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Urban Justice

Urban planning, housing, transportation, the privatization of public space and the criminalization of people of color and poor people.

Oakland's Civic Auditorium: Delivered Vacant

The City of Oakland, California, is sometimes compared to a good model car that, for strange reasons, never seems to be able to give uninterrupted service or get up to full speed on the highway. Strategically located and blessed with an interesting, industrious, creative, and diverse population, a wonderful climate, spectacular views, and the perfect blend of city, marsh and woodland hills, Oakland ought to be one of America’s jewels. It is not. Instead, it is often described as a city of missed opportunities and wasted resources. Nothing exemplifies that description more than Oakland’s treatment of the structure originally known as its Civic Auditorium (renamed the Kaiser Convention Center in 1984).

After years of bungled management, Oakland closed the 98-year-old cultural treasure in 2005—at the same time it was pouring redevelopment money into rehabilitating and reopening another entertainment venue, the Fox Oakland Theater in the rapidly gentrifying Uptown District. Then the city dithered for years over what to do with the Civic Auditotium before entering into a purchase-leaseback agreement with the Redevelopment Agency (RDA) in 2011, just in time for the statewide dissolution of the RDAs. In January 2012, the Auditorium became the target of the Occupy Oakland movement which staged a failed attempt to occupy the building and convert it into a social services center.  

Communities of Color Organize against Urban Land Grabs

Foreclosure Poster. Courtesy of occupysf.org

The foreclosure crisis has disproportionately impacted communities of color because people of color were sold adjustable rate mortgages at a higher rate than whites, even where income levels and financial risk were on par.[1] The upshot of this predatory lending practice has been a massive dislocation of workers and families (most of whom considered their homes their only economic asset) side by side with an unprecedented transfer of wealth to financial institutions and the private sphere.

Advocates abroad call this type of activity by a name more familiar to the third world—a land grab.[2] Multinational corporations have acquired 15 to 20 million hectares of land in wholesale purchases in the global south to establish large-scale industrial farms for food and biofuels.

Closer to home, in the Detroit area, speculator John Hantz is trying to purchase 200 acres to create a large corporate farm.[3] Indeed, land grabs have been afoot for some time within postindustrial landscapes from where capital has fled in search of cheaper labor. What makes the current land grabs especially troubling is the opportunistic use of the tsunami of foreclosures by banks to seize properties. Their willful enablers in this transfer of assets have been the states and their housing policies, ostensibly created to reduce the number of vacant bank-owned properties by converting them into rental units.  

Foreclosures: Excellent Investment for Some

A handful of fast-growing real estate management corporations are now stepping into the foreclosure crisis. Backed by billions of dollars in private equity, property management companies are viewing the crisis as a rare opportunity to amass tens of thousands of single-family homes and convert them into rentals—i.e. long-term high-yield investments. Beyond the stresses on families in neighborhoods experiencing the land grab, this nascent industry—promoted by federal policies—will in all likelihood facilitate the transfer of tens of billions in wealth from distressed homeowners—largely Black and Latino—to a few wealthy private equity firms.

Building Bridges Is not Enough

 Regional Equity Agenda for the Bay Area
By A.Smith, Former President and CEO, Urban Habitat

The new Eastern Span of the Oakland to San Francisco Bay Bridge, with its signature single tower and 7 billion dollar plus price tag, is rising out of the bay waters, strengthening the connection between two of the region’s core cities. But even as the Bay Area adds another legacy architectural landmark to its skyline, questions about who benefits from this and other massive public investments remind us of the challenges we face in ensuring everyone’s right to enjoy the great resources and beauty that the Bay Area has to offer.

The annual Gross Regional Product (GRP) for the Bay Area is approximately $487 billion, the third largest in the country after Los Angeles and New York. Much of that economic activity is shaped and channeled by public policy decisions by government agencies at the local, state and federal levels. For example, in addition to construction of the Bay Bridge and the new San Francisco Transbay Transit Terminal, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) are currently in the process of deciding where and how $277 billion in public money will be spent over the next 28 years. These expenditures will shape everything from the frequency of bus service to the extent of suburban highway expansion.

