Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 25, 2014

The “accidental” killing of Akai Gurley was no accident

Filed under: housing,New Deal,New York,racism — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

As the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri was calculating how to avoid bringing killer cop Darren Wilson to trial, another ignominious homicide took place in the Louis H. Pink Housing Project in Brooklyn, NY. The New York Times reported on how a rookie cop named Peter Liang killed a young Black man named Akai Gurley:

Two police officers prepared to enter the pitch-black eighth-floor stairwell of a building in a Brooklyn housing project, one of them with his sidearm drawn. At the same time, a man and his girlfriend, frustrated by a long wait for an elevator, entered the seventh-floor stairwell, 14 steps below. In the darkness, a shot rang out from the officer’s gun, and the 28-year-old man below was struck in the chest and, soon after, fell dead.

The shooting, at 11:15 p.m. on Thursday, invited immediate comparison to the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Mo. But 12 hours later, just after noon on Friday, the New York police commissioner, William J. Bratton, announced that the shooting was accidental and that the victim, Akai Gurley, had done nothing to provoke a confrontation with the officers.

A follow-up article detailed how such an “accident” might have taken place:

From different corners of Brooklyn, the lives of Mr. Gurley and Officer Liang, two young men separated in age by a single year, collided amid the faint shadows of the stairwell inside 2724 Linden Blvd., one of the buildings in the vast the Louis H. Pink housing project.

For Mr. Gurley, the stairs, even in their sorry state, offered the best alternative to chronically malfunctioning project elevators. For Officer Liang, their darkness presented a threat.

Often the department’s least experienced officers are sent.

“This is a result of poor in-street field training; you literally had the blind leading the blind out there,” said another high-ranking police official.

Both police officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the shooting investigation is still unfolding.

Most of the reporting centers on the cop’s inexperience as if a way to ward off interpretations that he was acting out of a KKK mentality so prevalent in the St. Louis police department. Since Chinese-Americans don’t tend to be seen as vicious racists, it is more difficult to mount Ferguson type protests over the killing. But in a very real sense, Brooklyn = Ferguson. It was the poverty and neglect of East New York that created the conditions for just such an accident.

Furthermore, a look at housing projects in general and the Louis H. Pink project in particular will demonstrate that we are dealing with institutions just barely distinguishable from South African shantytowns, even though they were at one time a staple of New Deal reform.

Louis Heaton Pink was an advocate of public housing in the 1930s who became the director of the New York Housing Authority, the city agency responsible for projects all across the city now in various states of disrepair. He was first appointed to a state housing agency by Al Smith, the governor of New York who despite having a solid record as a reformer got on FDR’s wrong side after running against him in the 1932 presidential primary.

This article from the February 14, 1934 NY Times should give you some idea of how Pink envisioned public housing:

louis pink article

When I worked for the Department of Welfare in Harlem in 1967, housing projects were considered a step up from slum buildings on the side streets even though they were beginning the steep decline that would eventually lead to the violent crime, broken elevators and darkened stairways that served as Akai Gurley’s death chamber.

The explanation is obvious. Like most public institutions that sprang up as a result of the modern welfare state, NYC public housing was the first to be sacrificed at the altar of austerity. The first to go was public housing. Next came hospitals and now it is CUNY that has to tighten its belt.

But austerity is not the end of the story. If the Housing Authority was truly broke, then the broken elevators, etc. might be understandable even if not forgivable. It turns out that there was money available for repairs but the rich white bastards who run the NYCHA had other ideas about what to do with it as the Daily News reported on August 1, 2012:

Screen shot 2014-11-25 at 2.18.05 PM

In a New York Magazine article that appeared shortly after the Daily News revelations, the sad state of the Louis H. Pink Houses was detailed in a lengthy article:

That said, I was in the Pinks because of its namesake, Louis H. Pink. Born in Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1882, a former resident of a Lower East Side tenement, Pink was a leader in the fight to rid New York of its slums, which in 1920 reputedly covered seventeen square miles of the city. Three decades after Jacob Riis depicted the horrors of slum life in How the Other Half Lives, city children were “still being brought up in dark, ill-ventilated, overcrowded, unsafe tenement houses,” Pink wrote in his 1928 book, The New Day in Housing. Taking his lead from the Gemeindebau, or “community construction,” built in “Red Vienna” following World War I, Pink felt New York would benefit from “modern, sanitary housing for the great mass of our less well off citizens.”

Pink was joined by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who blamed the TB death of his first wife on the evils of slum living. “Down with rotten, antiquated ratholes! Down with hovels! Down with disease! Down with crime!” the Little Flower proclaimed, saying every New Yorker deserved “a bit of sunshine in every window.” On December 3, 1935, Louis Pink joined La Guardia, Governor Herbert Lehman, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to dedicate First Houses on Avenue A and 3rd Street. It was the beginning of public housing in the United States.

