Tagged: racism

A fixer-upper kind of town: comments on gentrification in Oakland

There has been some really interesting writing coming out on the gentrification of Oakland, California recently, and this is an important piece. I’m really interested in trying to cover the much broader spectrum of issues that gentrification and housing justice encompasses than ‘stuff white people like’ but at the same time I don’t think it’s okay for white people to wash our hands of the situation here in Melbourne by concluding (for example) that the gentrification of Footscray has been a government planning policy since the 1980’s. Yes, it has – but I don’t believe that the discussion should end there.

From Oakland Local.

This past weekend, I moved out of my place in Deep East Oakland. I still work at 98th and International — in a middle-school after-school program — but my residence at 82nd and MacArthur drew to its natural close, the house where I’d lived during its renovation by a housing nonprofit I volunteer with now ready for sale. I’m staying at a friend’s place by the lake for now; it’s on the old Parkway side, not the Grand Lake side, but even though it’s supposedly ungentrified territory — well, it’s worlds away from Deep East.

This morning, as I sat on my friend’s couch and penned a lengthy blog post about “Game of Thrones” and Margaret Thatcher, some workmen down the block began to play music. It was loud, with thumping basslines and catchy Spanish rhythms, loud enough to be obnoxious to neighbors. Nobody said anything for about an hour or so, and with the windows open I tapped my foot in time to the beat as I wrote. Then a woman began shouting from her own window, at first somewhat politely: “Can you please turn that music down? I’m trying to study for a test.”

It wasn’t apparent that the workmen had heard and her shouts quickly became angry. “Turn that music off! It is too fucking loud and I have a goddamn test!”

The music went off, moments later, and I could hear the discussion from the street through the window. The woman and another neighbor spoke loudly and angrily, while the workmen were quiet and deferential, not native English speakers; the woman and her neighbor cursed at the workmen, repeatedly. When the young man with whom they were speaking raised his own voice in anger — not shouting as the two neighbors were, but speaking up — the neighbors threatened to call the cops and walked away. “This generation,” the male neighbor said, as they returned to their houses. “They’re such brats.”

Two minutes later, the music returned.

Immediately, the shouting woman was back. The workmen turned the music down and then off as she cursed; she had already called the cops, she said, and they were on their way. She wanted the music to stay off, she said. The workmen walked away without a word, the Spanish rhythms silenced but the air still crackling: this neighbor insisted, loudly, on a promise that the music wouldn’t reappear. “I need you to promise me,” she shouted at their backs. “Can you promise me? Can you fucking look at me?”

They did not. The music had been off for several minutes then.

She called the cops.

“There’s a situation here,” she said. “Some young men are playing music very loudly and they refuse to turn it off.” In the course of her entire conversation with the police she gave them the workmen’s license plate numbers to run, suggested that they were illegally using handicapped placards, and never once deigned to mention that the music had turned off and stayed off for some time now. Eventually, the second neighbor joined her. “I just got off the phone with the police,” she told him.

“Good,” he said. “These people need to be reported.”

Privilege, thy name is white people.

I wrote a piece more than a year ago, about my move to Oakland. It was published at Grist, an online environmental magazine, and it got quoted in Slate, and I felt Internet-famous for a day. I talked about moving to Oakland in 2009 and discovering the opportunity here, on the less-hip side of the Bay, and I used a careless and unspecific phrase: Oakland, I said, was a “fixer-upper kind of town.”

There are things in Oakland that need repair and investment, both social and capital. The streets in the flatlands could use some attention. Even the feds agree that the police force needs an overhaul. I’ve spent time laboring to improve some of the housing stock, not for home-flippers or wealthy new buyers but as part of a nonprofit that helps lower-income elderly and disabled people with home maintenance and upkeep; it exposed me to a lot of wonderful, old-school Oaklanders, and it made me regret my incautious words. I grew up in Cleveland; I know what it is for a formerly wealthy industrial town to be hurting economically. To call it a “fixer-upper,” though, implied that the solution could be found in the civic version of a new coat of paint, that new restaurants or farmers’ markets or food trucks could be an answer in themselves.

They are not.

All of those examples are based on food, because food is trendy right now, and food justice is a real thing.

From my house in Deep East it was half an hour by bus to the nearest real grocery store, each way. I was only feeding myself; my groceries are easy enough to carry on public transit. To feed a family in those circumstances must be a bitch, but then, grocery stores and wealth track each other fairly closely around here, just as public transit and wealth do.

Strange, given that decent food and available transportation are two of the most pressing needs of lower-income people, but then I guess that’s just what privilege is all about: when you can choose not to bother with the expense and hassle of a car and you can also live anywhere you want, why not go for density and deliciousness? Yes, you could live somewhere farther out and afford a car, but this is so much nicer; this has so many amenities.

