Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 1, 2019

The political economy of homelessness

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,housing — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 1, 2019

In 2009, Hollywood tried to get us to care about the nearly 50,000 homeless people in Los Angeles by releasing a film titled “The Soloist”. It starred Jamie Foxx as the real-life, trained classical musician Nathaniel Ayers who ended up on the streets as a result of schizophrenia. This chronic illness makes such people especially vulnerable when tax-starved municipal governments can no longer fund support networks. It was up to LA Times reporter Steve Lopez to tell his story, after happening upon him on the streets playing a cello (in the film, it was a violin). Ayers barely got by from the small donations he received playing on the streets. It was left to Lopez to rescue him from the hell of LA’s streets. You can see Ayers playing the violin here:

This year there’s hope for the salvation of another lost soul from the mean streets of LA. Like Ayers, Emily Zamourka studied in a conservatory. When a homeless man stole the violin that provided a livelihood, the landlord evicted her. She ended up on the streets singing opera, another of her skills. When a cop made a video of her singing in the subway, it soon went viral and led to articles just like the one Lopez wrote for Ayers. As an indication that she might have psychological problems that helped to land her on the streets, she just lost the recording contract because of not showing up for paying gigs.

 

For most Los Angelenos, the homeless are hardly worth noticing, if not a total infringement on their quality of life. In an October 22nd NY Times article titled “Backlash Against the Homeless As a Crisis Builds in California”, you get the picture of what solid citizens have to put up with:

For many, that breaking point was the worsening squalor in the streets of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where open-air drug dealing is rampant in some spots and where human feces and scattered needles and syringes have been found lying about. Those scenes have also proved a potent symbol for Republicans like President Trump to showcase what they call the failures of liberal urban enclaves.

This year an appeals court ruled that Boise, Idaho did not have the right to make sleeping in public illegal. Dave Bieter, Boise’s Mayor, has now taken the case to the Supreme Court, where the rightwing majority will likely side with him and Trump, even if Boise can hardly be described as a liberal enclave. Oh, did I mention that Bieter is a Democrat and an early supporter of Obama for President in 2008?

Continue reading

August 14, 2019

Hong Kong…a Colored Revolution?

Filed under: Hong Kong,housing,workers — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

As predictable as the Sun rising in the East, the same people who have defended Assad and Putin are now supporting Xi Jinping’s attempt to crush the protest movement in Hong Kong. Just check Max Blumenthal or Ben Norton’s Twitter accounts and you will find dark warnings about Trump using the protests as a way to undermine Chinese influence globally. Does it matter that Trump refers to these protests as “riots”? Probably not, since Grayzone is effectively a Fact-Free Zone.

Trump Says It’s Up to China to Deal With Hong Kong ‘Riots’

By Reuters

Aug. 2, 2019

HONG KONG — U.S. President Donald Trump has described protests in Hong Kong as “riots” that China will have to deal with itself, signalling a hands-off approach to the biggest political crisis gripping the former British colony in decades.

Ever since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 that protested what was seen as a rigged election allowing Yanukovych to become President, massive protests against government the USA opposes are labelled “color revolutions”. The same villains keep surfacing in the “anti-imperialist” narrative: the CIA, the NED, George Soros, Gene Sharp, Human Rights Watch, Doctors without Borders, etc. This narrative has a certain amount of credibility since American imperialism always seeks its own goals by maneuvering in troubled waters. As it happened, the CIA reached out to Fidel Castro at the very moment it was committed to Batista. Like Goldman-Sachs donating to both Trump and Clinton’s campaigns in 2016, it hedges its bets.

While technically not a “colored revolution”, the 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong conformed to the established pattern. The movement sought to eliminate a 1,200 member Election Committee that would be the arbiter of who would be able to run for elected office, just as the much smaller 12-member Guardian Council in Iran makes such decisions. The goal of the protesters was to eliminate the Election Committee and open up the elections to all comers. It was dubbed the umbrella revolution because umbrellas were used to defend protesters against the pepper spray used by cops.

Writing for Near Eastern Outlook in 2014, F. William Engdahl put forward the typical arguments:

The Hong Kong wunderkind of the Color Revolution Washington destabilization, 17-year-old student, Joshua Wong, founded a Facebook site called Scholarism when he was 15 with support from Washington’s neo-conservative National Endowment for Democracy via its left branch, National Democratic Institute and NDI’s NDItech project. And another Occupy Central leading figure, Audrey Eu Yuet recently met with Vice President Joe Biden. Hmmmm.

