Building New Identities: Book Review

By Catherine Diaz

Possible Urban Worlds: Urban Strategies at the End of the 20th Century

Edited by Richard Wolff, Andreas Schneider, Christian Schmid, Philip Klaus, Andreas Hofer, and Hansruedi Hitz. 1998.
Available from Birkhauser Verlag, PO Box 133, CH-40010, Basel, Switzerland.

The end of the 20th Century has both real and symbolic connotations for almost everyone. The most palpable experiences for many are in cities, but the identity of cities everywhere is being challenged by global restructuring and the escalating marginalization of low-wage workers and minority groups. One of the ways community groups have challenged this process is to reclaim neglected public and private land for communal use. Possible Urban Worlds: Urban Strategies at the End of the 20th Century is a selection of stories about community groups throughout the world and their methods of redefining urban space.

The book is the product of the seventh conference of the International Network for Urban Research and Action (INURA), held in Zurich in the summer of 1997. INURA is a network of academics and community residents that fosters links between theoretical and practical knowledge as they apply to alternative urban strategies. People of diverse social and professional backgrounds come together to explore theoretical and practical concepts and specific forms of action for each locality. Possible Urban Worlds is an excellent combination of theoretical interpretations of current urban landscapes and the experiences of groups that are on the front lines of alternative strategies.

In the chapter “Globalization and the Body”, David Harvey discusses why it is easy to connect Volume I of Marx’s Capital to contemporary daily life. According to Harvey, “Marx provides a coherent theory of the bodily subject under capitalism. It is limited in its purchase but powerful as a tool for understanding the social production and reproduction of bodies and subjectivities within the dynamics of capital accumulation.” In another chpater, Alberto Magnaghi, Professor of Architecture at the University of Florence, states “A strong process of decentralization is necessary which will strengthen the practices of cooperation, which will develop new forms of community; which will guarantee, in their turn, new processes of accumulation of capital.” These are examples of some of the theoretical discussions in this volume.

The groups selected for this book are examples of a powerful new political trend. For example, in Britian there is the Exodus Collective, or Jah People. They are united around a spiritual belief in communal development as opposed to the competitive interest of private ownership. They achieve this by “occupying decaying local properties on a permanent basis for free community use.” The group built new housing using material from dilapidated structures, and reclaimed vacant land for use as a community farm. They hold ‘raves,’ or community dances, as a way to raise money from voluntary donations and to provide an inclusive environment for the surrounding community. The collective has become a focus for sustainable development for youth and unemployed craft workers that have been otherwise discarded by the dominant society.

The Green Work Alliance (GWA) of Toronto works to expand organized labor’s demands for fair and healthy employment to include environmental justice for working class and poor neighborhoods. The chapter, “Making A Difference – Making Green Work,” discusses how a coalition of labor, environmental and anti-poverty groups have united to reject the impossible choice of jobs or environment that poor communities are often forced to make. Their slogan “a greenbelt not a rustbelt” deals with the issue of creating production that invests in the economy and ecology. Three factors led to the emergence of this alliance: the closing of a Caterpillar plant in 1990 after it moved operations to the United States; issues and conflicts around health and safety for the Canadian Auto Workers Local (CAW); and the demonstration by a group of visiting Japanese workers of alternative product designs that could benefit the community. The GWA was convinced that only a comprehensive strategy that aligned workers and social justice movements could address the entire issue of economic revitalization in a way that did not strip communities of healthy living space. “The GWA has been able to liberate the imagination of workers by presenting a viable alternative of redesigning the production process; it showed them how they could be part of and even be the key to this process.”

Struggles involved with private property and the lack of public space, and unmet social needs, have spurred hundreds of squats across Italy. In the chapter entitled “Liberated Spaces – Possibilities for Liberating Everyday Life”, the squatted social center Forte Prenestino is highlighted. This is a real fort, built as a medieval castle on the outskirts of Rome. It stands in an almost abandoned park on the periphery of the city. The occupation of this structure by squatters began on May 1, 1986, after a big event called the ‘No Work Party’ in the park outside the fort. Since many social and economic questions were not being adressed by the government, social groups addressed their own needs by forming collectives, and began to occupy empty, unused buildings. The result was communities that functioned as comprehensive social centers comprised of people from a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. Alternative communities, however, are not without their problems. There has been ongoing debate about decision-making models, and the rotation of roles. “The production of culture is a basic requirement. We need to search for new values, criticize existing social models, fight prejudice and stereotypes, create original viewpoints and individual perspectives, look at things differently. Culture is essential nourishment for the mind.”

A chapter examines the struggle in Berlin against a repressive campaign to limit individual activity in public space. “Inner! City! Action! – Crowd Control, Interdictory Space and the Fight for Socio-Spatial Justice”, is an account of an organized coalition that literally seeks to take back the streets from state control. Certain groups in Berlin have been banned from public squares and the transportation infrastructure. Panhandlers, prostitutes, and homeless newspaper sellers have been banned from downtown “inner city” spaces. At the same time, immigrants and youth on the outskirts of the city have been abandoned by the police. Many disenfranchised groups must depend on the informal exchange of resources that a downtown area affords. The state and private business groups have used the police and private security agencies to remove unwanted social groups from public spaces. “The public transportation agency alone placed 160,000 bans in only 12 months… This does not mean that 160,000 persons were expelled and then forbidden to re-enter the stations, but represents repeated action against the same people in their everyday struggle for their living and work places.” Around most train stations and public squares, social workers are allowed to negotiate public space if they render themselves invisible, by siting their services behind the train stations to separate themselves from travelers. Some of the direct actions in Berlin include staging public parties in bank vestibules after business hours. These demonstrations defy mass arrests, because police are unable to pinpoint organizers due to the wide participation of random passersby.

There are many vibrant examples in this book of groups that are redefining urban identity through politics, and reclaiming public and private space. It is an excellent source of a wide array of international perspectives on the increasingly local interplay of theory and action, and the inevitable confrontations that it entails.

Catherine Diaz is a student in the Pratt Institute Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment.

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