Friday, January 20, 2017

inaugural doggerel

Slumping bumpkin country
plumped for something that went thump
on the stump
as American as pumpkin pie & dry-aged rump steak,
grumpy crumpet trumpets blaring that women are
crumpled strumpets and it’s ‘great again’
when stumpy fingers are going bump in the night
and being ‘huge’ on the web like Kim’s sump pump rump.
Dry hump jumping, lumping in the ring
to take a dump on voters, ‘so sad’ clump of chumps,
humping himself, no ump, top the white supremacy dump
with liberty and gumption for all.

Friday, January 13, 2017

no place to live

tales of housing in America

Lisa Goff’s cultural history of the shanty (Shantytown, USA Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016) and David Madden & Peter Marcuse’s broadside against the system that produces (and reproduces) housing scarcity (In Defense of Housing New York: Verso, 2016) are both attempts to look at just what it takes to have a roof over your head in America.

Goff writes to rescue the shanty from ignominy, showing that the ten-by-ten wood hut was an ingenious indigenous part of the development of America. Madden & Marcuse write to rescue the “lived, universally-necessary, social dimension” of housing from its modern incarnation as real estate.

“Our nation has a long, untold history of shantytowns,” Goff writes, “stretching from the early days of industrialization in the 1820s through the Great Depression of the 1930s, and persisting in less obvious forms today, including homelessness and FEMA trailer parks.” For her, the tale of the shanty offers a glimpse of “an alternative vision of American urban space."

Start with the etymology: in this era of forced migration, it seems totally apt that the word didn’t exist in English before the 1820s and was most likely an import, coming from the French chantier – worksite or yard (this makes intuitive sense since many early shanty neighborhoods were self-built by laborers next to the yards where they worked.)

Among other revelations, Goff dispels the notion – popularized by the great mythmaking essayist Henry David Thoreau – that building your own home in the woods was a deeply freeing and satisfyingly American right of passage. Thoreau presented himself as a pure backcountry philosopher: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” he wrote. But the humble thinker actually fronted for something else as well: displacement. It turns out that Thoreau didn’t build his tidy dream-cottage near Walden Pond from scratch. He may have framed his house with trees he felled himself. But when he needed to side it and roof it and weatherproof it, he thought nothing of buying out James Collins, a railroad laborer who lived with his family half a mile away, paying $4.25 for the right to dismantle Collins’ snug and stout shanty and lug the boards to his building site. Indeed, Thoreau may have displaced others as well: his full accounting of the costs of his cottage note that his biggest expense was $8.03½ “mostly” for “shanty boards.”

Goff also notes an interesting linguistic turn in Walden. Though he argued that self-building was a kind of poetry -- who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed– Thoreau certainly didn’t allow that workingmen like James Collins could achieve this free-verse sensibility. Indeed, though Thoreau made his hut out of shanty boards, he never called his dwelling a shanty. “The term ‘shanty,’” Goff suggests, “indicated effort but not accomplishment… work but not status.” She continues, “Virtues of independence and self-reliance like Thoreau celebrated at Walden were reserved for citizens with time for introspection, who were able to self-consciously impute meaning to their choices of housing style and materials. Even when shanties looked strong and secure, the middle class could condemn them as lower class, as evidence of degradation.”

Thoreau’s dalliance in the wild was temporary. He would spend a mere 26 months in his woodland abode. “At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again,” he wrote at the outset of Walden. By contrast, the Collins family and the others whose shanties he had purchased probably spent their whole lives living in a variety of self-built homes. Indeed, after Thoreau bought them out, it's likely that they speedily erected new shanties not all that far away from Walden Pond. But the philosopher had little interest in their poetic doings.

Goff also rediscovers the squatter history of New York and the nation (I visited some of the same turf in Shadow Cities) and takes a deep dip into the shanty’s role in popular culture – in popular song (from Squatter Sovereignty, Harrigan & Hart’s hit musical of 1882, to Johnny Cash and June Carter's 1967 song "Shantytown"), art, and movies (her examples include Man’s Castle, featuring Spencer Tracy, and My Man Godfrey, starring William Powell). And Goff understands the rift between what shanty dwellers have always wanted and what politicians, planners and do-gooders are determined to give them: “The history of shantytowns,” she writes, “reveals a deep and abiding distrust for poor people on the part of liberal reformers. The shantytowns built by the poor argued for a decentralized, self-built, market-based solution to the affordable housing shortage. Like suburbanites, shanty dwellers wanted a single-family house with room for a garden located close to but not in the central business district … urban planners, city officials, and social reformers are still insisting that they know better.”

David Madden and Peter Marcuse, authors of In Defense of Housing, are two of those reformers. Contrary to the micro-analysis of shanties in Goff’s work, they see housing as a thing produced by the market system. Their concern is not your home or mine or even their own, but rather, the way in which housing gets built (or doesn't) in America.

Housing, for Madden & Marcuse (hereinafter, M&M), “is always in crisis.” The idea comes from Friedrich Engels’ 1872 essay The Housing Question, a work so fresh it sometimes reads as if a tenant union emailed it to me this morning: “The so-called housing shortage, which plays such a great role in the press nowadays….is not something peculiar to the present; it is not even one of the sufferings peculiar to the modern proletariat in contradistinction to all earlier oppressed classes. On the contrary, all oppressed classes in all periods suffered more or less uniformly from it.”

