转文■ Historic Weeksville New York [ 作者 Amy Zhang ]

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by The Column in Struggle + Space.
2015-07-10 16.12.56 July 10, 2015: in shadowless, hot Brooklyn, New York, a tour of the Weeksville Heritage Center is about to begin. Earlier that same day, the Confederate flag had finally been taken down for good from the South Carolina Statehouse where it had flown for over half a century. Almost three weeks earlier, at a vigil for the nine victims of the racist church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, a young neighbourhood activist had compelled the crowd, “If you come here crying today, then join us tomorrow when we are talking about police reform, poverty, education. If you come here crying today, join us when we are talking about affordable housing.… Please stop telling us we are fighting against a past when we are fighting against the present.”

IMG_20150621_230939 This lucid plea is a powerful reminder that the horrific singularity of the Charleston shootings is connected to the ongoing, relentless everyday tragedy of systemic racial violence in the US. A visit to Weeksville is therefore all the more important on a day of progress but still distant victory over inequality, as this radical historic space highlights a key apparatus of racial oppression: dispossession.

Weeksville was one of America’s first free black communities in the 19th century. It was founded by James Weeks, a dock worker and ex-slave who in 1838 bought a tract of land from another free African-American in Brooklyn. Weeksville was established as an official village when Weeks was joined by other freed men, who pooled capital together to invest in land. In addition to securing means of subsistence, the aims of the collective were political: at the time, the right to be a citizen and to vote as a black man was contingent on owning at least $250 worth of property. Successful in this endeavor, the village grew as Weeks and his partners sold plots of the land to other black families, most of whom were coming from the South. By the 1850s, Weeksville had more than 500 residents, and at its height, was home to 700 families.

One also learns on the tour that Weeksville had its own churches, a school (“Colored School no.2”, now P.S. 243), and produced one of the first African-American newspapers, the Freedman’s Torchlight. Additionally, the community provided a safe haven for the hundreds of African-Americans fleeing the violence of the Draft Riots in 1863, when black people in Manhattan were targeted as an outlet for the anger of working-class white men who could not afford the $300 to avoid fighting in the Civil War.

Weeksville’s history offers important lessons that can pertain to the rampant gentrification sweeping New York in the present, and doubtlessly to wherever else around the world is beset by the neoliberal dogma of unfettered finance capitalism. These forces, while global and place-blind in their impositions, affect highly specific disruptions to local contexts, manifesting most often via the displacement of already marginalised communities : from indigenous people in the Colombia rainforest whose entire ecosystem is threatened by corporate agribusiness-driven monoculture, to poor, predominantly black New Orleanians priced out from returning home by opportunistic land speculators.

Weeksville’s crucial relevance rests in its elucidation of what remain unchanged stakes: the relationship between space, economic resources, race and social justice.

2015-07-10 16.02.25 At the heart of the Weeksville strategy was self-determination. From its founding just 11 years after the abolition of slavery in New York state, through the upheavals of the Civil War, self-determination successfully established Weeksville as a strong, independent, even self-sufficient community. Self-determination can be defined as the capacity to decide which developments, on what, and on whose terms. As such, it poses a challenge to capitalism, which measures a community’s success by the quantity of “spaces of consumption”, rather than by the possibility for inhabitants’ “consumption of space”: the experience of an environment based on use-value rather than the exchange of commodities. The availability of, and access to the consumption of space rather than to spaces of consumption comprises what sociologist Henri Lefebvre called “the Right to the City.”

We must reassess the legal, organizational, and financial tools available to us in order to challenge the dominance of spaces for consumption by placing self-determination and the needs of the community at the centre. Urban homesteading is one approach: vacant, tax-delinquent properties are cheaply sold (for sometimes as low as $1) and then turned into affordable housing co-ops, where community gardens become the locus for self-sufficiency. Squatting can be a complementary strategy, whereby property for future homesteading is first acquired through the stealth-occupation of abandoned spaces for a period of time, after which they might become legally recognised as belonging to the new tenant (“adverse possession”).

2015-07-10 16.10.01 The community land trust (CLT) method could yield further positive results, particularly as its model might be applied towards commercial spaces, therefore addressing gentrification’s threat to locally-owned businesses. In CLTs, the ownership of land is separate from the ownership of the property on the land (“dual tenure structure”), so that through various mechanisms, the cooperative can ensure that the tenants remain true to the social mission. Prioritising the social mission over large profit margins means that tenants can be provided with below-market rate, perpetually affordable spaces: one example is the Fourth Arts Block in New York.

Part of the CLT’s radical promise is in the way that shared investment generate a set of alternative metrics: how would we measure the contribution of an enterprise to community sustainability? (And consequently, what/who do we mean by “community”—a critical question aiming not for exclusion so much as romantic demystification.)

Raising such questions could articulate values that defamiliarise “economy” and decentre the seemingly monolithic nature of capitalism. Weeksville’s history reminds us of the urgent need to foster community run spaces in the face of rampant gentrification. The strengthening of alternative cooperative models for the creation of these spaces could form a sphere of critical practice, securing the means for self-determination as paramount in the struggle for a city, the full right to which should not be foreclosed by gender, sexual orientation, religion, or race.


This article is part of the Struggle + Space series at The Column

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Tags: black lives matter, Brooklyn, lefebvre, right to the city, space, struggle, Weeksville
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