Baltimore: A Conversation between David Harvey and Marisela Gomez

Baltimore: A Conversation between David Harvey and Marisela Gomez

Residents who live north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus have been negatively impacted by the East Baltimore revitalization effort. Household displacements have occurred as part of a $1 billion redevelopment project that will construct five life science buildings, retail space and housing. The Save Middle East Action Committee (SMEAC (SMEAC) has organized against this redevelopment. This discussion was part of the (Re)living Democracy project at the Contemporary Museum (Nov. 2005), which focused critically on urban renewal in East Baltimore. David Harvey is author of The Urban Experience, Spaces of Hope, and A Brief History of Neoliberalism; Marisela Gomez is Director of SMEAC. Cira Pascual Marquina, the Museum’s curator, and Nicholas Petr of the campbaltimore group, facilitated the discussion.

Question: Would you describe the situation in East Baltimore. What is SMEAC?

Marisela Gomez: SMEAC, Save Middle East Action Committee, is a community organization in East Baltimore. SMEAC formed in 2001 after residents learned their homes were to be taken so that a biotechnology park could be built. The area is a huge 20 block, 90 acre area initially impacting 800 residents, then another 1,600 in the next several years. Supposed you learned about your community like they did, through The Sun? It is usually the marginalized,poor people of color who fi nd out this way. These are the reasons a community like Middle East is treated this way. Keep this in mind. For over four years, SMEAC slowed down, but did not stop, this redevelopment process. You don’t stop big projects initiated by Johns Hopkins University. But you can slow it down, you can seek to change the dollar amount of those whose homes are to be used and you can still struggle for the right of re-entry. You can still fight to make sure the residents who are to be moved out can stay in the neighborhood.

Q: What is EBDI and its relation to the development project?

Gomez: EBDI (East Baltimore Development Inc.) is a for-profit/not-for-profit entity created to manage the development project. EBDI determines where relocation occurs. It raises funds to ensure the progress of the project.

Q: What is the broader context of the struggle over housing in East Baltimore?

David Harvey: When I was still at Johns Hopkins, something was set up called the Urban Health Initiative, formed from the good will of doctors and researchers. They had a program in the community on asthma and were concerned about the community, but, as you know, Hopkins is a corporation. The administration did not like famous people from abroad seeing the poor people of East Baltimore and the related problems. It was an image issue for Hopkins, not only financial. In the 1970s, the support from Medicaid was sufficient. This changed as Medicaid was cut. There were two basic options for Hopkins administration: develop preventive medicine programs; or gentrify the whole area. The main strategy adopted was to remove the people from around the Hospital. So, part of the situation is the Hospital’s interest in gentrification. The situation with Hopkins and East Baltimore is not a unique circumstance. What we see is a political economy of dispossession, a taking-away from people who have little.

There’s a history of it, of benefi ts captured. There were lots of struggles in the cities at the end of the 1960s. Incomes in the bottom 20% were rising. Things were going up. The end of the 1960s, early 1970s saw benefi ts gained in the areas of environmental protection, and occupational health and safety. Legislation passed. Then, in the early 1970s, the corporate counter-attack began. The first place to experience this counter-attack was New York City in 1975 during its fiscal crisis. The banks went on strike, forcing the City into bankruptcy. They took over control of the city budget to pay off bondholders. Municipal services were attacked. The budget crisis was used to remake New York City into the center for global fi nance; then, to make Manhattan into a playground for the rich. Funds for public schools and higher education were cut. The City University of New York, an experiment in free and open education, was attacked. The corporate elites pushed against public education, health care, and public transportation. This corporate attack was an effort to dispossess the population of New York City of rights and privileges. The corporate counter-attack on New York City was a pilot project used as a model by the Reagan Administration. And this model is exactly what the International Monetary Fund through structural adjustment programs used in Nicaragua, Mozambique, the Philippines, Mexico, and elsewhere.

They could not solve problems of capital accumulation, but they could save class assets by actually robbing as many around the world of their assets as possible. How was consent for this corporate counter-attack constructed? First, through the sheer weight of corporate power, through business organizations like the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, through conservative think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation, through capturing The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal. In short, there was a tremendous ideological assault. There’s a line from former Secretary of Treasury William Simon, who was delighted with the Chile experience under the Pinochet regime: “Tell the City to drop dead. I want New York City to hurt so bad that no other city would try to do what New York did.” In the 1960s, the 400 richest individuals were worth $650 million on average. Now they are worth $2.8 billion, according to The New York Times. The top .1% has increased by 300% its national income share. If you examine tax returns for 2003 and 2004, controlling for infl ation, the top 1% had income increases of 3.5%; the top .1% was raised by 9%. There’s been a constant taking away to feed that 1%, a taking away of educational and health benefi ts, of workers’ pensions. [See Joseph Kay on “Forbes 400 List of Richest Americans: Snapshot of a Financial Oligarchy,” World Socialist Web Site.] People like Hopkins President Brody have a grasp on economics, on international institutions, on this city. We must ask why? Why the corporate counter-attack has been so successful? In Britain, Margaret Thatcher said, “I’m out to attack the soul,” to attack solidarity. Ideologically, individualism has a lot to do with it. The 1960s movements liked individual liberty, but they also worked to advance social justice. Neoliberalism says “We give you individual liberty. Forget social justice!” This has to be put in general political-historical perspective. We have to stop this across the board. In East Baltimore, the political battle for “the right of return” is crucial. It’s not enough to accept, “We’ll give you some money, then go away.” In London, there’s complete gentrifi cation. The other crucial issue, of course, is to construct an alternative.

