Fighting harder against gentrification

Activists in Los Angeles and a few other cities are ramping up their efforts to fend off gentrification:

That’s because it was organized by Defend Boyle Heights, a coalition of scorched-earth young activists from the surrounding neighborhood — the heart of Mexican-American L.A. — who have rejected the old, peaceful forms of resistance (discussion, dialogue, policy proposals) and decided that the only sensible response is to attack and hopefully frighten off the sorts of art galleries, craft breweries and single-origin coffee shops that tend to pave the way for more powerful invaders: the real estate agents, developers and bankers whose arrival typically mark a neighborhood’s point of no return…

By “making s*** crack” — by boycotting, protesting, disrupting, threatening and shouting in the streets — Defend Boyle Heights and its allies have notched a series of surprising victories over the past two and a half years, even as the forces of gentrification continue to make inroads in the neighborhood. A gallery closed its doors after its “staff and artists were routinely trolled online and harassed in person.” An experimental street opera was shut down after members of the Roosevelt High School band — egged on by a group of activists — used saxophones, trombones and trumpets to drown it out. A real estate bike tour promising clients access to a “charming, historic, walkable and bikeable neighborhood” was scrapped after the agent reported threats of violence. “I can’t help but hope that your 60-minute bike ride is a total disaster and that everyone who eats your artisanal treats pukes immediately,” said one message. The national (and international) media descended, with many outlets flocking to Weird Wave Coffee, a hip new shop that was immediately targeted by activists after opening last summer….

These harsh realities aren’t lost on millennials of color — especially young men and women from gentrifying neighborhoods, where such inequities tend to be on vivid, daily display. To that end, a 2016 Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that only 42 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds now support capitalism; a third now identify as socialists. Among those who backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, the number was even higher — a full 54 percent — and minorities and people without a college degree were more likely to support socialism as well…

“We are devoting our time to building a national movement against gentrification,” they wrote in a February blog post titled “Defending Boyle Heights and f***ing s*** up: A 2017 summation and report back from our Hood Solidarity tour.” “Boyle Heights has … become a beacon of hope for other communities facing similar threats. … We are hopeful that in the coming years, with the effort necessary to sustain a movement, poor and working-class people can escalate the class war against gentrification and actually hinder and possibly reverse its effects.”

As the article notes, gentrification is not new but reactions to it have changed over time. Most major cities are beholden to development and have been for decades: development and growth is good, particularly when it is taking place in neighborhoods that have seen better days (think of older urban renewal programs), and politicians and developers can have a symbiotic relationship. Yet, this development often does not help poorer residents who even if they are not pushed out of the neighborhood do benefit in the same ways as developers and politicians.

A few ongoing questions about these efforts:

  1. Do more strident responses to gentrification then allow more negotiation to take place about the future of neighborhoods?
  2. At what point do cities, developers, and business owners push back harder against such protests?
  3. Can protests like these slow or stop gentrification? Can they prompt a larger spirit against gentrification in the community?

Something to keep watching.

Rat balloons – “Scabby” – started in the Chicago area

I have seen at least a few large inflatable rats while driving around in recent years – even in front of my own employer – and these rats have their roots in Chicago area union protests:

The rat balloons, nicknamed “Scabby,” started in the Chicago area in 1990 and have grown into a worldwide symbol for union strikes. But the balloons aren’t without controversy. From the picket line to the courtroom, employers have tried to snuff out Scabby many times…

Ken Lambert, a former organizer with the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, says he was searching for a way to draw more awareness to a 1990 picket in north suburban Chicago…

Lambert says he chose a rat because the animal has long been used as a symbol to call out those who oppose unions. Fellow organizer Don Newton helped secure the funds for the first balloon, Lambert says…

The legality of using Scabby as a form of union protest has been contested, with many of the rulings relying on the interpretation of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. The act ensures rights for striking unions to picket the location of an employer or contractor, while also protecting nearby companies or other organizations employers from being targeted.

The article goes on to say that the unions believe the rats attract attention and informing informing the public about union workers. But, some of the material online suggests the rats serve another purpose: to provoke employers and organizations. I wonder how the mixture of trying to gather public support while poking at your opponent with a giant rat works out. The article suggests at the end that it is not known whether inflatable rats lead to better outcomes for union. Does it cause the two sides to double down or make other organizations think twice?

More broadly, this could be a powerful protest device for other groups. Why don’t more movements have large inflatables that can fit on sidewalks or public easements? The presence of certain symbols or words could draw attention, particularly near busy roads and intersections.

