The Everyday Story of a Housing Crisis

For those who haven’t seen it elsewhere, I offer my latest piece for Tribune, fulfilling a long-held ambition to link social policy issues to The Archers.  Now I’m off for some peaceful civil disobedience.

https://tribunemag.co.uk/2019/08/the-housing-crisis-reaches-the-archers

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The Grapes of Hough

I’ve been sitting on this unusual urban tale since my visit to Cleveland, Ohio last November.  I thought it was too good a story for my modest media reach, so I tried pitching it to some of the national outlets.  None of them were interested.  That’s probably partly to do with me, but I wonder it it’s also because what follows doesn’t fit the media stereotypes?  I have a feeling that if this was about a boxing club, soul food restaurant or music project in a poor African-American neighbourhood, it might have been picked up.  You can have white wine, but maybe not black wine?

The last thing you expect to see in a deprived part of Cleveland is a vineyard.  But there it is, at the corner of East 66th Street and Hough Avenue – Chateau Hough!

It’s the brain-child of Mansfield Frazier, a 70-something former convict, born and raised in the city.  His guiding principle is “You shouldn’t have to move to a new neighbourhood to live in a better one”.

This belief has particular resonance in Hough (pronounced “Hoff”).  There were deadly riots here in 1966 and today the area bears the scars of the Great Recession.  One in five homes stand empty.

Landscapes of urban abandonment aren’t unusual in the US.  Growing grapes in them is.  When he started in 2009, Mansfield faced understandable skepticism.  He recalls: “One potential funder said to me ‘You’re an ex-con, your co-worker’s an ex-con.  You’re going to make hooch.  We don’t want to fund that”.

But Mansfield isn’t someone to take no for an answer.  He didn’t know much about viniculture, but he understands business and local politics.  Cleveland is a polarised city in an increasingly polarised nation (we met on the day of the 2018 midterm elections that re-confirmed this).  By several evaluations, it’s the poorest city in the country.  Jobs and people have been draining away for decades.  But the legacy of industrial wealth endures in the form of big charitable foundations.  Chateau Hough is very close to Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Clinic and other prestigious institutions backed by endowments.  Mansfield sees them as his target market.

The vineyard began with money from the Reimagining Cleveland regeneration project.  Not many people imagined growing grapes and producing wine.  A derelict home was partly demolished to create an energy-efficient winery, alongside the vines growing on the adjacent formerly vacant lot.  Work and training has been provided to people leaving prison.  Mansfield says “This is all about creating jobs and opportunities in an area where there aren’t any”.  But to do this, he knows Chateau Hough has to be self-sustaining.  That means selling wine.  The vineyard grows two hardy types of grape, able to survive in Cleveland’s tough winters.  Although they haven’t started fully marketing yet, a standard bottle will go for $20, not bad for an organic, home-grown product. And to a non-connoisseur, it tastes pretty good.  Mansfield wants the wealthy local institutions to buy it for their corporate entertainment.  “They’re always saying they want to put something back.  This is their chance – and they get to enjoy a decent, locally-produced wine too”.

If they can get through the next few years, Mansfield hopes to expand.  There are literally hundreds of similar sites around the city.  He knows he can’t compete with volume producers, but thinks there’s a niche market Chateau Hough can fill.

It’s not about the wine though.  Mansfield Frazier has seen too many lives wasted.  His was nearly one of them.  When he left prison 25 years ago, he was determined not to go back.  He wants others to have a second chance, like his current assistant who’s rebuilding his life by becoming an expert grape grower.

This isn’t the conventional feel-good, boot-straps story.  Frazier is scathing of charities trying to bring solutions “from outside”.  He’s also doubtful about other eco-projects that aren’t truly sustainable.  Chateau Hough works because it’s rooted in the local community – literally and figuratively.  The metaphors are endless, but one Frazier particularly likes is that wine growing, like real community development, takes time and patience.

We sit in the winery, sip samples of the red, white and rose and talk about the state of the nation.  As in his approach to the vineyard, Mansfield is a pragmatist.  He thinks there are a lot of Trump supporters experiencing “buyer remorse”.  Like with making wine, he sees no quick fix.  But Mansfield Frazier’s attitude to developing Chateau Hough and combating the Trump threat are the same: “This is serious”.