In one of Max Blumenthal’s latest Tweets on Hong Kong, he cites this Engdahl who has quite a history. Long associated with Lyndon Larouche’s movement, he believes that the Pentagon orchestrated the Egyptian overthrow of Mubarak and that the entire Arab Spring was a conspiracy plotted by the Bush administration in 2003.

Writing for CounterPunch in 2014, Andre Vltchek used quite the unhinged invective to denounce the protesters after paying lip-service to their motives:

Protesters may have some legitimate grievances. They want direct elections of the chief executive, and there is, in theory, nothing wrong with such a demand. They want to tackle corruption, and to curb the role of local tycoons. That is fine, too.

This sort of thing was heard in 2011 as well when Syrians rose up against Assad. Yes, he was a plutocrat and a dictator but he is the country’s best defense against Al Qaeda. In Hong Kong, the outside agitators weren’t Muslim fanatics but a cabal of CIA agents seeking to turn yuppies against socialist China:

The Hong Kong protest movement reeks of upper middle class bourgeois consciousness, including its cloying cheap sentimentality and unexamined worshipping of Western “heroes”, like Churchill.

Oh, did I mention that Vltchek doesn’t write for CounterPunch any more?

On March 31 this year, the movement re-emerged but without the umbrellas. When a bill was proposed to the Hong Kong parliament that would allow China to extradite criminals, a massive movement broke out that was much more militant than the one five years ago. While the extradition bill was the spark, the explosion could only have occurred with a number of very inflammatory elements that had angered ordinary working people and students in Hong Kong for a number of years. While the desire for a genuine democracy persisted, the fuel that drove people to shut down the airport, invade the parliament building and confront the police had a class basis. Hong Kong was one the most unequal states in the world.

On July 22nd, an article titled “Tiny Apartments and Punishing Work Hours: The Economic Roots of Hong Kong’s Protests” made very clear that the same thing that drove Syrians to rise up against Assad explained the Hong Kong protests: inequality. In an similarly titled article of mine, “The Economic Roots of the Syrian Revolution”, I focused on rural misery caused by drought and government indifference to the plight of the peasantry. In Hong Kong, there was urban misery instead:

“We thought maybe if you get a better education, you can have a better income,” said Kenneth Leung, a 55-year-old college-educated protester. “But in Hong Kong, over the last two decades, people may be able to get a college education, but they are not making more money.”

Mr. Leung joined the protests over Hong Kong’s plan to allow extraditions of criminal suspects to mainland China, where the Communist Party controls the courts and forced confessions are common. But he is also angry about his own situation: He works 12 hours a day, six days a week as a security guard, making $5.75 an hour.

College-educated? A security guard making $5.75 an hour? That hardly sounds like Vltchek’s “upper middle class” ne’er-do-wells. With that kind of income, Leung is forced to live in one of Hong Kong’s many subdivided apartments, his space equaling 100 square feet about twice the size of the average prison cell in the USA.

Like Manhattan, Hong Kong is an island and space is at a premium. Given the shortage of housing, it naturally galled people like Leung that the rich were determined to maintain their privileges.

Critics say government policies that favor property developers make it even worse. The government makes money off sales of land to property developers, so it paces sales to maximize revenue and favors luxury developments over affordable housing, they say.

They cite the time last year when activists asked city officials to consider turning a golf course into public housing. The 54-hole course, the anchor for a 2,600 member golf club nestled amid Hong Kong’s landscape of concrete dominoes, could have housed apartments for 37,000 people. In the end the government chose to set aside less than one-fifth of the land.

Carrie Lam has been the Chief Executive of Hong Kong since July 2017. Her election campaign was closely tied to both the island’s big bourgeoisie and the Chinese government as Wikipedia reports. Her first election rally was attended by many pro-Beijing figures and tycoons from both the Henry Tang and Leung Chun-ying corporate empires. Zhang Xiaoming, who was simultaneously head of the Communist Party’s Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, and Sun Chunlan, head of the party’s United Front Work Department, met with major corporate members of the aforementioned Election Committee. Zhang told the electors that the Politburo of the Communist Party had decided to support Carrie Lam in the election.

For all of the vitriol directed against the protesters, it is worth mentioning that one of the politicians identified with their movement hardly qualifies as an agent of Western imperialist interests. I am referring to Albert Ho, a lawyer and former chairman of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong that emerged out of support to the Tiananmen protests of 1989 and its call for the end of one-party rule in China. For these stands, the party was seen as “treasonous” by Beijing.