Naperville as a center for suburban protests

Several hundred people gathered in Naperville Saturday to demand PResident Trump release his tax returns:

The sidewalks of downtown Naperville were filled with hundreds of marchers Saturday, many waving signs and chanting “release your taxes” in a Tax Day rally that gathered at the Riverwalk’s Free Speech Pavilion…

Foster said the Naperville protest was one of 180 Tax Day Marches held across the United States and in four other countries to demand Trump make his returns available to the public…

Both organizers and Foster said they were pleasantly surprised by the turnout, estimated to be between 300 and 600 people. Stava-Murray said the group initially requested a permit to hold the rally at the larger Grand Pavilion and to march along the Riverwalk, but the Naperville Park District rejected the requests, citing a rule prohibiting protests at both locations. She said the American Civil Liberties Union is looking into challenging the district’s rule as unconstitutional.

As a result, they rerouted the march to public sidewalks – east on Jackson Avenue, south on Main Street, west on Aurora Avenue and north on Eagle Street. Police stationed along the route confirmed the marchers were following guidelines worked out with the city for a peaceful protest.

Suburbs, particularly wealthier are more conservative ones like Naperville, are not usually known for their political rallies and marches. Yet, Naperville has had its share of political activity in recent years including an Occupy Naperville group in 2011 and a Trayvon Martin march in 2012. Why is Naperville a place for such activity? Some possible reasons:

  1. The city is the second largest suburb in the Chicago region behind Aurora. This means there are both a lot of residents who could be mobilized and a variety of viewpoints.
  2. Naperville may have a reputation as a business-friendly conservative community but it has more Democratic voters than before.
  3. Naperville has a highly educated population.
  4. It has a vibrant downtown where any sort of political activity could be viewed by a lot of people.
  5. DuPage County lacks other good protest sites. Other communities are smaller and sleepier. Could a march in Oak Brook draw the same amount of attention?

It will be interesting to see if (1) such activity continues and (2) how the city might respond to where activists can march.

The most congested city in the world is…

…Not much of a surprise. But, Los Angeles does lead the way by quite a bit over other cities:

Drivers in the car-crazy California metropolis spent 104 hours each driving in congestion during peak travel periods last year. That topped second-place Moscow at 91 hours and third-place New York at 89, according to a traffic scorecard compiled by Inrix, a transportation analytics firm.

The U.S. had half the cities on Inrix’s list of the top 10 most congested areas in the world and was the most congested developed country on the planet, Inrix found. U.S. drivers averaged 42 hours per year in traffic during peak times, the study found. San Francisco was the fourth-most congested city, while Bogota, Colombia, was fifth, Sao Paulo ranked sixth and London, Atlanta, Paris and Miami rounded out the top 10…

Study authors said a stable U.S. economy, continued urbanization of big cities, employment growth and low gas prices all contributed to increased traffic and congestion worldwide in 2016, lowering the quality of life.

The city built around the car and highways lives and dies with those same cars and highways.

What would it take to dramatically reduce that time in Los Angeles? The city has both a history of mass transit – extensive streetcar lines in the early 1900s – as well as rumblings about increased mass transit options in the future. See this 2012 post that sums up this potential “mass transit revolution.” But, any such effort must be monumental and involve both infrastructure as well as cultural change. Could we truly envision a Los Angeles in several decades where the car is not at the center of everyday life (both in practice and mythos) or will we have piecemeal efforts (including continuing trying to maximize driving through schemes like boring under the city) that don’t add up to much? Large-scale transformation would take a significant shift in focus by the city and other bodies and require sustained pressure for decades.

Another thought: are there effective ways for angry drivers to protest congestion? Yes, they can vote for certain candidates or policies. What if drivers one day symbolically walked away from their cars during the afternoon rush hour? (Such a protest, unfortunately, only would add to the congestion.) Could drivers clog the downtown streets in protest to block politicians? Refuse to go to work? There does not seem to be many options for the average driver to express their displeasure.

The difficulties of big protests at airports

Airports don’t often attract people for protests so the gatherings of recent days highlighted a few issues:

Moving hundreds of thousands of people to downtown streets for a march is one thing—getting people to an airport is a huge transportation challenge, especially in cities that don’t have adequate transit connections to begin with. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, transit authorities were coyly reminding protesters to use trains or buses to get to SFO and LAX.

Some airports reported delayed flights because crew members could not get to work, and heavy traffic was reported around many airports. Long-term parking lots and shuttles were filled with protesters, and passengers had to wade through sign-holding crowds to get to their gates.