In 1959, when the Louis H. Pink ­Houses opened, no First Lady appeared. Public housing was in its stolid middle age, the era of idealism long gone, and NYCHA’s enterprise had morphed into a full-scale building boom pursued with typical assembly-line zeal by the city’s chairman of slum clearance, Robert Moses. Filed under the rubric of “urban renewal” (James Baldwin called it “Negro removal”), slum-clearing was done for private development as well as great municipal feats like the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The displaced, especially white lower-middle-class workers who otherwise would have moved to places like bucolic (and racially segregated) Levittown, were encouraged to move to public high-rises full of Mayor La Guardia’s sunlight.

Not surprisingly, New York Magazine—prime reading material for Manhattan’s upwardly mobile—gave NYCHA head John Rhea an opportunity to defend himself.

The centerpiece of Rhea’s “public-­private solution” for NYCHA has been the city’s 2010 funding deal with Citigroup. In exchange for fifteen years’ worth of guaranteed federal low-income-housing tax credits, the bank helped secure $230 million for 21 troubled developments that were built but no longer funded by the city and/or the state. The arrangement triggered NYCHA’s eligibility for the onetime infusion of $75 million of federal stimulus funds.

“If you want to save the proud tradition of public housing in this city, you’ve got to think differently,” Rhea declared, adding that while heading NYCHA was “by far the biggest challenge” of his career, he had come to love his job and the projects themselves. “NYCHA is supposed to be this great problem,” the chairman said. “But if your rich uncle left you NYCHA in his will, that would be the luckiest day of your life. NYCHA, with its vast holdings, is a tremendous asset for the City of New York.

You would of course have to conclude that any bureaucrat who thinks in terms of “public-private” and cuts deals with Citibank would be the last person to attend to public housing woes in New York, even if he is African-American (another version of Barack Obama, to be sure.) After four years of getting nothing done, Rhea resigned in December 2013 before Bill de Blasio had a chance to fire him.

I don’t think the Black community expects much from the new “reformer” based on this August 27 article that appeared in the NY Observer.

Bill de Blasio Heckled While Touting NYCHA Safety Gains

Mayor Bill de Blasio today at the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem. (Jillian Jorgensen)

Mayor Bill de Blasio went to the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem to talk about crime reductions and safety upgrades in the city’s public housing stock — but some residents just didn’t want to hear it.

The mayor was heckled by at least two people who gathered to watch his press conference in a sunny courtyard Wednesday, where he stood strategically in front of construction workers removing scaffolding residents have long complained are a blight and a danger.

As the mayor sought to take the microphone after Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito spoke, a man shouted in Spanish at the mayor about needing more security. Mr. de Blasio at first tried to keep talking, but eventually paused and offered: “Thank you, brother.”

Shortly after, NYPD Chief of Housing Carlos Gomez was also met with a skeptical response from a local resident as he spoke.

“July first, the crime in housing was up. It was up for the fifth year in a row. With the additional officers, and resources, the additional work being conducted by other city agencies, I’m proud to say as we stand here today crime in public housing is down, more than 4 percent — that’s higher than the city averages,” Mr. Gomez said.

“Since when?” a woman called out. “Since when it went down?”

“From July 1 until now crime is down double-digits throughout NYCHA in the city, down 13 percent. Murders are down 18 percent, and our shooting incidents are down in NYCHA,” Mr. Gomez said.

But as he spoke, the woman responded “That’s a lie. That’s a lie.”

When asked by a reporter about that response, the mayor said he understood why it seemed to some residents that crime had not truly fallen.

“Because it takes time, first of all, for everyone to feel it. And I don’t blame anyone who is feeling there isn’t enough yet in the way of improvement. We have a lot to do. The numbers that Chief Gomez gave are the numbers, and that clearly means progress,” Mr. de Blasio said. “That means some people are alive today who wouldn’t have been otherwise, some people are safe today who wouldn’t have been otherwise.”

Though the city has had 29 fewer murders this year and 1,000 fewer robberies, the mayor said, people won’t believe in change until they see it — comparing it to the focus of his press conference, the removal of the scaffolding or “sheds” that residents argued served as hiding places for guns and illegal activity.

“Until people see the sheds down, they aren’t going to feel the benefits,” he said.

After the press conference, Mr. de Blasio enjoyed a brief and seemingly friendly chat with the man who had shouted at him in Spanish.

Earlier this summer at the same housing development, Mr. de Blasio vowed to remove scaffolding and add cameras, lights, and hundreds more police officers to the city’s public housing earlier this summer to combat rising crime there.

According to Mr. Gomez, crime in public housing is now down: Year-to-date, in the Housing Bureau citywide crime is down 4.2 percent, with murders down 5.9 percent, rapes down 3 percent, and robberies down 5.6 percent.