Q: Why aren’t people aware? Why can’t those who are aware inform the people being affected?

Gomez: Ultimately, it’s about individualism. I’m not from this country, but from Central America. The United States is not about social justice. Individualism has always been what drives the US. Why is there fragmentation in the poorest communities? It’s all about individualism. How can we change it? Let’s not fool ourselves about what capitalism is. It is never about communities moving forward. If we understand this, then maybe we can move forward. SMEAC organizes people impacted by one thing in East Baltimore. Why this fragamentation and individualism? An institution like Hopkins can give an individual an opportunity to do research in a community. You might even get to sit on a board. You might move forward individually, but individualism moves us backwards to promote ourselves. Hopkins is a corporate entity here. Every development project in East Baltimore occurs with Hopkins involvement. It’s a power in East Baltimore. The City does not participate with low-income communities on house building projects. The City supports gentrifi cation. We have to organize. Yes. But, we also have to ask ourselves what is it in the US that supports this individualism and fragmentation. In the US, people pretend that there are two political parties. But when you look at the US from the outside, it looks like a one-party system.

Harvey: Marisela, what is the main clue to your success? What’s your trick in organizing?

Gomez: SMEAC went to people and said, “You’re gonna lose your houses. They don’t give a shit about us, when we’re poor and black.” So we organized on this issue, the issue of equity when they went to take people’s homes. SMEAC organized around this one issue, the issue of shelter. People did not know if they were going to have their house. This urgency brought people together. You can’t go to the community from the outside and organize. Rather, people themselves have to decide that they have the power to organize. The situation didn’t feel fair. It felt like segregation. But people felt power in numbers. They felt power in talking about it together. And people went back again and again with the same demands, with one voice. SMEAC represents 150 houses in this community. Activists knocked on doors and asked, “Is this fair?” We represented a group of people who said, “You can’t tell me what’s good for me!” It made a difference. SMEAC challenged the rhetoric for four years. Every chance EBDI gets, it tries not to be transparent. But SMEAC holds them accountable, challenges them, throws off their agenda. The history of East Baltimore shows what a bad neighbor Hopkins has been. Residents still don’t feel it’s bad intentions, but ignorance. Still people need justice.

Q: [Addressed to David Harvey on New York City]

Harvey: Basically, it’s been the gentrifi cation of Manhattan with the other four boroughs being let go. There are disparities in income and in education. The rich had lots of property and wanted to get its value back. There was the slogan “I Love New York” of the Manhattan Partnership at the same time the elites supported disciplining the police and fi re department unions. The unions responded with slogans like, “Fear the City!,” “Get mugged on the subways!,” “If there’s fi re in the hotels, forget it!” This got to Europe and elsewhere and people stopped coming to New York. Then, the City said, “OK, we’ll give more jobs.” But then these jobs were in Manhattan, not in the Bronx or the other boroughs. Manhattan as the “gilded ghetto.” Guilianni cracks down on crime with the “zero tolerance” policy. Harlem is beginning to be gentrifi ed now, but the Bronx remains a poor area. New York is a divided city. While the median income in the boroughs decreases, it is up 12% in Manhattan. In the 19th century, Engels observed, “The bourgeois solves problems by moving people around.” They take poverty elsewhere. This is a big problem in the central cities. Mayors hope to balance the budget by bringing high-end development to cities,investments in condos and harbor recreation. There is a logic here, but we must transform this logic.

Organizing starts locally as in Marisela’s work. But a broader move- ment must be built to take the City back. City-wide. Then state-wide. Then nation-wide. We have got to push on federal policies. I’ve been criticized for being nostalgic about the New Deal. The US had a period when there was a momentum to demand social justice. We also had such momentum in the late 1960s and early 70s with legislative gains. The corporations complained about this as “anti-capitalist” legislation. Social justice movements in the US have not eliminated individualism. We still need to deal with this ideology, even among the most oppressed people. We need to develop solidarity of some kind, and a united front against corporate power to make something happen. SMEAC shows that even a relatively small group with purpose and solidarity can make a difference. We need to build alliances, we need solidarity to take back the City, to end this dispossession. People have a right to the City! It’s an important right. Saying, “Here’s $300,000. Now get out” is no answer.

Q: The electoral system is not functioning. What power do people have?

