Thursday, May 09, 2013

Corporate control from afar

Back in the 18th century, Henry Rutgers, a New York City landowner, contracted to have a house built on one of his lots. He specified that there be no rear house; the lot not covered by the main house should remain a yard. Rear houses couldn't be rented to people of "quality." A rear house would attract riff-raff, and Rutgers thought it more important to keep up the neighborhood than extract a bit more profit from the lot. After all, it was his land, his neighborhood.

A century later, the first apartment buildings, called tenements, were constructed in New York, all in impoverished immigrant neighborhoods. The very first drawings of these show rear tenements. It's a clear indication that the landowner has lost any faith in the neighborhood as a place where he or his associates might consider living. The purpose of the land is no longer use, but exchange, constructed not to live in but to make money from. It's the concurrence of the commodification of space and control of land use from afar. The two are inseparable.

As demand increased at the bottom of the housing market, the quality of the living space declined, to the extent that mid century tenements were unlivable, unhealthy breeding grounds of plagues of cholera and epidemics of tuberculosis. Interior rooms had no windows and multiple families might occupy a mere 300 sq ft space in a mere three tiny rooms.

Eventually government stepped in, but only after the Draft Riots, a working-class, immigrant near revolution with the riots lasting four full days. But the exploitation of housing space continues as fewer and larger landlords buy up more lots in the city, applying their legal resources to evict and harass tenants throughout their properties. As these giant corporate landlords increase their holdings, there will be less accountability and more harassment.

Similarly with city commerce. New York has seen steady increases in chain store proliferation. They limit consumer choices, limit job and entrepreneurial opportunities; they increase commercial rents because they can pay higher rents than any local service or mom and pop. The consequence was particularly evident in Hurricane Sandy when all of downtown lost electricity. The small bodegas and independent pizza shops and small restaurants and bars were all open almost immediately, sometimes giving away perishables. All the chain stores were closed and remained closed until five days later electricity was restored.

Locality is not the solution to all the woes of the world, but corporate control from afar threatens us with increasing disempowerment, loss of choice and identity and undermines community self-determination. Regaining community self-determination is the underlying motive of our group "NO 7-Eleven: resist chains and corporate control."

No comments: