6. 23. 2023

Same Struggle, Same Fight

Andrew Lee

The mid-Atlantic city of Philadelphia is the poorest major city in the United States, which is why its government says it is powerless to stop the displacement of poor and working-class people from gentrifying neighbourhoods and the deaths of unhoused people on the streets. The textile industry that once served as the bedrock of Philadelphia’s economy has been gone for more than a generation, though the communities whose members once worked in those factories stubbornly remain in a city whose elites look to tourism, biotechnology, and medicine as the future.

Local billionaire David Adelman is spearheading the development of a new arena for the 76ers, Philadelphia’s basketball team, adjacent to one of the few remaining Chinatowns on the eastern seaboard of the United States. Adelman told a local paper that the planned arena, 76 Place, “will not displace one business or resident” from Chinatown. He was evidently counting on his audience not being aware that just a decade after the Capital One Arena was built next to Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown, the local Chinese population had dropped by 90%.

Compiling the results of hundreds of surveys and three community meetings, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation found 93% of business owners, 94% of residents, and 95% of visitors to Chinatown opposed the 76ers arena. But with powerful building trades unions supporting the project and developers spending USD $20,000 a month on lobbying, few politicians dared to oppose the development.

“Philadelphia politics have always been largely influenced by the building trades unions and developers, which is why we have a 10-year tax abatement for billionaire developers,” says Debbie Wei, a co-founder of Philadelphia’s Asian Americans United who is coordinating efforts to oppose the arena.

On March 23, 2023, the 76ers held a press conference with a score of Black clergy attracted by promises that 40% of the arena’s concessions vendors would be Black-owned. “I stand in full support” of the arena, said the reverend of a Baptist church in West Philadelphia, a majority-Black area itself threatened by gentrification from the expanding footprints of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. As the Revered Donald Moore framed the displacement of Chinatown as a victory for racial justice, students a few miles from his congregation were on the 31st day of a protracted sit-in to demand that Drexel University commit $10 million to the working-class Black residents of the U.C. Townhomes, 70 families facing eviction to clear the way for the construction of a new research facility. The U.C. Townhomes are some of the few remaining buildings of the area once known as the Black Bottom.

“Housing has been scaled down tremendously in the last two or three decades, even before my time. My mom used to tell me stories that this whole area was housing. Not only did they take housing away, they took businesses away, they took educational institutions away, and they put nothing back in the community for the people,” says Melvin Hairston, an organizer and resident of the U.C. Townhomes.

The 76 Place developers’ blatant attempt to pit Black and Asian gentrifying communities against each other was met with resounding mockery by locals, thanks in no small part to longstanding efforts by local organizers to build an alliance between the residents of the Black Bottom and Chinatown. In the midst of the sit-in to defend the U.C. Townhomes, Drexel student Hanna Pistorius called in to a virtual meeting to join the Save Chinatown campaign. “Part of our demands are the removal of David Adelman and [U.C. Townhomes owner] Brett Altman from the Drexel Real Estate Advisory Council,” Pistorius says. The evictor of the U.C. Townhomes and the aspiring engineer of Chinatown’s displacement both serve on the same council, which is helping Drexel gentrify West Philadelphia. “We can see the connections between these men,” Pistorious continues, so to “isolate ourselves again would be doing their work of separating us for them.”  

 “The fights are the same, talking about removing people and destroying a community all at the same time, and our communities have been engaged with each other for quite some time,” says Hairston. “We’re all in the same fight.”


Local fights for survival that birth international solidarities

Gentrification’s apologists frame “revitalization” and “redevelopment” as universal goods threatened by a certain racialized community’s selfish, obstinate wish not to be obliterated. Meanwhile, that struggle for survival opens opportunities for building popular solidarities between communities and across borders. When a community’s modest demand to continue to exist requires confrontation with the heights of the neoliberal global economy – fights against the tech firms and banks, developers and elite universities that are among the engineers of displacement – we may wonder: how might the struggles for our neighbourhoods connect to the struggle for the future of our cities? How might the struggles for our cities unfold into the struggle for the direction of the world?

The San Francisco Bay Area city of San José is the wealthiest major city in the United States, which is why its government says it is powerless to stop the displacement of poor and working-class people from gentrifying neighbourhoods and the deaths of unhoused people on the streets. In 2017, fresh upon the heels of reports that 1.5 million Bay Area residents had been priced out of the area in the preceding years, San José’s government announced plans to sell 200 acres of public land in the city core for a new Google campus, one even larger than the company’s existing headquarters in nearby Mountain View. With labour unions angling to secure subcontracted workers at the campus as members, and local progressive non-profits’ budgets buoyed by self-interested donations from the tech companies that are fueling displacement and homelessness, resistance to Google San José fell to a small grassroots collective. Serve the People San José eventually opened communications with anti-gentrification forces in San Francisco to the north, Block Sidewalk organizers fighting the conversion of Toronto’s waterfront into a Google “Smart City,” and Berlin residents fighting a Google development in the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg.

