Defending Neighborhoods

When people say they’re defending their neighborhood, what exactly are they defending, apart from what currently exists? Generally, people defending their neighborhoods are people who cannot afford to move somewhere else. All over the world, people are defending their neighborhoods, whether they use that word or not. Most probably say they’re defending their homes, or their communities.

Neighborhoods these days are “commodities”. (I use quotes because, of course, they’re not real commodities; they’re not reproducible.) They’re delimited (packaged), they’re given names (Nolita, East Village), and they’re marketed to people as life-style choices (oftentimes leading to confusion among those who oppose gentrification). And as something new, they’re being sold to newcomers, not to the people already living there. Newcomers with the requisite cash, that is.

Quality of urban life has become a commodity, as has the city itself, in a world where consumerism, tourism, cultural and knowledge-based industries have become major aspects of the urban political economy. The postmodernist penchant for encouraging the formation of market niches—in both consumer habits and cultural forms—surrounds the contemporary urban experience with an aura of freedom of choice, provided you have the money. Shopping malls, multiplexes and box stores proliferate, as do fast-food and artisanal market-places. … Even the incoherent, bland and monotonous suburban tract development that continues to dominate in many areas now gets its antidote in a ‘new urbanism’ movement that touts the sale of community and boutique lifestyles to fulfill urban dreams.*

We need to go beyond simply defending what exists vs. something worse (displacement, privatization). Defending our neighborhoods means deciding what the neighborhood should be, not just what the storefronts should look like. More people live in cities every year, as the distinction between urban and rural diminishes. We’re all bound up in this. We can’t just be shuffled from slum to slum.

Between 2011 and 2050, the world population is expected to increase by 2.3 billion, passing from 7.0 billion to 9.3 billion (United Nations, 2011). At the same time, the population living in urban areas is projected to gain 2.6 billion, passing from 3.6 billion in 2011 to 6.3 billion 2050. Thus, the urban areas of the world are expected to absorb all the population growth expected over the next four decades while at the same time drawing in some of the rural population. As a result, the world rural population is projected to start decreasing in about a decade and there will likely be 0.3 billion fewer rural inhabitants in 2050 than today.**

So just as I’m writing this, I discovered that the New York City Housing Authority has a plan to lease playgrounds and community centers on public housing property for luxury high-rises! David Harvey:

We increasingly live in divided and conflict-prone urban areas. In the past three decades, the neoliberal turn has restored class power to rich elites. … The results are indelibly etched on the spatial forms of our cities, which increasingly consist of fortified fragments, gated communities and privatized public spaces kept under constant surveillance.*

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* David Harvey, “The Right to the City”, New Left Review, 53 (Sept./Oct. 2008),
5 February, 2013.

** World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision, United Nations, 2011,
5 February, 2013.

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