Not paying much attention to Max Blumenthal or Andre Vltchek, Edward Snowden hired Albert Ho to represent him in Hong Kong before he fled to Russia. As someone familiar with the naked power of authoritarian governments, Albert Ho was just the kind of attorney who could help him ward off the assaults of the Obama administration whose concern for constitutional rights were about the same as the current White House resident.

Yesterday, the NY Times reported on how “Protests Put Hong Kong on Collision Course With China’s Communist Party”. The final section of the article, which is titled “Fears of A ‘Color Revolution’”, refers to Zhang Xiaoming, who is mentioned just above:

Inside a ballroom at the Wuzhou Guest House in southern China last week, Zhang Xiaoming, Beijing’s top official for Hong Kong, told an audience of 500 politicians and business executives from Hong Kong that the protests “have the clear characteristics of a color revolution,” a reference to uprisings in the former Soviet bloc that Chinese officials believe drew inspiration from the United States.

That’s really ironic, warning business executives about a “color revolution”. There was a time when such movements were regarded as imperialist plots against the sort of sclerotic socialism found in Ukraine, Byelorussia or Georgia. Now, it refers to an uprising made up of security guards making $5.75 per hour living in a subsection of an apartment about twice the size of a prison cell. How we ended up with a left that includes Max Blumenthal and Andre Vletchek that can’t tell the difference between a member of the bourgeoisie and the working class is beyond me. But as long as there are young people defending socialism, even if not in Marxist terms, and more importantly willing to act on behalf of the Kenneth Leung’s of the world, that’s all that matters.

May 3, 2019

Decade of Fire

Filed under: housing,New York,Puerto Rico — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm

Opening today at the Metrograph theater in New York, the documentary “Decade of Fire” tells both the personal story of Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, who grew up in the South Bronx, and the South Bronx itself, which in the 1960s became a virtual synonym for urban decay. The fire in the title refers to the vast number that took place over a decade, reducing the housing stock of a once vibrant, working-class area. This is not just the story of the South Bronx. It is also about the malign neglect that befell many neighborhoods outside the privileged Manhattan island that was the site of Woody Allen movies, including a film of that title, which was so indifferent to the lives of others.

Irizarry produced, directed and served as narrator for “Decade of Fire”. Like many other people in the South Bronx, her grandparents came to the USA from Puerto Rico because of jobs disappearing as a result of Operation Bootstrap, a version of primitive accumulation that was intended to build up the island’s industrial base. As was the case of mechanizing the cotton fields in the South, farmers and those not lucky enough to find a job were forced to relocate.

When I worked for the Welfare Department in Harlem in 1967, I saw the same kind of destruction. When I visited families on the side streets between 8th Avenue (now called Frederick Douglass Boulevard) and Manhattan Avenue, it seemed like at least one out of four buildings were either totally or partially destroyed by fire. But it was the South Bronx that loomed the largest as a symbol of urban ruin, with both politicians and comedians using it as shorthand for “the ghetto”.

In one of the more eye-opening scenes in the film, we see the people of South Bronx literally trying to drive the film crew of “Fort Apache, the Bronx” from their neighborhood. Like “The Warriors”, another lurid and racist film set in the Bronx that is excerpted in the documentary, it dehumanized the largely Latino and Black residents as “thugs”. Not having seen “The Warriors”, I do wonder how much it distorted the Sol Yurick novel it was based on. Sol, a deeply anti-racist and Marxist author whose class on world literature as an expression of the ruling class I took at the Brecht Forum, wrote “The Warriors” as an adaptation of “Anabasis”, the history of the Greco-Persian wars written about Xenophon. Like everything else Hollywood touches, it turned Sol’s story into trash.

Although the housing stock in the South Bronx was deteriorating by the 1960s, it was by no means uninhabitable. Essentially, the banks and the capitalist state decided not to help keep it afloat, a pattern that keeps being repeated in the USA, with the latest iteration Obama’s cozy arrangement with Wall Street that bailed out the bankers, who avoided criminal prosecution. In the case of the South Bronx, a tightly-enforced red-line policy made investments in the upkeep of the buildings there next to impossible.

