Gentrification: The practice of displacing Indian slum dwellers AND below median income North Americans

Last week I was watching a news story about Mumbai-based social activist Medha Patkar’s stand against the Shivalik Builder’s Golibar slum demolition. A 13 year old cousin of mine who was watching along told me, “illegal slum demolition and displacement would never happen in a country like the United States where the government doesn’t disregard basic rights of its citizens by pandering to builders.”

Although my teenage cousin has yet to become world weary, I still felt the need to kindly refute his naive statement. Before explaining my reasons for disagreeing, I read a Fountain Ink piece by freelance journalist Javed Iqbal to find out what exactly transpired in Golibar, Mumbai. After reading the article, it is easy to draw parallels between the Golibar slum gentrification and a more tactful version of the practice I observed in the Washington D.C. area.

American developers (or builders as they are referred to in India) are just as guilty of leaning on state/local governments so their construction projects can see the light of day. In India the removal of poor residents obstacles for the builder’s ambitious structures is done by overtly dubious means. However, American developers resort to more sophisticated methods rather than forced expulsion.

If politics is the business of building bridges where there are no rivers, construction is the act of using politics to erect properties where people already maintain their humble abodes. The Indian builders’ methods range from public land grabbing to forced removal with the help of political figures. The ones displaced by the builders are the very helpless voting constituents of these politicians. On the other hand, destroying an occupied residential complex to coerce eviction would not fly well in a North American law and order landscape. Hard evidence of outright forgery and land grabbing supported by public officials would prompt instant legal action against the perpetrators. It has been established by the Indian citizenry that the construction-politics nexus exists to the detriment of many. In the western world, the construction-politics cabal is not referred to as such. It is diplomatically deemed as a public-private partnership of sorts.

Outside of D.C. in the town of Alexandria, the more politically correct brand of gentrification is underway through the Beauregard Redevelopment Plan. In May 2012 the predominantly Democratic Alexandria City council unanimously voted to let developers who own 5,000 apartments to demolish half of them in order rebuild more pricey living quarters. With the rebuilt and more expensive residences, the remaining 2,500 apartments’ rents will increase due to the rising values of the new surrounding apartments. As a result of those higher property values, the leftover tenants cannot afford the elevated rents. Hence, they are gently forced to move out.

Soaring rents are intended spillover effects from the presence of plush apartments, healthy climates for upscale businesses, and mass transit projects that many developers lobby for. A single new high end apartment complex, fancy designer boutique, or local train stop is enough to boost surrounding property values in a low-income area. When politicians appropriate funds towards infrastructure (mass transit, improved roads, and etc.), they indirectly displace the low-income and minority population.

It is troubling that the Democratic council members are of the party which supposedly caters to the working class and minorities. Most of the 2009-2012 term council members promised to work with developers who plan new projects in providing affordable housing for current residents. Refer to the issues section on the websites of certain Alexandria city officials for their false assurances. Here are the respective links for Frank Fannon (D), Rob Krupicka (D), and Del Pepper (D). Is it not ironic that these champions of racial/socioeconomic diversity approved a redevelopment plan that will discreetly homogenize Alexandria? It is almost like they support cleansing of this caliber but do not want to admit it.

There is a stigma that the political right plays dirty politics to thwart government-funded ‘growth initiatives’ for transportation projects. The hyper partisan political climate (on local, state, and federal levels) has only further galvanized liberal coalitions to support these growth campaigns solely due to conservative opposition. The mainstream media paints conservatives as the party detrimental to the middle and lower class. While that is somewhat true, at least the right wingers have explicitly disclosed their intentions towards socioeconomic minorities. However, the left leaning council in Alexandria has subtly revealed to the public how they feel about minorities. Nevertheless, I commend former Independent Councilwoman Alicia Hughes since she abstained for the final Alexandria redevelopment vote.

There are those who mistakenly claim that gentrification is not about the haves kicking out the have-nots. To them as regions transform and economies gradually require college educated workers, gentrification will continue to occur in areas that Gen-Y wants to live in. They are of the mindset that if a local is concerned about being displaced, he/she should push their kids towards education. If the kids are well-educated, the children can afford to live in their childhood locality once their area undergoes gentrification.

To assume that locals do not place emphasis on their children’s’ education is a myopic fallacy.  Protester Veronica Carzava asserted during the Beauregard Tenants association candlelight vigil, “we’re fighting for the right to have a house to live in, I don’t know where we would go and I have two children, and they go to school here, and I want they [are] educated here.” If that is not proof of a local’s desire to educate his kids, I do not know what it is.

Regardless of the party affiliation of builders or the policy makers they lobby to, affected Alexandrians took to the streets to protest much like the hard working people in Golibar, Mumbai. Does this mean that all property developers and policy makers are out to remove minorities and below median income populations? Absolutely not. I am sure there are many builders around the world who kept their promises of rehabilitating those who were in some way affected by their lofty projects. Now that is what I call real development.

Still think there is little or no similarity between the construction-politics cabal and the public-private partnerships? Sound off below!

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