Unveiling of State of Pennsylvania’s Historical Marker Honoring Albert M. Greenfield (1887-1967)

This week in North Philly Notes, Dan Rottenberg, author of The Outsider, provides his remarks from the April 21, 2016 unveiling of a historical marker honoring Albert M. Greenfield, the subject of his book. The marker is located outside the Philadelphia Building, 1315 Walnut Street, which Greenfield built in 1923 and occupied for more than 40 years. 

This is an especially appropriate time to honor Albert M. Greenfield. We live in an age characterized by pessimism and fear— especially fear of the future, and fear of immigrants.

The Outsider_smAlbert Greenfield was both an immigrant and an optimist. In his 79 years on this planet he demonstrated what a difference a single individual can make in his community, his country, and his world.

In Philadelphia he put up high-rise office buildings and new hotels. He revived the city’s derelict historic district as Society Hill, a model urban community. In the process he drew the upper-middle-class back to Philadelphia’s downtown from the suburbs. He helped reform the city’s political system. He played a role in the creation of the state of Israel.

In this election year, when presidential candidates and European leaders talk of erecting walls to keep people out, it’s worth recalling that Albert Greenfield spent his life breaking down walls between people. First he got the German Jews and the Russian Jews to stop fighting with each other. Then he got the Jews and the Catholics to stop fighting with each other. Then he got whites and blacks to stop fighting with each other. He even broke down barriers between men and women. Ultimately got all of them together to challenge the entrenched Protestant Establishment that had dominated Philadelphia since its founding.

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The obstacles to human progress that Greenfield opposed—pessimism, timidity, prejudice, fear of immigrants, resistance to change— still persist. This is a good time to recall the Mayo Clinic’s definition of an optimist: “Optimism is the belief that good things will happen to you and that negative events are temporary setbacks to overcome.” That was Albert Greenfield: a man who wasn’t afraid of change and in fact delighted in it.

We can’t all follow in his peripatetic, hyperactive footsteps— the world would be a madhouse if we did—  but we can resolve to follow his example in embracing the future with a stout heart, courage and good cheer, just as Albert Greenfield did.

 

Something to be Proud Of

In this blog entry, Jamie Longazel, author of Undocumented Fearswrites about the pride, shame and legacy of his hometown of Hazleton, PA.

People talk a lot about being proud of where they’re from. Understandably so: It’s nice to feel connected, to be able to associate with a place and call it ‘home.’

I’m proud of where I’m from. I was born and raised in Hazleton – a hardscrabble, former coalmining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Like anywhere else, we have our own dialect (we say “youse” instead of “you all”), cuisine (you ought to try the cold pizza!), and ways of doing things that folks from other places probably wouldn’t understand.

Undocumented Fears_smMy book Undocumented Fears is about my hometown. And I can say with confidence now that pride is what drove me to write it. Part of me knew this all along. At first, though, it felt like my pride was either backwards or upside-down. What I now call pride actually felt like the opposite in the beginning. Shame, perhaps.

I was not proud of what my hometown did, you see. Certainly not in the way we traditionally think about pride and place.

Back in 2006, Hazleton was getting national attention when it passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act. This was a local ordinance meant to punish landlords and businesses who rented to or hired undocumented immigrants. It also made English the official language of the city.

The ordinance came at a time when Hazleton was going through some significant changes. The decent-paying, long-term manufacturing jobs that kept the city afloat for several decades were on their way out. Warehouses, distribution centers, and a meatpacking plant – with lower paying, temporary, and sometimes dangerous jobs – were on their way in.

With these economic changes came demographic changes. Many Latina/o immigrants relocated to Hazleton over a very short period. Ninety-five percent White at the time of the 2000 census, the city was approximately 36% Latina/o by 2006.

Change can be confusing. Sociologists have long known that in moments like this, communities tend to come together and try to make sense of it all. We grasp for explanations. We seek to redefine who we are.

I get it. The poverty appears starker each time I visit, and it breaks my heart to see my city and its people go through that. This is why I have been so committed to figuring out what is actually going on.

When I think of home – especially since learning more about Hazleton’s history – I think of anthracite coal. In its ‘heyday,’ European immigrants toiled in mines in and around Hazleton facing notoriously low pay, disturbingly high rates of disease and death, and mine bosses who mastered the art of pitting ethnic groups against one another. To me this legacy is central to who we are.