Once the deterioration began to quicken, landlords decided to bail out. To get the most they could out of their abandonment, they hired locals to set fire to the buildings in exchange for a paltry payment. In every instance, they were paid for their efforts by the insurance companies. The role of the fire department in all this was key to the wholesale destruction. It failed to sustain the arson investigation unit and went along with drastic cuts in firehouses in the South Bronx, all under the watch of John O’Hagan, a racist who we see explaining the fires as the result of people being crowded into apartments and not understanding the norms of urban life. He might as well have called the people of the South Bronx apes.

One after another we see politicians like the iconic liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay to the execrable Ed Koch justifying the neglect of the South Bronx. Worst of all is Patrick Moynihan, the life-long Democrat who was Assistant to President Nixon on Domestic Policy and notorious for his theory of “benign neglect”. Watching him defend his ideas is enough to turn your stomach.

What finally began to stanch the bleeding was community activism that the director became part of. In the 1980s a series of co-operatives began to clean out the burned buildings and renovate them. These efforts were actually closely tied to the emergence of Puerto Rican nationalism that viewed the South Bronx as a kind of “liberated” territory. In the decades that followed, money began to be funneled into the area but often as part of a gentrification project that is ongoing. Community activists have insisted on the right of residents to determine the future of housing in the South Bronx, not banks or real estate developers.

July 23, 2018

The New York City real estate/housing crisis, part 3

Filed under: housing,real estate — louisproyect @ 4:06 pm

An ongoing impromptu demonstration across the street from my high-rise building on Manhattan’s exclusive upper east side reminded me of a series of posts I started on real estate. Kaia, a tiny wine bar that featured mostly appetizers native to South Africa and that was shut down by tax collectors, has prompted its loyal customers to post statements of solidarity on its windows next to the tax collector’s scary looking red sign. In all the years I have been living in Manhattan, I have never seen such a proclamation even though bankruptcy notices are omnipresent.

I am in no position to judge the merits of the actual tax liability incurred by Kaia but I have a feeling that owner Suzaan Hauptfleisch was perhaps delaying tax payments because of the onerous rent she was paying for the tiny space of around 500 square feet, which I estimate to be about $10,000 per month. Wine bars typically are closed until around 5pm so this meant that this would require heavy traffic every night. My wife and I used to stop in at Kaia’s when it opened in 2010 but were forced to become former customers when a glass of wine began to cost at least $15. I have no idea how the regulars there could afford the place but then again one bedroom condos in the neighborhood are going for $850,000.

Hauptfleisch’s background is noteworthy as the Falung Gong free newspaper, of all places, reports.

Hauptfleisch grew up on one of the oldest farms in the Free State. Her family owned it for 250 years.

“We were people from the land,” she said. “I loved walking long distances and singing at the top of my lungs as a child.”

“We had a big farm. … I walked through corn fields to be alone and get away from it all,” she said.

Hauptfleisch grew up during apartheid. She recalled living in perpetual fear of farm killings.

“That was always a problem in the early 1990s,” she said. “People would murder entire families on white farms.”

It was uncommon for white South African farmers to be liberals during that time, but Hauptfleisch’s family was. In 1968, Hauptfleisch’s paternal grandmother Cienie Hauptfleisch founded a school on the farm for black children.

The school had one teacher, who taught at levels from first grade to ninth grade until the family lost the farm in 1993 due to financial troubles.

But during its 25 years of existence, the school produced several students who went on to higher education and became teachers, lawyers, and doctors.

“To this day, I believe we weren’t touched because of my [family’s] name,” Hauptfleisch said.

A couple of days ago, I stopped in front of Kaia’s and struck up a conversation with a woman who was not only a customer but someone who completely understood the real estate crisis in New York that besides forcing people into homelessness makes places like Kaia casualties of greedy landlords. She referred me to a story that appeared on NY One, the city’s cable TV all news network:

 

Artist displays Monopoly-like cards on vacant Manhattan storefronts

By Lindsey Christ  |  July 6, 2018 @10:11 PM

At the legendary corner of Bleecker and MacDougal streets, several storefronts are empty. Pasted on the windows are mysterious posters resembling oversized Monopoly cards.

“It looked like a big game between tenants and landlords and politicians, and nobody wanted to take responsibility for anything, and everybody was just trying to play this big game,” said the artist who created them.

The artist says he has placed them on 80 vacant storefronts in Manhattan over the past three weeks, a one-man protest of how rising rents are forcing many shops and stores to close. He agreed to talk to NY1 only if he appeared in disguise.

