is the subject of George McKay’s Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism, and Rebellion in the Garden. In the work, he chronicles the history of politicized gardens and documents some of the various ways that activists have utilized them to express their views. He hopes that his book will provide “a small corrective to the parochial or suburban or landed versions of garden understanding [by tracing] the strands of idealism, rebellion, political action and social criticism in the garden historically and presently.” His book leaves no doubt that radical gardens have, as he puts it, a “rich and challenging tradition, a significance, as well as a trajectory of energy and import that makes them matter for our future.” Continue reading

Is the “Fight of the Century” Really About Class Warfare?

This was first published on the Anarres site on May 3, 2015

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I didn’t watch last night’s fight (although I did talk about it with a bunch of my neighbors on the street while walking my dogs). I could have watched it for $25 at the soul food place at the end of my block (with some food included), but the thought of giving these billionaires even more money turned me off completely.

Are Mayweather and Paquiao great boxers but bad men? That’s one question to ask, but I think it’s more interesting to consider the relationship between this billion-dollar super spectacle and the fate of athleticism and health generally.

The picture sours immediately if you view it in that light. The “fight of the century” becomes a means for the upward distribution of wealth and promoting a passive relationship to physical activity. Most of the people in my neighborhood had detailed views on who was going to win and why (so did I), but most are growing poorer by the day and couldn’t run around the block, are overweight, and probably have diabetes and other ailments. There’s a relationship between these things.

~ Chuck Morse

The Mission Heirloom Café: Hippies, Cavemen, and Capitalism

IMG_0334Berkeley’s food culture is notoriously overwrought and politicized, but some of this is an echo of the hippie food movements that shook the city in the 1960s. The hippies transformed how we eat when they advocated for a diet of natural foods and an activist approach to cuisine. For them, eating was a relational activity and could be a tool for social change. They forged what historians now call a “counter-cuisine.”

Their legacy made last year’s opening of the Mission Heirloom Café particularly interesting to me. As the area’s only “paleo” restaurant, it relies on the hippie food outlook but breaks with it in pivotal ways. I went to check it out last week with a friend.

The hippie food movement still lives in Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto.” As we walked toward the restaurant, we first passed Alice Walker’s luminous Chez Panisse. Though its prices now put it beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, it pioneered the application of countercultural values to food, with an emphasis on seasonal cooking and local, organic ingredients. We then navigated the crowds waiting for pizza outside of the Cheese Board Collective, a worker-owned business in its forty-fifth year.

The tone changed when we reached the Mission Heirloom Café. Its façade is a wall of plate glass windows framed by steel and painted stucco. The entrance leads you to the main counter, where there is more glass, and then to the central eating area in the back patio. Organized around a long table set underneath an enormous steel and glass pergola, its landscaping has a minimalist, quasi-Asian feel. I noted clubby world music pulsing in the background as I browsed paleo-friendly books and packaged goods for sale throughout the establishment. I felt like I could have been in an Apple Store, although there were gestures to offset the chilly corporate aesthetic. The wait staff greeted us with big smiles, as if we were friends, and old wooden crates lay around the business, suggesting that we had entered a warehouse or some site in which commodities magically travel from “farm to table” (sidestepping the capitalist market). Mexican-style wool blankets rested on the wire chairs—lacking price tags, we could borrow these should we need them. An entire wall had been made into a chalk board and bore traces of half-erased scribbles—there was no chalk, but this conveyed a spirt of informality and flexibility. Continue reading

The Development Without Displacement Report: Some Strengths and Shortcomings

This first appeared on the Project Oakland blog on April 25, 2014.

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1Social discord tends to get people writing. Books and essays become especially vital tools when the world seems out of order and doesn’t work in the way that you think it should.

Indeed, the housing crisis in the Bay Area has unleashed a torrent of writing on housing costs, displacement, and changes in local culture. It seems like new articles on these issues appear daily, if not more frequently. A lot of the work is forgettable, some of it is pretty great, and all of it enriches the massive discussion that we are having throughout the region about how our lives, homes, and the economy interact.

The recent publication of Development Without Displacement: Resisting Gentrification in the Bay Area is a landmark in the maturation of this dialogue. Produced by Causa Justa / Just Cause with help from the Alameda County Public Health Department, it sets a new standard for reflection on gentrification. Attractively packaged in a glossy, four-color binder, it is well-written, thoroughly documented, and full of instructive, compelling graphics. It sets out to explain what gentrification is, how it operates locally, and what can be done to stop it. It is the most comprehensive, insightful treatment of gentrification in the Bay Area to date and will likely serve as a key reference for people grappling with the issue in the years to come.

Like any text, it has strengths and weaknesses. In the interest of encouraging dialogue about it, I will note three of each below.

Three Strengths

  • It portrays gentrification as a social process and, by doing so, breaks with the highly individualistic approach to the subject that is so common among Bay Area leftists. That is, a lot of the discourse about gentrification looks like this: first you identify the “gentrifiers,” then you counterpose them to the authentic “community,” and then you agonize over how these two groups relate to one another. Are the “gentrifiers” being arrogant or insensitive? Should the “community” actually welcome them? And how exactly do you distinguish a real “gentrifier” from a real “community” member anyway? Who gets to decide? Questions such as these drive much of the dialogue about the topic locally. Focused on existential matters of identity, they trigger lots of posturing and handwringing but have little relevance to housing justice. Fortunately, Development Without Displacement dispenses with this approach altogether by zeroing in on the economic forces and government policies that make gentrification possible.

Continue reading

SPUR comes to Oakland: expect three things

Originally posted on the Project Oakland blog on November 17, 2015

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The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association—or SPUR—will open its Oakland branch at 1544 Broadway this December. SPUR has had a huge influence on San Francisco’s politics over the years and will probably have a big effect in Oakland too.

What can we expect?

Dr. Robert Ogilvie, director of Oakland SPUR

SPUR’s mission is to promote “good planning and good government in the San Francisco Bay Area.” To them, this means championing government policies focused on ensuring a dynamic and stable capitalist economy in the region. They pursue apparently “progressive” goals like “transit oriented development” (think: bike lanes) and resist things like strong unions or other assertions of working class power. Made up mainly of planners, architects, academics, lawyers, and real estate people, SPUR advances its agenda through research, education, and advocacy— reports, ballot recommendations, and public forums on development issues. They have already released a study on downtown Oakland and have begun holding regular talks.

I suspect that they will impact Oakland in the following three ways:

First, SPUR will shake up the dominant political class. SPUR’s people are professionals who specialize in being professional—their fancy reports and declarations are usually coherent, well-argued, and fact-based (even when wrong politically). As such, they will put pressure on Oakland’s politicians, who have gotten away with loads of buffoonery for decades. Thanks to SPUR, we will be less likely to see things like Jean Quan’s totally invented “100 block” crime plan, Rebecca Kaplan’s vapid cheerleading for the Raiders stadium, or Mayor Schaaf’s ridiculous ban on nighttime protests. Continue reading