Harvey: There’s been a shift of the power structure in the last 30 years. Most representative, democratic institutions have been disempowered. Two things must be done. First, people need to reclaim the terrain of democratic institutions. Second, look at how the French stopped their country in 1995 when public benefi ts were attacked. They just stopped the country from running. People got rid of the president in Bolivia. Why not in the US? These are examples of the crucial importance of street action. There was no public awareness of the problems of globalization until the Seattle protests. Massive street action can change things. We must think in those terms. Impeach Bush, but also impeach the Democrats! We must pull the discussion towards street action, to direct action. I can’t see another way to work something up.

Q: Why has Hopkins responded to SMEAC?

Gomez: We’ve developed an organized presence. At decision-making meetings, the community is involved. It’s SMEAC’s grassroots organizing approach. When activists can say, “I represent 20 blocks,” they have accountability. SMEAC consistently demands a voice at the table and always says what the resident membership has to say. Sometimes it takes six or eight months, but we keep going back.

Harvey: We should remember that Johns Hopkins is not monolithic. Hopkins has its internal problems. It’s also important to push inside the institution.

Q: Marisela, who are the natural allies of SMEAC? What national alliances are there among social movements now?

Gomez: There are a lot of groups in East Baltimore. Those groups which have a history are important to build alliances with. And unions. And the churches. We did not get as much support as we hoped from churches. But it is difficult to build alliances in East Baltimore except with those dealing with housing issues. Redevelopment is blossoming in the US so everyone can get involved. We made a video of the SMEAC struggle for use by other communities. Maybe this can help stop unfair development. I spoke with a professor in New York City who said to me, “If you had done a good job, no one would have had to relocate.” I said, “What do you mean? We have struggled so much. We got a benefi t package.” But she’s right. It should have been people first, not bricks and mortar. The train had already started. We did not save Middle East, but brought equity. The problem is that we started from a context of individualism, of fragmentation. The need for collaboration s huge. Organizations within institutions are important. Hopkins students picketed at graduation on housing and development issues. We have to raise a ruckus inside and outside. But we also have to build alliances.

Harvey: I agree entirely. Organizing at the base by those immediately affected is the way to go. In Baltimore, ACORN does not speak to BUILD; BUILD does not speak to ACORN. This is ridiculous. Some of this is individualism, but it’s more about “my organization,” a possessiveness about my organization. This is a political problem. There’s always been this thing in Baltimore since I’ve been here. This has been paralyzing in Baltimore for years. “I have a little power and don’t want my power center messed up.” This is turf politics. When the organizing is their own, that of the affected, then organizing can reach out farther. However, I’m not an organizer, but an academic. I’m reluctant to do politics. I do not have answers. I just try to observe and reflect.

Q: What are examples of successful re-development projects in the US?

Harvey: Absolutely successful? No such example, though there are many examples of groups impacting and constraining [rampant development]. But shifting the balance? I have property in Hamden and have seen the values go up. We need to think in a broader context. If a project looks successful now, we must also ask if it will look successful in five years? Things are constantly shifting, games being played. The level of community action is critical. There’s never a clear victory, but an ongoing process. We get organized and make a nice urban environment. Then rich people come in and buy it. There are many examples of success in bettering the urban environment, then property speculators start moving in. You buy a house for $80,000, then five years later it sells for $200,000.

Q: The New Greenmount West Community group is attempting to appropriate two buildings in the Station North Arts District. They want to get these buildings from the City-- School 32 for a community center and a factory building for a solar factory. Here’s an alliance between a low-income based community group and group of artists/activists at the Cork Factory. I see these groups attempting an alternative to gentrification. Ms. Gomez, are you aware of this struggle in Greenmount West? Do you think this is a defensive or a proactive struggle?

Gomez: SMEAC is aware of this struggle and has worked with Dennis Livingston [an activist in Greenmount West]. Is it defensive? I do not think so. I think they have a little more power than the Middle East community. But the fact that there was already a plan was unfortunate. New Greenmount West is not as organized as Middle East at this point. And the community group has not done organizing from the base as SMEAC has done. This is an important question: How to take successes like SMEAC in organizing and make it city-wide, state-wide, nation-wide? Given the small numbers involved in SMEAC, how can we take what we learned and link with Greenmount West and go forward and go city-wide. We haven’t been able to notch it up to city-wide because we do not have the funding. We have to do a lot of lip service to our funders. They do not understand the importance of notching up to the city-wide level.

Q: What is the role of the City Council? Of the media?

Gomez: Organizing is not just the organizing of residents,but also working with government. We need to build social capital to effect change. SMEAC worked with City Council reps knowing we might need legislation for the “right to return.” We tried hard. There were three City Council reps, now there is just one for East Baltimore. We’ve worked with Paula Branch who has a lot of pressure on her. We’ve had lots of meetings with Branch and thought we were making headway, but she didn’t respond. But Branch did get legislation saying that 33% of those residents who get back in Phase I have to be “low-income.” But then we had differences on what the defi nition of “low-income” is. So, we have differences with City Council reps, but we have to cultivate those relationships. The media? We did not get The Sun to print what SMEAC members were saying. It’s diffi cult to get coverage that supports us. We know that the Mayor is trying to make Baltimore’s image “up-and-coming” for his bid for Governor.