Mansfield Frazier

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Jersey City: America in one place (unedited)

Tribune published this on their website yesterday.  I’m grateful, but their edit changed the meaning of at least one point I was trying to make, so here’s the original.  I wrote the article before Trump went on his latest racist rampage.  It’s good to see there’s a growing consensus seeing his comments for what they are, even if neither of the UK’s next potential prime ministers are able to.  But it’s the social and political dynamic of places like Jersey City that sets the scene for the racist resurgence.

Jersey City: America in one place

Next year’s presidential election has implications way beyond America.  Another four years of Trump would signal reactionary forces tightening their global grip, with the prospect of continued environmental damage, heightened tension in the Middle East and beyond, legitimised racism, sexism and homophobia and – for a possibly post-Brexit UK – a closer relationship with US predatory capitalism.  American voters will determine some of these fates in November 2020.  18 months from the election, I re-visited a place that encapsulates the domestic issues that will decide the outcome.

Jersey City is on the west bank of the Hudson River, across from downtown Manhattan.  I first went there in 1992.  When I arrived at Newark airport, the customs officer asked me “Why would you want to go there?”  Back then, Jersey City was seen as the epitome of post-industrial America.  It had declined from being one of the 10 biggest cities in the US, to a place with a semi-derelict waterfront, abandoned factories and deep poverty.  It was the setting for Richard Price’s novel “Clockers”, published the same year I first visited.  Price described the population of Jersey City as “three hundred thousand mostly angry blue collar and welfare families”: prophetic words that, to some extent, have defined American politics ever since, culminating in 2016.  Jersey City reflects the deep cleavages and tensions in US society which produced President Trump.

The clearest evidence of this is the meteoric, unchecked rise of the property industry of which Trump is the figurehead.  In the last 20 years, the Jersey City waterfront has been transformed beyond recognition by high-rise apartment blocks, offices and hotels, among them the 55-storey Trump Plaza.  This Manhattan overspill led the property consultants CBRE to say in 2015 “The hottest place for New York City money is in Jersey City”.  The downtown area around Grove Street, which used to be a slightly sleepy collection of brownstones and “mom and pop” stores, is now festooned with expensive bars, restaurants and yoga studios.  Their customers are mostly young, white, professionals working in the nearby corporate towers, or taking the PATH train to Manhattan.  But as in America as a whole, this influx of affluence hasn’t spread evenly across Jersey City.

During my fist visit, I stayed at the clergy house of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, not far from Grove Street.  It used to be the centrepiece of a predominantly Hispanic, working class community, but the demographic shifts in downtown Jersey City have put paid to that.  When I looked through the church windows a few weeks ago, the pews, pulpit and confession boxes had all gone.  St Bridget’s is a shell, due to be redeveloped as apartments.  Five minutes-walk away, I came to Montgomery Gardens, a former public housing development.  It too, was deserted, the doors and windows shuttered, awaiting government-sponsored demolition by a private developer.  In 1992 (when I worked there), it was home to 1,300 people, among the 10,000 public housing tenants in Jersey City.  Now it’s victim to the nationwide attack on public housing that has led to a net reduction of social rented homes, displacement and the destruction of working class communities.

The signs of this are evident around Journal Square, once Jersey City’s commercial and transport hub, featuring some magnificent architecture.  Today it’s a scene of dilapidation and faded grandeur, a bit like an English seaside town without the beach.  During the day, scores of the homeless and dispossessed (almost all of them black) gather to beg change and share each other’s company in a place that has turned its back on them.  Next to where they sit is a vacant two-acre site that’s been due for redevelopment for six years, by a company headed by none other than Jared Kushner.  Montgomery Gardens has been moth-balled for a similar period.  The juxtaposition of homeless people, with a site being hoarded by the son-in-law of the US President, not far from hundreds of habitable social rented homes should raise fundamental questions about allowing property developers to be in control of our urban and housing policy.

This corporate urbanism is inscribed with racism.  Jersey City has long been a centre of immigration and is sometimes described as having the most ethnically diverse population of any US city.  But as in the country as a whole, the demographic pattern reflects deep-seated economic inequality and social isolation.  In common with other US cities, fewer black and brown people are living in the urban core and are being replaced by white people who are more likely to be able to compete in the over-heated housing market.  They aren’t necessarily Trump supporters, but they are beneficiaries of the policies and worldview he represents.  A residential map of Jersey City shows very few African-American or Hispanic households in the downtown area along the waterfront, a picture that has changed dramatically since my first visit in 1992.  By contrast, there are swathes of the city where there are very few white households.  This was also true 27 years ago, but the steady erosion of genuinely affordable homes in high property value neighbourhoods has reduced housing options for people with low-income.