Still, shootings are still up in NYCHA developments over the course of the entire year — and are up citywide, outside of public housing complexes — though they have fallen in the Housing Bureau since July 1.

June 21, 2014

Left Forum 2014: panel on art and gentrification

Filed under: art,housing,Left Forum — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

This is the third in a series of videos I made at the recently concluded Left Forum.

As I will point out, the topic might be of great interest to those who have looked askance at the “art market” but unfortunately the presentations were not that great. I do urge you watch the video, however, since the speakers were genuine authorities in the field of how artists often unwittingly serve as the shock troops of gentrification.

As a New Yorker, this is a topic that interests me a great deal since I have seen any number of neighborhoods in New York undergo gentrification through a process that follows a familiar pattern. Artists looking for a cheap studio will buy or rent commercial lofts, often in violation of building codes, and then turn them into living lofts. Two old friends, now deceased, bought a loft on the Bowery in 1969 for that very purpose. Around the same time, further to the West, Soho was being transformed after the same fashion. I am not sure how many artists are now operating in Soho, an area that is punctuated by Moncler, Gucci, and Armani boutiques.

Soon to follow was Tribeca, an area that followed the same pattern. Besides the boutiques, Soho and Tribeca are fabulous places for hedge fund managers to live. With their tattoos and their French bulldogs, they feel utterly bohemian.

As artists kept getting priced out of Manhattan, they explored other places, eventually “discovering” Wiliamsburg. Before long Williamsburg became “Soho-ized” as artist Su Friedrich pointed out in her documentary “Gut Renovation”, about which I wrote:

Friedrich’s documentary is an angry and deeply personal look at the 20 years she has spent in a Brooklyn neighborhood that I always considered a bohemian stronghold even if there were obviously attempts to gentrify it. As is the customary practice in New York, artists like Friedrich flock to somewhat seedy but charming neighborhoods in search of cheap industrial lofts to turn into studios. The most famous example is Soho, the area “South of Houston Street” that is nothing but a warren of overpriced restaurants and boutiques nowadays. The only artists who remain there are those who are successful enough to mount shows in Madison Avenue galleries, a snooty area that the once downscale Soho now resembles.

Friedrich is a remarkable personality whose flair for vitriol is worth the price of an admission ticket. She is not above accosting well-heeled couples on the street that are toting shopping bags from Bloomingdales and accusing them of destroying her neighborhood. In one priceless moment in this darkly comic saga, she yells at a bunch of real estate agents and developers from the window of her loft. She is both shameless and priceless.

The artist/gentrification nexus appears outside of New York. One of the most egregious examples is Braddock, Pennsylvania, a destitute small city near Pittsburgh that was once home to steel mills. In the largely African-American city, a white Mayor has called for the transformation of Braddock by appealing to artists (implicitly white) to settle there. In my article on Braddock, I call attention to what the Levi blue jean corporation said during the time it was running commercials filmed there:

The muse for Levi’s® new campaign is Braddock, a town embodying the demise of the blue collar base that is taking radical steps to reverse its decay.  Braddock now faces a new frontier of repurpose and new work in what was once a flourishing industrial mecca.  Since 2001, John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, has taken his fight for social justice in Braddock to the masses by enlisting the help of modern pioneers – artists, craftsmen, musicians and business owners – to rebuild and revive the town.   As it rebuilds, Braddock has become a model for how any city, in any part of the country, can prevail as a symbol of hope and change.

As opposed to this cynical bullshit in the name of social justice, put forward at a time when Braddock’s only hospital was being shut down, Tony Buba fought for true working-class values as opposed to blue jean iconography.

I would call your attention to an article written by Martha Rosler, one of the two panelists in the video. Titled “The Artistic Mode of Revolution: From Gentrification to Occupation”, it makes some essential points about the art/gentrification problem. This “solution” to America’s deepening urban crisis of poverty and social decay is being offered to Detroit today after being dubbed a success in Pittsburgh, another hollowed out metropolis. Rosler writes:

This repopulation and transformation of cities—from spaces bereft of shops and manufacturing, starved of resources, and inhabited by poor and working-class people or squatters living in ill-maintained housing stock, into spaces of middle-class desire, high-end shopping, and entertainment—took at least a generation. It also required the concerted effort of city leaders. New York’s Soho and East Village had proved, by the late 1970s, that the transformation of old warehouses and decaying tenement districts into valuable real estate could be accomplished by allowing artists to live and work in them—if nothing else, city government recognized or identified with such people and understood their needs. Those elected officials who might, in an ear­lier era, have supported organized labor, found that such constituencies were fading away. Artists, in addition, were not going to organize and make life difficult for city governments. In the following decades, the Soho model became paradigmatic for cities around the world. (Another popular tactic was to attract small new industrial shops, mostly high tech ones.) But no matter how much the arts (whether the performing arts or the institutionalized visual arts in museums) have been regarded in some cities as an economic motor, that remedy is not applicable everywhere, and not every city has proved to be a magnet for the arts. A new urban theory was required.