In 2006, however, politicians started warning about undocumented immigrants who were committing crime and draining all the resources. Following their lead, people started blaming immigrants for their troubles.

Chalk it up to ignorance if you’d like, but also keep people’s yearning for collective identity in mind. I describe in the book how debates over the ordinance introduced degrading myths about who ‘they’ supposedly were (e.g., illegal, lazy, transient, noisy) – stereotypes that Latina/os troublingly have to endure in their day-to-day lives. At the same time, these myths provided the established, predominately white community with a contrast against which they could articulate a fresh conception of ‘us’ (e.g., law-abiding, hardworking, rooted, quiet).

What prevailed was an image of Hazleton as ‘Small Town, USA’ – which, like the idea that Hazleton is being ‘invaded’ by undocumented immigrants, just plainly is not true.

This is not to say that Hazleton and its people are undesirable or unworthy of this designation. The point is that ‘desirability’ as it is presented here relies on demonization and is fed to us from above. We’re pointing our fingers in the wrong direction. We’re being told who we are rather than deciding that for ourselves.

The form of industry changed, but in Hazleton, and across the country, for that matter, there is a wide gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ It is as if the coal barons of yesteryear are still around today. They do not want us to know that, of course, for if we did we might carry on the legacy of our mining ancestors and rally against low pay, brutal working conditions, and unfair treatment.

The ‘pride’ we often see in nostalgic yearnings for the ‘good ol’ days’ in ‘Small Town America’ in this sense isn’t pride at all. It’s detachment. It’s a decoy….It’s a dream.

I learned something about my city while writing this book, and I learned something about pride. Real pride requires authenticity. It requires confrontation. Pride is what keeps you from backing down when someone challenges your identity.

I show off my pride today by choosing the gritty reality of a post-industrial city over idealized and racist myths offered by opportunistic politicians.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d prefer prosperity. But we can’t just close our eyes and imagine a time when it supposedly existed. We ought to see ourselves as poor and working people who are part of an ongoing struggle in which immigrants are allies, not enemies.

If we want our poverty to end, we need to know who is actually perpetuating it. Then we need to rally together across our differences and demand changes in the way we are treated. That would be something to be proud of.

What Melissa Harris-Perry Has Taught Us About Black Women and Silence

This week, in honor of Women’s History month, we re-post this essay by Trimiko Melancon, author of Unbought and Unbossed, published in Ms. Magazine

Anyone who knows anything about the politics of black womanhood is familiar with how silence operates in relation to black women. And the past few weeks have provided us with an opportunity to consider black women and silence, or the lack thereof, thanks to TV show host Melissa Harris-Perry and her explosive fallout with MSNBC.Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou Presidential Professor at Wake Forest University, hosted the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC until recently. She is hands-down a brilliant scholar, political scientist and intellectual—both on and off camera. I’ve had the distinct privilege of witnessing this firsthand while working with her when I was the inaugural fellow at the Anna Julia Cooper Project, of which she is the founding director, and when she wrote the dynamic foreword to my book, Black Female Sexualities. Her assessments and analyses—whether conventional, controversial or provocative—have been sharp and welcome on myriad topics. She has invariably provided visibility, voice and a platform for those who—and that which—would have otherwise been neglected.

Unbought_smSo when MSNBC preempted the MHP show and attempted to “disappear” her, as she says, Harris-Perry was not having it. She did not stand by silently or “go gentle into that good night,” as poet Dylan Thomas writes—and her reaction didn’t come as a surprise. Why might we expect otherwise? The truth is Harris-Perry has never, ever been silent: not about who or what matters or about issues that warrant attention. She has spoken boldly about Trayvon Martin, embraced Black Girl Magic and worn tampon earrings on her show to protest anti-abortion legislation. This is, in part, not only the signature beauty and essence of her work, but precisely why she has an incredible following. She has provided one of the few platforms for people to speak, be acknowledged and not be silent or silenced. Harris-Perry’s refusal to be silent as MSNBC preempted her show for election coverage, and her refusal to accept the network’s anti-disparagement clause, perfectly fit her pattern of pushing back.

