Mar 7, 2006

HR 4437 Rally; South Central Farmers

Kept unusually busy by the deadlines and requisite decisions to make in my academic life, so I haven't had the chance to post any of the items that I've wanted to write about. Hoping that next week will give me more opportunities to get some things together - a lot is going down and there are a lot of things to cover.

For now - two things - the picture above is of some folks who got out and protested the crazy House bill that just passed today - which among other things, makes it a crime to work with undocumented immigrants. It's a crazy bill, and as usual, it's galvanized the radical conservatives who think that it's unAmerican to make sure that we treat people humanely. I guess given the track record of the Federal government, especially in times of war, I guess that qualification is actually true. Anyway, I've been trying to find more reporting about the rally today in DC, because the linked picture is only about 500-800 people who marched in Georgetown, but not the big rally at the Capitol Building, which I read was supposed to draw upwards of 20,000 - 25,000 people.

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And on the other side of the nation... 350+ families who are part of the largest urban farm in the country, on 14 acres of land in South Central Los Angeles have won a temporary stay (until next Monday) from being forcibly removed from the land which they have painstakingly developed. To watch a short documentary about the farm and the plight of these folks, check out this site.

From their recent press release:

For 13 years, 350 families have tended a 14-acre urban farm in the middle of South L.A.?s gritty industrial belt. Growing their own cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes and other staples has helped make good nutrition affordable. Traditional crops like chipillin, alachi, quelite and pipicha have helped keep meso-american cuisine and folk-medicine alive. This urban farm, the largest in the U.S., provides a safe, children-friendly environment for 350 families and thousands of visitors who come to the lively farmers market on Sundays. The farm is also an oasis of green-space that helps to lessen air and water pollution in the surrounding community.
This is such a compelling story, and it both flies in the face of and reconfirms what we learned in our first-year Property Law class about the theories of property and how they play out in real-world arenas.

[pardon me as I geek out a bit - look ma, I actually learned something!]

There are competing theories of the purpose and nature of property under English common law, and by extension, American jurisprudence.1 Under Locke's labor theory of property, those who inject their labor into the "commons" have a right to use and ownership of the land. However, the utilitarian or law and economics approach to property rights view the purpose of property solely as economic, not political, and property should be allowed to rise to the highest utilization, which would be most valued.

This latter approach and theory helped European settlers to quickly rationalize the conquest andthieveryy of Native lands in the New World, arguing that the tribes did not best "utilize" the land when they walked through it without leavingindeliblee marks of human domination and control. Without industry, without roads and buildings, and without leaving a permanent mark, it was argued, the tribes were not really making use of the land, and therefore didn't deserve ownership.

Well - what's happening here in South Central? The developer wants to build something where the farm is. And a farm is no longer viewed as the peak of use of land, especially in an urban center. Therefore, the physical labor to till the earth, to make it grow, to feed a community and still have enough to sell on Sundays in a vibrant farmer's market, does not compare to the maximization of the "worth" of the property that development will enhance. In other words, capitalism and bullheaded industrial development trump community self-determination and sustainable green development.

This community's fight for self-determination - and to use the land as land rather than an abstract commodity - feels like a critical struggle that planners and advocates alike should be watching carefully, and hoping that it turns out the right way.

Especially in light of what happened to the vibrant Chavez Ravine community before Dodger Stadium was built on top of it in the mid-50s. From that PBS site:
Located in a valley a few miles from downtown Los Angeles, Chavez Ravine was home to generations of Mexican Americans. Named for Julian Chavez, one of the first Los Angeles County Supervisors in the 1800s, Chavez Ravine was a self-sufficient and tight-knit community, a rare example of small town life within a large urban metropolis. For decades, its residents ran their own schools and churches and grew their own food on the land...

The death knell for Chavez Ravine began ringing in 1949.... The Federal Housing Act of 1949 granted money to cities from the federal government to build public housing projects. Los Angeles Mayor Fletcher Bowron voted and approved a housing project containing 10,000 new units?thousands of which would be located in Chavez Ravine.

