The Beginning of the End? Or, the End of the Beginning?
[Editor’s note: this letter comes, via PL, from comrades in Durham, NC]
On September 1, 2015, the Kilombo Community Center, one of El Kilombo’s many projects, closed its Geer Street doors after 9 years of operation. Over the past several years our rent has steadily increased as our neighborhood became the hottest real estate market in downtown Durham and the trendy spot for a young, mostly white, upper middle class. Last month our already high rent was doubled, making it difficult for us to maintain our presence in the neighborhood. In addition, given that so many of the local residents that used and sustained our community center have also been displaced from the neighborhood, we decided it no longer made sense to use our collective resources to maintain the center at its present location. El Kilombo’s other projects, and our organization as a whole, will continue uninterrupted as our community center transitions to a new physical location.
When we opened the Kilombo Community Center on May 1, 2006, our neighborhood had a vibrant street life and an intricate set of family and social networks that had endured despite decades of center city disinvestment. Since that time, the community center has been home to tens of thousands of hours of community programming, including free health clinics, dental clinics, physical therapy clinics, homework tutoring, art classes, theater programs, youth video workshops, media workshops, computer literacy classes, English classes, Spanish classes, community research seminars, public events on race and urban development, free legal counsel for families in the neighborhood, know-your-rights workshops, and nearly a decade of weekly community dinners—all generated by and for the community on a shoestring budget with no paid staff. In sum, the community center became a veritable seedbed for community-based knowledge production and self-organization. This from the very beginning also made it a hub for collective opposition to the heightened levels of anti-blackness, displacement, growing social inequality, and consequent police violence that many today recognize plague our city.
Photo courtesy of Prometheus Radio
Eight years ago, when local developers in conjunction with the entirety of the city’s elected officials began their takeover of our neighborhood, most visibly through their attempts to appropriate Old North Durham Park, we were outraged at the erasure of our communities in order to render the neighborhood and much of the city a terrus nullius to be colonized by “pioneers.” We were also appalled at the political favors, absurd lies, cannibalization of public infrastructure, and private hoarding of public tax money (through grants and subsidies) that it was clear would be necessary to accomplish this goal. We thus saw it necessary to force the issue of initiating a citywide conversation about gentrification. At the time we cannot say that the response was encouraging: physical threats; accusations of a conspiracy of “Bolsheviks” and “Jihadis” (yes, these are quotes) from local elected Democrats that would make even Donald Trump blush; and indifference from would-be allies when not their outright enthusiasm for “revitalization” (a sort of “gentrification for everyone” position) still not uncommon among many of the city’s “progressives.”
But it seems that things have changed: today the “problem” of gentrification is both visible and obvious to anyone approaching the issue in good faith. Gentrification has become the topic of conversation across the city with many asking some very serious questions: how is it that “development” became one and the same with increasing inequality in general and intensified racialized inequality in particular? Why is it that our city government, dominated by (Black) Democrats for decades, offers absolutely no alternative to this increasing inequality (at best proposing band-aids for the worst effects of what for them is a necessary rise in inequality)? Why is it that 4 of the 15 cities with the fastest growing inequality in the country are in North Carolina and each is, or has recently been, dominated by Democrats (with Durham fast on their heels)? And why does it all have such an air of inevitability? These are the very questions that Kilombo has been studying since 2007 and about which we have some initial thoughts; thoughts that, no doubt, may be as popular as our initial attempts to raise the issue of gentrification.
Why is Gentrification Happening?
For us, gentrification is not the underlying problem. Rather, “gentrification” is the name for the effects of a far broader problem—capitalism is in trouble. Capitalism requires productive growth and when that growth doesn’t take place, it becomes highly unstable. Business and government attempt to alleviate this instability by creating and relying upon the collection of “rent”—profit that doesn’t come from the productive or “real” economy. This fictitious economy requires things like the extension of private credit (e.g. student loans, credit cards, mortgages), the growth of public debt (deficit spending, TARP, money printing), and the creation of “unique” commodities that can be sold for prices much higher than it costs to produce them (“single origin” coffees, specialty cupcakes, microbrews, boutique gyms, etc.). Much of this eliminates productive labor, creating a growing global population of “surplus” humanity that, lacking any integrative social function, must be violently warehoused and controlled. In other words, what we confusedly call gentrification—land speculation, exorbitant housing costs, obsessive specialty consumption, and a very visible growth in police repression—is nothing other than the city turned into one enormous rent collecting machine in the service of an attempt to stabilize a system in an unprecedented crisis. However, the formation of this fictitious economy does not occur because of a few greedy bankers, developers, and politicians (although those certainly aren’t hard to find) who simply parasite off of a kinder and gentler “real” economy and whose removal might help resolve the problem of exorbitant inequality. No, the “real” economy has been dead for decades and it’s not coming back. The “fictitious economy” is the mechanism through which capitalism has survived and—as terrible as the last 30 years have been—avoided facing its ultimate limits. Yet this capitalist lifeboat too has an expiration date as debt expansion can continue only to the extent that debt repayment remains believable. With every bursting bubble it becomes clear that what makes our contemporary moment so volatile is that this stopgap economy has in fact reached its limits. Thus, either we begin a conversation about collectively building a post-capitalist future or we accept as inevitable the unimaginable inequality and unprecedented institutional breakdown already upon us and certain to grow.