This deepening ghettoising must be put in the wider context of the hostile, racist environment cultivated and exploited by Trump, but with much longer historic strands in US history.  The Hispanic people struggling to survive in Jersey City are related to those the president doesn’t want coming to America at all.  Although there haven’t yet been high-profile shootings of black people by Jersey City police, there are repeated complaints of brutality.  Deadly street-violence is common.  At an anecdotal level, I have spoken to many people whose coded references to certain parts of Jersey City suggest the fear and paranoia of the other that has been the underpinning of Trump’s political message.  During my last visit, I asked one person if there was a local bar in the Communipaw area where I was staying.  He immediately said I should get an Uber and go downtown.  He didn’t add “it’s safer and whiter”, but that’s what he meant.  Instead, I walked round the corner and found The Junction Lounge, a very friendly place, where all the staff and customers were black.

Jersey City reflects the nation in another way.  Despite the wealth on display downtown, there’s a poverty rate of 19% that almost equally afflicts households of different ethnicities.  Although wealth distribution in the US is still grossly skewed against African-Americans and blacks are twice as likely as whites to live in poverty, Jersey City illustrates that in post-industrial areas, the misery, for some, is shared.  Despite Trump’s crude, divisive appeals to nativism, the working class suffers together.

Jersey City is America in microcosm, a deeply divided landscape of abandoned places and people, with a thin layer of glossy super-privilege on top.  The civic infrastructure is visibly crumbling.  Roads are rutted, public transport creaks and services, particularly those relied on by the poor, have been severely cut.  The Jersey City public housing authority’s website prominently informs prospective applicants that its waiting list is closed.

The future for Jersey City – and all of us – will be shaped, if not determined, by next year’s election.  It’s already been remodelled with Trump-like brutality and indifference.  As a local resident, Devyn Manibo puts it “When Jersey City becomes a commodity, it’s no longer a home”.  But like the US as a whole, Jersey City has a deep-rooted resilience and humanity that will endure beyond 2020, a spirit symbolised by its most famous resident.  According to local legend, 1 Communipaw Avenue is the official address of a “mighty woman with a torch” and a message of “world-wide welcome…send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me”.  The week after my trip, we saw the photo of Oscar and Valeria Ramirez lying dead in the Rio Grande.  No image could more starkly illustrate the choice before us.

Homeless in Journal Square

 

 

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Alexandria, the Old South and mystic chords of forgetting

I recently spent a few nights in Alexandria, Virginia.  It’s a pleasant place on the banks of the Potomac River, just south of Washington DC.  There are boat trips, gift shops, waterside bars, art galleries and they used to buy and sell black people in the market square.

This still shocking fact, which of course is true of many other places in the US, isn’t entirely air-brushed from local history, but it isn’t foregrounded either.  Maybe that’s unsurprising if you’re trying to sustain a tourist economy.  But some of the things I saw in Alexandria suggest how and why the US continues to struggle with its racist past and present.

It would be entirely possible to visit Alexandria without knowing that it used to be the headquarters of Franklin and Armfield, one of the biggest slave trading companies in the antebellum US.  There is a historic marker outside one of their former offices and human warehouses (1315 Duke Street), but it’s not on the main tourist drag (King Street), so takes some special finding.  Similarly, the market square has a bit of easily missed information about what used to happen there, but the slave trade is referred to alongside other commercial enterprises, like selling fruit.  Elsewhere, at 515 North Washington Street, the official history of Alexandria’s first cotton factory makes absolutely no reference to how the raw material for that industry was produced.  Around the corner is a new, large corporate-sponsored mural allegedly providing “a point of discovery for all things Alexandria” that makes no reference to slavery.  My friend, David Rotenstein, is an expert in this field and I can hear him pulling his hair out!

By contrast, I saw several references to the arrival of Union troops in Alexandria at the start of the Civil War as an “occupation”, a significant choice of word to imply that North and South were (are?) separate places.  At the junction of South Washington Street and Prince Street is a prominent statue commemorating the Confederate dead.