 

May 10, 2013

SWP madness

Filed under: housing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm

No, I am not talking about the British group but the Americans who are far nuttier and far more peripheral. I generally don’t pay any attention to them, but in this instance the nuttiness is so transcendental that it demands commentary. In an article in the latest Militant newspaper, something I used to sell avidly and that Malcolm X hailed, there’s a warning that the government is up to no good by seducing workers, particularly African-Americans, into buying houses. It points to the following:

According to recent articles on the WND.com website and in the Investor’s Business Daily, the Justice Department has:

— Threatened banks with lawsuits if they don’t push loans in “minority communities” and demanded lenders open branches in working-class neighborhoods of cities hard-hit by foreclosures like Detroit and St. Louis.

— Forced big mortgage lenders like Wells Fargo and Bank of America to provide 30-year loans to what banks refer to as “high-risk” borrowers under threat of prosecution.

— Issued orders mandating lenders advertise in “minority media” and offer loans to people on public assistance.

— Resurrected a Clinton-era regulation that warns lenders they must be more flexible with minority home buyers with weak credit to make up for “past discrimination.”

To start with, it is of some interest that they cite wnd.com. This, for those who don’t follow the American ultraright, is World News Daily. On their home page, you can find a reader’s poll that asks: “What do you think of U.S. government inviting Muslim cleric who disparaged dead Navy SEALs at their own funeral?” The website was founded by Joseph Farah, a rightwing nut who was deeply involved in the campaign to prove that Obama was not born in Hawaii. Apparently he also believes that soybeans cause homosexuality, although no amount of tofu over the past 11 years of marriage have diminished my desire for my wife.

Now 9 years ago, when the SWP was still clinging to sanity, it featured an article on housing that stated:  “In the 1970s numerous cases of redlining—where banks would not grant mortgages to renovate or build new apartments, especially in Black or Puerto Rican neighborhoods—were challenged and some lending terms were improved. While many of the most blatant practices were ended, banks and insurance companies continue to use discriminatory methods.”

As is so often the case, this nutty cult reverses positions without bothering to provide readers with an explanation.

They do invoke Engels, as they have in the past:  “In his booklet The Housing Question, written in 1872-73, communist leader Frederick Engels described how the bosses use home ownership to tie workers to the capitalist system, entangling us in debt that conservatizes us and makes us less mobile.”

Unless of course you are the leader of the SWP who lives in a snazzy West Village loft:

If bow-tied, cigar-mouthed Republicans can have nice seven-digit, six-room co-ops, don’t a few old Manhattan communists deserve multi-million-dollar real estate, too?

A two-bedroom loft at 380 West 12th Street, a 109-year-old building on a cobblestone block by the Hudson River, was sold by American socialist leaders Jack Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters. Their buyers, Sony BMG Music Entertainment vice president Ole Obermann and his fiancée, Stephanie Jakubiak, paid $1,872,500.

“I don’t want to hurt the sellers’ feelings at all, but they definitely had a funky style in terms of how they did the apartment,” said Mr. Obermann. That means there are sliding stained-glass doors, plus a wall of bookshelves. (Ms. Waters is the president of publishing house Pathfinder Press, which publishes Marx and Trotsky, and Mr. Barnes, too.)

“Personally, our tastes are different and we’ll probably do something different,” the buyer said. “It will be open, airy, simple, whereas when it was done 15 years ago there was a lot of light-colored wood shelving.” He’s adding six or so wireless speakers, “a nice music system.”

full: http://observer.com/2007/07/communists-capitalize-on-village-saleget-187-m-for-loft/

March 19, 2013

108 Cuchillo de Palo; Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home

Filed under: Film,Gay,housing — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

Two outstanding examples of leftwing documentary deserve the widest viewing. Opening yesterday at the Maysles theater in Harlem and playing through the 24th is “108: Cuchillo de Palo”, a study of the oppression of gay men in Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay that I would rank at the very top the list of films committed to gay rights, right next to “Before Stonewall” or “The Celluloid Closet.” Just having finished a theatrical run on the West Coast, “Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home” is now available as a DVD or streaming from Cinema Libre Studios, a production company that has a repertory of leftwing documentaries to its credit that is second to none.

Renate Costa Perdomo returned to her native Paraguay from Spain after learning of the death of her uncle Rodolfo Costa in order to understand what life was like for a gay man in one of Latin America’s most brutal dictatorships. The 108 of the title refers to a blacklist maintained by the state, while Cuchillo de Palo is Spanish for knife made of wood, a derogatory term directed at the “uselessness” of  gay men who will never impregnate women, God’s purpose for them as Renate’s deeply religious and deeply homophobic father reminds her every chance he gets.