“New York as a vibrant city is losing something,” he said. “We gain nothing from storefronts that sit empty. There’s no nightlife, there’s no life there, there’s no merchandise. Nothing’s happening, and it’s a loss for all of us.”

One Monopoly card is posted on 203 Bleecker Street. Carol Walsh’s store, Native Leather, had been here 49 years until October, when she says the landlord made it impossible to stay.

“He wanted to practically double the rent for the next tenant,” she said. “And I mean, I couldn’t do it.”

NY1 recently counted more than 50 empty stores along Bleecker Street, an iconic Greenwich Village address.

Experts say it’s not just rising rents causing the wave of vacancies, but also the shift to e-commerce.

The Monopoly cards also are displayed along Broadway and Lexington Avenue, and around the Lower East Side.

The artist says he would love to make Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue versions of his Monopoly cards to paste on empty storefronts uptown, but he’s worried that area might be a little too high-profile for his unsanctioned art.

“Lots of security cameras, so maybe in the stealth of night, I’ll visit them,” he said.

He came up with the monthly rent prices on the cards from Real Estate Board of New York reports.

He says the response, online and on the street, has been overwelmingly positive.

“People really seem to fall in love with this, and they’re really understanding and getting the message, which I find fantastic.”

He says he will continue to post his Monopoly cards because in this real life game of real estate, New Yorkers continue to be losers.

I recommend a visit to the NY One website  to see the video interview with the artist that accompanies the article.

I also recommend tracking down the July issue of Harper’s that has an article titled “The Death of a Once Great City: The fall of New York and the urban crisis of affluence” by Kevin Baker that is thankfully not behind its paywall. Baker writes:

Between 2010 and 2014, Lynch writes, the rents in sixteen Manhattan retail corridors tracked by ­CBRE Group, the self-described largest commercial real estate services and investment firm in the world,

skyrocketed by a whopping 89.1 percent while total retail sales for the borough grew by only 31.9 percent, creating what the commercial brokerage firm called “an unsustainable situation for some tenants as rents surpassed what their sales growth could support.”

What’s more, this price gouging continued even as vacancies multiplied, a supposed impossibility under classical capitalist economics. The better business got, the more stores went under and were abandoned. The more storefronts went vacant, the higher rents kept going.

In some of the swankier districts of Manhattan, this can lead to the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Kanye West, or Tommy Hilfiger “popping up.” In less glamorous neighborhoods, such as my own, it’s more likely to mean the headquarters of a political campaign, or the ubiquitous Halloween costume stores that open now in mid-September. But wherever and whatever they are, the lesson is the same: everything is temporary. The whole idea of a permanent community is fading away.

For previous articles in this series, go to https://louisproyect.org/category/real-estate/.

 

May 31, 2018

The New York City real estate/housing crisis, part 2

Filed under: housing,real estate — louisproyect @ 8:32 pm

Commercial real estate: a soul-destroying monster

I got my first inkling of how escalating real estate prices were degrading Manhattan culture when the Brecht Forum was forced to close shop as the N.Y. Times reported on April 13, 2014:

For nearly 40 years the Brecht Forum has held classes, lectures, symposiums, musical performances and art exhibitions, all organized around the aim of examining the role of the political left in American society.

But in a twist of irony, the institution, long a center of skepticism against capitalism, is closing, apparently felled by market forces, its board of directors announced Saturday in an email.

“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,” the message said, adding, “It has become clear that in a rapidly gentrifying city, we have been living on borrowed time.”

Traditionally, left groups always had an office in Manhattan but I was surprised to learn from Socialist Alternative member James Hoff about 4 years ago that they simply couldn’t afford one. This meant that it would prevent them from having forums in the way that the SWP used to when I was a member 40 years ago. Like Brecht School forums, it gave people on the left an opportunity to meet each other in flesh and blood, a far cry from the disembodied social media universe.

Around the same time, there was a Turkish-owned grocery store on 91st Street and First Avenue, just two blocks east of my high-rise. Not only did it stock Turkish food, you felt transported by the Turkish pop music that was always playing in the store. You could have been in Istanbul for all practical purposes. In addition to this really wonderful store, there was another Turkish-owned store that only sold turşu (pronounced turshu), or pickled vegetables and various cheeses and meze (appetizers) such as humus and eggplant. Both are gone, victims of soaring real estate prices. So did a high-end Turkish take-out specialty store on 3rd Avenue and 80th street bite the dust. The owner, a wild man named Orhan Yegen, couldn’t afford the $20,000 per month rent for a store that had less square footage than my apartment, had to shut down last year. I am told that the rent went way up after he left.