Your amenities, however, are other people’s lifelines. And now that you’ve moved in, those people can’t afford the neighborhood anymore. They’re pushed to less desirable places, without BART stations or late-night bus lines or stores that sell fresh produce, and while you just feel liberated without the burden of a car these people wish they could afford one.

It would be such a nice amenity.

I’ve been reading this series so far, and many of the comments. It’s mostly interesting, and occasionally horrifying, which is a pretty good ratio for the Internet. Some people seem to believe that you can talk about gentrification without talking about race, but these people are wrong: housing policy has always been a tool to maintain white supremacy, to create intergenerational wealth amongst white folks and to ensure the entrenchment of poverty amongst black folks. Even the poorest white people in America have benefitted by not being black, in very tangible financial ways.

Gentrification is not entirely white, but it is almost entirely white.

It’s impossible to talk about Oakland without talking about crime, and law enforcement. Oakland has a high violent crime rate. Most of the perpetrators, and most of the victims, are young black men. Noting this fact is not racist, but philosophizing that blackness is somehow determinate to Oakland’s criminality — while holding that whiteness is incidental to gentrification — well, that is very much racist, indeed.

It is possible to be white, move to Oakland, and not be a gentrifier, to contribute to the actual community instead of imagining — and using one’s privilege to engineer — something sanitized and whiter and “better”.

Forcing poor people of color to move to Richmond may improve Oakland’s “image”, it might move it up in rankings by Forbes or the New York Times, but it doesn’t actually solve any of the deep, fundamental problems of crime, of a racist police force, of poverty.

Fortunately, all you have to do to be a non-gentrifying white person is listen.

Not to me — I’m white, too, on food stamps more often than not but still privileged.

Stop listening to me and go out and listen to your neighbors.

Go to Deep East. Don’t drive there — take the bus, the 1 or the 40 all the way down the avenues. Don’t bring headphones. Ask people what they think about Oakland. You’ll find a lot of opinions. Consider them.

Volunteer to fix up a house with Rebuilding Together, and get to know the homeowner. Most of them are sweet old ladies with stories of Oakland stretching back decades. They’ll tell you about how they bought their house in the fifties, or the sixties or the seventies, before Oakland’s manufacturing economy imploded and lower-skilled workers couldn’t find well-paying jobs anymore.

Go to an Oakland public school, an elementary school or a middle school or a high school. Volunteer as a tutor. If you speak a second language, volunteer to translate for parents. Volunteer at an after-school program, to teach something from your career field. Chaperone kids on a field trip to UC Berkeley, and tell them what it was like for you to go to college. Talk to them about graduate school.

Use your privilege — your political voice — to pressure OPD into reform. When a person of color pens an essay about how white people shouldn’t call the cops unless they want to alienate their neighbors of color, don’t write her off as juvenile or immature or ignorant: there’s a good chance she’s had more experience with the police than you have, and her sentiments, while not necessarily solution-oriented, come from an honest and informed place. Try to understand that place, and use that information and understanding to help those persecuted by an authority whose racist violence is all too often implicitly sanctioned by white people.

And the next time a Hispanic person refuses to pinkie-swear that he’ll never bother you again, don’t call the cops on him. In fact, the next time someone on your block is blaring music loudly, approach them and treat them like a person, rather than reaching for your white privilege before your common humanity.

You’re a decent person. You’re not a racist. I get it: none of us are, anymore. In a community like Oakland, where white people tend towards the educated and liberal, racism and gentrification are just things that happen, things outside of ourselves, because even though we’re white people we’re not that kind of white person.

But what if we are?


Nazi Slogans: Has Berlin’s Gentrification Feud Gone too Far?

From Der Spiegel.

It may have begun as a joke, but with the adoption of slogans used by the Nazis, an ongoing feud pitting long-time Berliners against newer residents from southern Germany may have crossed a line.

In the past months, the so-called “Swabian hate” became increasingly aggressive. In early May, “Don’t buy from the Swabians” was spray-painted on the side of a Prenzlauer Berg building, an incitement to boycott that directly mirrors the slogan affixed to Jewish businesses in 1933 after Hitler came to power.

On Monday morning, residents of Berlin’s central Mitte district awoke to find a memorial bearing a bust of the 19th-century German philosopher Georg Hegel smeared with ketchup and currywurst, a local fast-food specialty, under a banner reading “Expatriate Swabians.” This probably didn’t come as a big surprise, however, given that in the past year, graffitied messages like “Shoot Swabians” and “Swabians Out” have become commonplace in the city — particularly in the former working-class neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg in what was once East Berlin.

Germans from the southwestern region of Swabia — with their hefty savings accounts and distinct accents — have become the unfortunate poster children for the city’s rapid gentrification. Proudly rough-around-the-edges Berliners like to complain that the well-heeled arrivals from the south are bourgeois and pedantic types who are not only causing rents to spike, but molding the German capital in their own provincial image.