How we chose to remember or ignore history is a vexed subject, but often the official version gets it wrong.  With a legacy as disgusting as slavery, it’s perhaps understandable that the Alexandria authorities don’t want to have their city defined by some of the worst things that ever happened there.  I’d say the same about Bristol.  It’s a balance.  But a visit to Berlin or Vienna, where awareness of the Holocaust is woven, sometimes quite subtly, into the city’s fabric, shows how it can be done.  It’s not an example most places in the US feel ready to follow because in truth, the country hasn’t come to terms with its past.

In a small effort to redress Alexandria’s historic balance, I’d like to share an episode that stands in the canon of the struggle for civil rights, but is less known than others.  On 21st August 1939, five local black men (William Evans, Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray, Clarence Strange and Otto Tucker) entered the city’s segregated public library, took books from the shelves and began reading, in breach of written and unwritten Jim Crow laws.  They were arrested (see photo below), but as with other such sit-ins, this was a deliberate tactic to challenge discrimination in the courts.  No legal conclusion was reached, but the city did build a new, but separate, library for the African-American community.

To be fair to Alexandria’s authorities, this important struggle is given proper recognition.  But the selective erasing of history continues.  Next door to the library won in the 1940s were some early – and structurally unusual – homes built as public housing for African-Americans working in Alexandria’s armaments industry.  I first saw and photographed them in June 2017.  In June 2019 they were gone, part of the unrelenting assault not just on public housing, but the places and past of black people.

Before

After

 

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The Neoliberal City

I thought people not Tribuneites or part of the Twitterati might like to read this.

https://tribunemag.co.uk/2019/05/the-neoliberal-city

 

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Learning from the Selfish Giant

Oscar Wilde’s short story is a beautiful, enduring parable.  It’s relevance for today is starkly illustrated by a housing estate in Lambeth where a wall was built to separate children from different housing tenures.  Sadly, although this case has hit the headlines, it’s not unique.  At one level, it’s yet another example of private developers, including social (sic) landlords, running amok.  But there’s a much deeper significance to this issue.

Paranoia-fueled social segregation and the use of walls to enforce it can be traced from antiquity to Trump.  But it signifies a distinct 21st century regression that can be linked to the distorted place of housing in contemporary society.  The cult of private home ownership is one factor, but it goes wider and transcends tenure.  Before a meeting last week, I wanted to drink my coffee in the sun-lit communal garden of a Camden council estate, but it was fenced off and gated in a similar way to the private gardens of Victorian squares in Kensington.  Like my hero Hugh Grant in “Notting Hill”, I found a way in, only to discover there was nowhere to sit.  This stingy attitude to space that is at least communal, even if it isn’t truly public, is typical of new property developments where the acronym “POPS” (privately owned public space) has become insidious.  In such places, it feels as though public space is meant to be seen, but not used, except under conditions.

I recall doing some field research at a typical private property development in Kingston-upon-Thames where improving the “public realm” was one of the benefits that would, supposedly, result.  This was part of a quid pro quo, agreed with the council, for the developer being relieved of providing any non-market rented housing, again, a familiar tale.  The identikit plaza – branded bars, cafes, restaurants and shops beneath private apartments, with token public art – was pleasant enough, but included invisible social barriers.   As at the Camden council estate, there were no public benches (or public toilets, another important feature often absent).  All the seating (and toilets) was provided by the food and drink outlets.  In other words, you could only sit down, relax and enjoy the public realm (and go to the toilet) if you could afford, at least, a cappuccino.  At one point, I rested against a low wall, while carrying out my observations.  Almost immediately, I was challenged by a security guard who, apparently, had been watching me on CCTV.  He was friendly and a bit embarrassed, but said the residents who paid him were anxious to keep an eye on “loitering strangers”.  Someone I interviewed in a gated (actually, literally walled) community in another part of London, said:

“People outside say ‘it’s a walled city’ and my answer is ‘the walls are open’.  Anyone can come in.  There are lots of people here who have middle class values, but if you’re prepared to behave in a way that’s reasonable, you can come here…I’m not a shrinking violet, but there’s no way I’d go to any of those pubs across the road on my own, but here I feel completely safe and locked within my community. I don’t have a prejudice against people who come from Woolwich, as long as you’re prepared to operate by the reasonable standards of our community…”    

Reading this back nearly eight years later, the foreshadowing of some Brexit tensions are hard to avoid.  In fact, the constipation of the use of public space is part of the same “democratic deficit”.  As well as skateboarding, drinking alcohol that hasn’t been purchased at an expensive bar and a general anxiety about young people, limiting freedom of political expression has become commonplace in corporate-space.  Having organised several protests in areas that might be considered intrinsically part of the public realm, including Parliament Square and City Hall, I’m very familiar with the restrictions placed on people who want to demonstrate in public.  Many of these have been adopted within the last decade or so and reflect transfers of ownership and management away from democratically accountable bodies, towards private corporate interests.

