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The Arts

City Rights

Local conference brings together a nationwide web of people working toward redefining the urban space

Nick Wisniewski
Alec Icky Dunn

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 3/25/2009

The City From Below

March 27-29 at the 2640 Space and other locations.

Visit for more details.

For the past decade, cities big and small have been sites for redevelopment, gentrification, and rebranding. With the collapse of the real-estate market, quickly followed by the economy as a whole, many urban dreams have already been deferred as for sale signs give way to for rent notices and major projects are stopped until financing re-emerges. But for activists who long struggled to fight developers and speculators, the recent halt in economic activity has been an opportunity to rethink what the city means and can become, and this weekend's radical conference, The City From Below, addresses those concerns.

John Duda, one of the founders of the Red Emma's collective, said that he and others--including members from the Indypendent Reader and the Baltimore Development Cooperative--started assembling the conference in November 2008. After American University announced last October that it would not host the National Conference on Organized Resistance, which for 10 years had been an annual gathering point for leftist activists, Duda saw an opening for a different kind of conference.

"We wanted to have a radical urban studies conference," he says during an interview at Red Emma's. "We decided from the beginning that we didn't want it to be an academic conference. If you have a conference on neoliberalism in the city, 20 people get up and tell you about how fucked everything is. We wanted to have people working toward solutions."

News about the conference was circulated on several national activist listservs, and very quickly the organizers realized there was enough interest to go forward with the event, which brings several hundred presenters and participants to Baltimore. The conference brings together union organizers, gardeners, urban planners, housing advocates, anti-prison activists, and environmentalists who are all invested in asserting the rights of low-income people and communities of color in the city.

"Not everyone who is coming is an anti-establishment type," Duda says. "But we've tried to keep it focused on people who are generating strategies of resistance that are very horizontal and bottom-up."

The City From Below arrives amid a recent surge of interest in urban issues. In 2007, the Right to the City coalition was formed in New York, connecting city activists from across the country that were working on a wide range of issues in isolation. In its mission statement, the group asserts the "right to social property alongside and over the right to private property." While the coalition does not yet have a chapter in Baltimore, several of its member organizations are participating in the conference.

While some of the conference's participating groups have been around for decades, many have formed in recent years as the economic pressures associated with urban gentrification made it difficult for low-income city residents to remain in their homes and neighborhoods. Although the collapse of the economy has put a halt to new condo projects and neighborhood rebranding, activists have found new problems, such as the foreclosure crisis, which also affects low-income communities.

In October 2006, Max Rameau, a Miami-based housing activist, formed an organization called Take Back the Land. By occupying a tract of land the city was planning to turn into condos and building what Rameau and associates called the "Umoja Village Shantytown," the group was able both to stop the development and, temporarily, house 50 formerly homeless people. More recently, Rameau, who speaks at The City From Below, has led an effort to move homeless people into houses that have been foreclosed upon.

He said that this direct action, which has drawn local and national media attention, has policy implications. "If a place is not filled within a certain amount of time, some community organization or land trusts should have access to those places," he says by phone. "We need to decide what the fundamental purpose of housing is. Is it a profit center for multinational corporations or is it for human beings?"

Although Take Back the Land began as an anti-gentrification group, Rameau said that it has moved to the next problem facing cities, what he calls capital divestment, where banks and other investors acquire residential property without immediate plans to sell it or make it available for housing. "This is a new phase of land relationships," he says. "The fact is that the government is not doing enough to provide housing for people. Our community organizations need to get together, brainstorm, and figure out what the exact nature of the crisis is."

One of the Baltimore groups participating in the conference is the human rights organization the United Workers Association, which in 2007 helped lead a high-profile struggle to pay cleaning workers at Camden Yards a living wage. Ashley Hufnagel, who has worked as a leadership organizer at the group for the past two and a half years, says that the economic crisis has not fundamentally affected the organization's work.

"For most poor people, they've been in an economic crisis for some time now," she says. "One of the causes of this crisis is that people are paid poverty wages. Now more than ever is when workers should be demanding their human rights to respect and dignity."

To that end, the group is building on its victory at Camden Yards by targeting restaurants at the Inner Harbor that violate what the group identifies as human rights of its workers, citing the Cheesecake Factory, M&S Grill, and Phillip's Seafood. Hufnagel says an advantage of the visibility of urban renewal projects like the 1980s redevelopment of the Inner Harbor, which has been replicated in cities across the country, is that it makes them easy targets for labor activism.

"We definitely feel like workers have the most leverage where there's public visibility and brand recognition," she says. "It's developers and private corporations that profit and benefit from these publicly subsidized benefits like the Inner Harbor. Instead of this money being used for the public good, it's being used to line the pockets of corporations."

Scott Berzofsky, a member of the artist collective the Baltimore Development Cooperative and a conference organizer, will speak about one of the collective's projects, Participation Park, a community garden in East Baltimore. He feels that this project is symbolic of the kinds of projects and organizations that will be represented at the conference.

"It's about people being involved in the process of making their own environment," he says. "In Baltimore you have very top-down forms of urban planning. It's just developers and city officials doing things in their own interests."

The event opens on Friday night with a talk by Baltimore's best-known chronicler of the city's recent history, the geographer David Harvey, now a professor at the City University of New York. In the talk, he revisits his now-famous 1993 essay, "A View From Federal Hill," delivering the talk on Federal Hill itself, weather permitting. Other groups participating in the conference include the Boston-based housing group City Life/Vida Urbana, Pittsburgh's Landslide Community Farm, and Daniel Tucker, editor of AREA Chicago, which publishes magazines and hosts events on urban issues.

Berzofsky believes the conference comes at a critical moment for city activists. "The financial crisis creates a lot of problems," Berzofsky says. "People losing their homes is really tragic, but at the same time it creates a lot of opportunities for people to question the dominant economic system. There's a lot of opportunity for activist work."

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