What, then, are some black feminist lessons we might learn—during Women’s History Month and generally—from MHP and MSNBC regarding black women and silence?

1. “Our Silence Will Not Protect Us”

That’s right. As Audre Lorde noted so eloquently, it simply will not. So all the flimsy criticisms of Harris-Perry’s refusal to be silent have just got to go, as does loaded language about her as “a brilliant, intelligent but challenging and unpredictable personality,” as an MSNBC executive asserted. Such language insults Harris-Perry (and us all) and reduces her to someone who just “went off” (or does not know how to “act right”). And that’s not only simplistic—it’s downright unfair. What Harris-Perry demonstrated in speaking out against MSNBC is called complexity and being a full-fledged human being with the capacity for, and right to, free expression. And women, especially black women, generally aren’t allowed to embody those qualities without facing castigation and gendered stereotypes.

2. “I Am Not Wrong: Wrong Is Not My Name”

Let’s be clear: This situation calls attention to the ways black women must constantly prove their own inherent worth, brilliance, value and #BlackGirlGenius within a white system. There’s no single monolithic way for black women (or anyone, for that matter) to react in circumstances, inevitable or not. Harris-Perry was not wrong in her reaction—she simply has dimension, and so do other black women. Folks need to listen to black women without unwarranted questioning, incredulity or disbelief regarding the authenticity of our words or actions—or expect that we must consistently submit or be dignified in our responses. MHP has the right—and an actual freedom of speech—to not be silent when, how and if she chooses, as do we all. As we know by now, acting right will not save us our jobs or, for that matter, our lives.

3, “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House”

Networks like MSNBC need to act right. Yes, of course they must meet ratings demands. But far too often these kinds of entities capitalize on the labor and talent of folks like Harris-Perry, then quickly dispose of them when their views no longer line up with the network’s. Ask Keith Olbermann, Martin Bashir, Al Sharpton, Alex Wagner, Karen Finney, Joy Reid or others. Kudos to Melissa Harris-Perry and respect to her for fighting the good fight, refusing to be silent and knowing not only her worth, but that “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.”

Trimiko Melancon, a professor of English, African American studies and women’s studies at Loyola University New Orleans, is the author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation and editor of Black Female Sexualities. Connect with her at trimikomelancon.com or on Twitter @trimikomelancon.

Students’ views on Obama, Basketball, and Alexander Wolff’s book

This week in North Philly Notes,  six students from  Rebecca Alpert’s Honors Sports and Leisure in American Society class at Temple University write about meeting with The Audacity of Hoop author Alexander Wolff. 

Audacity of Hoop_sm

Marcus Forst, Physics major

President Obama has been in office for nearly half my life. Although I only see Obama as he is presented by the media, I feel that I know a little bit about the person that is Barack Obama. Basketball connects me with Barack Obama; I see him as a person instead of a figure because I identify with his interests.

The Audacity of Hoop, written by Alexander Wolff, is a window into Obama’s relationship with basketball—a close up look at the person that I had previously imagined. I had the opportunity to speak with Wolff about his experience writing the book as well as about the content itself. I asked if basketball would still have been an effective means for Obama to connect with common people—and distance himself from a purely intellectual image—had he been extremely good at basketball. My thinking was that Obama’s normalcy in basketball contributes to making him seem human and relatable. Mr. Wolff responded by saying that if Obama had been an incredible basketball player, he likely would not have been a politician. He stressed the crossroad in Obama’s life in which he decided to move away from dreams of basketball stardom and turned towards college and a future in politics, albeit while carrying with him “the love of the game.” Wolff added that Obama has used this story of a crossroads throughout his presidency in order to encourage young black males to strive for success in more traditional careers, while still bringing a love of basketball with them.

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Catherine Devlin, Biology major

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Alexander Wolff, the author of The Audacity of Hoop, before his promotional presentation about the book. He talked, of course, about the important role that basketball played throughout Obama’s campaign and presidency (the basis of his book). One of the most fascinating discussion points, for me, was his description of the campaign and the racial divide Americans experienced. The historic 2008 election of the first African American president will forever be remembered as a turning point in our history. The road to Obama’s election, though, was anything but easy.  According to Wolff, basketball was a deliberate and imperative part of the campaign that cannot be ignored. In 2008, Americans were looking for reassurances. The early questions into Obama’s citizenship, however, were not the main concern for the campaign. Surprisingly, the population of Americans who needed the most reassuring consisted largely of African Americans.

As Wolff put it, “How do you win African Americans just because you’re an African American?” We often have this intrinsic distrust of politicians that can end up either making or breaking a campaign. Images of Obama playing games of pickup basketball eventually gave the African American community the confidence to believe that Barack Obama was just a regular guy looking to make a difference. Wolff also discussed the intricate balance between portraying Obama as an “Average Joe” and avoiding playing into the stereotypes associated with being an African American male who plays basketball. The ingenious strategy was to introduce the candidate as a politician first and then slowly introduce his love of basketball in small groups of voters who had come to know him quite well. Obviously, the Obama campaign was able to find just the right middle ground.  Winning over enough Americans to be elected the leader of the nation is certainly not an easy feat. Being an African American candidate presented extra challenges for his campaign, but Barack Obama managed to make history.  The groundbreaking strategies on the road to the White House were, according to Wolff, only aided by Obama’s genuine love of America’s favorite game. It seems only fitting, then, to document as Alexander Wolff has done so beautifully, the unique and successful relationship between basketball and America’s first African American president.

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Bridgette Devlin, Biology major

Recently, I interviewed Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated writer and author of The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama. In the book, Wolff tracks basketball’s involvement throughout Barack Obama’s campaign and Presidency so far. One section, specifically, focuses on “Baracketology” – Obama’s annual NCAA March Madness bracket. So, what makes these brackets so important? Alexander Wolff thinks it’s all about Obama’s political strategy, relatability, and legacy.

The author easily listed examples of how the President’s March Madness picks can seem politically charged. Obama received criticism over his brackets’ large proportion of swing states and frivolity. Despite pushback from across many spectrums, Wolff says the yearly bracket simply conveys Obama’ sincere love of the game. Wolff described the tradition of inviting the champions to the White House to meet with the Obamas. He easily bantered with the teams. He jokes with the players and the coaches, proving that he keeps up-to-date with both the game and the latest league news. Regardless of his motivations, Obama’s NCAA bracket has provided him an opportunity to connect with the American people, showing them he is an average, relatable, and trustworthy person. Wolff notes that Obama’s connection to basketball and the tournament comes across as incredibly genuine, not as though we are being “spun” by an expert politician/manipulator. Wolff even goes so far as to speculate basketball’s influence on Obama’s Presidential legacy: “Will Obama be remembered as the President who shared his brackets with us?” Perhaps “Baracketology” will become a tradition, carried on by the next Commander-in-Chief as a way to reach the American people. The once-criticized practice has now become commonplace political strategy.

The author conveys in his book as well as in his interviews that Obama is very much an agent of change. During his Presidency, he has created a coalition to bring a much-divided nation together, often using basketball as his starting point and common thread. The sport has even given the public a glimpse into Barack Obama’s personal life, providing the entry point into his youth, career, and marriage. Obama’s connection to basketball has become intertwined with his legacy in many senses. I would venture to say that the same is true for Alexander Wolff, whose own legacy will surely include not only basketball, but also the Age of Obama.

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Austin Zwolenik, Biology major

Wolff’s writing, filled with comparisons and analysis is somewhat atypical in informative books, as they usually only lay out facts with no real opinion written by the author. The Audacity of Hoop caters to the people that subscribe to the acronym “tl:dr,” meaning: too long; didn’t read. Wolff even addressed this type of thinking in his talk as he referenced the style in which The Audacity of Hoop was written. It is a coffee table book filled with many pictures to tag along with the writing. This writing medium is excellent for the purpose of creating a dynamic where the pictures explain what words sometimes cannot.

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Long Duc Nguyen, Management Information Systems major

I had a great chance to meet the author of The Audacity of Hoop, Alexander Wolff. The author gave us some insights on President Obama, his campaign, and how the President’s use of sports affects American society. When President Obama fills out the March Madness bracket, it shows that he is just another person with the love for sports and creates a sense of trust among the African-American community. The most interesting story that the author told us is how Barack Obama, through his qualities on the basketball court, won the heart of the demanding Michelle Robinson.

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Isabella Menzies, Early Childhood Education major

While interviewing Alexander Wolff, the author of The Audacity of Hoop, I asked what brought his attention to the fact that Barack Obama had used basketball as a campaign strategy. Wolff stated that the influence of basketball on Obama’s campaign first grabbed his attention in 2008. He noted that he had always been interested in politics and basketball, so the potential intersection of those two entities allowed him to investigate a story that brought together both of his interests. Wolff acknowledged that he initially questioned if he had just strained to make connections between basketball and Obama’s campaign. Nonetheless, evidence of the influence that the former had on the latter (and vice versa) grew, and Wolff ultimately concluded that Obama had used basketball to connect with voters. Such a conclusion enabled me to realize the intentional (rather than coincidental) nature of the relationship between politics and sports.

Knowledge Unlatched enables a further 78 books to be Open Access

This week, we highlight the Knowledge Unlatched (KU) program. Round 2 of this open access program “unlatched” three Temple University Press titles:  We Shall Not Be Moved/No Nos Moverán by David Spener,  The Muslim Question in Europe by Peter O’Brien, and The Struggling State, by Jennifer Riggan.  The KU program allows publishers to recover costs while making important current content available openly online.

These Temple University Press titles are among the 78 unlatched* books that have been made open access through the support of both individual libraries and library consortia from across the globe. This round brings the total to more than 100 titles now available as open access since 2014, when the KU Pilot Collection of 28 humanities and social science monographs from 13 publishers was unlatched by nearly 300 libraries worldwide.  Constructing Muslims in France, by Jennifer Fredette, was included in the Pilot Collection.

These 78 new books from 26 publishers (including the original 13 participants) have been successfully unlatched by libraries in 21 countries along with support from a number of library consortia, who together raised over $1 million. The books are being loaded onto the OAPEN and HathiTrust platforms, where they will be available for free as fully downloadable PDFs. The titles cover five humanities and social science subject areas (Anthropology, History, Literature, Media and Communications, and Politics): http://collections.knowledgeunlatched.org/packages/.

The second round of KU allowed libraries to choose from subject packages as well as publisher packages. It also introduced consortium participation into the program. Additional plans for KU expansion will be announced soon.

* ‘Unlatching’ is term for KU’s  collaborative and sustainable way of making content available using Creative Commons licences and fully downloadable by the end user.

Trump, Bullying, and Narcissism

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post a two part essay by Laura Martocci, author of Bullying from Psychology Today entitled, “Trump, Bullying and Narcissism.”

Has Donald Trump turned bullying into a political art from? If so, how did he do it?
Having built a successful career as a preeminent narcissist, could his recent success be an instance of two negatives equaling a positive?

In order to explore these questions, the relationship between bullying and narcissism requires a bit of explaining.  While even Trump’s supporters would have difficulty dismissing claims that he is a narcissist, or a bully, it seems that it is the combination of narcissism and bullying that has galvanized the Republican electorate, raising the question  how (and why) a society that has fostered anti-bullying campaigns over the past decade is looking to elect a bully.

Both bullies and narcissists share a strong sense of conviction.  And surely, what attracts many to Trump is his certainty.  There is no political ‘double-talk,’ no sense of waffling or political correctness, let alone apology.  He is not Christopher Lasch’s narcissist, depending on others to validate his self-esteem.  While Trump may ultimately be unable to live without an admiring audience, he does, in fact, glory in his individuality.  He has placed himself  beyond shame (in the political arena, at least) and this is precisely what makes him so dangerous.  In this, he more fits the mold of a ‘rugged individualist’ who sees the world as a wilderness to be shaped to his own design—think robber-barons like Rockefeller and Carnegie—than the stereotype of, say, reality show “mactors” whose desperate need of  the spotlight suggests  insecurities beneath the surface.

In other words, Trump’s  bullying behavior (coupled with his financial independence) allows his vainglory to be writ large, crushing those who stand in the way of refracted grandiosity.  Social aggressions can be re-cast when the narrative is one of a mythic lone rebel taking justice into his own hands, or even as David taking on Goliath (America loves an underdog success story).