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Equity: The Superior Growth Model

The nation’s economic model is broken and the problem is not just the recent downturn, as pressing and important as that may seem. Over several decades now, economic growth has slowed, racial and income inequality has spiked, and the middle class has withered. The United States needs a new strategy to bring about robust growth that is widely shared by all who live here.

The nation is undergoing a major demographic transformation, in which racial and ethnic groups excluded in the past are becoming a larger portion of the population. The new growth model must embrace these new demographics and make the necessary investment for the next generation to reach its full potential.

By 2042, a majority of the population will be people of color, which is the reason for the growing racial gap between America’s oldest and youngest—whites make up 80 percent of seniors but only 54 percent of those under 18. Too many elders and decision-makers do not see themselves reflected in the next generation and they are not investing in the same educational systems and community infrastructures that enabled their own success. The racial generation gap not only puts youth of color at risk, it threatens the wellbeing of all children and the nation as a whole.

Bringing Back the Black

When the United States Census Bureau released its first 2010 census data for California in early March, the news that got immediate attention in the Bay Area was the steep drop in the number of African Americans in the city of Oakland in the last 10 years.

According to the data, Oakland’s African American population plummeted from 142,000 (38 percent) in 2000 to 109,000 (28 percent) in 2010. Even if you included all mixed-race (a new category this census) Oakland residents with some Black ancestry—something which often happens in real life—the number of African Americans in Oakland would only increase by 9,000, or two more percentage points.

Both of the Bay Area’s daily papers emphasized the de-African-Americanization of Oakland in their census coverage. The Oakland Tribune story was headlined, “Census: Blacks Leaving Urban Core For East Bay Suburbs,” while the San Francisco Chronicle led with “25% Drop In African American Population In Oakland.”

Los Angeles Coalition Wins Health Clinic and Jobs from Developer

When you walk into the yellow building of the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation in Los Angeles, you are greeted by bright paintings done in the Diego Rivera and José Orozco muralist styles. This office and the brick warehouse down the street, which houses the UNIDAD[1] Coalition are the sites where one of the first community benefits agreement (CBA) fully funded by a private developer was negotiated.

“This agreement with Palmer provides South LA residents with health services, jobs, affordable housing, small business development, and transit-oriented development (TOD) planning—all desperately needed in this historically underserved community,” notes Paulina Gonzalez, executive director of SAJE.[2]The developer, Geoffrey Palmer, calls his own projects “fortress-like” and in 2003, pleaded “no contest” to criminal charges of illegal demolition.[3] His ornate, market-rate (high-rent), Italian-named complexes are designed to draw affluent professionals to the urban core. In 2009, Palmer won a case in the California Supreme Court against the City of Los Angeles’ attempt to mandate affordable housing in his luxury developments. Despite his political and economic clout, the UNIDAD Coalition[4] and a team of community lawyers[5] was able to negotiate a groundbreaking deal with Palmer in just over three months over the Lorenzo Project, which includes:

The Oakland Renaissance: A Blessing for Some

If the cultural arts are only used as a tool to generate wealth, cities like Oakland run the risk of creating a system of haves and have-nots, which only exacerbates existing problems.

In February 4 this year, a long-dormant block on Oakland’s 14th Street came alive as throngs of people—newly-elected Mayor Jean Quan and City Councilmember Desley Brooks among them—flowed out the doors at the Joyce Gordon Gallery for the opening reception of “Aerosoul 2,” a Black History Month event honoring African American urban calligraphers and style writers (otherwise known as graffiti artists).

Down the street, another gallery owned by Gordon was showing blown glass art by Aziz Diagne and further down, the recently reopened Events Center was holding a live rehearsal by the youth group, Pop Lyfe.

At the same time, just over a mile away, members of Oakland’s international street dance phenomenon, Turf Feinz, were wowing astonished crowds with gravity-defying moves at the Oakland Museum. And in the Uptown district, a large crowd had gathered to view a 100x100 foot projection installation known as the Great Wall of Oakland. Just south of that, public art and music performances, gallery openings, and burlesque shows were engaging hundreds at Oakland’s monthly Art Murmur.

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