Category Archives: Blog

“The Right to the City” and Urban Justice

_MG_6759 - CopyOn October 3rd in the NYU Gallatin theater, MIT scholar Balakrishnan Rajagopal spoke to a group of students, professors and members of the community about the evolving human-rights conception of the “right to the city.” The crowd was largely more adult and professional than the audience at many NYU lecture events, based on the question and answer with the audience, and seemed to include New Yorkers working in areas from community organizing, urban planning, and academia. Many people scratched down notes as Rajagopal elegantly addressed imposing questions about the meaning of “the right to the city” and its uses in the fight for urban social justice. Continue reading

New Law to Protect NYC Small Businesses

When we think of urban social challenges, the sometimes monster-of-a-term gentrification is one of the first issues that comes to mind. More than just describing the displacement of local communities by socioeconomically-advantaged tenants, gentrification is also synonymous with corporate displacement of local business. The two go hand in hand: consider youth (white, middle and upper class) who work in the arts and young professionals’ turnover of Williamsburg, and the new Whole Foods on Bedford Avenue.

The displacement of local individuals and families, communities, and their small businesses are symbiotic, which is why the Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development (ANHD) and United for Small Businesses, a working group of NYC community organizations, work against small business and non-tenant displacement. The ANHD and USB, who have “a particular focus on owner-operated, low-income, minority-run businesses that serve low-income, immigrant and minority communities,” see the New York City Local Law No. 77 as an important step forward in the fight against corporate takeover of NYC storefronts.

The local law has been passed “curtailing harassment of small businesses and other non-residential tenants,” providing the essential legal foundation for advocacy against unjust actions by landlords. This valid basis for appeal is invaluable, but ultimately, accessible resources for business-owners to make those appeals, enforcement of the protection, and fighting the power structures that motivate local tenant harassment in the first place, are just as necessary to the integrated fight to protect local NYC people, culture, community, and businesses.

Our allies at the ANHD released a statement applauding Local Law 77, authored by Councilmember Robert Cornegy:

“The displacement of neighborhood institutions not only threatens New York’s identity, but also eliminates jobs, community spaces, and affordable resources in low and moderate income communities of color. Small business displacement is cultural displacement. As the City’s small businesses disappear at an alarming rate, it is vital to implement robust protections to ensure their survival, invest resources to help them grow and thrive, and in turn ensure the vitality and vibrancy of New York’s neighborhoods.

This law breaks new ground when it comes to fighting small business displacement in New York City, but it also only scratches the surface of what our small businesses need. In order for this new law to be truly effective, funding for legal services must be allocated toward enforcing the commercial tenant anti-harassment law and the scope of tenant harassment must be clearly defined” and “call on City elected officials, agencies, and key stakeholders to move forward on the long road to creating real and meaningful protections, supports, and enforcement of the rights of small businesses across New York.”

Read the entirety of ANHD’s statement here

And the law here (PDF DOWNLOAD)

Albert Gallatin Lecture with Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr.

REVEREND JAMES LAWSON (11x17)-1A Way Through the Chaos

The man who introduced the principles of Gandhian nonviolence to leaders of the Civil Rights Movement visits Gallatin to deliver the Fall 2016 Albert Gallatin Lecture.

Co-sponsored by:
Africana Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis (SCA); CMEP; Vice Provost for Faculty, Arts, Humanities, and Diversity; Liberal Studies; MLK, Jr. Scholars Program; and Tandon School of Engineering

The Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre for the Performing Arts
1 Washington Place

Oct 17, 2016 | 6:00 PM-8:00 PM

RSVP here

Keeping Cities Strong: A Mayoral Forum with the Presidential Campaigns on Transportation, Water & Energy

From our friends at NYU Wagner:

Date: 10/13/2016
Time: 12:00pm – 1:30pm
Location: SVA Theatre, 333 West 23 Street, New York NY 10011

Join NYU Wagner and the U.S. Conference of Mayors for a discussion with the presidential campaigns on why infrastructure is key to both economic security and public safety.

In their “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” The American Society of Civil Engineers states that “Every family, every community, and every business needs infrastructure to thrive. Infrastructure encompasses your local water main and the Hoover Dam; the power lines connected to your house and the electrical grid spanning the U.S.; and the street in front of your home and the national highway system.” A strong and safe infrastructure is critical to support healthy and vibrant cities. Yet, many of our roads, bridges, water, and sewer systems in the U.S. are in serious disrepair. As infrastructure across the country continues to age and deteriorate, and as we become increasingly reliant on energy, cities are struggling to afford basic maintenance, much-needed upgrades, and new projects. It is imperative that the next President address these issues.

Surrogates representing both the Trump and Clinton campaigns will present their candidates’ views on infrastructure. Distinguished mayors from cities across the country will then question and discuss the candidates’ positions.

Read more at NYU Wagner

Exciting openings at Disclaimer Gallery and Casa Experimental: 2 anti-oppressive art spaces in Bushwick’s Silent Barn

Interview with Marta Hidalgo, Hope Gardens Senior Center, conducted by Cynthia Tobar
Interview with Marta Hidalgo, Hope Gardens Senior Center, conducted by Cynthia Tobar

On September 9th, an art show opened in Casa Experimental, a gallery nestled in the back of the cooperatively owned Bushwick art/music space Silent Barn. Organized by curators Cynthia Tobar and Aldo Soligno, as well as non-profit More Art, one of the many exciting points of the Beyond Bricks and Mortar project is the documentary interviews with seniors from the Hope Gardens Senior Center. In Spanish, with English subtitles, the interviews explore seniors’ lives and stories, often of raising their kids in the country they immigrated to, navigating the challenges to find the social ties and support they needed, and their experiences with NYC housing. The title of the show, Beyond Bricks and Mortar: Stories of Community and Resilience, points to the aspects of fighting gentrification through strengthening community and spreading education about our individual and collective participation for housing justice. Beyond the bricks and mortar struggle of resisting unjust development and housing practices by landlords and building owners, how do we resist? Continue reading

Interview With Ruchira Gupta, Founder and President of Apne Aap Women Worldwide

Ruchira Gupta
Ruchira Gupta

On August 23, the Urban Democracy Lab sat down with Ruchira Gupta, founder and president of Apne Aap Worldwide,a grassroots organization in India working to end sex trafficking by increasing opportunities for girls and women.  We asked what she thought the root causes of sex trafficking were and what strategies might be employed to fight it.  We also learned about some of the projects she currently has underway and how those interested in these issues can get involved.

Your organization, Apne Aap, aims to end sex trafficking. What broad strategies do you feel are necessary to move in the direction of meeting this goal?

Continue reading

I Can Sell My Body If I Wanna: Riot Grrrl Body Writing, Feminist Resistance, and Neoliberalism: An Illustrated Lecture with Leah Perry

Riot_Grrrl_Convention_1992_by_RockcreekOn July 28, 2016, Professor Leah Perry of SUNY-Empire State College gave a lecture at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn titled “I Can Sell My Body If I Wanna: Riot Grrrl Body Writing, Feminist Resistance, and Neoliberalism,” based on her essay of the same name. Riot Grrrl was an underground feminist punk movement and subculture that originated in the 1990s. Perry’s talk focused on the ways in which the movement, in her view, reflected neoliberal ideology. Neoliberalism, a ubiquitous, though still enigmatic, term, is a late-20th century ideology that revolves around the  notion that government functions best when it encourages the free market, and that a growing, unrestricted economy will necessarily serve the public interest.  The result of this style of political economy is the privatization of public resources and a focus on individual innovation and self-cultivation as engines of human progress. Neoliberalism as a concept has grown beyond its political and economic agendas to shape culture, popularizing ideas of personal expression and achievement. Continue reading

“Brownstone Brooklyn: Pioneers in the Gentrification Movement” at Brooklyn Historical Society

TURN_OF_THE_CENTURY_BROWNSTONE_APARTMENTS_BEING_PAINTED_AND_RENOVATED_BY_THEIR_OWNERS_IN_BROOKLYN,_NEW_YORK_CITY..._-_NARA_-_555889To recent generations, the term gentrification is ubiquitous, often associated with the rampant displacement affecting low-income people. So, it may be surprising to most that the term was coined more than fifty years ago by the British sociologist Ruth Glass and entered the popular lexicon in the United States in the early 1980s.[1] Before “gentrification” was the word of choice to describe the return of affluence and capital to the long-decaying city, the media labeled this phenomenon “urban revitalization” and, in a New York context, “brownstoning.” Both were generally looked upon favorably by media outlets at a time when New York was emerging from both the fiscal and urban crises.  How brownstoning altered patterns of settlement in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the racial and ethnic landscapes of the city, however, are still under-examined. Continue reading

Just Utilities: Organizing for Solutions to the Household Energy Crisis

JustUtilsCoverThe grassroots community organization Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson has published an excellent report in connection with their fight for affordable, sustainable, and just utility rates and energy policies in the Poughkeepsie, NY area:

“Energy utility affordability is a widespread and severe national crisis for low-income people of color. It is a strategic, yet currently neglected, organizing issue for building power to win racial, environmental, and economic justice.

Drawing from their experience developing a cutting-edge Utilities Justice campaign, the leaders of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson – Homes For All campaign partners and core members of the Right To The City Alliance – share their organizing model, advance replicable policy solutions and document the extent of the local, statewide and national energy utility crisis.”

Download the full report for free from the Homes For All national campaign.

Why Cities and Universities Need a New Kind of Dialogue

From a recent article by Diana Graizbord, Jamie McPike, and Nicole Pollock:

“This year the City of Providence Department of Innovation collaborated with Brown University on the Providence Business Engagement Initiative. To kick off the Initiative, students in an applied policy research course utilized City licensing data, open meetings records, and census data to identify neighborhood business clusters and determine an appropriate outreach and engagement methodology. Three student groups then collected the stories of over 50 small business owners, community leaders, and city officials. These stories were used by Department of Innovation to inform changes in the City’s business licensing process and to enhance the City’s Start Up in a Day program. The success of this partnership would not have been possible without ongoing, iterative dialogue that allowed both partners to reevaluate and renegotiate project plans and goals, manage expectations, and ensure that project deliverables were relevant and useful. . . .

