Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Fight for the City: Exploring Our Own Sites of Building


Admittedly, my perspective is skewed.

I live smack-dab on a pivotal corner in San Francisco’s “hottest” neighborhood, the Mission. The city itself is tilting toward a “rich-whites only” enclave, serviced by peopleless apps and driverless cars, pop-up restaurants and Google shopping express vans, goods flown in by drones, and workers replaced by private well-paid “servants,” robots, automation, online “sharing,” surveillance cameras, wearable “communications” devices, and asundry other innovations. The wealthy currently constitute some 40% of this alluring metropolis, and are swiftly evicting the remaining rabble. Buildings with character are demolished daily, replaced with the sleek nonpersonas of “posh,” “eminent,” “exclusive,” “luxury,” “modern” complexes of live-work(-die) high-rises. The sci-fi reality is hard to comprehend even if one (still barely) resides here; it’s even harder to adequately portray to those hanging-on-by-a-thread elsewhere.

For similar and yet place-specific “great transformations” are occurring across this continent, around the globe, as the world’s neo-elite set their sights on retaking — reappropriating, recolonizing, stealing — the biggest and most appealing of cities. If we thought we had a “right to the city,” it seems that capitalism, alongside such kissing cousins as racism and patriarchy, to mention two, has other ideas. More than ideas, it has the money and might.

Yes, my vantage point is a particularly bizarre one. I also live in what’s already a dinosaur: the last collective anarchist(ic) home and sociopolitical space in San Francisco, now tangibly at risk for eviction within, if we’re lucky, a year’s time.

And I engage in anti-eviction organizing, where despite a miniscule victory here and there, and time well spent with so many courageous and still-joyful people, we are losing.

Or rather, more to the point, capitalism is winning. Fiercely, frequently, and in ways that feel like the victory is forever.

If I feel hopeless, if I’m personally at a loss for what to do and/or where to go next, I am not alone. Just the reverse: I am far from alone.

I am trudging, dejectedly, without answers or pathways, in a ghostly death march of millions or billions of us, the damned — those evicted from the cities of the rich, sent packing as so much garbage — or so it can feel, physically, emotionally, existentially.

What’s a poor, literally and figuratively, person to do? What are we who usually fight to do, if we also can’t discover “the power to stay” in all the cities that are being (re)stolen and enclosed, made not common? We can run. We can move. We can move again. Always again. To more and more destitute places, until they become fodder for gentrification (aka capitalism) as well. Then we can run and move again.

We can lose hope along with home, and dwell only in the negative: Capitalism is unstoppable.

Or, equally unpalatable, we can dwell in delusions: We are unstoppable.

Perhaps there is an alternative — one that doesn’t promise a false “we are winning,” but one that doesn’t give up altogether. One that stays in the land of tensions and dilemmas, sorting through them for cracks in the edifice of capitalism. One that uses our loss and grief, our resilience and imagination, our capacity for love and care, for some great transformation of our own.

Perhaps there are many alternatives, many ways of counterstealing and counterbuilding, and finding our own might. Because we’re right to want another world; we’re right to want to stay in our homes and cities.

A brilliant friend, Lilian, in a faraway city facing its own somewhat-slower death, suggested a notion to me yesterday on the phone. First she listened with empathy to my narrative of how eviction now looms large in my life, and then peppered me with curious questions. Then she gifted me a gem, and proceeded to brainstorm some of the likely numerous potentials.

Her basic premise was this: If you are indeed going to lose yet another home, why not use this year of its eviction and thus demise to explore, nudge, and nurture other social fabrics, probably in cities that aren’t San Francisco (or mega-cities like New York that are perhaps already lost causes)? In whatever time you’ve left, why not celebrate the end of one project/home well done to (with luck, close collaborators, and militant research) as a community-building project, part on-the-ground ethnography of what’s being lost, part information gathering of how and where we can hold and grow spaces in cities for us and those many others being discarded, and part journey toward establishing one or several hubs across this contingent — places that practice means of surviving and thriving, that assert and sustain our right to the city?”

This is not a challenge to create intentional or escapist communes. Nor abandon the urban for the rural. It is not a call to flee. Rather, it is, as the Zapatistas have proclaimed time and again in various poetic and pragmatic ways, an invitation to walk onward together on a journey with seemingly few points of navigation nor assured destination.