An anonymous group claimed responsibility online for defacing the bust of Hegel, who hailed from Stuttgart, Swabia’s largest city. “The Swabians have until December 31, 2013 to leave the transitional quarter. They will be expatriated from Berlin and sent to the south,” reads their website.

Though most of the intimations of the “Expatriate Swabians” group and those like it are probably meant to be tongue-in-cheek, many feel the mock-nativism is in poor taste — especially in Berlin, where mass pogroms were carried out by the Nazis only a few generations ago. Berlin’s interior minister, Frank Henkel, called the most recent incident “tasteless” and “unspeakable.” On Tuesday, he told the mass-circulation daily Bild: “If anybody doesn’t fit into Berlin, then it is not the Swabians, but these intolerant factions.”

It Began as a Joke

The act is the latest in a series of incidents — often referred to as the “Spätzle Wars” in the local press — that at first seemed like harmless pranks. In January, a group known by the name of “Free Swabylon” splattered spätzle — a traditional Swabian egg noodle dish — on a statue of the artist Käthe Kollwitz and called for an autonomous Swabian district in Berlin.

A few days earlier, Wolfgang Thierse, a long-time Prenzlauer Berg resident as well as the vice president of Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag, had commented to a local newspaper that he felt he’d become an “endangered species” in his neighborhood and complained that many local bakeries now use the Swabian terms for various pastries, instead of the Berlin ones.

“I hope the Swabians realize they are now in Berlin, and not in their little towns with their spring cleaning,” he told the Berliner Morgenpost. “They come here because it’s all so colorful and adventurous and lively, but after a while, they want to make it like it is back home. You can’t have both.”

But in recent months, the so-called “Swabian hate” has grown increasingly aggressive, as graffiti has adopted the tone — and, in some cases, the exact wording — that was used by the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews and other targeted groups in the run-up to the Holocaust. One recent piece of graffiti reads, “Swabians, piss off,” with the double “S” resembling the Nazi’s SS insignia. In early May, “Don’t buy from the Swabians” (“Kauf nicht bei Schwaben”) was spray-painted on the side of a Prenzlauer Berg building, an incitement to boycott that directly mirrors the slogan affixed to Jewish businesses in 1933 after Hitler came to power. Both phrases were followed with “TSH,” supposedly an acronym for “Total Swabian Hate.”

‘No Justification’

Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, told the daily Berliner Zeitung earlier this month that the graffiti was an “unthinkable action” for which there was “no justification.” And Interior Minister Henkel pointed out that the act is especially insensitive because there is a synagogue on the same street. “Graffiti of this kind is no trivial offense,” he said. “The police will do everything they can to find the person responsible.”

“Its never good to trivialize the Shoah and the Third Reich by using the words and phrases related to that time,” says Ralf Melzer, an expert on right-wing extremism at Berlin’s Friedrich-Ebert Foundation. “But especially here in Berlin, where the Final Solution was planned and organized. It harms and insults the relatives of the victims.” Serious or not, he adds, this kind of glib referencing is normally frowned upon, if not unprecedented, in Berlin.

“From time to time, you hear politicians use wording similar to the Nazis in other contexts or apply the word ‘Holocaust’ inappropriately, and so forth,” says Melzer. But he can’t think of another instance in which the language of the Third Reich was thrown around in such a cavalier fashion, he adds.

As early as the 1970s, Berliners have had a habit of mocking newcomers from southern parts of Germany — especially Swabians, who were easily identifiable by their accent and idiosyncratic dialect. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Wall, derision grew as the younger generation flocked to the city from other parts of the country to take part in the wild parties and experimental arts scenes for which Berlin had become known.

In the past decade, as Berlin’s international profile has continuously grown, resentment against the influx of new residents has intensified, with locals complaining that the city is being overly gentrified, sanitized and sapped of its character. An extreme case is Prenzlauer Berg, which transformed in less than two decades from communist workers’ district to ragged bohemian playground to posh family enclave, complete with yoga studios, preschools and organic cafes. For all the claims that Swabian hate is just a bit of good-natured taunting, the sentiment is grounded in the real anger of long-time residents being priced out of their homes.

‘A Real Social Dimension’

“Maybe the intention is to make a joke, but I’m not so sure,” says Melzer. “I think this is actual resentment against a group. It’s a very diffuse kind of feeling, but there is a real social dimension in that housing prices are getting higher, the neighborhood is changing, it’s getting more chic. But you have to see that this is quite a normal phenomenon. Neighborhoods change. This has to be handled in another way — not by stigmatizing a whole group, be it the Danish or the Swabians. It’s a pity that things like this happen, and it’s not good for the atmosphere in the city.”

The focus on Swabians, in particular, has hit a nerve because it taps into deeper cultural and geographical animosities rooting back to reunification, when a bankrupt Berlin turned to the wealthier German federal states for support.

