Report on The City from Below (2009)

In March 2009, Red Emma’s (a worker-owned and democratically managed bookstore and coffeehouse), the Baltimore Development Cooperative (an artist group) and the Indypendent Reader (a free quarterly newspaper) co-organized a conference in Baltimore called “The City from Below.” Our motivation for the conference came out of our own organizing experience and a shared recognition that the city is increasingly the space in which all of our diverse struggles for social justice—for affordable housing, environmental justice, prison abolition, living wages, food security, decent public education—have the potential to come together and form something greater. As the financial crisis played out in the national news and in the spectacle of legislative action, we felt an urgent need to highlight grassroots responses to the crisis, including challenges to foreclosures, and to use the moment as an opportunity to promote an alternative vision of urban democracy: one in which the city’s inhabitants themselves directly control the way the city works and how it grows—not by electing a mayor or a council person once every few years, but by actively participating in a thriving fabric of locally controlled projects and initiatives which build and manage the urban environment.

From the start, we worked under the assumption that “another conference was possible.” We wanted to organize something that wouldn’t solely consist of academics detached from—and above—social movements, talking to each other and at a passive audience. Instead, we envisioned a conference “from below,” where social movements set the agenda and where some of the most inspiring campaigns and projects on the frontlines of the fight for the right to the city (community anti-gentrification groups, homeless advocacy groups, transit rights activists, tenant unions, sex worker's rights advocates, prison reform groups) would not just be represented, but would concretely benefit from the alliances they built and the knowledge they gained by attending. At the same time, we wanted to productively engage those within the academic system, as well as artists, journalists and other researchers to produce a space where academics and practitioners could listen to each other and share their theoretical analysis and practical experiences. Locally, we consulted with social justice organizations in Baltimore as a part of the conference organizing process, in particular building a strong partnership with the United Workers as they ramped up the organizing for their own major event, the B’More Fair and Human Rights Zone March on the Inner Harbor. We prioritized inviting and funding the travel for groups that were working at the grassroots level in radical ways to address urban injustice, getting folks like Miami’s Take Back the Land, NYC’s Picture the Homeless, and Boston’s City Life/Vida Urbana to Baltimore for the conference.

Significantly, the entire event was organized independently with no financial support from universities or big grant-makers, relying instead on the power and energy within our own social movement networks. This was accomplished by holding several fundraisers; getting small donations from supporters; requesting pre-registration fees; inviting local artists and several members of the Justseeds Artist Cooperative to design posters and donate artwork; asking supporters with positions at universities to leverage their access to video equipment; and relying on our amazing network of friends to volunteer their time and labor to provide everything from a free child-care program, Spanish translation, video documentation, web design, catered meals and housing for folks from out of town. In addition, none of this would have been possible without 2640, the cooperatively run events space that hosted the event. While there are many things we could have done better, overall we felt we did a good job of living up to the Zapatista slogan from which we drew part of the conference title—“from below and to the left”—a description of a politics which starts from the bottom-up, in which the process of figuring out where we’re going and how we’re getting there is a dialogue, an experiment and a conversation in which we listen to each other and decide on our goals, our strategy, and our tactics together.

The response we received to our calls for participation (more proposals than we could accommodate in a packed three-day program) confirmed our initial assumption that there was indeed something productive about using “the city” as a way to think and act on a multiplicity of political concerns in a shared framework. As capitalism tries to give itself a green makeover, thinking about urban sustainability reveals the unavoidable connections between food supplies, public spaces, common lands, and inexcusable inequalities based in race and class divisions. Thinking about art in the city leads you to think about the role that artists play in gentrification, and drives groups, like Brooklyn’s Not An Alternative, to work out ways that cultural producers can involve themselves instead in urban social justice struggles. Thinking about social movements in the city leads you to think about how they communicate, what stories they tell themselves and others, how they preserve and transmit their own history and how they use media to agitate and organize. Thinking about the millions of people in prison in the U.S. makes you connect the dots between a crumbling economy, institutionalized racism, and the militarized approach to policing exemplified by the “War on Drugs.” “The City From Below” was broad enough of a platform to bring together insurgent urban planners and designers with the members of a social movement mobilizing shack-dwellers and other dispossessed communities to fight displacement and evictions in the wake of post-Apartheid South Africa’s enthusiastic embrace of neoliberal development policies, and at the same time, focused enough that a real conversation, productive for all parties involved, might just take place.

Perhaps nowhere was this ability of “the city” to draw together multiple strands of struggle and resistance into concrete problems and potential new avenues of collective action more apparent than in the multiple presentations which dealt with the impact of the current economic crisis on the city. While, at the national level, the crisis plays out in the stratosphere of financial capital, with bailouts and bankers, the effects in the city are much more real. While fictitious assets vanish from the corporate balance sheets, real homes disappear as families are foreclosed on, real public infrastructure crumbles as budgets are slashed. Formulating an appropriate radical response to the crisis from below was a major concern of many who presented at the conference—how does a community stop foreclosures through direct action? How can foreclosed or abandoned properties be reappropriated to provide housing for those who need it? How do we build communities of care and sustainable food systems that provide what we all need to live, outside of disastrously unstable (and fundamentally exploitative) globalized financial systems? The economic crisis is not just an aberration, but points towards serious contradictions in the capitalist system—built on the creation of speculative wealth and the transfer of power away from the people who have to suffer the consequences. This is perhaps no where more evident than in the city, where the prevailing model of development “from above” and for the benefit of the already privileged has used imaginary property values to replace neighborhoods with condominiums, to subsidize private projects like hotels and casinos instead of public projects like schools and hospitals. The bursting of the housing bubble and the domino effect bringing down banks and insurance companies is just a symptom of the real crisis: an economy of privatization and dispossession, undemocratic to the core, which puts the markets and profit first and the real needs of people a distant second.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about “The City From Below” was the way in which one could see, in the various overlapping initiatives and struggles represented at the conference, the glimmers of an appropriate response. This response is one which contests the dominance of private property and private interests in directing urban development, which asserts the right of the city’s inhabitants to housing, food, and above all to dignity, and which reimagines urban space as a site of collective experimentation and the construction of alternatives rather than a territory to be controlled and managed. And this response, the outlines of which the conference helped us see, is to be constructed out of what makes the city beautiful—not politicians and bureaucrats or speculators and developers, but people living together, learning from each other, sharing spaces, working and fighting side by side, building a future together. It is a vision not only of a more just and equitable city, but of the reinvention of urban democracy that it would take to make such a city real.

—Scott Berzofsky and John Duda for The City from Below Organizers