This suggests that—contrary to popular belief—a very secure sense of self-worth underlies all Trump’s actions (including his candidacy). And in fact, as Twenge and Campbell argue (in The Narcissism Epidemic) the notion that narcissists are insecure and have low self-esteem is a myth. On the contrary, many narcissists really do consider themselves awesome. Believing that they are wonderful, superior—the best, even—enables these individuals to dominate (aka ‘bully’) others with impunity.  An overblown sense of self is so all-pervasive as to preclude the perspectives of others—or have any concern for the harm one might be doing those who are clearly inferior.

Bullying_smFor what is a man, what has he got
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way
  (Sinatra, My Way).

“My way,” for Trump involves paving an ethnocentric glory-road by fear-mongering, on the one hand, and promising a return to ‘the good ole days’ on the other. Trump’s positions, no less than his style of asserting them (which has been compared to the bigoted scare-tactics  found in Hitler’s early speeches readily play into narcissistic cultural norms that produced—and continue to tacitly support—bullying.  These include 1) an ongoing preoccupation with/valorization of  self-esteem, and 2) the belief that self-expression—often paired with ‘authenticity’—is  a fundamental entitlement.

These Self-centered values are a double-edged sword, as they give rise to  heterogeneity—a tolerance for, if not valuation of, diversity—which quietly  whittled  away any clear-cut sense of cultural identity. Global heterogeneity challenges American exceptionalism; America’s own diversity challenges white Christian male supremacy. The unique (read esteemed, privileged) position from which denizens of a narcissistic culture tacitly appropriate the world has been repeatedly called into question. Trump’s political platform amounts to a rejection of that question / an attempt to restore  a gilded (cultural) mirror, repositioning Americans (you and me) at the center

The point at which the gilding on this mirror overlays its reflective qualities is precisely  the point at which Trump’s narcissism bleeds into bullying. His perspective (on anything from Megyn to Mexicans to the military) is objectified and touted as factual,  allowing his self, and his platform, to be truly synonymous.  Trump does not  bother with other points of view—or even with “disagreeable” facts—because he sincerely believes that his candidacy (which is coeval with both personal and political assessments)  transcends all other considerations.  He denigrates and dismisses detractors no less than the Constitution itself because, as a narcissistic bully, he  is convinced  that the ends—his ends—justify the means.  (And if the ends justify the means, any niggling laws or contradictions can be blustered around, as Trump well knows: “if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”)

The mockery and abuse launched at detractors (anyone “un-American” enough to have alternate points of view) is undergirded by a sense of patriotism that meshes well with the psycho-social elements that conspired to produce the “me generation.”   As the baby-boomers became parents, their preoccupation with self-esteem was translated into child-centered parenting, which, in turn, produced a culture of entitlement.  (the  “me-me generation,” who express themselves/construct their identities on  social ME-dia platforms with their, iphones, ipods, iwatches, and imacs). Those who are invested in this  entitlementespecially the newly disenfranchised, who can no longer afford the American Dream —line up behind Trump in order to  push back against cultural de-differentiation and the de-centering of the “American way of life.”

In short, the public phenomenon that is “Trump” is scaffolded by cultural fears which are tethered to a narcissism writ large—a (privileged) belief in global dominance/respect that we, and our children, are entitled to.

Yet even if we can convince ourselves that this patriotism belies a cultural fact —that “we’re Number One”—we are all, nonetheless, only Trump’s Apprentices.

 

A Slumlord Bent on Displacing tenants and a DC Law that (Sort of) Stands in its Way

This week in North Philly Notes, Carolyn Gallaher, author of The Politics of Staying Put explains how the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) is operating in Washington, DC. 

Cities are fashionable again.  After decades of disinvestment, people are coming back.  Washington DC is a case in point.  Between 1950 and 2000 the city’s population shrunk by 29%; however, in the next decade it grew 10%, from 572,059 to 632,323. Although population growth slowed after 2012, the city still added another 23,000 residents in the next two years.  Most economists think the city would have grown even more if not for the rising costs associated with living in the city.