Today, the city-state of Berlin is more than €60 billion ($80 billion) in debt and receives around €3 billion a year in cross subsidies from the richer German states, such as Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, the two states straddled by Swabia. Some see the anti-Swabian acrimony as particularly hard to swallow, given the fact that Berlin owes much of its current incarnation as a dynamic creative capital to the fact that its southern neighbors foot the bill.

And for that matter, as Melzer points out, you could just as easily blame new residents from Bavaria, Brandenburg or Italy.

“I would say that to some extent, it’s an artificial conflict,” he says. “There’s a real basis, but you can’t blame individuals. And bringing this into context with the Holocaust and the Nazi era is not only completely inappropriate — but also counterproductive for people who want to keep prices low in their neighborhoods.”

Gentrification of Berlin stirs protests with neo-Nazi tinge

From the Vancouver Sun.

Campaign against wealthy Swabians buying in blue-collar neighbourhood uses Nazi imagery

The gentrification of rundown city neighbourhoods is a matter of anxiety and outrage worldwide just as in Vancouver. But in Berlin what started as a joke has developed into a bitter campaign with neo-Nazi overtones.

In the German capital’s working-class Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood, an influx of affluent Swabians from the country’s south scooping up relatively cheap housing in what was once one of the grimmer areas of grim East Berlin has sparked fierce resistance.

The district’s residents, proud of their blue-collar heritage in the old communist East Germany, have taken to hard-edged mocking of the southerners from Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg states for their distinct dialect, frugal habits and bourgeois ways.

Swabians have long been the target of jokes in Germany because of their accents and reputation for humourlessness.

Berliners, however, have in recent years had to face the inconvenient truth that it was the parsimonious Swabian states that played a major role in financing the revival of Berlin after reunification in 1989.

But in Germany, and especially in Berlin where the Nazis in the 1930s set in motion their schemes for the genocide of Jews, homosexuals, Roma and other distinct groups, the singling out of any culture for attack rings alarm bells.

The campaign against the Swabians started in January and at first it seemed to be more of a joke than anything.

A group using the name “Free Swabylon” called for an autonomous Swabian district in Berlin and backed up its demand by decorating a statue of early 20th century artist Kathe Kollwitz, known for her sympathetic depictions of the poor and downtrodden, with those well-known Swabian traditional egg noodles, spaetzle.

However, what local newspapers quickly dubbed “the spaetzle wars” swiftly took on a sharper tone.

What has startled Berlin’s municipal councillors and federal politicians is that the graffiti being spray-painted on the district’s walls with ever-increasing regularity draws on instantly recognizable Nazi imagery for its attacks on the Swabians.

Some of the messages use the exact phrases the Nazis’ used in their propaganda against the Jews and other targeted groups.

“Graffiti of this kind is no trivial offence,” Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, told the newspaper Berliner Zeitung. Police will do all they can to track down those responsible, he said.

Sensitivities are heightened because in Munich, the Nazis’ base before gaining national power, there is a high-profile trial of a group of neo-Nazis.

The five people are accused of murdering, over seven years, eight men from among Germany’s community of three million immigrant Turks, a Greek man and a German policewoman.

Those warning bells about reviving group hatred clang even louder when mainstream politicians appear to jump on the bandwagon of social rifts.

Earlier this year Wolfgang Thierse, who as well as being a longtime resident of Prenzlauer Berg is vice-president of Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag, told a local newspaper, the Berliner Morgenpost, that he felt like an endangered species in his own neighbourhood.

His complaint was that the Swabian new arrivals had begun to change the culture of the district to reflect the customs of their home states.

“I hope the Swabians realize they are now in Berlin and not in their little towns with their spring cleaning,” Thierse told the newspaper.

“They come here because it is so colourful and adventurous and lively,” he continued. “But after a while, they want to make it like it is back home. You can’t have both.”

The influx of people into Berlin, especially Swabians, began soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That immigration from Swabia has intensified in the past decade and the magazine Der Spiegel says Prenzlauer Berg in particular has been transformed “from communist workers’ district to posh family enclave, complete with yoga studios, preschools and organic cafes.”

At first after the fall of the wall, Berlin became a magnet for artists of all stripes eager to take part in the joyous project of creating a new entity out of the city’s previously divided parts.

Indeed, one of the great symbols of the creative zeal of the rejoining, the so-called “East Side Gallery” where artists painted on the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, is also a subject of anti-gentrification outrage.

A controversial investor plans a luxury apartment complex where part of the 1.3-kilometre-long “East Side Gallery” runs along what was known as the “death strip” between East and West Berlin.

Dismantling the wall had to be halted early in March after several angry protests by demonstrators wanting the wall saved and the development killed.

But then, late in the month and early one morning work, crews protected by about 250 policemen took down the sections of the wall impeding the development.