Hyper-Gentrification Revisited

In Hyper-Gentrification, I wrote about a blogger called Jeremiah Moss. Specifically, about something he wrote called On Spike Lee & Hyper-Gentrification.

Since that time, he was invited to rewrite that piece for the New York Times, as part of their overview of gentrification. So his position, distilled, is:

    The old-school gentrification of the 20th century, while harmful, wasn’t all bad. It made streets safer, created jobs and brought fresh vegetables to the corner store. … Unlike gentrification, in which the agents of change were middle-class settlers moving into working-class and poor neighborhoods…

    …hyper-gentrification in New York was implemented via strategically planned mass rezonings, eminent domain and billions in tax breaks to corporations…

    So before gentrification became “hyper”, it wasn’t all bad, according to Moss. When the process of removing the working class from their neighborhood was happening, using all of the tools at the disposal of both real estate developers and the city, from illegal evictions, to arson, to filling vacant apartments with drug dealers to drive out tenants, to turning over in rem buildings to “developers” for pennies on the dollar, to programs like AHOP, this wasn’t all bad. The same private/public interests (themselves, bourgeois legalisms) were at play as today, at the then-existing level of development.

Moss sees gentrification starting when people and small businesses start to move into an area where they weren’t before. He fails to understand the processes that led to that, despite his many references to Neil Smith. He doesn’t see the “flipping” of buildings (buildings bought and then sold at a profit, sometimes without any renovations being made) as part of the process, or even the transition from a healthy building stock to a decrepit one. For him, as for so many like him, it starts when the outward signs become noticeable.

So what is his solution?

    Let’s drastically reduce tax breaks to corporations and redirect that money to mom-and-pops. Protect the city’s oldest small businesses by providing selective retail rent control, and implement the Small Business Survival Act to create fair rent negotiations. Pass a citywide ordinance to control the spread of chain stores. … Shop local and protest the corporate invasion of neighborhoods.

Increase taxes on corporations? OK. Direct the money to small businesses? To what end? If the Small Business Survival Act creates fair rent negotiations (Moss’s contention), small business rents will be lower. So what will they do with the money? Raise their employees’ wages? Ha! Pocket the money? Probably. Use the money to expand? Probably. So the small businesses will become big businesses, in time. Maybe even chains. Regarding shopping locally, I’ve already addresses that.

Moss’s changes will only benefit small business owners. That is his starting and ending point.

    This … is the transformation of society in a democratic way, but a transformation within the bounds of the petty bourgeoisie. … [I]t believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within whose frame alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided.*

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* The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, accessed April 27, 2014.

Notes on the Brecht Forum Meeting of April 16

I was caught completely off guard when I received this email:


    Date: Sat, 12 Apr 2014 11:10:03 -0400
    From: Brecht Forum
    To: Quilas
    Subject: An Ending is Also a Beginning

    Dear Friends of the Brecht Forum,

    It is with a heavy heart that we, the Brecht Forum’s Board of Directors,
    write to you, our beloved community, of our decision to close our doors.

    As many of you know, these last few years have been financially tenuous for
    us. While our space on West Street in Manhattan provided a crucial home to
    the movement over the years, we struggled to keep up with its costs, and
    the four months that we were closed following Hurricane Sandy only served
    to exacerbate our troubles. Rising Manhattan rents forced us to Brooklyn,
    but we have incurred debts and costs that are insurmountable.

    Despite your continued support over the years, the economic climate,
    combined with the realities of real estate in New York City, have simply
    made the provision of space impossible for an organization of our means.
    Unable to pay what we owe and struggling to maintain daily operating costs,
    we made the heartbreaking decision to close the doors of the Brecht Forum
    so that the larger project we all care so deeply about may survive in a
    different form.

    We know that this announcement is coming as a shock to many of you,
    particularly in light of our recent move to the Brooklyn Commons and our
    hiring of a visionary new Executive Director. We too were hopeful for our
    new beginning, but it has become clear that in a rapidly gentrifying city,
    we have been living on borrowed time, and that despite the strong support
    of our community, this configuration of our project is unsustainable. As
    the Board, we feel that we will best honor the incredible legacy of this
    organization by closing the Brecht Forum with dignity.

    Despite closing our doors, the larger project of the Brecht Forum is
    clearly not over. We believe closing only signals the need to organize
    harder and smarter, to find a sustainable way to build movement power and
    support popular education in New York City. The four decades of
    revolutionary thinking and building that took place at the Brecht Forum
    will live on in the next steps taken by all of the important individuals
    who collectively make the Brecht Forum so special.

