An underlying principle of all Liberation movements—labor, women, civil rights, etc.— is the most fundamental civil right, self-determination: the right of people to control their own lives and destinies. Although I describe events occurring in Tucson, where I live, gentrification and its attendant evils are affecting working-class communities all over the country and should concern all who believe in self-determination.
I grew up in working-class Barrio Hollywood, one of Tucson’s oldest and most established neighborhoods, which has played, and continues to play, a huge role in the city’s political dynamics, and where the Tucson Chicano movement was based. In 1970, under the banner of “El Rio for the People,” residents of Barrios Hollywood and El Rio fought for a neighborhood park and neighborhood center on the basis that they and not the City politicos and bureaucrats knew better what the barrios needed and wanted. “El Rio for the People” established the principle that barrios have rights and should be in charge of their own destiny.
Similar barrio self-determination battles were fought in barrios everywhere during the Chicano civil-rights movement. In San Diego, California, for example, in 1970 the community of Barrio Logan decided it wanted a park in a certain area, but the politicos and bureaucrats decided to build a Highway Patrol sub-station there. The community fought back and won, establishing Chicano Park. In “The Battle of Chicano Park,” Marco Anguiano describes that barrio uprising as “…the history of the Chicano Mexicano people struggling to reclaim our heritage and our right to self-determination.”
Gentrifiers kill the indigenous culture
Forty-plus years later we find ourselves fighting the same battles. The fancy name for this socio-economic-political attack on working-class communities is gentrification. Chicano historian Rudy Acuña has written of gentrification efforts in East Los Angeles, and much has been written about the gentrification of the Mission District in San Francisco.
The term “gentrification” (derived from the term “gentry,” which historically referred to society’s self-designated “upper class”) was coined by sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the displacement of working-class residents by upper-middle-class people who move into urban neighborhoods. Soon after gentrification hits a neighborhood, the majority (sometimes all) of the original working-class neighborhood residents are displaced and the social character of the neighborhood changes. Referencing the gentrification of New York’s Chinatown, Hunter College professor Peter Kwong notes that, “Actually, what (the gentrifiers) are doing is killing the indigenous culture.”
El Rio for the People—again!
The “El Rio for the People” movement was revived when local politicos and developers tried to do to Tucson’s west side what was done to the downtown barrios during the “Urban Renewal” (which really was a “Mexican Removal”) campaign in the 1960s: destroy its cultural-historical memory, run the current residents out and gentrify the area and thus destroy the political viability and activism of the west side. The plan was to convert the El Rio/Trini Alvarez municipal golf course into a complex of high-rise condos and apartment buildings and “upscale” commercial establishments. This would have permanently and irreversibly changed the character of Barrios Hollywood and El Rio, which surround the golf course.
The plan to destroy the barrios brought people together to form the El Rio Coalition-II, and under its principled leadership, the residents (in concert with many allies from throughout the city) beat back the politicos’ and developers’ attack on the west side. (I wrote about this in my Latinopia blog of June 16, 2013, “Ol’ Yogi had it right”).
Gentrification doesn’t occur magically…sell-out politicos cause it
Gentrification cannot and does not happen without the active cooperation of ethically corrupt politicians whose loyalty is not to those who elected them but to the campaign funds the developers wave in front of them (and the jobs promised to their friends and family). Their public mantra always is that they want to clean up “blighted” areas and bring in jobs. The unspoken part is that they want to bring in a “better class” of people. That’s why only working-class, predominantly minority neighborhoods are targeted for these “improvements.” Gentrification is also a vehicle to get rid of politically active neighborhoods, such as Barrio Hollywood, who are a pain in the neck to the (in this case, Democratic) political machine. Thus it is that the Democratic machine politicos and gentrifiers put a target on the back of the Barrio Hollywood Neighborhood Association (BHNA), a major player in the El Rio Coalition-II.
Founded in 1989, the BHNA has improved the barrio substantially. For example, BHNA obtained grants that helped repave the median lane of the barrio’s major street and install park benches and water fountains. The BHNA founders also created the “Fiesta Grande” street fair to help Barrio Hollywood businesses recover after a major sewer line at a main intersection ruptured, causing two huge sinkholes, which caused severe damage to homes and businesses. The main commercial street was closed for months, causing huge revenue losses to businesses. A local news report noted that, “The Fiesta Grande Street Fair helped bring the neighborhood back to life.”
The two-day Fiesta Grande now attracts up to 50,000 people, giving exposure to the barrio and its culture and history and to local businesses. Fiesta Grande proceeds support programs such as Late Night Hoops, a summer youth basketball league at El Rio Neighborhood Center that serves over 100 youth each year.
Does a single gentrifier count more than an entire barrio family?
Since its founding, the residents of the neighborhood had democratically elected the BHNA President and other officers. Last year people who reside outside of Barrio Hollywood came to the BHNA meeting, and relying on what they considered a loophole in BHNA bylaws, replaced the BHNA president, a fifth-generation barrio resident, with a new president who had never been involved in the work of the BHNA.
A battle over the BHNA bylaws highlights the concept of self-determination and the cultural clash inherent in gentrification. A proposed change to the BHNA bylaws would allow only barrio residents to vote in BHNA matters. People who want outsiders to control the BHNA put up a competing bylaw change expanding the rights of business owners and property owners who do not live in Barrio Hollywood.
At the meeting at which the bylaw changes were to be voted on, the new BHNA president arbitrarily made up rules meant to suppress the barrio residents’ voting power. One of these truly highlights the attack on indigenous cultures that the gentrification movement represents, given that a major pillar of Mexican American culture is the family, immediate and extended. The rule the president imposed was that only one (1) vote per household would be allowed. Thus, the president, who is single, would have the same voting weight as a family of 3, 4, etc. On the basis of this made-up “rule,” many long-time residents were not allowed to vote. As professor Kwong noted—gentrification attacks the indigenous culture.
Hollywooders can’t be bullied…
True to their history and tradition, the Hollywood residents did not let themselves be pushed around and bullied. They stood their ground, questioned the process, and insisted on exercising their constitutional rights of free assembly, speech, and voting in a democratic process. Because the entire process was tainted and corrupt beyond repair, the Hollywood residents overwhelmingly voted to reject the arbitrary rules that were being imposed and totally invalidate the balloting that went on earlier and to set a special meeting for later in the month to discuss and vote on the proposed bylaw changes.
At the subsequent meeting the barrio residents, by an overwhelming vote, made a resounding statement affirming their insistence on self-determination and took back their barrio by adopting the residents-only bylaw.
I detail Tucson events here, but gentrification and its attendant evils are affecting working-class communities everywhere. Gentrification has many dimensions: economic, cultural, racial-ethnic, and political. But nothing can happen without the latter. As long as people continue to vote for ethically corrupt politicos (invoking the tired “lesser of evils” excuse), the attacks on our communities will continue. c/s
Copyright 2015 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org Chicano Park, El Rio park photos copyrighted by barrio Dog Productions. El Rio for the People, Centro Chicano, Barrio Hollywood sign and Fiesta Grande sign used under the “faire use” proviso of the copyright law. All other photos in the public domain.