The Limits of the City – Utica

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

Gone are the days when the Brooklyn-tinged voice of philosopher Murray Bookchin could be heard entertainingly berating the likes of right-libertarians and trumpeting the causes of social ecology and egalitarian municipalism. His analyses, though, are not lost to us. Best-known for Post-Scarcity Anarchism, the author, orator and historian had several works published on themes of post-industrial society — how can we organize ourselves to best meet the conditions of a world after we realize that we cannot eat money. Assuming, of course, that we realize in time the glaring plot hole in the story of infinite growth on a planet of finite resources.

In September, the Mohawk Valley Freedom School held a presentation and discussion on Bookchin’s work The Limits of the City as applied to Utica. On the pages of that book, Bookchin develops a narrative of what cities and communities were like prior to the rise of bourgeoisie models of organization, focused on the prioritization of mass commodity production, and what bourgeoisie orientation has led to. Utica’s rise in population and wealth, the latter peaking during the Gilded Age when Utica boasted the fifth wealthiest per-capita population in the United States, and subsequent declines in both offer up a perfect laboratory to grip those ideas and hypothesize alternative methods of realizing a future which embraces egalitarian principles, direct democracy, mutualism, a cohesion of arts, culture, politics and between the people of rural and urban spaces.

The Development of Urban Community

Urban centers grew out of the aggregate unions of rural farmers; the “foci of surrounding agrarian relations”. This makes sense if we take into account the development of human societies. Cities did not rise right along with the evolution of our species to bipedalism. We clever humans had to develop things like language, religion, politics and agriculture first, along with pointy weapons along the way. Some used for defense, some used to acquire the food upon which all human cultures cherish at their respective centers (“I’m Italian, we love food”… Oh, really?). With admitted disservice to the many great and interesting works of anthropologists, the short short of it is: Societies began the minute we learned that seeds go in the ground first and food comes out of it second. And with that discovery, the collective query, “Why the fuck are we bothering to migrate with our prey?” became much more commonplace as groups of humans began to settle in one spot where food grew more than other spots, and the great experiment in human civilization began. Also, there were dogs.

It should surprise few that during this time before chemistry and maths and more science early cities were far more in balance with the land that they currently negate. Where cities were once limited by their agrarian nature, they now grow out and up, fueled by industry and profit motives. The modern negation takes place in the industrial efforts to reach beyond those limits of geographic locale in order to produce an increasing load of products for market. A given area’s most notable geographic disadvantage means little. But is this sustainable? Consider the metropolises of America’s southwest and their concerns over water sustainability in the middle of a desert.

For most of precapitalist history, until about the Middle Ages when cities became a precursor for bourgeois economies, city life was not contingent for social relations. Social relations were more communal in that there were recognized things like communal land for use in cultivation of crops. Some cities were so complete in integration of land and city that money was never developed. The great city of Tenochtitlan was one such example that stunned Spanish conquistadors a mere 500 years ago because such a thriving, sustainable civilization operated with so much cohesion, the explorers observed that a recognizable system of monetary exchange did not exist (operative word here is “recognizable” because I’m sure stating that there was no money will infuriate people who spend lots of modern money to study that kind of stuff).

Rise of the Bourgeoisie City

Communities of the Middle Ages, or Medieval period, were almost entirely devoted to handcrafts and local exchange relations, also called trade. During this period, these enclaves of population became centers for marketplaces and the production of commodities, as well as commodities produced explicitly for trade, a la the Marxist definition. It was also a trend of this period that the activities associated with marketplaces were predominantly intended to satisfy needs, not to accumulate capital. Growth, during this time of precapitalism, was not the goal. Sustaining the community was. How this translates to a place like Utica is fairly simple: The waves of growth have come and gone in this city’s history, no matter the efforts of any amount of whitewashing or hopes of revitalization devoid of the realities of present-day economics. So do we concentrate on recapturing the spirit of growth in an attempt to lure back century-old prosperity, or do we begin to organize to sustain Utica and provide for Utica as it is and as it could be by cultivating the resources already present?

Moving along, people in these Medieval communities owned the means of production, thus the degree of stratification in tasks we see in today’s industrial models which cause tensions between working class populations were mostly absent. Also missing from the scene were the bourgeoisie supervisors that we’re all too familiar with today, micromanaging our underpriced labor. Instead of bosses and boardrooms, guilds and associations regulated the economic activity of the day. What this translated to was an economic climate wherein individuals had secure places in the economy of the community, not the shaky owner-advantaged marketplace of the globe where workers in Cambodia can assemble the wares once made in textile mills around town for much, much lower wages — given that wages are even paid. Where is the sustainability in the current model? Some will argue that this sort of loss creates the conditions for innovation, but deep indebtedness does not breed innovation. The West has yet to rebound by the great expatriation of labor over the last several decades, resulting in the most indebted generation of Americans today, not the most clever or innovative.

