Gentrifying Downtown: A New Urban Politics Is Tailoring Cities for Affluent Whites, but Communities Are Pushing Back-With a Theory of Their Own

Article excerpt

MANNY DIAZ HAS A VISION, and he's made no secret of it. As the mayor of Miami, Diaz wants to cement the city's position as an economic, political and cultural hub for the Americas and pursue the holy grail of mayors everywhere: world city status. Diaz, perhaps unlike other mayors though, is well positioned for this quest. He was recently elected head of the United States Conference of Mayors and hosted this year's Super Bowl, one of those big-ticket events that many aspiring world cities in the United States fall over each other to attract.

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However, a deeper look at Miami reveals that as politicians and big business run after "world city" status, they attack poor communities of color. They refuse to build new homes for the poor, or they nab major events like the Super Bowl but never direct the money to those who actually need it. "There's no discussion of how these huge opportunities benefit communities," said Denise Perry of Power U, a Miami grassroots organization. "So, people might get an extra eight hours of work selling bottled water on the street corner, but there's nothing for us in the end."

In January, some 30 community-based groups banded together at a conference in Los Angeles to form an alliance called Right to the City, whose leaders want to link the gentrification happening in Miami to that in Detroit, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and abroad. According to alliance members, Americans are facing a new urban politics, wherein the word "redevelopment" has come to mean little more than tailoring every aspect of city life for corporations and affluent consumers. Those who advocate for the "right to the city" argue that simple neglect of poor communities no longer suffices under this new urban politics. Instead, the push is to remove the poor entirely from the newly gilded downtowns. Countering this will require thinking about the larger rights that people have to their cities.

Nowhere in Miami is the new urban politics more evident than in Overtown, a historic and predominantly Black community located adjacent to downtown. The community exists within the largest area of concentrated poverty in Miami, with more than 50 percent of its residents living in poverty. The median family income is just over $14,000 a year, and approximately 90 percent of residents are renters. This marks a dramatic shift from less than 50 years ago, when many Black residents owned businesses and homes. The decline began in the early 1960s, when major highways were built through the central business district of Overtown. More than 10,000 people were removed from the area, mirroring the abandonment of many urban areas across the country by the federal government, working- and middle-class whites, and industry.

Long neglected, the Overtown neighborhood has in recent years become an area of interest for the city and for developers. The "revitalization" of Miami has made Overtown suddenly valuable again, but the proximity of a poor, Black neighborhood to downtown stands as a glaring obstacle to urban renewal. This combination of "bad" people and good land could mean only one thing in the new Miami: the neighborhood had to be redeveloped.

In Overtown, as in most low-income communities of color, the issue of housing is paramount. Without affordable places to live, other pressing concerns like jobs and education become irrelevant. Predictably, housing and land are shaping up as the central conflict points in the struggle over Miami. This year, Power U confronted the city bureaucracy about its negligence on the housing question. Miami has one of the highest levels of vacant public housing in the nation yet has done little to fill these vacancies, suggesting that the city would rather allow the empty units to fall into disrepair, condemn them and then "redevelop" them. It is part of what might be called a slow "scorched earth" removal policy. In response, the grassroots Miami Workers Center led a "Fill the Vacancies" campaign that began in 2004. …