Thursday, April 13, 2017

Change Agents and the City

While reading the articles for this week, I was struck by how the Apartheid City structure reflects Roanoke’s geographic and zoning de facto barriers that have been used for voluntary and involuntary racism and spatial clustering. Roanoke’s development continues to take into account and cater to the Creative Class and the Young Urban Professional -- while these are not exclusively Caucasian or any race or even nationality in particular, the Carilion Cadence is the beat of this city’s heart more often than not. To date, that has involved development for the attraction of well-educated medical and creative staff, many of them young, able bodied, and childless, more interested in running the greenway near the pub and shopping a farmer’s market near the loft building than addressing needs of native residents’ lack of access to transportation, food, or equal educational offerings.

To be physically separated is demoralizing; it is a public stamp of approval of different social realities for different folks, of non-belonging and of exclusion. The conditions of exclusion were deemed so offensive and antithetic to the ideals of the United States that they were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1954 when the Brown vs. the Board of Education case resulted in the ruling that “separate but equal is not equal.” Certainly such stratification and the systemic neglect and violence that go with it seem in direct conflict with the United Nations’ call for “A dignified and secure existence in cities.”

Anderson writes that “Simply living in such an environment places young people at special risk of falling victim to aggressive behavior.” When we look at the decisions made by Roanoke and so many others cities all over the country, the efforts to revitalize urban spaces seems fraught with tension, especially as urban planners work with politicians and existing businesses to ensure the best economic reality while achieving an orderly and aesthetically pleasing design. the problem seems to lie in the idea that the revitalization is appealing and accessible to everyone equally.

Right now gay is hip, so we are happy to have a Gay Pride parade and Pride in the Park festival. Cities are scrambling to follow Roanoke’s example of celebrated inclusion: we happily have festivals for any culture -- Greek, Lebanese and Local Colors are just a few that come to mind. It’s estimated that Roanoke’s population is growing by one thousand residents a year, many of these newcomers attracted by the open and active image that Roanoke has.

But much of the separateness is still ignored by Roanoke, and we are developing two very different Roanokes indeed, one a poster for inclusion and happiness for mostly-young, moneyed, and able-bodied residents in the south and another for those who support the former -- the disenfranchised, mostly (but far from exclusively) African-American who live in the north.

Folkways bump into and often trump mores all the time, but it’s never more apparent than during interactions at the physical and societal edges of public space, where the spaces are inadequate to hold all our various realities simultaneously, and the differences in our individual expectations for behaviors and consequences becomes manifest. When north meets south in Roanoke, the expectations of behavior, language, dress and redress are evident and ultimately no one feels familiar or comfortable. Oppositional cultures seem at times merely one more part of a social system that is deeply stratified -- unified by twitter feeds and facebook groups and how we consume the stream of information from our social networks. The narratives of these networks can be, and often is, dramatically different at any given time. While Twitter might be flooded with the antics on the senate floor or the big reveal in a netflix show, the same timeline of facebook might be wholly taken up with sports plays or the social issue of welfare and the minimum wage.

As Roanoke reclaims and reinvents space -- from previous industrial sites such as along Salem Avenue to undeveloped sites such as Brandon swamp -- to create gathering, activity and residential space, folkways and our internal programming are ruling our interactions more than ever. I am hopeful that Roanoke will slow down development long enough to start listening to matters of justice as well as matters of paint colors and housing needs and development opportunities. It’s time that we look to other, at times informal ways in which urban problems of inequality and injustice are being dealt with effectively. Not to do so is to actively invite these issues to be addressed informally in ways that have proven not only ineffective, but downright toxic for those they serve.

More than anything, the readings show that availability and quality of services makes a huge difference in residents’ quality of life and peace of mind, the very qualities that Anderson highlights as lacking in the streets, forcing street residents to develop, adopt and enforce a behavioral code to address the feeling o of “alienation from mainstream society and its institutions.” This combines with a “profound” lack of faith to create a pervasive context of hopelessness, the lesser of “two contrasting conceptual categories” whose pressures and consequences extend far beyond geographic borders and economic boundaries. In this reality, one can count solely on oneself and one’s own resources of spirit and attitude, and “physical prowess takes on great significance.” In his analysis, Anderson finds “hopelessness and alienation . . . fuels the violence” that so many cities experience.

In a curious twist of events, surveillance has proven a powerful ally in effecting social change in the last decade. The United States culturally rejects state-sponsored surveillance out of hand, decrying an inalienable right to privacy (while demanding that apple, amazon, facebook, and every other tech giant in the land hand over all data and the codes to hack the system). But self-surveillance has become the lifeblood of the twenty-first century equality and social justice movements, and the state has implemented surveillance measures more out of self preservation than of attempts to effect social control. To be caught on camera -- body cam or cell phone -- is to validated and to be accountable. Through this nationwide citizen-level campaign of Observe & Record, we as a culture of the governors and the governed believe we are finally real, that we have a voice, and that we matter. Surveillance is proving to be the real equalizer, whatever Sam Colt might have led us to believe.

The crime and violence is but a symptom, a harsh reality that residents all over the globe know in their bones and are trying to address. When Mexico attempted to let the residents achieve their own solutions, the reality was that power-grabbing and status building led to the same development stratifications and fragmentations as when the politicians were in charge. Having lost sight of their good-natured beginnings, “community organizations in Mexico City serve largely as Low-income real-estate developers.” Money, politics and a system seem to come together to create their own self-sustaining streams of existence, and seem to be far from David Harvey’s vision that we can “change ourselves by changing the city.”

Ultimately, if we are more interested in self-serving aims -- the bolstering of our own social status or the increase in our personal profits -- we are not going to be able to realize the change we want to see. We must genuinely start acting as though everyone is equal and has the same right to the best social services, from libraries to restaurants to sidewalks and schools. Perhaps the message is to change ourselves to change our cities.