    Each of you has played a vital role. We thank you for the many years of
    dedication, love, labor, and thought that you all have contributed to our
    community. Without you, we could not have done it. We’re also asking you to
    make one more contribution to our community.

    Please help us move forward by bringing your questions, your love, and your
    rage to a conversation on April 16th at 7:30pm at the Commons in Brooklyn
    where we reflect and begin a conversation on what kind of organization our
    movement can and will sustain in the future.

    Thank you for your years of support, dedication, and love.

    In solidarity,

    The Board of Directors of the Brecht Forum

***

After the shock had set in, commenting on Facebook, I wrote: “At least they had the dignity to dissolve, instead of morphing into some bizarre entity like WBAI.”

I went to the meeting. I had to. Of all of the Left institutions in New York, the Brecht Forum was the one I felt the closest kinship with. I’ve been a subscriber for at least twelve years, and was a somewhat-regular attender of classes and lectures for even longer. And! the Brecht Forum was the first place I performed publicly as a mime!* This was when they were on Leonard Street, in March of 1991. Anyway…

There were as many people there as at any well-attended event they held in the past, which is to say: about 75. I got there late but it seemed as if everything was being said repeatedly, so the gist of the first part of the meeting (What Happened?) was that they had fallen seriously behind in their rent payments to the Westbeth complex during their time there, and the management company was demanding immediate payment of all arrears and for the duration of the lease (an additional 12 months). When they left Westbeth for The Commons in Brooklyn last year, there had been an informal agreement that when they surrendered the keys and vacated, they would not have to pay the rent for the duration of the lease. These types of agreements are never worth the paper they’re printed on, and the lawyers for the Westbeth management company proceeded to demand the entire amount. At one point, the figure of $500,000 was mentioned. I don’t know if that was the total they’d owe Westbeth, including the additional year, or the total amount they owed in general, because in addition to the money they owe Westbeth, there are loans and other debts that they carry, some of them decades old.

Probably the single-most troubling lesson to emerge from this was the complete incompetence of the board. Not that they incurred insurmountable debt, but that this remained a secret for so long, that they never made an appeal for support, and the magnitude of the problem only became known after they made the decision to dissolve the 501(c)3 corporation, in order to avoid having to pay Westbeth.

This is where a problem emerges. They don’t want to renege on the other debts they owe. They want to pay back the loans that were made, the salaries they owe their staff, etc. And they don’t want the mission of the Brecht Forum to stop. They want to continue in another guise, sponsor as many fund-raisers as necessary to raise the money they need for these other debts, and continue. Some of them actually seemed to think that they could do this surreptitiously, that by dissolving the current corporation and starting another with a different name but the same mission, that the lawyers couldn’t come after them. During the second part of the discussion (What Next?), one straight-thinking man (STM) told them that if the same people were involved, whatever assets they controlled could be sought by the lawyers, that they can’t stop a case from being brought, and that a judge could rule against them, no one being fooled by their subterfuge.

During this part of the discussion, ideas were presented as to what steps could/should be taken now, both in the immediate-term as well as the longer-term. Everyone agreed that the project of the Brecht Forum should continue. Proposals can be distilled into two: 1) that they continue with the current board in place, or that a new board be constituted (either soon, or very soon); and 2) that they be located in a single location, or without a single location — that they present classes/speakers in different spaces, and not just in New York City.

Some seemed to think (the board members, mostly) that they (the board members) could continue in their roles, but after the STM spoke, they were the only ones left thinking that. More than one person suggested that an interim committee be set up to start working on the Brecht Forum 2.0. The board said that they shouldn’t rush into such things, but if you ask me, this is hardly rushing — this is catching up! One participant said one reason not to proceed at this meeting was that many of the organizations associated with the Brecht Forum were not present, but I had to wonder, why weren’t they? They knew of the meeting just as the rest of us did, and not one of them showed up? Who knows what the relationship is between them now? There could be a lot of bad blood at this point.

If there’s anything I came away thinking it’s that the current board is now irrelevant. They should take care of whatever is left of dissolving and stay out of the way of what takes their place. It’s not in retribution, but because if their names are attached to any new organization, the lawyers will go after any money they are able to raise. It will stymie them for years. Given this, they are in no position to decide whether or not an interim committee is set up.