Years ago, pharmacies were owned by the men and women who staffed them and who often functioned like medical advisers. They are all gone for the most part, replaced by CVS and Walgreens that are taking over the city as voraciously as lampreys have taken over the Great Lakes. They have everything you need but they make you feel as alienated as the clerks who work in them. Besides these chains, you have banks on every block with Chase, HSBC, Santander and Citibank multiplying like the tribbles in Star Trek.

Plus the Banana Republics, Gaps, Starbucks, Pret a Mangers, Dunkin Donuts, Au Bon Pains, and every other franchise that has some private capital group behind it. As rents increase, the chance of an outlier to get off the ground gets more and more difficult.

If it is bad enough to have to deal with a monotonous diet of fast food chains and pretentious wannabe “continental” offerings like Au Bon Pain or Le Pain Quotidien, the number of art cinema houses continues to decrease, the most notable example lately being the loss of Lincoln Plaza Cinema that couldn’t afford the new lease at 61st and Broadway where it has been since 1965. Or jazz clubs. In the 1960s, they were all over lower Manhattan from the Five Spot near Cooper Union to Slugs on East 3rd Street. They have all disappeared, partly because jazz lacks the kind of charismatic figures it once had but much more because they have been priced out of the real estate market. Or book stores. Barnes and Noble have become as ubiquitous as CVS’s but they are in danger of being made obsolete by Amazon.com. Back in the 60s you could go to a place like the St. Marks Bookstore and feel connected in a way you’ll never feel in Barnes and Noble even if the clerks were surly.

Chances are when a cool little Turkish grocery store or a restaurant offering authentic Moroccan food disappears, nothing will fill the gap on a timely basis. Another phenomenon relating to exorbitant rental costs are the willingness of landlords to let something remain empty until they can find a tenant who is willing to come up with the money.

On April 16th, author Susan Shapiro wrote about all this in the Daily News. Basically, the landlords can benefit from a scam that you might expect in a city they dominate. Her accountant told her: “These big real estate companies hold out for higher rents to increase the worth of their properties because value is based on future income stream. They can afford to forego current rental income, waiting for higher-paying tenants because they claim big business losses. Landlords get a tax loss from negative rental income when no rent comes in, which cushions their lack of cash flow.”

When a Barnes and Noble closed down at 396 Avenue of the Americas, she was pained by the loss of a place she used to do readings at. Following up on the insights provided by her accountant, she did some research that revealed the following:

An online search showed that building, 396 Avenue of the Americas, is owned by Friedland Properties, valued at $3 billion dollars. They are leasing the space monthly for $139,533 which, if accurate, means the next tenant would have to pay $1,674,396 a year. No wonder it’s still empty.

“A Retail Space for Lease” sign says the managing agent is Cushman & Wakefield, one of America’s largest commercial real-estate conglomerates, with annual revenues of $6 billion. On their website they claim to be “a leading global real estate services firm that helps clients transform the way people work, shop and live.” These real estate companies should be ashamed of the negative transformation their greed has caused.

Last July, Jeremiah Moss’s “Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul” was published. Moss has been observing and photographing the transformation of New York for a number of years now on his blog Vanishing New York, aptly subtitled The book of lamentations: A bitterly nostalgic look at a city in the process of going extinct.

He mourns the passing of porn shops, mom-and-pop restaurants, bookstores, and even an legendary hotel like the St. Denis in which both Alexander Graham Bell and W.E.B DuBois had rooms at one point or another. Politically, Moss understands the forces that are reshaping the city into a sterile playground for financial analysts, web developers, lawyers, and anybody else who can pay the exorbitant residential rental fees that go hand in hand with the commercial real estate inflationary tsunami. The following is from his blog post prompted by the 1985 documentary Empire City that can be rented on Vimeo for $5.99. A trailer appears above.

In the 1980s, under Koch, City Hall’s goal became to re-create New York, making it friendly to big business, tourists, real estate developers, and upscale professionals. In the process, City Hall turned away from its citizens. CUNY professor and urbanist David Harvey has called this the shift from managerialism to entrepreneurialism, meaning that the city government changed its main priority from providing services and benefits for its own people to competing with other cities for outside human resources and capital. In the new competitive city, attracting tourists, newcomers, and corporations was (and still is) more important than taking care of New Yorkers.