The moments spent between Renate and her father Pedro Costa, the proprietor of a blacksmith shop inherited from his father, is a reminder that many men and women retain prejudices despite progress made by a powerful and insistent movement determined to win equality. Sitting across the kitchen table from him, she presses him on the disservice he did to his brother by treating him as a sinner. He unctuously replies that he is a sinner too and begins reciting biblical verses. She tells him that it is impossible to have a conversation with him. His response is to shrug his shoulders and smile placidly. One can understand why his wife divorced him long ago and why Renate fled to Spain. While her father was by no means a Stroessner supporter, it is not too hard to figure out why his 35-year reign was facilitated. The population was obviously trained to be passive and obedient by a calculating government and church.

Despite this being her first film, Ms. Perdomo is very adept at developing character and revealing psychological complexity. Despite her father’s obdurate opposition to the idea that gays have a right to live as they please, there is a softer and more likeable side to him that she brings out in comically unproductive kite-flying and fishing expeditions. You can’t help but feel that his homophobia is partially explained by his failure to have ever become an adult. An infantilized Paraguayan male population is made to order for an authoritarian system.

But the most uplifting and dramatically powerful parts of the film are Perdomo’s interviews with men who spent time in jail or prison as society’s sexual outlaws and lived not only to survive but to come out of the closet as well. She also interviews transvestites who knew her uncle well, women who had less to fear under Stroessner in some ways since they never had to worry about losing a job. When you make a living as a nightclub act in drag, there’s little chance that being on a blacklist would cause you to be fired.

Structured as a kind of detective story with Ms. Perdomo digging into her uncle’s past, including a survey of police records, we are drawn into the plot and the circumstances of her uncle’s death. One assessment from a family relative: he died of sadness. Thanks to the efforts of gay activists in Paraguay and everywhere else in the world, such casualties are becoming fewer and fewer.

If you’ve ever visited downtown Los Angeles, you’ve probably seen the Skid Row area that is home to the homeless. In humanizing its denizens, who are bedeviled by drugs and mental illness or both, “Lost Angels” deserves place of honor next to “Dark Days”, the 2000 documentary about homeless men and women living in the train tunnels beneath Grand Central.

Like “108: Cuchillo de Palo”, there was a woman whose creative vision was behind “Lost Angels”. Writer and co-producer Christine Triano was formerly the editor of Alternet, one of the Internet’s higher profile progressive websites.

Departing from the predominantly pro-Democratic Party slant of Alternet, Triano has no use for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who has been spearheading a drive to throw the homeless out of downtown L.A. as part of a gentrification effort that will transform Single Room Occupancy Hotels into lofts for hedge fund managers and web developers. Villaraigosa had hired New York’s former police commissioner William Bratton to “clean up” the city, especially its Skid Row. As Mayor Giuliani’s right-hand man, Bratton had the necessary experience to terrorize the poor through implementation of a “broken window” theory that states that when you crack down on petty crimes, you undermine serious crime as well.

Giuliani’s crackdown was examined in another fine documentary titled “Giuliani Time” about which I had to say:

[Rightwing think-tank analyst Myron] Magnet explains that Giuliani assumed power largely on the basis of the “broken window” theory pioneered by the ideologues at the Manhattan Institute. This posits the notion that petty crimes (or even offenses to bourgeois values) such as street-level drug dealing or panhandling have to be eradicated in order for larger law-and-order values to prevail. Unfortunately, many decent middle-class New Yorkers, who tended to vote Democrat, got suckered into voting for Giuliani because they were fed up with panhandlers, crack vials in their vestibule, etc.

It is clear that Los Angeles voters were suckered into backing Villaraigosa on the same basis, an outcome that was welcomed by The Nation Magazine’s Marc Cooper who crowed:

Villaraigosa’s campaign embodies not just the hopes for a rising Los Angeles progressive politics; it has taken on national significance as well. “LA has become a national bully pulpit in fighting for working families across the country. If we are successful in electing a mayor who can expand the middle class, then it will become a national watershed,” says Martin Ludlow, political director of the County Federation of Labor and Villaraigosa’s former legislative chief of staff.

As a cri de coeur, both of these films will certainly command the attention of anybody with a moral conviction that the oppression of society’s outsiders, whether the gay men of Paraguay or Los Angeles’s down and out, must come to an end. Although the left has a reputation of being weak and divided, the existence of such powerful works of art and advocacy are a reminder that our message will be heard. I especially recommend the website for “Lost Angels” that has links to groups fighting against the eviction of the homeless and other causes on their behalf.

“Lost Angels” is available on DVD from the Cinema Libre Store as well as Amazon and other web retailers.

It’s also available digitally via HULU and Amazon Instant very soon.