With a new board soon to be in place, it’s unlikely they will be able to continue at The Commons, which means the likelihood of their being a floating organization is great, but which also means that they don’t really exist. Any group of people can present speakers at sites in a 50-mile radius. What is likely to happen is that all of the political differences that have existed since the beginning will assert themselves and half a dozen groups will lay claim to the Brecht Forum mantle. Most will devolve to presenting in their own spaces, and the ones who don’t have their own spaces will present in other spaces. But there’s really no difference between Rick Wolff (for example) offering a class at the 92nd Street Y (for example) under the rubric of the Brecht Forum in-exile, or under that of the 92nd Street Y.

I started by saying that at least they were going out with dignity, unlike WBAI, but to WBAI’s credit, they let people know when they need money. The Brecht Forum never did; they never gave people the chance to come to their (our, as a subscriber) aid. They simply packed it in. So unless the current 501(c)3 configuration is able to quickly raise a lot of money, pay off all hostile debtors, all friendly debtors, and maintain itself in its own space, I think it’s the end of this project, and that’s sad, because it was unnecessary.

***

Not to lay all of the blame at the feet of the current board members — none of whom I knew, although I’ve known a few previous board members — the problem of lack of money didn’t just start with their move to Westbeth. One of the board members said this has always been a problem (as evidenced by the loan made decades ago). So there’s the problem of lack of funding, but also, specific to the Brecht Forum, the problem that this was never addressed. At no time that I remember did any configuration of the board hold a meeting to discuss the Brecht Forum itself. Not just problems or finances, but direction, membership, anything! At no time were minutes of board meetings made available. At no time were financial reports made. In fact, none of the usual reports that are required by any non-secret-society’s by-laws.

The woman who owns The Commons building was at the meeting, and she told us that four years ago she approached the Brecht Forum board and offered the building to them, at a below-market price, and even proposed financing it for them so that in 15 years they would own the building outright. She told us first of the difficulty she had determining who the board members were, but that when she did, she said that they never responded to her offer. When they finally moved into The Commons, they gave her no financial information. She was able to piece together something based on their tax forms, but they never told her about their debts. And when they talk of staying at The Commons after the dissolution and trying to raise money, she said they never approached her about that either, even though they’re in arrears with her also!

***

Another meeting is planned for May 15, and another for June 15! (I’m not sure of the dates, but definitely one next month and another in June.) Supposedly, some of the member organizations that couldn’t be bothered to attend this meeting will be at the May meeting.

Some of those who were proposing setting up an interim transition committee suggested meeting next week (this coming week). It’s likely that some of them will, but without the Brecht Forum’s contact list, there won’t be many people in attendance, so I don’t know what sort of mandate they’ll claim.

It was announced that the party scheduled for April 24 will still take place. That’ll be festive! Also, the Summer Intensive is also scheduled to take place, as planned.

Finally, none of this is mentioned on the Brecht Forum’s web site. Not a word.

=-=-=-=-=

* There were four of us, and the show was called “Off the Street” — to distinguish ourselves from street mimes.

Pearl Paint Illegally Fired 39 Workers

There’s been some hubbub recently about Pearl Paint, a five-story art supply store on Canal Street, closing.

It was first reported (as far as I know) by Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, the small-business-lamentation blog.

On Tuesday, DNAInfo reported that Pearl Paint illegally fired 39 of their workers! In his piece, Jeremiah reported, regarding the closing: “The information has not been confirmed with Pearl…” but there’s no mention of his speaking with any of the workers. He did report it on his Facebook page, but there’s no follow-up on his blog.

This is why it’s important not to be pie-eyed about small businesses. Glitter and paint cannot cover up class relations.

Filler

Yes, this is filler, mostly.

I bought some clothes yesterday. I haven’t bought clothes in years! Most of what I have is either very old, and/or bought by others as gifts, and/or given to me (new) because it didn’t fit its intended recipient. I’ve been able to make it for years with this limited wardrobe, but recently it’s become unsustainable. With the end of Winter, but not yet the beginning of Summer, I was down to two pairs of pants. At the same time, I developed a hole in the sleeve of one of my black turtlenecks, and in the sleeve of my black, button shirt. (What do you call those? A shirt with buttons.) I’m down to wearing t-shirts to work, which I don’t really like to do, even though the ones I wear are decent enough, but I just couldn’t keep alternating between the same two pairs of pants every day. So I bit the bullet, took my wife’s advice, and put the purchase on the credit card. (I don’t like using the card because it’s high and I’m trying to pay it off.)