Given that economic activity was regulated by the community, rights and duties of producers imbued responsibility to the community — not the profits resulting from industrial-type production. Communities and cities based on bourgeoise economics lead to bourgeoise social relations. The stratification of society by wealth creates both class and racial tensions.

Utica as a Bourgeoisie City

Utica’s current attempt at rebranding itself can be summed up in identifying “poor” as bad and replacing that bad with a narrow, industrial definition of “good”: Shit people with money like to spend that money on. The general tone inspiring such an acute revitalization effort is that “Utica cannot produce commodities, thus Utica is non-existent and unimportant.”

Bourgeoisie social relations have created insulated neighborhoods. We are isolated. We are indoors, repelling the agora that was once so central to social and cultural relations in precapitalist cities. We have reserved neighborhoods and sections of the city where you’re far more likely to encounter a certain type of human being than in other neighborhoods. This leads to the inevitability that this kind of segregation will produce a segregation, also, of efforts to define and redefine the city. To direct and redirect its projects. There will be, in a stratified community, populations that are heard from far more than others. Current revitalization efforts in Utica reflect that as economic development is concentrated in specific areas like Bagg’s Square and Downtown.

On deck is the adeptly marketed “Brewery District”, where the brewery is. A long-standing focal point of economic activity in a borough of the city otherwise looked over and ignored. Raced through and developed on top of in order to speed up the mode already used to expedite one’s travel time driving through it, West Utica remains choked off from the rest of the city. Where other cities had been abandoning arterial systems and reverting to boulevards and green spaces to slow traffic down and encourage economic participation in passed-over boroughs. That the Route 12 arterial could have been something more like the Memorial Parkway is a lost opportunity. The result will be a hastier route through the city while bottlenecking pedestrian traffic into a single bridge. Leadership on this issue, elected and otherwise, was severely limited in scope and any hope to add life through growth to West Utica faces a substantial battle.

In this initiative to reflect in Utica more of the interests of people of means, the only hope is seen in attracting privately owned mass producers, like General Electric. Given the size of Utica’s reserve army of labor, any hopes of becoming relevant in a game dominated by giants and advantages becomes more like prostitution undertaken for survival. Utica’s economic position leaves it fully exposed to notorious corporate polluters (read: General Electric) that are perceived as conquering heroes by its shortsighted residents both conservative and progressive.

You never change things by fighting the existng reality.  To change something, build a new model which makes the existing model obsolete.

– Richard Buckminster Fuller

The continued business-oriented approach to improving the quality of life leaves much to be desired. For one, it’s not a plan without massive holes no matter how well-meaning the intent. Across the United States, revitalization efforts in recent decades have led to increased rates of gentrification and segregation even among cities which proudly boast progressive traditions. Turning cities into playgrounds of capitalism doesn’t mesh well for those who lack the assets to participate as owners themselves and are instead relegated to an existence of coerced participation as laborers. Half of New Yorkers admit to just scraping by. And that is a city of millions. A “world city”. A focal point of global capitalism and trade. As lower classes are pushed out of the five boroughs downstate, what does that imply for a much smaller urban center like Utica? Let us admit that Utica is segregated, but is it gentrified?

In any period of growth, the rules of property change for all, but renters abjure any say in a process which also involves realtors, lawyers, banks and landlords. Prices change, usually too high for low-rent citizens to afford thus pushing them out of their homes. This is why the rebranding of Utica should raise eyebrows. Utica is poor, but the tip of the revitalization spear is business and loft apartments going for a smooth $2,000/mo. Given the city’s past with lead smelters, and the largest concentrations of contamination occurring in Utica’s poorest neighborhoods, clean alternative housing should be a priority, yet the latest news of an apartment complex that may come to town is accompanied by the important detail that its units will be market-priced, not intended for tenants on subsidized incomes — the most in need.

That the project is targeting the area adjacent to the Utica Memorial Auditorium is curious. Absent a decade-long conspiracy, the fact that the Washington Courts project once stood in the same spot is not indicative of deliberately uprooting vulnerable residents to accommodate the interests of residents with money. Still, that the needs of the needy are bypassed to accommodate haves over have-nots exposes a priority inherent in this revitalization mindset that is clearly not aimed at remedying extant housing problems. Also, the site is contaminated. Chew on that. If the construction of the tentative apartment complex on that site were preceded by lead rehabilitation efforts, then there would be every reason to suggest that the plans adopted by the city and lauded by many do not even have the interests of the poor in the periphery, let alone a naive hope that they are reflected in the center. As housing options deteriorate for the poorest residents, all the while with young children soaking up lead like sponges, those who can afford a swanky loft need not worry. Options are available, with more on the way!