September 26, 2012

Dear Mandela

Filed under: Film,housing,South Africa — louisproyect @ 4:12 pm

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of “Dear Mandela”, a documentary now showing at the IndieScreen Theater in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn through tomorrow evening. After a decade or more of Hollywood movies like “Invictus” or “In My Country” that can best be described as public relations for the ANC, a fierce documentary directed by Dara Kell, a South African now living in the U.S., and Christopher Nizza, finally catches up with reality–a system of economic apartheid has replaced one based on race.

Just as the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 helped galvanize a movement against racial apartheid, the slaughter of 36 miners in Marikana creates the political context for a new freedom struggle based on class. To understand how South Africa has entered a new terrain of struggle, there is no better introduction than “Dear Mandela”, a film that focuses on the struggle against slum clearance in the name of “development” that took place in the outskirts of Durban. We meet three young activists of Abahlali baseMjondolo (Residents of the Shacks) who are committed to the rights of the poor to live in informal settlements. Despite the promise of President Nelson Mandela that every South African would have the right to a decent home, the new ANC pushed through legislation that would give the government the right to demolish the shacks that the poor were forced to live in. Each day “Red Ants”–work crews in red coveralls–come to the slums and raze their shacks to the ground and each day community members rebuild them. They had learned that ANC promises to build new homes were empty.

The only solution was to challenge the constitutionality of the law that allowed the state to rob the poor of their only shelter. Minister of Housing Lindiwe Susulu is heard defending the law and expressing surprise at the movement of slum dwellers against it. As the daughter of Walter and Albertina Susulu, she is about as apt a symbol of the ANC’s degeneration as can be imagined. When I visited the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia in 1987, I met Albertina Susulu whose husband was serving his 24th year in prison at the time. Like most activists opposed to apartheid, I never would have dreamed that 20 years later their daughter would defend a law that could have been written by the De Klerk government.

The three main protagonists of “Dear Mandela” are Mazwi, a high school student, Zama, a mother and university student, and Mnikelo, a shopkeeper and activist who I had the good fortune to interview this morning while he was in New York for a nationwide tour coinciding with the film’s debut.

In the film, Mnikelo goes to recently evicted slum dwellers with a copy of the South African Constitution to tell them about their rights. When he and other members of the movement boycott national elections under the slogan “No Land, No House, No Vote”, he becomes a target of the ANC.

The relationship between the ANC and such activists provides the central dramatic tension throughout the film. In one of the more memorable scenes, Mazwi speaks to a rally of slum dwellers and leads them in chants directed against rightwing parties that they eagerly take up. But when he yells out “Down with the ANC”, he is met with stony silence. Later he explains that the old folks still have a fondness for Nelson Mandela that is expressed in his portraits seen on the walls of many shacks. Some, however, have grown tired of this nostalgia as demonstrated by their willingness to deface graffiti from decades past. They have crossed out the word “Free” in “Free Nelson Mandela” and replaced it with “Hang”.

You can understand the rising anger. In one of the more terrifying moments of the film, activists scatter for their lives as a group of armed men invade the community with the intention of killing people like Mazwi, Zama, and Mnikelo. Instead of apprehending the invaders, the cops end up arresting a group of men assigned to provide security for the shack dwellers—a deed that anticipates the Marikana disaster.

When I raised the question of Marikana with Mnikelo, he thought that it marked a turning point for the ANC. When cops can kill miners in this fashion, it shows disrespect for the nation’s laws. A responsible police force might have resorted to rubber bullets to disperse a violent mob, but shooting people in cold blood was an unlawful act. As always, Mnikelo demonstrated his mastery of constitutional law.

For those who have grown disillusioned with the ANC, the film is an inspiring reminder that “the struggle continues” in South Africa. At one point, S’Bu Zikode, the leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo is described as the new Nelson Mandela. It is hard to argue with this claim after seeing “Dear Mandela”. I would add that the three young activists remind me of the young ANC’ers I met in Lusaka back in 1987 before they were born. Their idealism, their intelligence and their willingness to put their bodies on the line are qualities that once defined the ANC. Fortunately for South Africa, a new generation has once again risen to the occasion.

If “Dear Mandela” was nothing but a clumsy Youtube video with zero production values, there would still be a compelling need to watch it as a document about South African reality today, so much so that it would probably go viral in a couple of days. The good news is that “Dear Mandela” is a top-notch production that will certainly earn my nomination for best documentary of 2012. With a superb score by Ted Reichman, who has worked with Marc Ribot and other leading edge musicians, the film’s dramatic moments receive just the right accompaniment. The cinematography stands out as well, a function no doubt of acclaimed Director of Photography Matthew Peterson’s involvement. To his great credit, Peterson worked for free. Funding came from the Sundance Institute, an outfit that I have faulted in the past for its tendency to foist the worst art-house clichés of young narrative filmmakers. But with this brilliant, powerful and timely documentary, I can say all is forgiven.