What are the Real Negative Effects Of Gentrification?
For us, it is inadequate to reduce the issue of “gentrification” to a lack of “affordable housing” (a painfully obvious issue). Rather, the much larger problem we face is that the path for this urban speculative economy is cleared through the destruction of the very communities, Black and Brown, that have historically known how to resist and survive the violence of capitalism by creating projects for collective survival and self-determination (from the original quilombos, to the underground railroad, to the Black Panthers’ and Young Lords’ survival programs). In this system, these communities are kicked out of the formal economy (both real and fictitious) and then, in effect, kicked out of the city. That is, the displacement associated with rising housing costs itself functions as a form of social control, where marginalized Black and Brown communities’ precarious forms of employment and informal but critical networks of material survival and collective action are dismantled as they are forced to leave the city center. At that point gentrification takes aim at a community’s ability to organize itself, in effect spatially disaggregating, if not erasing, any logic other than that of isolated individuals drowning in a consumptive wonderland few can afford.
On a daily basis, the mechanisms of this disaggregation are both outright repression and symbolic cooptation. On the one hand, repression functions to assure that people quite literally “stay in their place,” limiting both physical and social mobility through the ubiquitous application of the logic of policing. This includes stop and frisk policies targeting people for “walking while Black,” ICE checkpoints targeting migrants at their workplaces and homes, police surveillance of community organizations such as our own, skyrocketing rates of Black and Brown incarceration, and of course, the police killings across the country that have stolen thousands of lives, including our neighborhood’s Jesus “Chuy” Huerta.
On the other hand, we see the dangers of a twofold strategy of cooptation. The first strategy is to neutralize community leaders by incorporating them into the non-profit industrial complex and the political establishment. The second strategy is to redeploy the language of social struggle in order to advertise and justify gentrification, using the language of “community,” “cooperatives,” and “diversity,” to sell projects and businesses that serve the already privileged and well connected and their very particular way of life. Through this purposeful occupation of the language of social struggle our movements are robbed of the capacity to even name the problems we face, in effect reducing all demands for a more just city to demands for more gentrification while constantly reproducing the illusion that upward social mobility is still possible and that our problems can and will be addressed by those in power.
Given that there is no kinder, gentler moment of capitalism to return to, and those in power can’t and won’t help us, where do we go from here?
While there may be no easy answer or formula for this moment, from our experience we think that there are a few fundamental tasks. We think that we need to fully understand the situation that we face in order to chart out strategies adequate to change it instead of simply repeating the same, uninterrogated practices that we often unthinkingly associate with “politics” (campaigns, protests, elections, etc.). This requires that we study with rigor the situation around us. This task is impossible to undertake alone. The inundation of information that characterizes contemporary media seems to work directly against the production of a collective sense, creating an atmosphere propitious for political posturing, demands for personal recognition, and a general distaste for collective life. We believe that ongoing organized rooted collective analysis is the only path out of that confusion and distraction, and for this we need commitment and dedication to the long process of building the complicated relationships, capacity, and deep cooperation that constitute community and are necessarily far from the spotlight and off-pace with the daily trends of social media. Drawing from the long history of Black and Brown struggle, we know that we need autonomous, self-determined community institutions that provide the basis from which to act collectively with regard to both political decisions and basic provisions.
In other words, as we like to say, El Kilombo is not for everyone, but everyone in struggle needs a quilombo. We need to inundate every neighborhood and city in this country with centers for collective study and self-organization so that we might begin to produce the knowledge and ways of living necessary to find our way out of this mess. Let’s create two, three, many quilombos! The community center on West Geer Street has closed but we will be working to open another, and another, and another… It’s going to take a lot more than “gentrification” and rising rents to get rid of El Kilombo.
But What Do You Think?
This is just our perspective, based on some of the conclusions that we’ve come to over these last several years of experience and study, but we want to continue to learn from others in struggle. What are the major problems that you and your organization are dealing with? What do you and your organization see happening across the city and country? Why do you think this is happening? What do you and your organization think we can all do about it?
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