Top-down change has never looked so difficult. Republicans, as agents of the corporate Right, are increasingly setting national and state agendas. They control legislative chambers in 32 states, they can filibuster till Hell freezes over with 46 senators and they can marshal their 33-seat majority in the House to squelch the most milquetoast reform — a power they wield despite the fact that a majority of American voters cast ballots for Democratic House candidates in 2012.
Yes, the shark has pretty teeth.
So, what are progressives to do? One option: Organize and vie for power in our strongholds — urban areas, where 80 percent of Americans now live. Or, as French philosopher Henri Lefebvre put it in 1968, stand up and claim “the right to the city.” In a 2008 New Left Review article, geographer David Harvey elaborated on Lefebvre’s idea:
The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: It is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
In this package, Rebecca Burns reports on Richmond, Calif., where a coalition of Green and Democratic Party activists are wresting city politics away from Chevron, whose refinery has long cast a dark shadow over the town. Jake Blumgart visits New Haven, Conn., where union-backed candidates took control of the city council, only to face the challenge of making progressive change in the age of austerity. And below, we list five cities on the verge of progressive uprisings.
But progressives aren’t the only ones looking to bring change to American cities. Amy Dean critiques the “metropolitan revolution” currently being promoted by neoliberal Democrats at the Brookings Institution. And we also identify five cities, below, where neoliberalism is taking hold.
5 Cities in the Midst of a Neoliberal Takeover
- Chicago: The city that brought you neoliberal education reform is pioneering new depths of privatization. after handing over its freeway and parking meters to investors, Chicago is about to become the first metro area to sell off a major airport. Still on the horizon is a new “infrastructure trust” that will open the floodgates of profiteering — er, leverage private investment — on public works projects.
- San Francisco: The city by the bay has courted new “sharing economy” businesses like Sidecar and Airbnb. But the economic benefits aren’t, in fact, shared very widely: the city faces a $170 million deficit, and evictions are at a 12-year high as gentrification continues to send rents soaring.
- Philadelphia: When Mayor Michael Nutter appeared on a Brookings Institution panel to discuss “Philadelphia as a model for the nation,” residents were perplexed. Philadelphia does bear the distinction of closing 23 schools while building a $400 million state prison. It is also busy selling off the Philadelphia Gas Works, the nation’s largest municipally owned gas utility, with help from JPMorgan.
- Atlanta: A crop of “contract cities” — which outsource nearly all public services to private corporations — has popped up in the metro Atlanta region since 2005. Critics say that they are naked attempts to create lily-white enclaves walled off from Atlanta, which has the fifth-highest foreclosure rate in the nation.
- Baltimore: The city that gave us The Wire is about to get even more hyper-segregated, thanks to an enormous redevelopment project by Johns Hopkins university and its non-profit partner East Baltimore Development, Inc. The $1.8 billion raze-and-rebuild has already displaced more than 700 families.
5 Cities on the Verge of a Progressive Upswing
- Jackson, Miss.: In June, voters elected a new mayor: black nationalist organizer and attorney Chokwe Lumumba. Lumumba’s platform of “self-determination and economic democracy” won the hearts of Jackson’s residents, 80 percent of whom are African-American, and engaged them through a “people’s assembly” process that the new mayor plans to repeat every three months.
- San Jose: Inequality soared in San Jose, as in many tech-industry-dominated cities, during the past decade. But students at San Jose State University, many of them low-wage workers, spearheaded a campaign to help close the gap. Their ballot initiative mandating a minimum-wage increase — from $8 to $10 an hour — passed in November.
- Cleveland: Worker-owned cooperatives are helping revitalize this rust-belt city. Launched in 2008, the Evergreen Cooperatives, which include a green laundry and an urban-farming initiative, are bringing living-wage jobs to six low-income neighborhoods. The businesses received start-up capital from the city and draw on the purchasing power of local hospitals and universities.
- St. Louis: Even though privatization of city water systems is often an unmitigated disaster, it’s proceeding apace in many cities. But in St. Louis, a campaign by progressive activists forced Mayor Francis Slay to put the city’s contract with Veolia, the largest private water service provider in the world, on hold this February.
- Chicago: The city known as ground zero for free-market reform is also home to a vigorous democratic rebellion. Following the unpopular closures of 50 school public schools this summer, the Chicago Teachers Union and its allies are building a movement to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his loyalists in the 2015 elections.
Over the next year, In These Times will focus on places like Richmond and New Haven where grassroots movements are fighting for “the right to the city.” If something is going on in your community that we should cover, let us know.