Given these trends, it’s fair to ask why big cities like Washington, DC still have slumlords.  In the era of urban decline (roughly between 1960 and 2000) slumlords typically let their properties deteriorate because they couldn’t make a return on investments in them.  Today, returns on investments in rental accommodations are very likely, if not guaranteed.  Enter the modern slumlord.  No longer an individual or a family, the modern slumlord is often a real estate investment group, and for them disinvestment is a strategy for ensuring a larger return.  Instead of repairing and refurbishing an old building and earning modest returns, you tear it down, replace it with luxury apartments, and charge rents to match.  The only things standing in your way are tenants.  So, you stop making repairs and hope they’ll move out.

The residents in Congress Heights, a complex in the Anacostia neighborhood, know all about this strategy.  They’ve lived it for several years.  Their landlord, Sanford Capital, doesn’t make repairs anymore.  The company’s tenants live with sporadic heat, faulty plumbing, a bedbug infestation, rodents, and a basement with raw sewage and standing water when it rains.  People often pack up and leave when things get this bad, but a number of the tenants in Congress Heights are holding on.  Some of the complex’s longtime residents are elderly and can’t imagine living anywhere else.  Others don’t want to leave their friends and neighbors because they all look out for one another.  And, everyone is poor and worried about finding someplace else as affordable as where they live now.  They are right to worry.  The Congress Heights neighborhood is near a metro (subway) station and is, in developer speak, “ripe for redevelopment.”  A recent study by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) also suggests there aren’t many affordable apartments left in the city.  Since 2002 the city lost nearly half of its affordable apartment units (defined in the study as units renting for $800 or less).

The District of Columbia has a law, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), which should have prevented things from getting so bad at Congress Heights.  The city council introduced TOPA in 1981 in response to a spate of condo conversions in fast-gentrifying neighborhoods near downtown.  The goal of the law was to help tenants stay in place when their landlords decided to sell or convert to condominium.  TOPA states that when a landlord sells a rental apartment building, tenants are allowed to refuse the sale and purchase the building instead for the same price. Tenants are also allowed to purchase their building if a landlord wants to demolish it for redevelopment.  Tenants usually work with a developer (for-profit or non-profit) to purchase their building.  They can then choose whether to convert their building to condo or co-op or keep it rental.

By law landlords are supposed to inform their tenants when they contract a sale or submit formal plans for demolition with the city.  In practice, however, landlords often subvert these guidelines, and at various points in recent history the city agency responsible for regulating the TOPA process has abetted them.

The landlord at Congress Heights, Sanford Capital, applied for and received permission to demolish the buildings in early 2015 and the tenants have still not received a formal TOPA notice.  In the meantime, the city’s Attorney General, Karl Racine, recently sued the landlords and will ask the court to put the building into temporary receivership so a different owner can make repairs.  The city is also considering forcing Sanford Capital to issue its tenants a TOPA notice. In short, the law that didn’t work to protect the people it was supposed to protect may still be their last hope for staying put.

Staying Put_061615.jpgIn my new book The Politics of Staying Put: Condo Conversion and Tenant Right-to-Buy in Washington DC, I assess TOPA’s success at helping tenants stay put.  As the Congress Heights case suggest, the law is imperfect.  Legislators need to specify fuzzy language, close some obvious loopholes, and demand city regulators actually provide oversight of the process.  But, I also found that many tenants have made TOPA work for them.  Most importantly, successful tenants associations have used TOPA to stay put—no mean feat in a fast gentrifying city.  Successful tenants associations have also participated in the benefits of reinvestment, whether as new owners building equity or as renters who can demand building wide improvements and continued low rents from their development partners.

The bigger battle, though, isn’t fixing TOPA. The law was never designed to be a stand-alone solution.  TOPA cannot, for example, ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing, police slumlords, or reign in the city’s pay-to-play approach with developers.  In fact, the city’s Zoning Commission approved Sanford’s plans for redeveloping the land where the Congress Heights apartment complex sits even after the city’s Department of Human Services and its Department of Housing and Community Development received hundreds of complaints about significant code violations in Sanford owned properties.  In these neoliberal times, cities don’t want to assume responsibilities for their low income residents (or increasingly, their middle income ones), but they will have to if they want to ensure their cities don’t become exclusive enclaves for the wealthy.  Otherwise, cities risk becoming a version of the 1980s era suburbs they long bemoaned.

 

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