Sunday, June 5, 2005

Tempe Fought A Class War, and All I Got Was This Stupid Eviction Notice

by Ken Dahl (printed in Upheaval #1)

A couple weeks ago – in the middle of a generally low-income neighborhood and just two blocks from my house – they laid the foundation for yet another luxury “mixed-use” condo.

The website for the Merrion Square Lofts () claims that the area in which these “luxury two-story lofts” are located – the northwest corner of Beck & University – is a

dynamic urban setting that has produce [sic] some of the most sought-after real estate in the city. A magnet for new restaurants, art galleries, retailers and progressive business [sic].

This description seems a bit flattering if you consider that right now, Beck Avenue north of University is mostly just a “magnet” for cops... Oh, wait, you must be talking about Mill Avenue – that place where the pod people go to consume when they’re homesick for Burbank!

The literature sniffs on:

Refined amenities blend with your own panache for interior design to create a unique environment that lets you fully express yourself and your love of the arts.
Are you starting to get a hint of the kind of vermin this trap is trying to lure? Our neighbors will soon be the type of people who use words like amenities and panache with a straight face.

The Merrion Square condos also promise, in accordance with your generously well-endowed pocketbook and bourgeois affectations, a

place to dine, dream, entertain, and renew yourself in the company of like souls. Surrounded by deco-styled accents and comfortable lofts, provide [sic] all of the elements necessary for the perfect urban home.

Translation: “Don’t worry, folks – we’ve got a strict anti-beaner policy in this joint!” All this “refined” homeopathic psychofluff just reeks of LA-variety status obsession – the kind that's both New Age and old as the crusades. It’s Klan for the kappuccino set. “Renew yourself”? Shit.

The aristocratic smarm reaches its climax with this passage:
What attracts people and businesses here is an uncommon desire for a more active, urban way of living and doing business away from suburban sprawl, commuter traffic and the responsibilities of conventional home ownership. Tempe’s lifestyle is about freedom and creative living – following a path of your choosing.

“Tempe’s lifestyle”? “Freedom and creative living”? Now we’re definitely not talking about the same neighborhood. The last time I checked, people on my block hardly had the “freedom” to walk outside at night without getting interrogated by the pigs. Most people here are still hardly even “free” enough to pay their rent on time. They must be talking about that other Tempe “lifestyle” – the one over by that artificial new “lake,” in those half-million-dollar “mega-offices” nobody over here in the real world will ever see the inside of, unless we’re cleaning out their mega-toilets.

Please, let’s stop talking about this yuppie rampart like it’s some kind of summer camp, and see it for what it is: the latest chapter in Tempe’s ongoing war on the poor. Plain and simple, it’s gentrification.

The hidden code
Some people would make you think that real-estate development is a complicated economic process – but really, gentrification is easy to understand if you just learn how to translate the code.

For instance, the words “redevelop and revitalize” are used frequently by developers and city councils when they want to whitewash a new gentrification project. The city government of Tempe even has its own “Redevelopment & Revitalization Task Force.” Sure, peppy feel-good verbs like “revitalization” don’t sound like anything worth opposing. Who could possibly be against vitality?

But then, don’t they have to tear down existing stores and homes to “redevelop”? And why do these new, more-vital developments they build always seem to be priced so that only wealthy people can afford to live and shop in them? And don’t a lot of these new properties become secondary homes and “investments” that are likely to sit empty for at least part of the year?

Knocking down affordable housing; tearing down trees; paving green lots; and replacing it all with a bunch of locked, empty, overpriced rooms – how exactly does this bring vitality to a neighborhood? Does kicking poor people out of a neighborhood develop it into a better place to live? Or are redevelopment and revitalization just code words for plain old destruction, theft, and greed? Who and what is getting “revitalized” by this process? Who is going to benefit from the development? Will it be you?

I guess the answer to all these questions will depend on who you’re asking – the rich people making money off the new condos, or the poor people forced from their homes and businesses because of them.

Now, think about Merrion Square’s “dynamic urban setting.” No one can really imagine what these words actually mean – but whatever it is, it sure sounds like fun, doesn’t it? The words are just vague enough to promise everything and define nothing.

But notice the word dynamic – what exactly is in motion here? The answer is, as usual, just money. Poor people are moving out; the rich are moving in. Take off the PR spin, and in “dynamic urban setting” you’ll find a more honest, hidden message to the upwardly mobile: It’s time to invest. It’s a subtle guarantee that property values will continue to rise – good news for people playing the real-estate market. Maybe a better way of expressing it might be: “We haven’t yet completely finished hosing the mud-people out of sight. We’ve kept just enough of them around to leave a little ‘ethnic flavor’ and a couple of decent Mexican restaurants. Don’t worry though, you won’t have to actually talk to any of them – unless you’re telling them how to park your car.”

As for a Merrion Square’s “lifestyle” of “freedom and creative living” – well, some people have a “lifestyle” and a “creative living”; the rest of us can only afford “rent” and a “job.” Do you really think the future inhabitants of Merrion Square are actually going to hang out with the people who live in this neighborhood now? Do you think they’re going to stroll over to the Rollins Food Mart or the River of Life food ministry to get their groceries with the rest of us? Do you think they’re going to be buying their socks and wrenches from the 99-cent store? Will they hit up the Multigenerational Center to check their email, or barbecue with the ballers at Jaycee Park? Of course not. Cheap food, laundromats and check-cashing booths – i.e., the plain facts of actual urban life – just aren’t a part of their “active, urban way of living.” They’ll walk from their apartment doors down to their secured indoor parking garage, get in their Escalades (lock your doors kids, it’s a bad neighborhood), and whisk themselves away to Whole Foods, or the Pottery Barn, or LA Fitness, or Fashion Square, or wherever other fucking place up in Scottsdale they go to find “the company of like souls.”

Of course, the real plan is to bring Scottsdale down to us. And believe me, they’re closer to doing this than you might think. Look around the block – have younoticed all the rich-people crap being built lately? Merrion Square is just one of a whole infestation of gentrification projects in this town. There’s another on 1st & Beck. There’s that “Abbey Lane” cluster just above the future Merrion Square, and those awful new dayglo office buildings on University between Beck & Hardy. They’re going to build luxury condos on the empty lot at 5th & Roosevelt. They have big plans for that whole plot of land between Roosevelt and Wilson below 5th. That “Regatta Pointe” bullshit around 1st & Farmer has almost swallowed up the Sail Inn. And there’s all those new weird condos just above the “lake.” We’re surrounded, and the seige has only begun.

Tempe’s class war
Not too many people realize that the word gentrification is just a synomym for displacement of the poor. The dictionary calls gentrification “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces earlier usually poorer residents.” There’s another term to describe that – class war – and certain people profiting from gentrification would prefer that you didn’t ever make this connection, because the building of “luxury” condos is directly related to the raising of your rent. There is a very real effort, through carefully chosen words like redevelopment, revitalization, and creative living to ignore or distort simple facts about the war the rich wage on the poor. Gentrification is just a continuation of the same old bullshit the rich have been dealing to the poor since the day they invented the game.

A couple years ago on KAET, Phoenix city council member Tom Simplot spelled out the essential requirement for a “revitalized” neighborhood in unusually plain language: “You gotta have some folk.... Not just folk. Folk with money.” It’s important to understand this simple point. For all the rhetoric and cheerleading the profit-heads are throwing at us, gentrification remains a very simple, cruel economic equation: poor people out, rich people in. The people that profit from this math already understand all this very well. They know which side of the class war they’re standing on. Do you?

The good news
The good news is, the only way these people can keep making money off of our poverty is to keep us complacent, ignorant, and divided enough to control. That’s why everyone who lives in Tempe today should take the time to learn how local real-estate developers work. Learn how to read the hidden code in their lingo. It might even help to learn something about the business of real estate itself – property laws, tax exemptions, market indicators and all that. Sure it’s dull as hell – but have you ever wondered if there’s a reason why it’s so boring and opaque? Maybe if the jargon was easier to understand, people other than developers might start forming opinions of their own about what should be done with the land they live on.

The important thing is to get involved, however you can. Push, and see who pushes back, and how. Gradually it will become much more obvious who profits from this system, and who pays for it. The veil of lies covering gentrifications like the Merrion Square McCondo is pretty flimsy really, and you can see through it best if you read between the lines of passages like this one, from Merrion Square’s website, where they take a moment to speak candidly to potential investors:

The urban rebirth [of Tempe] can most logically be tied to the investment potential of the area. With the recent announcements of new construction throughout Downtown Tempe and Phoenix, like the new Hayden Ferry Lakeside mega office, retail and hotel development, the new Performing Arts Center on the Lake, new hotels and the Papago Park Business Center, it’s clear that if general property values go up, lofts, condominiums and housing values should go up as well, despite what is happening in today’s stock market. Whether it is the purchase of a new loft or office condominium, buyers can feel secure in their investment choice.

Hotels, mega offices, and business centers, oh my! Somebody’s about to make a lot of money evicting a lot of poor people out of Tempe. Nowhere in their sales pitch will you find a single mention of anything that would make life liveable for people who don’t have lots of extra money. When “property values” go up, small businesses get replaced by corporate chains. When “housing values” (our rents) go up, we get kicked out of our homes. This makes way for the yuppie “rebirth” of what was once our neighborhood, but is now just another vacuum of yuppie condos and generic sprawl, another concentration of privilege and excess where you aren’t allowed to live. It’s a process that’s already happened time after time in this city, and in other cities across the continent. And it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down today.

Don’t forget, property is theft – and this kind of crime pays well, if you’re on the right side of the class war. And what about the rest of us? No one’s going to invest money in a community garden, or neighborhood solidarity, or affordable housing for the homeless and unemployed, or any other facet of human life that can’t be manipulated and exploited for the sake of a few extra thousand bucks.

Remember all this the next time you pass by the big sign on Beck & University, the one hailing the arrival of Merrion Square Lofts. They’ll try and tell you that they’re doing you a favor by building another pricey, pretentious condo; that their war on the poor is an improvement rather than an affront. They’re lying to you. Remember that none of these people are a part of your community.

Remember that every last one of these profit-addicted investors and developers are coming to town for one reason: to make a fortune off of your poverty. Every last one of them. Everyone who drafted the business plan for this abberation; every well-intentioned architect; every weak-minded and naive city planner; every opportunistic investor and franchise-holder; every real-estate agent and property manager who stepped on our heads just to grab a little profit. We’ve got nothing in common with these people, and they’ve got no desire to cut us an even break. This is war, whether you realize you’re fighting in it or not.

To the “folk with money,” the people who now live on Beck Avenue – and in poor neighborhoods everywhere – are just obstacles to their crusade for endless profit and sprawl.
So when do we start fighting back?

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