Housing isn’t the only evidence of a one-way approach to exclusivity. Recently, a meeting was held in the Bagg’s Square district downtown where some of the leaders of this bourgeoisie initiative held a meet and greet to further cultivate excitement over the planned developments for that area. Members of The Catalyst Group, Bagg’s Square Association, Utica Chamber of Commerce and Thincubator treated themselves to a night of rubbing elbows with other do-gooders to marvel at growth. And for $20, you could have, too. If you could afford it. And if you signed up before the event was capped at 40. The well-meaning intent is there, but when you’re playing with capitalism, that’s the way the cookie crumbles: For some, not all.

Alternatives, Goals and Blueprints

By far the easiest job in addressing the concerns of capitalism and growth-centered economic schemes are producing critiques of them. Sure, this and that have their drawbacks, but what’s the alternative? Is there a solution? There are. And these go underrepresented all the time as participatory examples of community and economics are less expanded upon, and receive less attention, in broader media, however that doesn’t mean they do not exist. They exist in abundance. They’re just lazy, preferring instead to cling to the pages of the many books and other literary works which extol them. For starters, Bookchin’s most notable work, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Judi Bari’s essay, Revolutionary Ecology, the dense collection of writings in The Accumulation of Freedom, Theodore Rozak’s Blueprint for a Communal Environment (which, per its inclusion in The Limits of the City, will be covered below) and even elements of Jacques Fresco’s Venus Project. Or, hell, just look up resource-based economy on the internet.

From “really free markets” to alternative community-based currencies, there are methods which have had considerable thought put into them to address the inevitable problems of sustainability which our very dear, but very shortsighted species forsakes in the name of unlimited growth. The “Hey it works for me, so it must work!”, contrasted against the reality that what works for us here in the wealthy, post-industrial world is contingent on the exploitation and not-having of those less blessed by nationality. Don’t believe that? Check the tags on your clothes. Still feeling blessed that you have nice things, or more like you simply won the birth lottery?

The issue of alternatives, from organizational models, to sustainability, to alternative currencies is a big one and it certainly won’t all be covered here. There’s also no prescription for a world-changing revolution that’s going to take all the bad away in a fury of direct action and everybody “waking up”. The reality is much less sexy. Less Hollywood and more put your fingers into the dirt and grow your food. The revolution will be muddy! It’s less of a metaphorical wake-up and more of a metaphorical wake up, make coffee by grinding your own fair trade beans, read the newspaper to get a day-by-day handle on the issues, compost your leftovers from breakfast and carpool to work. It’s the bit-by-bit. It’s the evolution into something that isn’t as dependent on government or war or one monolithic economic system. It’s prefigurative and autonomous; it makes mistakes and molds itself to the demands of local communities. It’s precisely that last characteristic that causes anxiety among many people who say they prefer less government, but have little idea what responsibility that actually imbues upon a community. It’s precisely that last characteristic that also stops people in their tracks, preferring the known, and all inherent flaws, because of the apparent lack of a system that has all the answers (as if the one we currently have has them all anyway).

Goals of community cohesion are central to reclaiming the city for those who live within its limits, not solely for the pleasure of propertied classes to buy, sell and landown creating segregated, agoraphobic cities. Perhaps the hardest concept to grasp is the need to share resources and skills as opposed to privatized possession and accumulation schemes which are so ingrained in our culture. Resources like land, for an easy example. Skills like herbology, car maintenance, first aid, the ability to teach a language or how to read. The list of skills extends to the horizon of those held by the residents of the community itself. Sustained, autonomous communities in the Mexican state of Chiapas, the Rojava region of northern Syria, and the anarchist traditions in parts of Spain have put these models into use already.

A sustainable community is the sum of all of its parts and the more shared skills there are, the less need there is for dependancy. If the goal is greater autonomy and less government, the sharing of skills is crucial, but it will be contingent on the sharing of resources. The forced scarcity resulting from privatization promotes dependency because people no longer have access to a resource without paying tribute to someone beforehand. They must first sell their time to a boss and accrue wages to a point where they can spend, after they’ve already spent on basic necessities which are also privately owned. They are fully dependent on the exchange of labor for wages, notwithstanding if the labor exists or the wages enable them to consume. Competition between private entities creates the externalities that alternatives seek to avoid, such as hierarchy, class, poverty, pollution, exploitation, overconsumption of resources and bigger government. Instead, replaced by systems of mutual aid; the voluntary and reciprocal exchange of goods and services for mutual benefit (as opposed to private gain and the hope that the benefits may someday trickle down).

