The OUR Waterfront Campaign: Defending the Right to the City in New Yor
Shelley BUCKINGHAM, 2009
Gentrification in Manhattan’s Chinatown
Manhattan’s Chinatown is home to over 84,000 people and has been the cultural centre of the Chinese immigrant community in New York City for generations. Low-income Chinese immigrants have resided and worked in the area which is sandwiched between the Lower East Side and the Financial District and stretches along the East River waterfront. Considering its location, this area of land also represents prime real estate, attracting young professionals and developers eager to gentrify the land, which would coincidentally displace these low-income Chinese communities and their businesses. There is a growing reality of gentrification occurring throughout New York, resulting in what David Harvey notes as an accumulation by dispossession. That is, the accumulation of high-market value land by dispossessing low-income inhabitants from their houses and communities which they have spent years building. Currently, inhabitants in Chinatown are concerned about city plans to redevelop a two-mile stretch of land along the East River waterfront, with initial construction beginning as early as December 2009. These plans, while not physically displacing the inhabitants of Chinatown, intend to fill the redeveloped space with high-cost shops, restaurants and cafes geared towards high-income people and tourists, and unaffordable for the current low-income residents. The fear of these residents is that this will put increased pressure on their affordable housing stock for further gentrification and displacement of their communities. The plans also represent a step away from a collective right to the city for those low-income residents who currently inhabit it, to make way for the economic pursuits, profits and interests of a select privileged few.
The Right to the City
The right to the city is a collective right for all people who live in, access, and use the city and it entails not only the right to use what already exists in urban spaces, but also the right to create and define what should exist in order to meet our needs to live a decent life in urban environments (Harvey, 2003). In brief, it includes the right to use the city and to participate in the creation or re-creation of the city. The realization of the right to the city has been carried out through collaborative processes between civil society groups and organizations, governments, and international agencies. This role of civil society groups and organizations is particularly crucial to realize this collective right to the city, as it is their experiences that inform the adequate and inadequate structures in which they live. Even more important is that a variety of civil society actors inform the right to the city as not all of its inhabitants experience the same environment in the same way.
The Chinese community along Manhattan’s waterfront is doing just that. They are fighting back against the city’s plans to redevelop their neighbourhood in order to remain where they are and not be forced out by the profit-seeking economic interests of wealthy capitalists. The Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV – also known as CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities) has been an active player in this fight, organizing diverse, low-wage, and poor Asian communities across New York City since 1986. CAAAV works through coalitions to build a unified strategy for a multi-racial and multi-issue movement for social change and is led by members of low-income Asian immigrant communities in New York City. One of the coalitions they are affiliated with is the Right to the City Alliance, which mobilizes community-based organizations against gentrification occurring all across the United States, cases similar to the experience occurring in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
The OUR Waterfront Coalition Defends the Right to the City
One of CAAAV’s largest campaigns currently underway is fighting gentrification caused by the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) plans to redevelop the East River waterfront, along which Chinatown is situated. The redevelopment plans include the construction of a walkway, high-end cafes, and other commercial spaces likely to provide goods and services geared more towards higher-income people and tourists than to local low-income residents.
CAAAV has responded by joining forces with other community groups to collectively create the OUR (Organizing and Uniting Residents) Waterfront Coalition which includes nine other community-based, multi-racial, and multi-issue groups which would all be affected by the East River waterfront redevelopment plans. The overall goal of the campaign is to ensure that the redevelopment meets the needs of local low-income residents and to limit the impact these plans could have on the ongoing gentrification in their neighbourhoods.
As the redevelopment plans may potentially begin by the end of 2009, the OUR Waterfront Coalition has taken urgent actions to participate in the planning process so that they may stake a claim in the creation of their neighbourhood. Since the summer of 2008, the Coalition has been working through a comprehensive community visioning process which will culminate with the creation of a community-based People’s Plan for the waterfront. The People’s Plan is expected to be released in the summer of 2009, after collecting residents concerns and hopes for a redevelopment of the waterfront through surveys and a series of visioning workshops. For the redevelopment plans, participants of the survey and workshops have called for free uses of the waterfront including open green space, recreational facilities such as basketball and handball courts, educational activities for youth, and social services such as translation and legal services. They also prioritized small vendors and low-cost businesses such as food carts and fruits and vegetable stands which are more accessible given their low-incomes.
The OUR Waterfront Coalition is doing exactly what Harvey notes as exercising their right to the city. Harvey sees the answer to the demands made by communities like Manhattan’s Chinatown as a unified demand for greater democratic control over high-value land which is usually seized by capitalist developers in search of making profits. In other words, this example represents a call for increased control over the making and use of the city and its structures.
A major problem in realizing the collective right to the city is the challenge made to the individual rights – as upheld under capitalism – of a certain privileged group in a society to profit where profit may be sought. It is this conflict of rights – individual versus collective – where tensions arise between the privileged eagerly anticipating another profit-run and the less privileged hoping to hold on to what they have and to remain in the area where they have lived, simply because they were there first. Essentially, individual rights can jeopardize and override collective rights. It should be considered absolutely unacceptable to displace a whole community for the benefit of a select few who are able to do so because they have greater wealth. What of the cultural rights of a community to stay where they have developed over decades a place to call home, where they find comfort, familiarity, community, services and livelihood? It should speak loudly that although their housing conditions are less than adequate, they fight for their right to remain where they live because they are connected to the community. Finding a home is not a question of having four walls and a roof over one’s head. It is about planting your seeds and watching them grow, which takes far more work, time and care than it does to construct a building. The OUR Waterfront Campaign is not fighting against the implementation of a redevelopment of the East River waterfront. They welcome the prospect of improving their neighbourhoods, but their focus is to ensure that these upgrades add and not hinder the rich cultural and community life they have spent years building. This is the challenge they face. To make developers and entrepreneurs understand that by securing their rights, under capitalism, to make a profit in the high-value market buried under the surface of a long-standing community, they are destroying this communities’ right to stay as they are and where they are.
Harvey, David. “Debates and Developments: The Right to the City” in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 939-941. December 2003.
Harvey, David. “The Right to the City” in New Left Review. Issue 53, pp. 23-40. Sept-Oct 2008.
CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. « Chinatown Tenants Union, Outreach Brochure ». 2008.
CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. « Momentum Builds for a Community Waterfront in Chinatown and the Lower East Side!". 6 May 2009.
CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. OUR Waterfront Campaign. 2009.
CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities. Website: www.caaav.org/about