Mark Naison: Creating Opportunity Out of Tragedy- Occupying Abandoned Commercial Space Will be the Next Phase of the Civil Rights Movement





[Mark Naison is Professor of African American Studies and History, Fordham University.]

Whether or not auto bailout legislation passes,, the US economy is about to experience an abandonment cycle, comparable to what took place in the South Bronx in the 1970's and in rustbelt cities throughout the 1980's.. Beginning in January,, the US retail sector,, which is desperately trying to get rid of inventory during the holiday season, will suffer a wave of closings, bankruptcies and foreclosures the like of which has never been seen in modern US history. All over the nation, as layoffs and the credit freeze take their toll on consumers (who are having their last "splurge" between Thanksgiving and New Years), thousands of stores and restaurants will be closing their doors, turning commercial districts into ghost towns and forcing many malls and commercial buildings to the edge of bankruptcy. When you add to this all the auto dealer ships that will be closing, and all the new office buildings and luxury apartment complexes that will remain empty because they can't attract tenants, Americans will be confront an extraordinarily demoralizing, visual evidence of their economy's failure to prepare for a devastating and possibly permanent decline in consumer demand.

As someone who witnessed the effect of a devastating abandonment cycle on the South Bronx and parts of Brooklyn in the 1970's, I am acutely aware of how a tragedy of this kind can produce demoralization, division and and paralysis. It took nearly ten years for community organizations to begin rebuilding devastated neighborhoods, of the South Bronx and nearly thirty years for those neighborhoods to approach their previous levels of population growth and economic vitality.

But we have two big advantages over the residents of the South Bronx and Brownsville in the 1970's- first, we know this tragedy is coming, even thought it's probably unavoidable,, and second, it will affecting the entire nation not just the poorest neighborhoods in a single Northeastern city. ;

But what should we do about this?

The strategy that I would recommend, following the model created by activists in Berlin after the fall of the Berlin wall is "temporary occupancy. When Berlin became one city after
reunification,, an enormous number of state owned enterprises failed when forced to compete in the private marketplace, leaving in their wake a huge number of abandoned factories,
warehouses, apartment houses and storefronts. Into the breach stepped thousands of political activists, artists, students and ordinary citizens, who without legal sanction took possession of abandoned spaces and set up living cooperatives, art and music studios and community owned clubs, bars and restaurants, doing their own construction work and taking electricity and water from the street or adjoining buildings. So large was this movement (soon fueled by participants from all over Germany and all over Europe,) that the police were powerless to evict the occupiers. But more the point, the movement began generating successful new enterprises and began to revive decaying portions of the city. Within several years, the Berlin city government actually gave legal recognition to the movement by allowing groups to occupy buildings free of charge for up to three years provided they
could fund the costs of making buildings habitable.

This model, I suggest, is well suited to the abandonment cycle that is about to hit large sections of the nation. If community organizations, artists cooperatives, trade unions, and student organizations start preparing now,, they can begin occupying abandoned stores, ware houses, car dealerships and luxury apartment buildings en masse when the economic crisis hits. From the very day they seize abandoned space, these groups should be demanding legal recognition of their efforts, whether they be using the space to create youth centers, housing for homeless families, art and music studios, food cooperatives, research centers for green technology or health center using alternative medicine Initially, some of the groups seizing space may risk eviction or arrest, but once authorities see the benefits of such occupancy in terms of safety and economic vitality for the communities they are taking place in ( nothing contributes more to crime and vandalism than permanently abandoned structures!), authorities well follow the model of Berlin and give such efforts legal sanction.

Given what is happening in our economy, we have little to lose in trying such a strategy. Millions of Americans are losing their jobs, millions more are losing their homes, or apartments and a generation of students will be leaving college and graduate school without meaningful job prospects. To wait till credit markets expand enough, and consumption revives enough for the market to restore abandoned space to commercial use, may involve waiting for ten years. Why not circumvent this process and create our own enterprises outside the conventional credit system and force markets to adapt to us?. In the process, we will energize a generation of young people who face idleness and demoralization, create living space for the homeless,, turn abandoned commercial strips into centers of activity and quite possibly, spawn a musical and artistic renaissance.

We can't remain passive in the face of the worst economic crisis to hit us since the Great Depression. Let's start organizing now to turn tragedy into opportunity. Occupying abandoned space can be the Civil Rights- and Human Rights- cause of this era.


comments powered by Disqus