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Shawn Wilbur on counter-development strategery

In some neighborhoods in North Portland, where the gangs are gone and the worst of the development is not yet arrived, there are a number of attempts to organize local defense against the displacement of businesses and residents. Small, independent business and poor residents are, naturally, particularly at risk. People of color will bear a disproportionate burden as previously “bad” or transitional neighborhoods start to look good to developers. Some of the efforts are pretty obviously too little, too late. We’re talking about trying to secure property with rising values, at a time when pocketbooks are pretty bare for the at-risk segments of the population. And securing property has not necessarily been a priority among activists, many of whom have some basic issues with property in the first place. In Portland, motiveSpace, a radical architectural collective, promoting citizen-driven development, seems to be one of the more interesting voices in the conversation, with at least a general sense that this sort of civilian defense is going to require a variety of skills not necessarily found in the average radical toolbox, along with an ability and willingness to bring in some cold, hard cash to get things done. And they have been eager to reach out to other radical community groups. Only time will tell, I suppose, what can actually be accomplished, and to what extent the creation of new urban refugees can be stemmed.

Citizen-driven development–counter-development–is a skillset that counter-economic activists, of whatever particular school, are going to have to acquire, if we not simply to cede vast portions of the country to the other side. If we can’t find a way to make securing property a part of our strategy, then all our debates about the elasticity of land supply and the like will be essentially academic. Mutualist occupancy and use is precisely pie in the sky until we can secure territorial control somewhere, and any sort of homesteading is as unlikely as it is likely to be a mere stop-gap, given the dimensions of the broader housing crisis. There are probably still places where stands can be made, but we should be trying to identify them, while they remain.

— Shawn Wilbur, In the Libertarian Labyrinth (2008-11-08): Counter-development or Bust!

Read the whole thing, if you haven’t already.

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3 replies to Shawn Wilbur on counter-development strategery Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Nick Manley

    I live in a MD suburb, so I am kind of distant from all of this…still interested though!

  2. anonymouse

    “We will keep fighting bad projects until we lose and a bad project gets built. Maybe we should develop a good project ourselves.”

    I like that spirit. Stop complaining, start building. There are too many who are opposed to the truly objectionable kind of development because they’re opposed to any development. It’s about time that people realized that the problem is a shortage of housing, specifically cheap housing, and the thing to do is preserve the existing affordable stock as much as possible, while allowing as much new development as possible. And while we’re at it, I suggest we smash the state apparatus of eminent domain takings for developers and zoning codes that force the small guys out of the market and produce huge hidden transfers from house builders to car companies and such through minimum parking requirements, against the will of both builders and buyers.

  3. Soviet Onion

    Resisting or otherwise slowing down eminent domain seizures are certainly a big part of resisting gentrification, but I think that can be a very time-sensitive factor. I’m pretty ignorant about the specifics, but it seems like most big land grabs would either happen well ahead of any tangible displacement and act as a catalyst for it later on. In that case it unfortunately falls into the category of “too little, too late.” On the other hand, if they happen after significant displacement when there’s a demand for such infrastructure, it’s more like the last nail in the coffin. Again, I’m no expert, so if any of you more knowledgeable libertarians have the answers I’m all ears.

    When Shawn mentioned wealth constraints, an idea did occur to me that I think ties into the more stereotypical conceptions of counter-economics. Allow me to elaborate.

    Gentrifying governments always try to eliminate the population of “undesirables” in neighborhood. At the very least they require that those people be gone, because their presence keeps property values down. Homeless people, sex workers, immigrants, anything related to the underground economy fits this description.

    One of the things residents could do is to reach out to these people and offer support services that keep them safe in the area. For homeless people that doesn’t mean going through the state-apparatus of shelters, but directing them toward places of vacant or public land and buildings where they can stay, and making sure those places are safe and watched over, provide them with warm clothes etc. In “Off the Books“, Sudhir Venkatesh also mentioned how businesses and landlords often let people sleep in on their property, because their presence deterred thieves.

    While street prostitution is only a small part of the picture, you could do similar things for the sex worker population by helping to secure the areas they use and looking out for abusers. And while I certainly don’t advocate bringing the gangs back in, the same strategy holds true for many portions of the underground economy, especially ones that you can see on the street.

    Again, I’m no expert on this, but it seems to me that there are several advantages to this approach

    • This strategy would require mostly labor power, which people have (especially in places with high unemployment/underemployment), and not so much on money, which they don’t.

    • It helps the normals and “societal dregs” see that they share a common precarious situation, and gets them to identify with each other more than with the cops, city government or politically-connected developers.

    • It gives advocacy and harm-reduction groups that work with these people involved in the process. Not by condescendingly prodding them to “join the movement”, but by creating mutually-desired goals that both they and the residents can cooperate on.

    • To the extent that there are problems with substance abuse or some such, being unable to call the police and kick these people out could encourage them to start thinking more about voluntary harm reduction strategies (needle exchanges, free contraceptions), which advocacy groups are in a position to provide.

    • It’s a mutually-beneficial arrangement for both parties. Each side gets security from things that are threatening them. Building sustainable, alternative methods of security based on market demand by underground actors is the meat-n-potatoes of counter-economics.

    I’m a little bit scattershot when fleshing out new ideas. What do you think?

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