Viewed by neighborhood outsiders as a ?vacant shantytown? and an ?eyesore,? Chavez Ravine?s 300-plus acres were earmarked by the Los Angeles City Housing Authority as a prime location for re-development. In July 1950, all residents of Chavez Ravine received letters from the city telling them that they would have to sell their homes in order to make the land available for the proposed Elysian Park Heights.

Using the power of eminent domain, which permitted the government to purchase property from private individuals in order to construct projects for the public good, the city of Los Angeles bought up the land and leveled many of the existing buildings.

The plan for Los Angeles public housing soon moved to the forefront of a decade-long civic battle. The story of Chavez Ravine is intertwined with the social and political climate of the 1950s, or the ?Red Scare? era. While supporters of the federal public housing plan for Chavez Ravine viewed it as an idealistic opportunity to provide improved services for poor Angelenos, opponents of the plan?including corporate business interests that wanted the land for their own use?employed the widespread anti-communist paranoia of the day to characterize such public housing projects as socialist plots.

[Eventually, the Dodgers swept in with a deal to get a stadium at a fraction of the cost spent by the city to get them to that point - R]
I didn't know about the Red Scare storyline - funny that the crazies thought that public housing would undermine the "American way of life." Instead, maybe it made it easier for the consumer culture to run amock, now that the undesirables (read: poor) were to be cordoned off from the nicer, more affluent neighborhoods.

And, man! - the sale of the Dodgers broke the heart of Brooklynites who are still unable to support the Yankees 50 years later, and destroyed a vibrant community in a way that would have made Robert Moses proud in one fell swoop.

The pattern of building over poor communities of color and immigrant communities just repeats again and again, doesn't it? While Philadelphia Chinatown was successful in stopping a new stadium from landing on them (even though they were backed up against development on all sides), DC Chinatown is virexistenton-existant, relegated to the token translations on the signs for Chipotle, Ann Taylor, and all the other chain stores that inhabit its city blocks. The largest Chinese gate in the United States greets the tourist as he enters a fully invisible city, inhabited by ghosts and unfulfilled dreams.



[1] As an aside, British common law, which is the backbone of American jurisprudence, owes much of its basic structure to the system that came over from France during the Norman conquest - one of the reasons why there is a decent amount of French included in what is called British common law [which surfaces in American law as well] - fascinating stuff, but for another time.

4 comments:

someone else said...

Interesting post. I have to admit I didn't read the whole thing, but the part about Ebbet's Field caught my eye, because, well, I basically live there now (well, where I think it was, anyway). When I walk past it, I try to envision the skyline the apartment buildings create as the rooftop of a stadium.

I'd actually like to interview someone who was at the scene when the Dodgers up and left and is still here now as the middle class folks come back.

btw, one nitpick about "people of color" in this historical discussion. I don't have a problem with the usage here, as long as we understand it as a term whose contents shift even if its role doesn't necessarily. So, it probably included Jews and Finns in Robert Moses's New York, but I note with trepidation that middle-class / upwardly mobile South Asian people are, at least on a local level, a gentrifying force here in Crown Heights/Prospect Heights now.

Rage said...

Come on - read the whole thing! ;)

I think what's more important in the discussion of communities that are built over, built on, or moved in the name of "development" is that they are almost always poor. You actually found a typo for me which I fixed - I meant to write "poor communities of color and immigrant communities" because you definitely have to include Irish and Italian working class immigrants in Moses's New York.

But when you start to melt into the popular perception of "whiteness" and begin to accumulate political power (which these groups eventually did), large-scale displacement seems to become less likely.

someone else said...

but suppose you take out "whitness" and just make it "dominant racial/class group" (of which "White American" has generally been the dominant understanding so far). Then it becomes much easier to understand, and include different groups at different times regardless of whether they can blend into the preexisting race group easily.

I should note that i'm writing about this as a dichtomy (dominant/not dominant) which i don't believe in.

btw, read the last chapter of Mismeasure of man--really interesting discussion on racial taxonomy and geometry and some other stuff.

Rage said...

Thanks for the tip - enough to read already.