“We coordinated various actions against Big Tech in a variety of cities,” Katja Schwaller told me. Schwaller is a San Francisco researcher and activist with ties to Berlin. Banners calling for an end to “techsploitation” in all the allied cities began appearing at coordinated actions from California to Germany. Katja reports that it was “invigorating” for activists in the San Francisco Bay Area, contending with pervasive pro-development propaganda from the tech industry, to connect with Kreuzberg residents whose fears of “Silicon Valley-style gentrification” inspired their absolute opposition to Google’s Berlin development plans.

“We were motivating each other to keep going, seeing that we weren’t alone in opposing a giant tech company and seeing them for what they are,” says Liz González of the San José anti-Google campaign. “It’s so much harder to do that here, where these companies started and have total control of the narrative that they’re good, they’re innovative, and they’re going to solve the world’s problems. It was exciting that we weren’t the only ones taking on this corporation. The possibility of defeating Google and not allowing Google into our city seemed more possible because others were doing it with the same messaging: protecting their city and culture, keeping people in place.”


Not the nation, but the city

The first neighbourhoods to be gentrified in North American cities are almost always those populated by Black, brown, and/or immigrant communities. The homes in US neighbourhoods of colour are undervalued by tens of thousands of dollars, meaning that property in such neighbourhoods is profitable for “redevelopment.” Building connections between these gentrifying communities means bridging not only space but also race, culture, and language.

“Until quite recently, Asian Americans were a very, very small population in Philadelphia,” says Debbie Wei, the Asian Americans United co-founder. “You take that tiny cut of the population, and then you take the cut that speaks fluent English. Then you take the fluent English speakers who are progressive, and we’re down to not a whole lot of people.” Language also complicates international coordination against shared enemies, though these challenges can be met in creative ways. For example, to help educate a German-speaking audience fighting projects such as Google’s development in Berlin, Katja Schwaller edited a German-language book about anti-gentrification struggles in California.

“The tech industry is a global conglomerate, with long supply chains, offshored manual production lines, e-waste dumped on the Global South, and severe effects on people’s everyday lives around the globe,” says Schwaller. “It needs to be fought by struggles that are adept at thinking the local and global together, with the aim of generating translocal solidarities.”

The challenge of building between distinct communities involves the problem of coordinating tactics. “It’s really difficult to proceed from merely symbolic to material acts of solidarity,” says Schwaller. Liz González of San José agrees. “If we were able to make these connections deeper, I think we could win worldwide, city-by-city. It feels like we could be connected to anyone. To make the ties and effort to overcome language barriers is something different, but it should be easier than ever to do right now. The possibilities outweigh the challenges.”

On some parts of the left, there remains a stubborn idea that solidarity across borders means only solidarity between nations. This suggests that revolutionaries should adopt organizing forms able to project power through the state, such as national political parties. It further suggests that international solidarity is an activity only ever carried out between such organizations in possession of (or aspiring to control) state power. The bottom-up solidarities constructed by communities facing expulsion today have little in common with such historic projects. “I think we have to understand that the nation-state became powerful in the wake of the French Revolution,” said Grace Lee Boggs in the post-industrial Detroit of 2014, “whereas the nation-state has become powerless in light of globalization.” It is not the nation-state but the city that must meet “today’s big challenges,” reports the World Bank. The US Army concurs that “in the next century, the urban environment will be the locus where the drivers of instability” such as “radical income disparity” and “racial, ethnic, and sub cultural separation” meet. In their book Planetary Gentrification, Loretta Lees, Hyun Bang Shin, and Ernesto López-Morales wonder: “Does antagonism over access to urban space, infrastructure, and material flows of resources produce a collective consciousness the way that struggles on the shop floor once did?”

These emergent transnational solidarities are structured by the contemporary contours of economics and empire, as multinational corporations play cities off each other to attract investment and white-collar workers. Those solidarities might be thought of as close to what the Black Panther Party’s Huey P. Newton labelled revolutionary intercommunalism: oppressed communities forging transnational alliances to combat the deprivations of the global market. Building solidarity between communities and across borders is an urgent strategic problem in part because many large gentrifiers are transnational actors. 76 Devcorp’s David Adelman shares co-ownership of the 76ers with David Blitzer, Global Head of Tactical Opportunities for Blackstone, one of the largest corporate landlords on the planet. UN rapporteur Leilani Farha has criticized Blackstone, whose portfolio includes properties across the Americas, Asia, and Europe, for “wreaking havoc with tenants’ right to security and contributing to the global housing crisis.”

“The players now are these giant, multibillion-dollar equity firms,” Philadelphia’s Debbie Wei says. “They’re not individuals that have their own little fiefdom. They’re equity firms that have empires. It’s very much like a colonial process: ‘We’ll come into your communities, occupy your communities, extract wealth from your communities.’ If we consider that this is a new form of colonization, we have a common enemy.”

As a militant active in Chile’s 2019-20 mass protests wrote to a comrade in Paris: “Metropolises of the world, gather together.” Perhaps the tenants, neighbours, and students in resistance around the world offer a contemporary face of what Marx called the real movement to abolish the existing state of things.

Andrew Lee is a resident of Philadelphia and the author of Defying Displacement: Urban Recomposition and Social War, a book about anti-gentrification struggles forthcoming from AK Press.