So many New Yorkers were using the city’s AirTrain to get to the protest at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) that security guards blocked people from boarding it until Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered Port Authority to let protesters through

The incident on JFK’s AirTrain also points to another challenge for an airport demonstration. Most airports are a checkerboard of public and private properties with both local and federal oversight. JFK’s international terminal, Terminal 4, which became ground zero for the protests nationwide, for example, is partly owned by Schiphol Cargo, the corporation that manages Amsterdam’s airport…

Globally, this type of “airport urbanism” is actually becoming the norm as airport design worldwide moves away from the fortress model of the past. While continuing to focus on security for boarding areas, new airports are adding more permeable spaces that serve both passengers and the greater public. Munich’s airport has a similar programmed plaza that inspired Denver’s.

It is unlikely that airports can be consistent centers of urbanism because many types of development do not want to locate near loud runways. At the same time, there is little reason why more airports can’t introduce more interesting spaces that give travelers, workers, and other visitors opportunities to relax, shop, and interact. For example, I really enjoyed the grand windows at the Seattle airport last August. (At the same time, that space was past security and wouldn’t be available to protestors.)

Protestors in recent years have shown more willingness to congregate in transportation corridors, whether highways or airports. Such tactics do tend to get people’s attention while also highlighting the lack of large public space sin many locales.

Predicting riots using social media

In addition to the identified factors from research coming out of the 1960s and 1970s, one sociologist suggests social media activity can show how riots and protests spread:

The most promising method of “predicting” unrest might be through social media. Dan Braha, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and affiliate of the New England Complex Systems Institute, has studied unrest in hundreds of countries and the phenomenon of “contagion,” or how it spreads. In the past, printed newspapers, televisions, and other media played an important role, he said. “Today, the use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms is fundamental to the rapid self-organization and spreading of unrest activities—much like the spread of fire in a forest.” And the data from these media can be tracked. Riots, he claims, are certainly foreseeable, but “prediction regarding ‘when’ and ‘where’ becomes more precise on short time scales.”

It sounds like social media is just part of the puzzle here. There are certain underlying conditions mentioned in this article – such as hot weather or precipitating incidents (such as police violence) – but these do not always lead to riots. (In fact, given the inequalities present in many American cities, riots and protests could be considered relatively rare.)  Just as with the analysis of the Arab Spring activity, social media does not cause protests or riots but it can help facilitate it. This was reported in Egypt as protestors shared information through social media and even peer-to-peer options. This was also reported in Baltimore as protestors selected places to show up. This is not a new phenomena; riots in the 1960s spread in a contagion like manner and the dispersion could be tracked through news coverage in the New York Times. But, the availability of social media now makes it theoretically possible to watch things develop in real time, an advantage for both protestors and authorities.

Thinking to the future, what happens when protestors make use of non-public social media or peer-to-peer options that cannot be viewed by authorities?

All the world’s people could fit in NYC

The world’s population may be at record levels but everyone could fit in New York City if they all stood really close together:

Urban’s core assumption is that 10 humans can fit in a square meter. If you watch this video of nine journalists squeezing themselves into a square meter, you can see that while this would be cozy, it’s definitely possible. This especially true given that about a quarter of the world’s population is under 15.

At 10 people per square meter, that means we can fit 1,000 people in a 10-by-10-meter square. 54,000 people can fit in an American football field, and 26 million people – about the population of Scandinavia – can fit into one square mile, Urban writes. Central Park, which is 1.3 square miles or 3.4 square kilometers, could hold the population of Australia or Saudi Arabia. All 320 million Americans could huddle together into a square that is 3.5 miles or 5.7 kilometers on each side.

And what if we found a piece of land for everyone on Earth – all 7.3 billion of the world’s people? Urban calculates that we would need a square that is 27 km, or 16.8 miles, on each side – an area smaller than Bahrain and, yes, New York City.

Urban calculates that we could fit 590 million people in Manhattan — that takes care of North America. We could fit 1.38 billion people in Brooklyn, equivalent to the population of Africa, South America and Oceania. Queens could hold 2.83 billion — roughly the equivalent of India + China + Japan. 1.09 billion could fit in the Bronx, taking care of Europe, while 1.51 billion could fit Staten Island, making room for the rest of Asia ex-China, Japan and India.

Of course, this isn’t a long-term possibility. But, it does lead me to a few thoughts:

1. This suggests there is a lot of land where few people live. Some of this land is simply uninhabitable. But, there still must be more land where population densities are really low.

2. This reminds me of the sorts of calculations done by those who observe rallies and protests. Calculations of crowds on the National Mall utilize estimates of how close people can stand together for such events.

3. A more abstract question is what is the highest level of population density that can still support decent lives? If technology allowed people to live closer together in the future, would people choose this?