Although “Dear Mandela” runs only through tomorrow in Brooklyn, a national and global roll-out might bring it within nearby viewing distance. Check the schedule on the film’s website and make sure to put it on your calendar if it is coming to your neck of the woods.

August 24, 2010

The Housing Question

Filed under: financial crisis,housing — louisproyect @ 3:45 pm

Thousands of people hoping to get federal housing assistance fill the Tri-Cities Plaza in East Point, Ga., on Wednesday. Sixty were taken to hospitals as a result of scuffles and sweltering heat at the shopping center

Among the “entitlements” targeted by the ruling class today is home ownership, something that had been elevated to the same plane as motherhood, the American flag and apple pie in the 1950s. But lately the same kind of “concern” over social security going broke has been mounting for this quintessential symbol of the “American system”.

Robert J. Samuelson wrote about How a homeownership fetish hurt the American dream in the August 23rd Washington Post. Odd to see such a cherished goal likened to leather, bikini underwear and stiletto heels. He states:

In an ideal world, we would discard failed policies. We would trim or end the mortgage-interest tax deduction. We would curtail the GSEs’ loans and guarantees (the promise to repay mortgages that default). The consequences need not be dire. The homeownership rate, already down to 67 percent from its 2004-06 peak of 69 percent, would probably stabilize in the mid-60s. People would save more for down payments. Mortgage rates might rise a bit.

The GSE’s are Government Sponsored Enterprises, namely Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that have made cheap credit available, while the mortgage interest tax deduction is one of the primary incentives for buying rather than renting a home. From what I have heard over the years, including from the late Peter Camejo who was my informal financial adviser for a time in the early 80s, this mortgage deduction amounts to found money. At the time I was living in Mitchell-Lama subsidized housing so it didn’t matter that much to me. Now that the subsidy has ended and I am paying $2450 per month, I am more inclined to think about buying something—just when that found money might disappear. Aw, shucks.

The Wall Street Journal reported more or less the same thing on the 20th:

A consensus seems to be forming among policy makers on Capitol Hill: Housing subsidies need to be reduced over the next handful of years.

However, some legislative observers are worried about what that will mean for affordable rental homes.

“I think we’ve not paid close enough attention to rental housing and the advantages of that,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

“Not everyone can or should have a single-family home, and I think government should think more clearly about how it can help with respect to rental housing,” he said.

The matter of rental units came up during a forum on housing finance and the role of government on Tuesday.

Reading such articles summons up the image of a time machine. The pages of a calendar peel off as we head back to the 1930s and earlier, long before New Deal programs convinced working people that American society was the best thing that ever happened to them.

The goal of the ruling class appears to turn the clock back to the pre-WWI period when housing was intended primarily for the well-heeled. In Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen’s invaluable “Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened”, the story of the transformation of home ownership is laid out in popularly written but Marxist terms. (Some of the book can be read on Google.)

Unlike programs such as social security or Medicare, affordable housing would benefit both bosses and workers. That at least was the argument of enlightened segments of the bourgeoisie, including Edward Filene, the founder of the famous Boston department store where I worked briefly in 1973.

In 1925 Filene wrote a book titled “The Way Out” that proposed solutions to what he considered a wasteful class struggle, including a Fordist approach to housing. He urged that houses become as cheap as the Model A, using the technology of the factory floor (Filene believed in Frederick Taylor’s principles) applied to home building. His belief in mass-produced goods and consumption is just the sort of thing that Gramsci analyzed in his prison writings.

Despite fitful attempts to fulfill Filene’s vision, home ownership in the 1920s remained an elite privilege. It was only in the 1930s that the government got involved in making this a reality for the masses. As was the case across the board, the New Deal approach to housing was Keynesian rather than socialist. Construction was seen as a way to stimulate the economy. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) founded in 1934 was the primary tool to grease the wheels of a stalled economy. The FHA promoted home ownership through low-interest, 30 year mortgages now deemed counter-productive by pundits in the bourgeois press.

Alongside the FHA, the New Deal also established public housing projects of the sort that were more familiar in the European social democracy through the Public Works Administration (PWA). These projects were often co-sponsored by trade unions, such as the Carl Mackley development in Philadelphia that was supervised by Catherine Bauer, the executive director of the AFL. It had swimming pools, tennis courts and a library.

As might be expected, the Republican Party was hostile to such initiatives. After WWII, the USA was at a crossroads. There was a huge housing shortage, affecting many of the soldiers who had risked their lives in Europe and the Pacific. Something had to be done but there were ideological differences about how to do it.