But when you look at housing in this way, you miss all the specifics. Goff’s shantytowns. Modern trailer parks (home to 20 million people, 6% of the U.S. population) and tent communities. The laws many cities have passed to criminalize homelessness. The absurdity that the right to an attorney doesn’t exist in housing court – which means tenants can be evicted without ever having even spoken with a lawyer. The databases that landlords maintain on renters who have simply tried to exercise their rights.

And here’s the most serious failing of a book that seems laser-focused on cities like New York in the 21st century: there is not even a single mention of Airbnb. Whatever you think of Airbnb – personally, I have serious problems with it, but several friends have movingly described their belief that Airbnb rentals have enabled African-American and Caribbean homeowners to manage the massive property tax increases that come in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods – this is no small omission: in this undated report, the short-stay company says over the course of a year 416,000 renters used airbnb to visit the 5 boroughs of New York, each of them staying an average of almost a week.With Airbnb, home isn’t where the heart is, it’s where the money is, too. Your home is no longer simply the place you live. It takes on a second role as a personal profit center. Airbnb transforms tenants into landlords and your home into an economic value. There’s little question that the short term rental market is part of what M&M condemn as the “commodification” of housing.

At the same time, M&M largely let large landlords off the hook. “We cannot blame real estate companies for today’s housing injustices,” they aver. “As entities created, using the legal powers of the state, for the sole purpose of economic accumulation, corporations are single-minded by design. Profit seeking without regard for external social consequences is intrinsic to the way they are set up.”

M&M’s big idea is that we must fight the “structural logic” that perpetuates this unfair system. Sadly, as a former organizer (and also as someone whose landlord hauled him to court to try to evict him), I know that you have to fight for your home while you learn how to fight for systemic change. You have to see the system in operation before you can believe it is as bad as it is or figure out ideas to change it.

Marcuse has a long and inspiring history as a planner and activist in New York. Madden, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, is also deeply embedded in NYC. I really wanted to like their book -- and, indeed there are many wise things in it. But they seem alarmingly out of touch with the situation on the ground. “If the inhabitants of New York have learned anything about their dwelling space, it is that they must always be ready to defend it,” they write.

My experience is the exact opposite. While most New Yorkers once knew about rent regulations and were willing to ask for things like housing code inspections, today, the majority seem to have no understanding of how the system works. And they often hesitate to even complain for fear of retribution or worry that they might wind up on a landlord shit list, which essentially means that they’ll never be able to rent an apartment in this town again.

If M&M had immersed themselves in the new urban reality, they would have discovered that it’s a shit-storm out here. It mimics what Kate Tempest has written about contemporary London:

The squats we used to party in
are flats we can’t afford
The dumps we did our dancing in
have all been restored
And so I’m moving on. I’ve got it all to play for.
I’ll be the invader
in some other neighbourhood
I’ll be sipping Perfect Coffee
thinking, this is pretty good,
While the locals grit their teeth and hum
Another Fucking One Has Come.
--Let them Eat Chaos, New York: Bloomsbury, 2017, 52 & 55-56

So what do we do in this dog-eat-dog world, where a tenant pushed out of one place becomes the one doing the pushing in the next and rationalizes it as the way of the world? M&M have no answer.

Goff makes a compelling case that for many years, shanties were one of the most common styles of homes in America. And she isn’t afraid of the complexity involved in this realization. For instance, she notes, a change in vocabulary pushed by some of the nation’s great housing reformers in the 1930s recast shanties as eternally blighted slums that propagated social pathologies. “Once shantytowns were declared permanent slums, however, they were vulnerable not only to residential or infrastructure development but to the large-scale clearance that eventually became known as urban renewal.”

In In Defense of Housing, M&M argue for more of that urban renewal (one of their rallying cries is “expand, defend, and improve public housing.”) They also call for reversing the process of deregulation and privatization, giving residents priority over owners (and, by implication, people priority over profits), supporting alternative ownership and management structures, and creating a united front so that housing can be seen as one plank in the struggle for social justice. “A radical right to housing raises our sights and sees the objective of action more comprehensively, tying together in a common quest broader claims to equality, dignity, solidarity, and welfare.”

Sounds great. But here’s the rub. If we follow their arguments to the end, we wind up back with Engels in 1872: “The housing shortage is no accident. It is a necessary institution and it can be abolished together with all its effects on health, etc., only if the whole social order from which it springs is fundamentally refashioned.”

One hundred and forty-five years on, we still can’t agree what that refashioning of economic and social relations should look like. And while I like their posh post-po-mo phrase, M&M’s “contradictory, non-reformist reformism” is not likely to draw all that many people to the cause.

In the meantime, the structural logic being pushed in America right now seems to be a retreat to social Darwinism rather than an endorsement of social justice. Which means that shantytowns -- their history, how to build them, and how to fight to keep them from being demolished -- may be much more relevant than any of us have realized.