The Collective Struggle for Urban Neighborhoods

Urbanism without Guarantees

Christian Anderson’s recently published book Urbanism without Guarantees: The Everyday Life of a Gentrifying West Side Neighborhood, is an ethnographic account of the contemporary everyday urban challenges of living in the far West Side of Midtown Manhattan in New York City, an area known as Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen.

Anderson explains that “it is a story about what ordinary people do when it feels like the future is up for grabs as dynamics of disinvestment and urban decay, gentrification and displacement are being wrought in their neighborhoods.”

Anderson was provoked by Bob, one of his research participants and a tenant organizer and resident in the Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood for more than thirty years, to consider how researchers might play a role by generating new resources for thinking and acting that people on the ground could draw on within their situated struggles.

In responding to Bob’s provocation, Anderson says “The predominant ways of conceptualizing and imagining both contemporary urban challenges and possibilities for change tend to strongly focus on a narrow set of, admittedly quite powerful, capitalist dynamics at the expense of serious attention to all that surround, buoy, and exceed these dynamics.”

“This focus leads to a narrow set of responses based on change in a highly specific, limited economic realm.”

Anderson opens out ways of thinking and acting by drawing on a range of conceptual tools including an expanded diverse economies approach which helps shed light on people’s subjective experiences, common sensibilities, everyday practices, and productive activities.

The analysis shows how what happens in this and other urban neighborhoods is not simply imposed from outside by macro forces such as financial markets, real estate capital, or top-down state policy, coherent, inexorable, and juggernaut-like as these are sometimes imagined.

Anderson says, “These macro forces are only ever partial and only ever made real as part of a relentless jostle among the multitude of dynamics that comprise people’s everyday lives—and it is only here that these macro forces will be transformed.”

“Crucial to this process of transformation are people’s everyday endeavors as they work with others trying to shape space as a particular kind of use value in relation to their own needs and lives, whether by picking up trash, organizing neighborhood events, taking an active role in order maintenance and policing, experimenting with new forms of risk mitigation, or experimenting with what Bob called ‘the illusion of neighbourhood control, block by block.’”

For Anderson, the future holds no guarantees but if there is to be a more liveable world then this world will rest not on liberal individualist ideas such as liberty, property and gradualist improvement, but on people’s everyday collective capacities, labors, and forms of value that help to creative the conditions for collective thriving.

Urbanism without Guarantees is the fifth book published in Minnesota University Press’s Diverse Economies and Livable Worlds book series; Christian Anderson is a member of the Community Economies Research Network and an Associate Professor at the School of Interdisciplinary Art and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell.

Christina Jerne and Jenny Cameron