I went to a store somewhat near where I live. I’m not mentioning the name because: 1) it’s not important; and 2) Quilas doesn’t advertise! This store has a permanent Sale section, so I knew there was a good chance I’d find something less than the original price, if not downright cheap. When I got there, I saw they were having a 40%-off sale on nearly everything. Getting to the point, I bought two pairs of pants and three shirts. I figured I could make it on four pairs of pants for now; when Summer gets here, it’ll be five.

Now I get to the purpose of this piece. When I got to the register, the total, non-sale price was $236. When I asked the woman if I got a further discount for using the credit card of another store owned by the same company (that’s probably a give-away!) she said No, but if I opened an account there, I would get an additional 30% off. Well, sign me up, I said! When she checked, she found it was only 15%, but I wasn’t going to say no to 15%. That brought my total down to $135 (I bought some socks too, which were not on sale).

But wait, there’s more! For spending over $150 (the pre-store-card amount), I received store credit of $75! Unfortunately, I couldn’t apply it to that purchase — I have to wait until mid-May to use it. I also got a 10%-off coupon that I can use any time in the next 60 days.

So, here’s my plan: I go into the store in mid-May, go to the Sale section, where 20% discounts are not uncommon, get $104 worth of stuff, minus 20%, minus 10% equals $75, making the total savings $205 — a 60% discount! You can’t beat that with a stick.

Show me a “mom-and-pop” store that can do that!

***

The only drawback is that I now have a new bill. Putting the purchase on my regular credit card would not have affected my monthly payment, since I would have just paid the elevated amount due, as usual. Now I will have an additional bill of $135. As luck would have it, I recently reduced my bi-monthly expenses by that very amount, so there will be no difference in the pittance I have left after paying bills, but I was hoping to have that extra money to fix the Wii, which has needed repairing for as long as I’ve needed clothes.

Hyper-Gentrification

There is an anonymous blogger who goes by the name of Jeremiah Moss. His blog is Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York.

I’m not a regular reader of this blog. The first time I read it, he was lamenting a pawn shop on 23rd Street(?) closing. I commented to the effect that pawn shops, along with check-cashing places, were scourges of poor neighborhoods, but he didn’t approve it.

It’s mainly a nostalgia blog. I put it in the realm of the sites I’ve commented on, tirelessly advocating the position of the small business owners of the city.

He recently got a bit of extra notoriety for a piece he wrote on “hyper gentrification”. To his credit, he claims to take the position of Neil Smith. Unfortunately, he represents Smith poorly. For Neil Smith, gentrification was a class issue. Gentrification occurs when a working class neighborhood is turned into a non-working-class neighborhood. Once the area in question is no longer working class, gentrification stops. The job is finished. There are no “levels” of gentrification. There is no such thing as “hyper gentrification”.

To try to define gentrification as a steady process of “upscaling”, as a commenter here once did, is to remove the class nature from it. By this definition, gentrification occurs any time land is capitalized. When the conversion of a working class neighborhood is seen in the same light as the price of a $10,000,000 penthouse being raised to $25,000,000, then it becomes synonymous with change itself, under capitalism. This is the position of the real estate industry.

This puts Moss squarely on the same side as Spike Lee, despite his claim to differ. Spike Lee does not think that he was a gentrifier, because he’s Black. For Lee, gentrification is a racial issue that started when the first (Black) gentrifiers found themselves priced out of their neighborhoods. It’s the same for Moss.

Nowhere in Moss’s piece do you find the word “worker”, or “working”, or “class”, or “Volume 3”. For Moss, and so many like him, gentrification is bad because it affects small business owners and their “buy local” customers, not workers.

He writes:

    I want to make one thing clear: Gentrification is over. It’s gone. And it’s been gone since the dawn of the twenty-first century. Gentrification itself has been gentrified, pushed out of the city and vanished. I don’t even like to call it gentrification, a word that obscures the truth of our current reality. I call it hyper-gentrification.

Gentrification is not over. Gentrification is not a one-time event. It’s over in some neighborhoods, but it’s still going on in others. There are slums in India that are being gentrified, due to their proximity to wealthier areas. The favelas of Brazil are also being eyed by real estate interests there. And cities like Detroit and Cleveland are already in the sights of developers, waiting for circumstances to change in their favor.

I’m not saying that there’s no reason to track the increases in wealth inequality, just that the problem doesn’t start when the first round of gentrifying small business owners are affected.