To continue with the “bit-by-bit”, there are a few things already occurring in Utica that have key characteristics of alternatives to participating in both capitalism and money exchanges. These litter the spectrum of sustaining a community as a place one would want to live by addressing food, leisure, land, media and even education. Housing alternatives and community-based currencies remain integral challenges, but there are blueprints for the others.

Starting out light, sports and leisure activities contribute physical and psychological benefits to all people. While many communities have both paid and free options, it is important to note that a long-standing free initiative in Utica has been the Utica Frisbee Club which is organized completely voluntarily. But frisbee? Really? This is evidence of an emerging world free of exploitation? Yes. I did say that we’re starting out “light” here, and to understand how, the evidence isn’t the game itself, but how it’s organized. In Utica, need produced a solution. For free. And those involved may not have ever noticed that they created something so inclusive and neatly organized, without any kind of public or private patronage, established hierarchy or real rulebook. Yet it has grown into its own “season”, with its own tongue-in-cheek publication, a web-series of frisbee analysis, an all-star game, playoff rounds, a championship and several “off-season” events on Boxing Day, Thanksgiving and even the annual Derek Scarlino Halloween Game (in which I, Derek Scarlino, have never played, but appreciate the eponymous distinction). The Utica Frisbee Club is also notable for the community-orientated perspectives of many of its participants and the likelihood, again, that many of the participants may not have recognized what it has been built upon: Voluntary association by members of the community coming together without seeking any kind of profit.

Getting more serious, the Cornhill Community Garden and Utica Community Gardens offer healthy food alternatives for the residents of one of the city’s most economically repressed and segregated neighborhoods. Locals can help maintain the gardens as well as take from them what they need, learning both skills and the tenets of municipalism and ecology, and reciprocity of mutual aid. Poorer neighborhoods can and do comprise what are referred to as “food deserts” where options for healthy eating are limited both economically, because of fixed incomes, and geographically, because grocery stores might be miles away. On that point, I can attest from my years in Seoul that transporting groceries via public transit is a real bitch. That the community has an opportunity to grow its own food adds value to vacant lots and green spaces that goes beyond marketing them for profit. This effort shares DNA with permaculture mostly seen among the cozy, tree-lined streets of homeowners, but since most residents in Cornhill are renters and do not have legal rights over the land they occupy, community gardens in vacant lots purchased by non-profits are limited but sustainable steps to helping address food needs.

Beginning in the winter of 2014, the Mohawk Valley Freedom School opened its doors at the Cornerstone Community Church in Oneida Square. Since then, it has been a focal point of social activism in the Utica-area as well as its use as both a networking space for community organizers and a location for teach-ins and workshops focusing on issues ranging from free classes on civil rights and social movements, to union organizer training and film screenings. Seeking to reproduce the social function of freedom schools in the southern US during the Civil Rights Era to empower community members with classes on politics and history while emphasizing the lessons of and reasons behind radical social movements. It has become a free space for the exchange and deliberation of ideas to transform communities into more participatory entities.

Not to spend too much time on it, but Love and Rage itself is an experiment with this exact ethos in mind. Noting the limitations of for-profit local news, Love and Rage can delve deeper into topics glossed over by more mainstream sources, the best example of which was the pithy local coverage of a rally of Palestinians and supporters during the Israeli assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014. The utter lack of depth in reporting, a bit more than 70 words, actually spawned Utica’s free, alternative news collective. It’s writers can be creative, experimenting with traditional and Gonzo journalism, and pick sides to issues. During 2015, Love and Rage, on a budget of nothing, has covered the developing fight for public education on par with local news. It also provides the most consistent updates on grassroots organizing and events, remains crowd-sourced and non-hierarchal, and has grown steadily throughout the last year while providing reporting, original pieces by area minds, photography and even video coverage.

To an extent, events like the Indie Garage Sale and farmer’s markets at Union Station offer much the same locally-oriented exchange that markets have for millennia. While the wares are not free, the people selling them are often the producers themselves, reaping benefits directly from their labor, as opposed to a boss, while providing a service for the community.