But these different forms of social separation operate at different levels and extend to our own front doors.  At work, I frequently encounter an inability or reluctance of people to communicate with their neighbours, sometimes about very basic things.  Increasingly, I find myself called upon to mediate situations that, in the past, would not have required the intervention of external, official agencies.  We often talk and think about “housing privatisation” in terms of public policy and the transfer of public assets, but there’s another aspect of privatisation in which some of the day-to-day habits of social exchange and civility have been lost behind the edifice of private domesticity.  The American academic Andy Merrifield has described contemporary cities producing a state of “tragic intimacy of proximity without sociability…encounter without real meeting”.

Many of these issues converged around the body of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.  I’ve written before about the significance I attach to this appalling event and the warning it sends about the possible consequences of urban alienation, particularly when laced with racism and fear of the young.  I’ve heard many people talking about the segregated Lambeth playground with “Is this what we’ve come to?” disgust.  Our housing and urban policy is creating very divisive landscapes, but it’s not too late.  We need to remember the lesson of the Selfish Giant.  He built so many physical and social barriers around himself that in the end, he endured an eternal winter of loneliness.  But when he smashed the wall down, the spring and happiness returned.

 

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Sleepwalking to America

As the UK prepares to distance itself from one continent, it may get closer to another.  My book (nearly all gone, so please get in touch if you’d like a copy) argues that this country’s housing policy is following the disastrous footsteps of the US, but it feels like our fates are entwined in many other ways.  While Brexit remains uncertain, it seems likely this country will look more across the Atlantic than the Channel for its socio-economic and political  future.  Some Tories are actively pursuing this wish-fulfilment.  Liam Fox has talked about leaving the EU being an opportunity to “supercharge” the “special relationship”.

I sometimes feel it necessary to offer the disclaimer that I’m not anti-America.  The numerous times I’ve visited have been some of the happiest and most enriching of my life.  But some of those experiences have confirmed the many troubled aspects of US society.  For years, returning to the UK was to be reminded of the differences between the two nations.  I was sure our housing policies were converging, but overall, the legacy of the Welfare State protected the UK from the worst-excesses of Americanisation.  No longer.

The UK is mirroring the US across a range of social issues.  Our health service is being privatised by stealth, primary and secondary education is increasingly stratified, students in higher education are saddled with massive debt, trade union membership is falling as casual employment spreads, more workers are now long-distance, high-cost commuters, populist, racist and far-right politics are on the rise, as is deadly urban violence.  Each of these factors disproportionately affects people with lower incomes and darker skin.  As a result, our social fabric is fraying and tearing, producing the kind of  isolated individualism that’s a sad feature of US society.

This shift isn’t accidental.  As Liam Fox’s words confirm, there are people who hold the US as the highest form of capitalism.  They share the ruthless, devil take the hindmost ideology that is the worst aspect of America (although, in my experience, most Americans don’t live that way).  They want to open every aspect of our lives to corporate profit seekers and reduce social services to discretionary charity.

But the morphing doesn’t end there, or with chlorinated chicken.  In the week that Bernie Sanders launched his campaign to become president in 2020, some elements in the Democratic Party raised the spectre of anti-semitism.  As with the UK Labour Party, this shouldn’t be be entirely dismissed, but it should also be directly related to the rise of a left-wing challenge to the political establishment.

Perhaps the most troubling and telling aspect of UK-US twinning is the increased use of prescription drugs.  This form of self-medication has been at epidemic proportions in the US for decades, but the UK is catching-up.  There are many reasons for this, not least the pernicious role of big-pharma.  At a time of high political anxiety, it’s understandable that people seek solace in all kinds of ways.  But the soporific effects could hasten our journey to America.

For a partial antidote, the Homes for All campaign is organising a special conference looking at the toxic link between bad housing and bad health.  All welcome.  Speakers will include Guardian columnist Dawn Foster and the event will be opened by Raquel Rolnik, former UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, with whom I have a bit of fondly remembered history.  Above all though, it’s about widening the campaign for homes – and a society – that don’t make us sick.

 

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