Counter-development or Bust!

As it turns out, I’ve been welcoming in America’s bright new tomorrow with a kind of seething rage against everyone and everything. Not that some substantial fraction of all that hasn’t been asking for it. We are probably, thanks to the election results, a month or two further away from the Blackwater-run debtors’ prisons that would most likely be our NEW New Deal, but I still don’t see much of any indication that anyone in Washington has tripped to the fact that there are poor people in America. This week, my part-time job is a three-day, 16-hour (total) affair, which would be nothing short of a disaster if I wasn’t temporarily dodging rent costs. I would seriously consider moving on again, but I can’t even raise money for a move at this rate. Meanwhile, Portland is the very picture of relentless gentrification, and East County is becoming a rather tense, ill-prepared reservoir for the metro area’s tired, poor, homeless, etc. Central Eastside, where Laughing Horse is located, is about to get its own next dose of urban renewal, the Eastside Burnside-Couch Couplet, which promises to complicate life for the next year or two with massive construction, and later, with increased rents. You can watch a nice little computer simulation of what’s in store. The tour stops before completing the loop, just before you pass the methadone clinic, ahead on your left. (For a slightly out-of-date look at the terrain to be restructured, type “E Burnside St & NE Sandy Blvd Portland, OR” into Google Maps, and play with the street view feature.)

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

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

In the meantime, wish us luck in the Rose City, as the Burnside Bridgehead seems to be a beachhead in a new war.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2628 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.