These differences came to a head in Senate hearings on the housing shortage run by the infamous red-baiter Joe McCarthy in 1947 and 1948. Best known for his fascist-like attack on the CPUSA, McCarthy was also determined to block any government program that smacked of “socialism”, including housing like the Carl Mackley project.

Early in the hearings he toured the Rego Park Veterans Housing Project in Queens, NY which he described as “a deliberately created slum area, at federal expense…a breeding ground for communists.” Despite his ultraright politics, McCarthy opted for a solution not that much different from that embodied in Edward Filene’s book and in the FHA, namely a partnership between government and private industry that would kill two birds with one stone: satisfy the yearnings for home ownership by the workers and corporate profits.

McCarthy intimidated witnesses favoring public housing in the hearings just as he would bully Communists in a couple of years. But Anne Alpern, solicitor general for the city of Pittsburgh, used her ten minutes to defend a perspective that is under siege once again today:

I think of Washington not as some foreign power, but as a part of our democracy; and by working together we can establish a better government… We require central planning and that’s what we have in Washington… I believe in a democracy. People are entitled to the right to live and in that is the right to live decently.

The New Deal FHA became the chief instrument through which low-cost housing became available to the working class, but without any commitment to the underlying egalitarian values that some new dealers espoused. This was an FHA that was much closer to the sensibilities of Harry Truman, a red-baiter himself who was after all the sponsor of the first Cold War anti-Communist legislation that Joe McCarthy would use as a basis for further purges.

According to Baxandall and Ewen, this was a FHA that tolerated shoddy housing consisting of “small rooms, crackpot prefab schemes, and shacks resembling emergency war housing.” The home builders associations sided with the FHA and against the public, including the Lustrom Corporation, builders of factory-produced houses made of metal (!) that were lauded in company literature written by Joe McCarthy himself.

With the expansion of the American economy and a steady increase in wages, workers were able to buy bigger and better homes through the use of 30 year, low interest mortgages and a tax break on interest payments. The purchase of houses fueled the economy and everything went swimmingly well until 2008 when the economy ran into a brick wall. Instead of figuring out a way to maintain the standard of living of the American working class, the people who run society are figuring out ways to support the extravagant life style of the people on top—to hell with the people on the bottom as these two items would demonstrate:

EAST POINT, Ga.—The weak economy has expanded the ranks of people chasing the limited number of federal housing vouchers, leading to a surge in applications nationwide and chaotic scenes here this week.

Sixty people were taken to hospitals Wednesday in this Atlanta suburb after a lengthy wait and an angry mob scene in a sweltering shopping-center parking lot. Those treated for heat exposure and injuries from scuffles were among 30,000 people who had lined up for a waiting list for just 455 vouchers to cover part of their rent.

Some camped out for nearly three days in temperatures that neared 100 degrees, including pregnant women, elderly in wheelchairs and people who drove down from New York City and Philadelphia, hoping to get on the waiting list in East Point for Housing Choice, or Section 8, vouchers.

The number of public housing units and vouchers has fallen in the past decade, as public housing blocks have been torn down, costs have risen and federal budgets have stayed flat. Waiting lists for vouchers in most major U.S. cities have been closed in recent years.

Those who make it onto the lists often have to wait for eight to 10 years to receive a voucher, which is a guarantee that a local housing authority will pay a portion of the tenant’s rent directly to the landlord. High unemployment and rising rents have made these vouchers even more of a precious commodity.

Read full: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703321004575427712156175190.html

NY Times July 28, 2010
Conan O’Brien Sells Duplex for $25 Million
By ELIZABETH A. HARRIS

CONAN O’BRIEN has more than 1.24 million followers on Twitter. (As a frame of reference, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has about 6,900.) His Twitter bio reads, “I had a show. Then I had a different show. Now I have a Twitter account.”

Mr. O’Brien also had a sprawling duplex in the Majestic, the Art Deco co-op building at 115 Central Park West — but not anymore.

That apartment was just sold to David M. Zaslav, the chief executive of Discovery Communications, for $25 million, one of the highest prices paid for a Manhattan apartment this year.

Onward and upward, Coco!

The apartment was listed with John Burger, a managing director of Brown Harris Stevens, for $29.5 million. Chris Poore, a senior vice president of the Corcoran Group, represented the buyer.

Mr. Burger said he was not authorized to discuss the transaction, and Mr. Poore could not comment either. But according to people with knowledge of the deal, Mr. Zaslav is getting a fully furnished apartment with seven bedrooms, eight-and-a-half bathrooms and three terraces.

Mr. O’Brien was the host of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” for 16 years before moving to Los Angeles for a brief but dramatic stint as the host of “The Tonight Show.” That arrangement dissolved early this year, and Mr. O’Brien walked away with a $45 million settlement, some $33 million for himself and the rest for his staff.

Later this year, he’ll start a new show on TBS.

Further reading: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/07/27/the-housing-question/

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