Urban Justice

Urban planning, housing, transportation, the privatization of public space and the criminalization of people of color and poor people.

Who Takes Ownership of the City?

THen 2008Reprinted from RP&E Vol. 15, No.1: Who Takes Ownership of Our Cities?

Forty years ago, as America’s inner cities imploded, the New Yorker ran a sardonic cartoon. It portrayed a smug tower dweller overlooking a vista of tenements. “Ghettoes aren’t a problem, my dear,” he blithely informs his wife. “Ghettoes are a solution.”

Today, the “urban crisis” is metastasizing across the planet. More than half of the world’s 6.5 billion people now dwell in cities—and more than a billion of them survive in desperate slums. This gives global resonance to the environmental, economic, and social equity struggles of American cities. If we are to heed the words of Gandhi and “be the change we want to see in the world,” thinking globally means acting locally. Creating a sustainable planet starts in our own hometowns.

But even those who recognize this responsibility seldom focus on the fundamentally public nature of this endeavor. Unique challenges of organizing city life gave birth to both the democratic and republican variants of self-rule. The very word “politics” is derived from the Greek word for shared urban space.

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Energy Policy and Inner City Abandonment

Few people realize the price inner cities have paid for our national love affair with the automobile. But the evidence of devastation is not hard to find. White flight to the metropolitan fringe, driven in part by racism, is linked to destruction of human resources in the metropolitan core, to waste of petroleum energy, pollution of air and water, and degradation of urban biological resources. But older urban neighborhoods can help lead the way to more sustainable cities and suburbs...

The increasing concentration of poverty in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas is linked to the practice of investment in suburban sprawl, and divestment from energy-efficient, inner city communities where people of color live. 

Transportation and energy issues are of critical concern to low income neighborhoods and practitioners of community-based economic development, but advocacy systems for energy and transportation issues are almost non-existent. These systems should be developed. Community development corporations in low-income and minority communities are well positioned to provide a new and potentially powerful national leadership in advocating energy- and transportation-efficient patterns for urban neighborhoods.

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Predatory Lending and Foreclosure

Illustration: Foreclosures © 2007 Daryl Cagle politfcailcartoons.com

The Gonzales family wanted to purchase a home, but could only afford a mortgage of $2,700 per month. Although their conversations with the mortgage broker were in Spanish, their loan documents were entirely in English, which they could not read. It turned out that their mortgage cost them $4,700 monthly and carried an interest rate that adjusted up in six months. Before long, the Gonzales family was paying $5,000 per month, twice what they could afford, and without any hope of getting out of the mortgage because of a $16,000 prepayment penalty, which they had been unaware of.

Caroline Washington, an 83-year-old African American woman living in San Francisco, was induced by her broker to refinance her home three times in three years, causing her $52,000 loan balance to balloon to $240,000. Forced to make monthly payments of over $1,600, which represented nearly all of her fixed income, Ms. Washington lost her home to foreclosure.

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In this Issue - From the Editor

Race-Regionalism Nav graphic

The election of Barack Obama represents a turning point in the role of race in United States politics. It proves conclusively that the United States electorate has moved past simple prejudice based on the color of a person’s skin. And it demonstrates that there is a majority coalition in favor of progressive change. This is a milestone, and it offers an outstanding opportunity to advance a new national agenda.

Unfortunately, the election in itself does very little to challenge the economic and social system that inflicts racism on vast segments of the people in this country. To make change, our movements will need to maintain consistent grassroots pressure on the new leadership. But we also need to deepen our understanding of how racial inequality is maintained. Furthermore, we need a solid theory of how and where we can redistribute opportunity so that communities of color and low-income people can gain their fair share of benefits and remedy past wrongs.

Traffic Causes Death and Disease in San Francisco Neighborhood

There is an environmental and health crisis brewing in the inner city and working class barrios of the San Francisco Bay Area. Their residents—primarily working class communities of color and immigrants—are dealing with the health impacts of heavy local and regional traffic that has been disproportionately channeled through their neighborhoods. Thanks to the transportation planning decisions made over the last generation, families looking for housing are often faced with the “choice” of an affordable but unhealthy community vs. a healthy but unaffordable neighborhood.

A Community Overwhelmed by Traffic

Southeastern San Francisco’s Excelsior District is a vibrant, working class community, home to many families of color and immigrants. It is also a community cradled by Highway 280 and the large, busy thoroughfares of Alemany Boulevard, Mission Street, and San Jose Avenue. So, there is a constant flow of traffic—particularly fast-moving trucks and buses on residential streets.

Concerned about the health impacts of the inordinately heavy traffic with its concomitant air pollution, noise, and safety hazards on the largely immigrant and working class communities of the area, PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights), along with researchers from the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) and the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health (UCB), developed a community-based Health Impact Assessment (HIA).[1]

PODER, community residents, and allies conducted door-to-door surveys in Spanish, English, and Chinese; counted traffic on street corners; took pictures of the neighborhood; and interviewed local residents to gather first-hand experiences and document the voices and ideas of the community within the HIA. The participatory approach brought together people of all ages and immigrant backgrounds to share their knowledge and experiences.

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