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After the storm, re-imagining the city

Last week I finally returned to my Brooklyn home, some 5 weeks after being displaced by Hurricane Sandy. I live a block away from the Gowanus Canal, a dedicated ‘Superfund’ site slated for clean-up following years of industrial pollution and, as it turned out, a waterway ill-equipped for storm surges and 21st century superstorms. Following Mayor Bloomberg’s warnings I packed a few items and relocated myself to a friend’s apartment in the higher-lying parts of North Brooklyn, hardly expecting that the canal’s surprise residence in my basement would render me without power, heating and hot water for such a long period.

A glove washed up on Natalia’s doorstep in Gowanus after Hurricane Sandy flooded the neighborhood / Photo: Natalia Radywyl

Yet, unlike many others, I have been able to return home. In other parts of New York City, such as The Rockaways, Staten Island, Coney Island and Red Hook, some homes are still without power and basic services, with emergency relief needs and the demand for medical and legal services escalating. The crisis has also been met by rapid community mobilization, from Occupy emerging as a leading support, to myriad fundraising activities across the city, and even internationally.

As our daily lives are becoming increasingly destabilized by financial recession, climate change and perhaps political marginalization, self-organizing communities are also becoming a steady presence, from co-ops and community gardens to large-scale political movements like Occupy and the Arab Spring. Our streets and public spaces have become sites that weather (literally, in the case of Sandy) these various challenges, but they are also the sites of protest, green markets, and social interaction. In this way, these spaces are revealing how we might re-imagine the way we live in our cities for a more just and equitable future.

This perspective formed the basis of a recent conference, Urban Uprising: Re-Imagining the City, jointly organized by The Center for Place, Culture and Politics, CUNY, The Right to the City Alliance, The New School Design and Urban Ecologies Program, and Growing Roots on November 30 – December 1, 2012. The first day featured perspectives from scholars and community organizers, speaking on the theme: ‘In History, In Process, In the Future’. Surveying the legacy of social movements in Detroit, the first panel was an apt reminder that our histories are conduits for learning about our present and future. As noted by Francis Fox Piven (Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology, CUNY), “These movements are still with us, they are a part of our genetic heritage.”

Speaking from her own deep wisdom as a long-time civil rights activist, Marian Kramer, (Founder and President, National Welfare Rights Union), added that although “It’s good to always know history… [it’s important] to always understand what you’re up against right now because the strategies and tactics are different from the 1960s. And then you’re gonna get a damn good revolutionary.”

Marian Kramer (third from left): “It’s good to always know history…” / Photo: Natalia Radywyl

The next panel’s international perspective brought the universality of many urban issues to light, from the way that urban design can deepen existing inequities through spatial segregation in Lebanon and Egypt, to homelessness and migration flow progressively marginalizing displaced populations in Hungary and South Africa.

Hiba Bou Akar, (Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Urban Planning, School of Social Inquiry, Hampshire College), speaking about the ‘War Yet to Come’ in Lebanon / Photo: Natalia Radywyl

As discussion after the presentations turned towards the nuances of culture and context, it became apparent that, although a broad comparison allows us to see problems as global and relating to common human rights, to work equitably we must also think carefully about specific urban characteristics; as Eva-Tessza Udvarhelyi, (Co-founder, The City is for All; Doctoral candidate CUNY Graduate Center) pointedly asked, “How do we define the city, and integrate different kinds of urbanization?”

Tessza Udvarhelyi asks: “How do we define the city, and integrate different kinds of urbanization?” / Photo: Natalia Radywyl

The day closed with an open plenary, ‘How to Organize a Whole City,’ in which a range of community organizers spoke about the inspiration and hard work of movement mobilization.

Rob Robinson, Special Advisor, Human Right to Housing Program, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative; Co-founder, Take Back the Land Movement (click for link) / Photo: Natalia Radywyl

The poetic words of Kazembe Balagun, (Outreach Coordinator, Brecht Forum), perhaps best illustrate that a course of activism and community-organizing requires the sharing of common passions, if to mobilize to any success: “In order to achieve our country, we need to come together as lovers.”

Kazembe Balagun: “In order to achieve our country, we need to come together as lovers.” / Photo: Natalia Radywyl

The second day, entitled ‘Transforming Demands, Demanding Creativity,’ sought to move the conference’s focus from discussion to action, specifically aiming to create a transformative vision for organizing in New York City, and to commence movement-building by connecting issues to organizations. The day’s aims were simply-stated, but nonetheless ambitious:

“With participation from community organizations across the city, we aim to:

  1. Explore a holistic vision for the city we wish to live in,
  2. Assess community work currently being done
  3. Begin a conversation on the role of transformative demands and alternative institutions in realizing our vision.”

Accomplished organizers and commentators kicked off the day in an open plenary about a grassroots re-imagination of the city. Peter Marcuse (Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning, Columbia University), offered a range of friendly provocations about ‘reorganizing, rather than redesigning’ the city, suggesting that a volunteer economy should replace market relations, and that we could re-imagine our cities as places to live, rather than places to work. Matthew Birkhold (Co-founder, Growing Roots) spoke about communities in Detroit having successfully re-imagined the use of vacant lots to combat police brutality. By activating the lots as public spaces for in-community conflict resolution, they became valued as important community assets, and have now also been transformed into markets, urban gardens and community hubs.

Clearly, re-imagining the city is about systemic change. Nancy Romer (General Co-ordinator, Brooklyn Food Coalition), described how America had become “starved and stuffed” by unjust agreements between the food industry and government. Asking “how do we create a democracy, keep control in the hands of the people, and out of the hands of corporations?” she emphasized that any movement, be it urban gardening, green markets, or co-ops, must consider itself a whole justice movement to have broader political, economic, environmental and cultural impact.

Matthew Birkhold: “Demands aren’t enough.” / Photo: Natalia Radywyl

The working groups that formed for the remainder of the day dedicated themselves to exploring discrete areas of system intervention: food, jobs and economics, transportation, public space, health care, education, criminal justice, just communities, housing, art, media and communications, environment, and democracy/governance. For this diverse but passionate body of change-makers, finding a common language was often a challenge, although a common vision far less so. Undoubtedly, the coming days, months and years will reveal how this discussion and the early seeds of community mobilization sown over the two days of the conference may grow into a thriving community of practice. And there is cause for optimism. As Marcuse noted, “The experience of Occupy Sandy shows what people will do, voluntarily, [and] what the best in people is [all about].”

I know that, for me, experiences of volunteering in the Rockaways absolutely revealed this fact. Practices of mutual aid feed the common cohesion and transformation that our neighborhoods desperately need, especially in the aftermath of crises. Following Sandy, there is already talk of not ‘if’ but ‘when’ the next climate disaster will hit New York. Social disparities reign, and are being reinforced by consistently volatile economic markets. While these problems are with us every day, so are their solutions, if to follow Birkhold’s galvanizing words: “Demands aren’t enough. We’ve got to begin rebuilding the world we want to replace the current one with.”

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