What we found was that both partners had specific goals and priorities, but both were open to adapting and changing these as the project evolved. By focusing first on establishing a dialogue rather than a set of binding terms, the partnership became more nimble, able to shift and move in new directions as new ideas arose. This flexible style of collaboration required a foundation of mutual trust; the dialogue that we established early on helped the partnership to withstand the uncertainty and challenges that emerge in a project committed to innovation. . . .”

Read the full article at The Huffington Post.

A View from a New York City Rent Guidelines Board Meeting, June 13, 2016

1467086073On June 13, 2016, the New York City Rent Guidelines Board held a hearing of public testimony at Founders Hall of Saint Francis College in Brooklyn. This was one of five hearings scheduled before the Board passed its June 27 vote for another rent freeze on one-year leases and only a 2% increase on two-year leases for rent stabilized tenants.  At the hearing, tenants and building owners were given the chance to speak to the NYC Rent Guidelines Board, which is made up of public officials, on “proposed rent adjustments for renewal leases for apartments, lofts, hotels, and other housing units subject to the Rent Stabilization Law of 1969 and the Emergency Tenant Protection Act of 1974.”[1] Each speaker had two minutes to make her or his case to the Board, while occasionally Board members themselves would ask questions of the speakers in return.

I noticed a number of noteworthy and compelling dynamics as one testimonial followed another. For example, of the six or so building owners who testified, the majority appeared White and male. In contrast, all of the five or so tenants who testified appeared to be people of color. Additionally, the large majority of the Rent Guidelines Board appeared to be White. I found these racial dynamics to be informative to the conversation and its implications, since it speaks to the wealth disparity between White folks and people of color, and the senses of injustice felt by communities of color in New York City, in this case regarding affordable and well-maintained housing. Because those in attendance at this event were not randomly selected, it is important to note that there is no guarantee that they are a representative sample of all building owners and tenants. However, the dynamics among those present certainly does offer a glimpse into the racial dynamics that shape land use in the city, and certainly reflects racial economic disparities in this country.

To begin with the building owners, there seemed to be a variety of perspectives and financial situations among the owners present. Many made claims that they were not able to cover the costs of maintaining their buildings due to rent decreases. Several of these owners maintained that there did not seem to be a point in spending time and energy in the upkeep and management of a building from which they were not profiting.

In contrast to these claims, however, one tenant asserted that an “increase in rent only benefits the owners of buildings” who do not make the proper repairs regardless of the rent amounts they receive. The tenant had a particularly unusual housing situation (at least in the context of the other testimonials at this particular hearing), explaining that his landlord was verbally abusing and intimidating him and his family, and failing to act on the presence of lead in the building, which had the potential to harm his children. He additionally claimed that the “building was dirty” and there were “bad floors,” essentially calling for more responsible and less abusive building management. At the end of his testimony, he also stated that he had a disability, and that this made his situation even more difficult. The Board was hardly empathetic to his situation, yet did point him to New York City’s Disability Rent Increase Exemption (DRIE) Program, which exempts against future rent increases for “eligible disabled persons” living in rent-controlled and rent-stabilized apartments.

Other tenants more explicitly called for a rent rollback, one proclaiming that “people are being displaced” by the escalated cost of renting in New York City and the lack of new affordable housing. As this tenant continued her testimony, a protest occurring directly outside of Founders Hall became audible to those of us in the hearing. People seemed to be chanting “Rent rollback…now!” and “Shut it down!” These protestors were members of Flatbush Tenant Coalition, a group of tenant associations in Flatbush, Brooklyn working to build power in the tenant community in the surrounding areas.[2]

The rent rollback that both the tenant and the protestors called for refers in part to some building owners tendency to overcharge tenants due to the lack of state-level enforcement of a program which states that building owners who benefit from the taxpayer subsidy must abide by the modest annual rent increases determined by the city’s public officials. Due to this poor enforcement, a number of tenants were not able to access, or did not know of their benefits under this program.[3] Thus, the tenants want justice.

A following speaker, a blunt, outspoken tenant advocated again for this justice, and received passionate praise from the audience. She boldly began with the assertion that she was “being discriminated against” and “If [she is] back to 1950, [she] wants to know.” This tenant also outright opposed landlords denying housing to Section 8 housing recipients, and therefore also castigated them for their repudiation of “the public.” As the audience cheered on this speaker, she continued to express her concerns and claimed racism from the Board.  After one Board member interrupted her in what seemed an attempt either to wrap up her testimony or temporarily speak to her concerns, she exclaimed,“I don’t want them to pacify me, I want them to do something.”

By and large, it was clear that the majority of those in attendance were in favor of a rent rollback, as was evident when the audience broke into a “rent rollback” chant after the tenth speaker. It also became clear that the majority of the building owners in attendance were calling for a rent increase, yet did not seem to represent the wealthy building owners to which many of the tenants referred in disdain. I am sure that the tenants would have appreciated the presence of these building owners, but recognize that their wealth may determine their priorities in more ways than one.