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(en) Canada, Linchpin anarchist Newspaper March 2010 - Sprawl in the Rust Belt By Frank Liberto

Date Sun, 07 Mar 2010 10:50:26 +0200


Recently, gentrification has emerged as an issue in Hamilton, where political attacks have been waged on sex workers in the form of reactionary public meetings. Some civic boosters and members of the burgeoning downtown art colony and have engaged in a hostile rhetoric toward the poor and homeless. --- In response, many social justice activists have begun to mobilize anti-gentrification struggles. Reaction to an art exhibit that exploited outdoor sex workers has evolved into an anti-gentrification group called HAND – Hamiltonians Against Neighbourhood Displacement. ---- Gentrification is worth opposing for a number of reasons. It displaces poor and working class people (often people of colour) from neighbourhoods through rising rents and costs of living, as well as through outright police repression.

It is often accompanied by a politics of social cleansing and exclusion that targets homeless people, sex workers, and other marginalized groups. Gentrification also exploits community activists and artists, whose hard work becomes converted into a windfall for real estate speculators and other parasitic sectors of capital. Above all, shi-shi downtown lifestyles rest on the exploitation of grossly underpaid service workers.

Anti-gentrification work in Hamilton is important, yet there are many potential pitfalls in it. The template comes from such “world city” locales as New York, London and Toronto, where the concentration of corporate and financial command functions have seriously altered the class composition in favour of upper-middle and ruling classes.

But Hamilton belongs to the Rust Belt, a somewhat different category of social geography. The offshoring of manufacturing has resulted in a serious disinvestment in the inner city, which has lost tens of thousands of people in the last few decades through suburban flight and mass commuting. Here, “gentrification” might mean a return of working people, not their displacement. A “yuppie” in Hamilton might be a precarious white-collar worker looking for low-cost housing close to public transit.

Meanwhile, sprawl – the cancerous growth of the city onto farmland and green space - remains one of the biggest challenges in Hamilton. Sprawl is an obvious ecological disaster, but it also hurts the poor in many indirect ways. Municipal subsidization of greenfield development disperses workers over an ever wider area, while drawing potential funds from transit and social housing.

Sprawl, not gentrification, is by and large what the local ruling class are betting on with the Red Hill Valley Parkway completed, and the mid-pen expressway and “Aerotropolis” in the works. City politics are shaped by a local class alliance of sprawl developers, City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the local Liberal Party machine, and the more “well-off” working class voters. The latter are wrapped up in “middle class” mythology that has a lot to do with the suburbanization process and an anti-urban bias.

It is imperative to grasp a sense of the urban process as a whole under capitalism. As we learn from David Harvey, the urban process is crucial to the capitalist process. The creation and destruction of urban space is a major outlet for "surplus capital" and an outlet for staving off "crises of overproduction". Plus, the character of urban space has a big impact on the development of consciousness, including workers' attitudes to class, race, gender and the natural environment.

According to Neil Smith, another radical social geographer, sprawl causes disinvestment in the inner city to the point where a "rent gap" develops between what landlords can get from poor tenants and the potential revenue if the area was demolished and redeveloped. It then becomes attractive again for speculative real estate investors. When we look at this, it becomes clear that gentrification and sprawl are two sides of the same coin.

The city is a site of class struggle. Changes in the urban process give the working classes a chance to wrest some power from capital. It is therefore imperative that social revolutionaries develop a set of libertarian and anti-capitalist principles around the urban process that go beyond anti-sprawl and anti-gentrification.
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