It is the notion that if we grope our way for some possible answers, in the dark together, trading in bits of experiential wisdom, perhaps we can collect a treasure trove of small but solid ways forward, toward glimmers of light and promise.

I’ve only the fainted of images of what this might mean, but I adore Lilian’s concept of using this year, for me and others, to conspire about and I trust collaborate on “building here,” in this world, with all its precariousness and wretchedness. What might we make of our homes and lives, cities and communities?

Some of the methods that Lilian and I dreamed up, in enthused dialogue, were documenting in words and images what we are losing in our respective cities, publicly sharing those stories, using the knowledge we have to explain how gentrification feels and acts in our cities; gathering for face-to-face conversations in various cities to compile our militant research; offering tales, too, of what, where, and how we might gain “land and dignity” in cities; build friendships and relationships that organically begin to feel concrete and caring enough that some of our past, present, and future do-it-together experiments can become embodied in cities that we haven’t yet lost. There are many methods and tools, online and in person, but starting from what we know and feel to be true for us, hurt and all, seems to me to speak widely to us all.

If you’re like me, you feel alone in this; but we are all, all of us, having our land and dignity, our projects and people, stolen from us. We know, intimately, what is at stake.

Personally, “selfishly,” my wish would be to establish some sort of land-entrusted life-politics-education physical space/home in a city that won’t vanish completely around me and others, and where we can illustrate that much as we lose and will lose a lot, we in North American might also do the triage of constructing autonomous neighborhoods, communities, and municipalities. I’d settle for autonomous blocks in four separate by interrelated cities at this dispiriting point! I want to do this with dear friends-as-family who know how to be good to each other, and want to carve out lives worth living — not only for themselves but all the neighbors, radical or not, who also want to carve out lives worth living.

I began this quest without answers in a Facebook query the other day, asking anarchists and antiauthoritarians (well, those who still aspire to be human and compassionate), What’s your favorite(s) US &/or Canadian cities that:

1. Are currently still the most affordable for housing and space?

2. Are still the most or relatively livable places?

3. Are still the most sociable across the political and nonpolitical spectrum (as in community, caring, heart, diversity, inclusivity, health, honesty, .  . .)?

4. Are most politically, culturally and/or intellectually provocative/stimulating or have the capacity for such things?

5. Just might be sustainable as a radical foothold for a good, long while?

6. Might be a place that lots of other feminists, queers, and/or caring radicals are living, and/or would be excited to visit from time to time or regularly for solid programming, workshops, convergences, think tanks, strategizing, fun, etc?

7. Has ecological beauty and possibility — and water, places to grow food, etc.?

And I’ll add, for this potential yearlong exploration into finding home(s), in building within and from our grief:

8. Why do you love the places you mentioned, and what is it about them, specifically, that shows promise, or already offers intriguing and collective efforts in owning, controlling, preserving, decommodifying, commoning (etc.) homes, land, space, and resources for all?

Yeah, I know: “no where.” But maybe this could be the start — our start, together — of a dialogic approximation, as in the “no where” of utopia, toward prefigurative experimentation.

Start now! Let me know what you think! Here as a comment and/or at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152793598295407&set=a.51059860406.76743.593585406&type=1&theater.

And keep those comments coming until they become so unmanageable, so overwhelming, that I need to find someone to help me create a Web site or other containers to collect them.

If I’m about to lose everything again — or what feels like everything (social fabric, personal and political home, a physical household and housemates who have each others’ backs, routine, neighbors, and so many things like seem minor but can’t be easily replaced, like favorite spots or a swimming pool I adore) — because I am going to lose it — I want something to grow out of this moment, and not simply for me.

None of us should be compelled to give up our homes, lives, and cities. I’m tired of losing all, of giving up completely on ourselves and each other, on this world and its future. Come on; let’s be a little less exhausted together.

*  *  *

With gratitude to Lilian, who I hope continues on this bumpy life-journey with me from here on out.

Sign up to receive notices when I post to my blog, Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Enjoy, share, reprint, post, tweet . . . as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”

(Photo by Cindy Milstein, one of what seems like millions of upscale-development construction sites in San Francisco, but this one on Valencia Street in the Mission, summer 2014.)


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