Koch discusses this shift in Empire City, saying that New York is now for “banks, insurance companies, white-collar jobs,” and not manufacturing. During his tenure he gifted developers and corporations with the expansion of three kinds of tax abatement: J-51, giving subsidies to landlords to renovate apartments and increase gentrification; 421a, reducing taxes on luxury buildings to induce their construction in “underused” areas; and individual incentives that gave hundreds of millions to corporations like AT&T to bribe them into doing business in New York. It was an expensive smorgasbord. According to urban anthropologist Roger Sanjek, “Between 1984 and 1989, J-51 and 421a tax losses together cost the city $1.4 billion.”

(In 2016, the Times reported that, over the course of his career, Trump “reaped at least $885 million in tax breaks, grants, and other subsidies for luxury apartments, hotels, and office buildings in New York.”)

For the rest of the city, it was austerity — disinvestment, cut-backs, and layoffs.

Part one: How the poor get screwed.

 

May 23, 2018

The New York City real estate/housing crisis, part 1

Filed under: housing,real estate — louisproyect @ 7:30 pm

How poor people get screwed

This week the NY Times published two articles, each in excess of 7,000 words, about the class war being waged on the working poor. While anybody who has lived in NY for a number of years will be familiar with tales of greedy landlords, the revelations are genuinely horrific.

In the one titled “Behind New York’s Housing Crisis: Weakened Laws and Fragmented Regulation”, we learn about the dirty tricks landlords use to drive weak and easily intimidated Black or Latino tenants from rent-controlled (virtually extinct) or rent-regulated buildings in order to transform them into condos or high-rent buildings for the mostly white college graduates working in high tech, finance or other lucrative fields.

Once such a building gets into the hands of an unscrupulous landlord, the first step is to bribe some tenants to move out with an amount that might seem generous to the recipient but pocket change to the typically secretive real estate firm hiding behind a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC). Once the apartments are vacant, the construction crews flout regulations and make the building unlivable through noise that continues through the night, dust, and odors.

Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood with a mixture of Black and Hasidic residents, has now become a hotbed of gentrification where thuggish building owners see buildings like the one on 632 Sterling in the same way a shark sees a seal (I suppose that this does not do justice to sharks that are only killing to survive instead of accumulating capital.)

Cynthia Wilkie, right, and her daughter, Wendy, temporarily rented an apartment for $2,110 a month — almost triple what they paid for the Sterling Place apartment they had to leave. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

A 62-year old African-American tenant named Cynthia Wilkie sized up Asher Sussman, the new owner: “All he was seeing was dollar signs.” Housing regulations stipulated that  construction would not “create dust, dirt, or other inconveniences.” Sussman started off by paying off a couple of tenants to move but Wilkie was determined to stay. She had lived there for 22 years and paid about $850 a month for a three-bedroom apartment she shared with her brother, daughter and two grandchildren. She had diabetes and had undergone double-bypass heart surgery. Her 33-year old daughter Wendy was blind and wheelchair-bound as a result of childhood brain cancer, while her brother had lost his right leg to diabetes.

By early 2016, the regulation-defying construction kicked in, as well as the elimination of basic provisions such as heating. The Times stated: “The second and third floors were gutted. A staircase was removed. A hole was cut into the roof. Debris was piled in corners, against walls. Dust was everywhere.”

Deemed unsafe, the city moved the Wilkies and other tenants to a Days Inn motel. After about a year, the authorities told her fragile family to move to a homeless shelter, something that was obviously unacceptable to Cynthia Wilkie. They eventually moved to an apartment in Brownsville, a neighborhood still relatively untouched by the gentrification bulldozer. It had a bathroom too small for Wendy’s wheelchair and cost $2,110 per month, almost three times the old rent.

The follow-up article titled “The Eviction Machine Churning Through New York City” reveals how the housing court that was originally intended to defend people like the Wilkies has turned into the landlord’s weapon. Not only do they have to contend with scumbag landlords, they must fend off the shysters they hire to harass them with eviction notices over various infractions that the Times characterizes as baseless in most cases.

After living for more than a half-century in a rent-regulated apartment on West 109th Street, Neri Carranza was targeted for eviction. Ángel Franco for The New York Times

Like the focus on Cynthia Wilkie in the first article, this one chronicles the horrors that a 94-year Puerto Rican woman named Neri Carranza had to put up with when her building on West 109th St. caught in the gentrification net.

