Whose City Is It, Anyway?

The new world order is coming to roost in Chicago with a vengeance. Increasingly the city is defined by Neoliberalism, the global policies of transnational capital that make the market and individual self-interest primary in every sphere of economic and social life. On every side we see the elimination of the public interest and public control-from privatization (and corporatization) of parks (Millenium Park), schools (Renaissance 2010), and bus shelters to the elimination of public housing. Corporate and finance capital in collaboration with the Daley administration are reconstructing the city to serve their interests. Their agenda grows out of changing relations between cities and the global economy and the emergence of gentrification as a pivotal force in urban economies.

In the new global economy, major cities compete directly for investment, corporate headquarters, international tourism, and business services. This competition drives cities like Chicago to engage in aggressive marketing of urban space. The city’s ubiquitous new boulevards and wrought iron fences, its lakeshore remake, and now Millennium Park exemplify this strategy. It also drives them to provide the most favorable business climate (low wages, investment opportunities, and well-trained low-wage service and production workers) as well as an environment that can attract high paid professionals (a few elite public schools, upscale neighborhoods). In this context, low-income people of color, particularly African Americans, must be policed, contained, and demonized to justify their displacement and exclusion.”,

Gentrification is key to remaking the city. Urban sociologists argue gentrification has become a pivotal sector in the new neoliberal urban economies as developers transform whole city landscapes into “gentrification complexes” of consumption, recreation, culture, and public space. You only have to look at University Village or River North to see that this is true. This is facilitated by city government through Tax Increment Financing Zones (TIFs), new transportation routes (the proposed “Circle Line”), the elimination of public housing to open up land for development, aesthetic infrastructure improvements at tax payer expense (all those boulevards and “street scapes”), and the criminalization of low-income people of color and the policing of all populations deemed “undesirable.”

The conquest of the city as a space of middle class stability and whiteness is both actual and rhetorical. A key feature of Neoliberalism is reframing the public conversation about the city–who has a right to live there, what constitutes a “good” neighborhood, and what kinds of economic development are possible. Privatization, gentrification, deindustrialization, and higher costs for public services are presented as inevitable, the only possible solution. The class nature and the racism of this process are hidden in the language of “mixed income communities” and “regeneration”–or in Chicago\’s case “renaissance” and “transformation”. We live in a city that spent $1/2 billion for Millennium Park; regularly gives tax breaks to and funds massive infrastructure improvements for developers; tore down 19,000 units of public housing to open up space for development, displacing whole working class communities for condos; and a city that polices those who transgress the city image. Chicago is a city whose officials raise fares on public transportation, fail to educate students and then use that failure as a reason to privatize schools, and that criminalizes whole sectors of African American communities. How do they get away with this? In part, they have created a new common sense. The only way the city can “move forward” is through their agenda.

It is time, as Jamie Kalven says in View from the Ground, to turn this “predictable, stale, tiresome ” discourse “inside out” by inserting into the public conversation the voices of those who are actually experiencing the crisis and organizing against it. This issue of area foregrounds the perspectives of public housing residents speaking about their own lives, gays facing harassment, those who ride the cta, artists, and youth. It is also time to push this discourse “in new directions” by offering concrete radical alternatives to the “inevitability” of the neoliberal agenda. These are alternatives that come from the grass roots such as community orchards and worker owned factories that address both joblessness and the unconscionable, astounding incarceration of whole segments of African American communities.

AREA is a direct challenge to the practice and discourse of hijacking the city for private gain–a challenge from the ground. The articles in this inaugural issue offer fresh approaches to collective organizing against the neoliberal city, and accounts of public interventions that reframe the discussion about the city. area reports actions that blend art and activism to create discussion, to force open a new conversation, to define reality from the point of view of those on the bottom. area reflects an exciting new energy that challenges who will live in the city, who will benefit from its growth and development, and who will get to participate in fundamental decisions affecting economic, cultural, and social life. area is a space to contest whose city Chicago will be.