“Capital City” hits the shelves

“Planning is a way of knowing the World as well as a way of remaking it.”

So writes Samuel Stein in his new book, coming out tomorrow, called “Capital City – Gentrification and the real estate state”.

The book lays bare the workings of the “real estate state”, especially as it relates to New York City. It also sheds light on the way in which city planners are caught between a motivation to make cities better for the public, and the demands of the market to inflate real estate values. Real estate  is now a $217 trillion dollar industry, forming sixty percent of global assets.

Real estate interests have always had significant sway over the shape of cities, Stein acknowledges. What’s new is the extent of the sector’s influence over the political process, as other sectors like manufacturing have declined.

Along with this trend, homeownership in the US has declined and the cost of renting has gone up. The rent burden – the percentage of income that tenants put towards their housing – is now an average of 44 percent in black neighborhoods and 48 percent in Latino neighborhoods.

At a recent book launch event Stein and speakers from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx discussed the implications of the real estate state in New Yorkers’ daily lives – in neighborhoods from Mott Haven to Crown Heights – and what’s needed to challenge processes of gentrification. 

While there is no silver bullet, Stein writes, urban social movements can take the lead in diagnosing the problems, organizing for state action to address them and imagining alternatives. And they must bring planners along.

There’s a strong sense that momentum is building.

Raquel Namuche of Ridgewood Tenants Union said she has drawn energy from the powerful local mobilization, led by women of color, that confronted Amazon over its plans for a second headquarters in Long Island City.

Esteban Girón of Crown Heights Tenants Union highlighted the very real chance that New York State will pass groundbreaking rent reforms this year, with the new make-up of the Senate that is more representative of tenants’ needs. “The answer for me is the rent laws,” he said. “Universal rent control, end the vacancy bonus and vacancy de-control, and make preferential rents permanent…just to start with.”

This growing State-level advocacy encourages Stein. He recognizes the challenges in building a strong movement of tenants – despite their huge numbers – that unifies across different housing types, and different challenges.

“Making sure that upstate and downstate issues don’t get treated differently, that we don’t do something that helps homeowners who are struggling to hold onto their homes but do nothing for tenants or homeless people…to make sure that it’s all dealt with is really hard to do,” says Stein. “It’s going to take a lot of power and mobilization, but it’s heartening to see it coming together.”

Read more and take action: The Upstate-Downstate Housing Alliance


The Unauthorized Plans for New York

Through a combination of imagination and community-building New Yorkers can take planning into their own hands, create powerful alternative visions for their neighborhoods and put them into action. This was one of the themes that ran through the recent event at CUNY’s Center for the Humanities, “The Unauthorized Plans for New York.”

The title played with the idea that an “unauthorized” biography is often the most authentic one. Rough at the edges perhaps, but it conveys nuance and reality in a way that often escapes the official, endorsed version, just as a community-led plan gets closest to the lived reality and needs of residents.

Aurash Khawarzad shared the story of the Upper Manhatta(n)Project, a multi-disciplinary strategy to prepare NYC for climate change. He emphasized the need to work on social and environmental issues on equal terms, and to involve residents directly in decision-making. Much of the process entails “talking to people, listening, and honoring what’s heard. Unless people have agency and autonomy over how cities are planned, displacement will continue to happen,” he said.

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Vision Poster by on Scribd

Aurash also appealed for a shift away from a “funnel” mode of planning – in which community perspectives are channeled by gatekeepers, and inevitably skewed by funding dynamics – towards a “platform” model where people can act directly.

Kazembe Balagun opened his segment by saying that his first experience in planning was when he was seven. Riding in a yellow cab he realized that the map on the back seat didn’t go above 96th street. In other words, according to the map his home, his community, in Harlem didn’t exist.

Black activists, intellectuals, and poets re-created that map and made it their own, Kazembe said, among them Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes (who in addition to being a writer, was a community gardener).

Dio Ganhdih emphasized the “invisibilization” of indigenous culture in New York City, and said how striking the erasure is – with just an occasional gesture here and there – compared to other US cities where the land’s indigenous roots are, sometimes, more present and honored.

Ashley Dawson, CUNY professor and author of Extreme Cities, chaired the event. His book argues that solutions to the growing threat of climate change  have to lie with urban movements who are already fighting to remake their cities in a more just and equitable way.

The evening in CUNY’s Skylight room reflected a deep appreciation for “unauthorized plans” of the past from which much can still be learned, and for those which are yet to be created.

This year the City is reviewing the NYC Charter – i.e. the City’s constitution. One of the major items under review is land-use processes, including “proposals relating to the development of a comprehensive city planning framework for capital spending and land use.” Share your ideas and get involved here.