After getting a job in a glass factory in 1956, Carranza found a small two-bedroom apartment to her liking on W. 109. Fifty-four years later when she was 87, she learned that the building had been sold to the Orbach Group that promptly served her with an eviction notice. Why? Because it claimed that she was not living there. This was obvious nonsense but since the Orbach Group had paid $76 million for her building and 21 others nearby, they were wealthy and powerful enough to hire lawyers who could overpower any housing attorney working for peanuts.

The Orbach Group was founded by Meyer Orbach, who is a part owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team. In addition to the usual tactics of illegal construction and baseless eviction notices, he came up with a novel idea of how to make the mostly Latino residents on W. 109 feel unwelcome. He put gates in front of each building that made traditional social interaction by sitting on the stoop more difficult.

People being served with eviction notices like Ms. Carranza face a double jeopardy. If the Kafkaesque Housing Court that is stacked in favor of the landlord rules in his favor, it may be impossible to find a new apartment because your name goes into a black list. Even if evictions are relatively rare, many tenants grown weary of legal battles just throw in the towel and move.

One of her neighbors demonstrates how these buyouts end up to the tenant’s disadvantage:

Fallou Diop, whose family lived a few doors down from Ms. Carranza on 109th Street, was sued twice by Orbach: in 2009 for falling behind on his $1,144-a-month rent, and in 2011 for allegedly subletting rooms in his apartment. He paid his back rent. The “subletters” were relatives who had lived with him for 19 years. But about two years after winning the second case, Mr. Diop agreed to leave.

“I was sick of fighting with them and sick of the harassment,” said Mr. Diop, a retired baker who said he took a $50,000 buyout, a seeming fortune at the time. He then rented an apartment in the Bronx for $2,700 a month.

In June 2016, Orbach advertised Mr. Diop’s old apartment, urging prospective tenants, in capital letters, to “call today to view this beauty.” The monthly rent would be $4,200.

The deal did not work out so well for Mr. Diop. The buyout money ran out. At 65, he sleeps on his ex-girlfriend’s couch.

Grown weary of court battles like Mr. Diop, Carranza finally took a $100,000 buyout and moved to her niece’s house in rural Pennsylvania. The 94-year old woman, who does not speak English, has no church with services in Spanish to go to. Nor is there a grocery catering to Latinos. Nor friends to visit, nor stoops to sit on even behind a gate. There are not even sidewalks.

The Orbach Group saw W. 109th as the ideal location for Columbia students to rent an apartment. A 2015 NY Times article titled “Longtime Tenants in Manhattan See an Effort to Push Them Out” identified my old employer and Meyer Orbach as co-conspirators in a gentrification move against the working class and the poor.

Calling its new properties Columbia South, the Orbach Group began using a logo on its buildings and website that mimicked Columbia’s and offered tenants a free shuttle bus to the campus, only 9 fucking blocks away. Orbach sees the Columbia tie-in as a win-win situation. Not only are students able to pay higher rents, they are transient and thus enable him to raise the rent for the next student. After graduating, the student might get a high-paying job that will make living in an Upper East Side condo possible. In fact, there are buildings all around me that probably house many Columbia graduates now working as lawyers, doctors or investment bankers.

Ms. Carranza, who was energetic in her younger years, even earning a black belt in karate, made a visit to her old neighborhood as the NY Times describes poignantly:

Last fall, Ms. Carranza returned to close her bank account. She stood in front of her building, surrounded by friends, telling them that there were no Latinos in all of Pennsylvania.

“There’s no one to talk to,” she said. “You can talk to the trees.”

Her name was still on the buzzer at 247 West 109th Street. After a tenant invited her inside, Ms. Carranza ran her hand along the hallway as she walked, pointing out her apartment — No. 2 — and her mailbox.

After years of failed requests for the most basic repairs, her apartment had been completely remodeled — illegally, as no building permit was ever filed, buildings department records show. Two Columbia students paid about $3,500 a month to live there.

Ms. Carranza walked through the home she could no longer recognize, running her hand along the new kitchen counter, touching the new sink, remembering where she used to keep her French dining set, where she used to sleep. A stairway had been added, leading to new basement rooms. She gave one tenant a sideways glance.

“Do you think he’ll leave?” Ms. Carranza asked her niece. She paused, thinking. “What if they’d give me my apartment back?”

She would sit on the stoop again, and she would invite people over for dinner again, and she would fry chicken again. What happiness she would have, she said, if only she again had her home.

In my next post in this series, I will take up the CVS-ization of Manhattan.

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.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.