“What we are seeing today is a crisis in social ecology. Modern society, especially as we know it in the US and Europe, is being organized around immense urban belts, a highly industrialized agriculture and, capping both, a swollen, bureaucratized, anonymous state apparatus.” – Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism

Before we start to take any of these examples out of context, let us first acknowledge that few of these initiatives are that large in scale. None are “pure” models, if such things even exist. They merely contain notable facets that could be explored and expanded upon in order to produce more direct, voluntary and non-hierarchal alternatives for more people to access the benefits of what makes a cohesive, thriving and stimulating community. The purpose of the things listed was to present strands of DNA woven among differing initiatives to show their diversity and utility. And clearly, there’s still work to be done.

Urban Resilience

Getting back on track with Bookchin’s work, he extensively references Theodore Rozak’s aforementioned Blueprint for a Communal Environment (which was initially written with Berkeley, California in mind) in working out strategies for how such things can be achieved. If we contrast some of Rozak’s major themes to the listed models, will we find consistency within them? Noted here, the suggestions in Rozak’s plan aren’t exactly new, many having origins and real-world application in socially ingrained precapitalist societies from indigenous Native Americans to medieval cities to the Renaissance. And, as we progress, let us keep in mind one of the great lessons of anarchist philosopher Errico Malatesta in that there’s no single plan that works everywhere. The great experiment in autonomy is trying things, seeing what works, and advancing from there. By no means has any of this been, or will become, the final say in developing a more ecologically sound community.

Rozak’s plan, and Murray’s main objection to current cities, rests in the challenge to private property. The challenge to no longer treat land as a commodity but rather, as Rozak puts it, to have “vacant lots appropriated by communities into communal space.” Yes, indeed we have a version of this here in Utica. The vacant lots hosting community gardens are currently owned and maintained by nonprofits. The intent is there, but arbitrary legal binding abounds because someone, somewhere has to make money for owning a thing. To expand on this idea, the Blueprint actually suggests dismantling fences to open more land as parks and gardens. Why not? How many scrapes and cuts could I have avoided as a child by jumping the fences which never kept me out of a neighbor’s yard to begin with? This is not to say that everyone must immediately head into their yard and open it up to all, for all. This sort of thing can be mutually agreed to by any number of neighbors, large or small, and taken forward from there.

In all of the things listed, we see evidence of small groups of neighbors “mobilizing resources to cement fractured neighborhoods” or even entire communities to put them in balance with themselves and the limits of ecology on urban systems. And with the appropriation of community garden surplus to food banks, we see plans to distribute them to neighborhood food conspiracies. This can be taken part in by local farm shares, too.

There’s actually a lot on the Cornell-based Rust2Green website that tackles a lot of the land appropriation and environmental aspects that Rust Belt cities like Utica can use in order to become more sustainable, but this also requires measures of matching social and economic appropriation to work. We’re not all going to open up businesses in Bagg’s Square; we will not all be proprietors. As Bookchin argues persistently, capitalism is ill-equipped to offer the alternatives needed to accomplish a sustainable, balanced community and that’s truly what this is all predicated upon. Thus the seeking out of models of social and economic organization which may potentially replace capitalism and the government which serves as vanguard to its less desirable externalities.

We can see that there are numerous ways to address the ethos of unlimited growth within capitalism (as ultimately limited by ecology). Again, there’s no revolution coming with any utopian plan ready that’s going to make all of this a reality tomorrow. It’s a process. It’s a long process of trial and error. Of seeing what works in which community. Pulling ideas from the past and identifying what already exists (and in what capacity) are ways to move forward because the mass of people will not be moved by ambiguity, but by familiarity — even if they’ve been engaging in something they previously counted among the ambiguous.

It’s time to move beyond the notion that business revival is the only thing that gives Utica any value or stands as the only method to create a thriving community. When the next dip in the business cycle inevitably hits, will we be better prepared after placing so much emphasis on the acute business development of less than a handful of neighborhoods? Utica already bears the scars of past crises of capitalism; high unemployment, vacant lots and factories, human capital flight. To do better, we need to consider alternatives outside of growth-based schemes tried time and again while failing to produce an integrated, sustainable community in which everyone has a place. Throughout the landscape of Utica, further pockmarked by segregated neighborhoods, food deserts, urban decay and lead contamination, there are definitely seeds of possibility.

And, yes, we can have dogs, too.

1 Comment on The Limits of the City – Utica

  1. The pre-capitalist era didn’t need money and could exist on barter because everyone in the area was related. Extended families ruled pre-capitalist society, and now virtually every leftist idea is implemented to defeat family: endless education to decrease the fertility rate, birth control from puberty through 30s, and careerism that encourages transience which thins out family influence. That’s on top of the Catholic Church banning cousin marriage over 1,000 years ago. Forming community out of broken, disparate populations seems like a long shot. I hear lots of yearning for community, but at the same time I see little desire to form families, to attend religious services, or to participate in civic life.

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