Friday, December 18, 2009

"Fuck off."

The citizens of Bayview in southeastern San Francisco are in a land battle with the Lennar Corp., a massive development corporation that is looking to bring 25,000 new residents into the area but with no plans for revitalized transportation or how to handle the expected sea-level rise. Moreover, Bayview Hunters Point is home to one of the most devastated superfund sites in California. As the Navy's former nuclear testing facility, the Hunters Point shipyards got blasted with radiological contamination. Currently, Bayview has the highest infant mortality rate in the state, and the highest rates of cancer in the city.

Residents are arguing for sustainable growth, which would mean cleaning up the land (as opposed to capping it with concrete, which is Lennar's proposal), keeping low income and affordable housing as a priority (as opposed to 37% of new units sold at below market-value, which is not even necessarily affordable), and a protection plan for the Ohlone burial sites that are there.

To make their case, residents turned it out last night, at the City Hall meeting of the SF Planning Commission. They argued strongly for responsibility on the part of the Mayor as well as City Commissioners, who have a legacy of letting communities of color in the city down. But there was also a disturbing number of testimonies from the commerce department, from carpenters, from an SF Labor Commission rep (who, along with ACORN and SF Organizing Project were bought out by Lennar last year) who support Lennar's plan of irresponsible development. Their argument is that the City has sat too long on this plan: the time for action, couched as revitalization, is now. This "economic engine," to quote several arguments for Lennar, needs to keep turning.

But when we really look closely at this economic engine, all we see is crisis and devastation. This is the economic engine that obliterated the Fillmore district in San Francisco (I've talked about this a bunch here and here). In fact, it's the same engine that transformed Chicago in the 1950s by declaring 23 miles of housing and public services a "blight" and developing high-rise projects to contain black people, which, half a century later would be declared failed anyway. (James Baldwin calls this kind of urban renewal "Negro removal.") In fact, it's the same engine that has worked in DC, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and New Orleans (just to name a few major cities, although this chameleon-like engine can rear its head outside the city just as well). The process is always the same: capitalism and racism work together to create depressed zones of color by first forcing migration in relation to capital and then divesting in communities of color. Eventually, capitalism and racism work through city planners and representatives to name these zones blighted (this particular bit has its roots in the Federal Housing Act and its local iterations of the 1940s and 50s). Then, capitalism and racism work together through developers and politicians to clear out the blight without regard to the structural issues that have caused it in the first place, building condos and overpriced houses on toxic landfills like Bayview Hunters Point. And then what happens?

What frightens me about this engine is how much it looks like US imperialism in general. The past two weeks of climate talks in Copenhagen have highlighted the current tensions between the struggling white superpower, the brown nation states clamoring for first world status, and the dark global south. In their courageous resistance to imperialistic environmental racism, small island states and African nations have walked out and spoken up against money as some kind of compensation for global instability. Clinton's attempt to convince states to agree to an unlivable increase in global temperatures in exchange for $100bn has been met with a resounding "fuck off" from more than a few delegates.

The desire to profit in the face of global destruction expressed by the U.S., Canada, and others, is strikingly similar to Lennar Corp.'s desire to build (probably) shitty housing on toxic land that is susceptible to flooding and liquefaction in the case of an earthquake. Rich people all over the US live in shitty houses on shitty land like this. Their children have black runny noses and asthma. They drink out of water filters and Fiji bottles. They develop cancer in their 40s, but they have insurance and organic grocery stores. Because of the way that capitalism and racism work together, people of color and working class white people have often been forced to do the work that we should all be doing: identifying the total lack of responsibility capital has to human lives and saying, like those brave nations at COP15, "Fuck off. We don't want your environmental structural adjustment. What we want is to live."

It is the work of current residents of Bayview Hunters Point (and rad organizers at POWER) that potential future residents should be paying attention to. No one wants to live on dirty land. Just as all of us (including Mrs. Clinton) live on this rapidly warming planet, we all have a right to live somewhere safe, where we can drink the water and breathe the air. These are basic rights. Any future Bayview homeowners (unwanted or otherwise) should heed the rights that current residents are fighting for, because their struggle is all of ours.

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