Apartheid gentrification haunts Cape Town and the world

Last Monday, Reclaim the City reported, “Reclaim the City has been approached by a woman (who wishes to remain anonymous) whose rent has been increased by the City of Cape Town (‘the City’) by more than 2000%. She has rented a City council home in Salt River from the City of Cape Town since 1995. When her and husband moved in, they signed a lease agreement with a rental of R220 per month. The house was an uninhabitable mess. Over the years, they improved, fixed and maintained the property at their own expense. Due to minor rental increases, her rent is now R243.81. She has never defaulted on her monthly payments and has lived happily in her home for the last 24 years. In August 2019, the City of Cape Town sent her a letter saying they are increasing her rent to R5 500 per month. This is an astronomical increase from the R243 she is currently paying.” For millions across the globe, this is an all too familiar story, but what exactly is the story? In what world is it acceptable that anyone receive a rental increase notice of more than 2000%?

1995, Cape Town. Apartheid is officially ended, and, across the country, the new South Africa is on everyone’s lips, minds, and hearts. Reconstruction and Development Programme community flora are meeting everywhere … or almost everywhere. There’s a new President, a new Parliament, and a new dispensation.  A rainbow hovers over the nation and over the Mother City, as Cape Town is called.

While some of this picture is accurate, missing are the plans to “re-develop” Cape Town, to turn Cape Town into a thriving “global city”, replete with a metropolitan economy largely driven by real estate development. In the midst of all this, a couple move into public housing, twenty-four years ago, in the working class neighborhood of Salt River, a neighborhood known largely for second-hand shops, a diverse array of working class communities, and Community House, a center for community and labor organizing. It’s also known for the empty textile and garment factories that closed during the 1980s, when the apartheid regime invested heavily in Export Processing Zones that gutted the vibrant garment and textile economies of the Western Cape.

So, this couple moves in, signs the lease, fixes the place up (at considerable expense to themselves), never misses a payment, makes a home for themselves and for their neighbors. This couple survives and makes a life of dignity and self-respect. For their great labors and contributions to the municipality’s well-being, they are rewarded with amounts to an eviction notice. 

The couple have appealed, Reclaim the City and their supporters are organizing to help them remain in their home, the City continues to threaten eviction. Given the recent pattern of “spiraling” evictions in the Cape Town region, this comes as no surprise. As Reclaim the City notes, “If anyone needs more proof that the City is anti-poor and anti-black, this woman’s exorbitant rent hike is case and point.”

Anti-poor, anti-Black and committed to growing inequality as the key to urban development. For millions across the globe, and especially those living in so-called urban cities driven by service sector economies and predatory real estate development, this is an all too familiar story. But what exactly is the story? Remember, this working-class couple in Cape Town live in public housing. Their landlord is the City. The City raised their rent by over 2000 percent. When they responded and asked for help, the City threatened them with eviction. In this instance, eviction is exile, because a couple seeking to pay less than 300 rand a month won’t find anything anywhere near livable in Cape Town. 

What is public housing, if this is how the State acts? What is the public, if the State has committed to exploiting, oppressing and, if all else fails, assaulting the working populations who make it possible for the Public to function? What exactly is the story? That question has been answered recently in the streets of Ecuador, Sudan, Chile, Lebanon, Hong Kong and beyond. This story is not yet over, neither the local one in Cape Town nor its global counterpart; the struggle continues. Apartheid gentrification, gentrification that condemns working people to forced removals to distant regions, haunts the world. In what world is it acceptable receive a rental increase notice of more than 2000%? Our world. Another world must be possible.

(Photo Credit: Twitter)

No Black children allowed!

 

Schools are segregated. So groups of kids who gather together after school are often homogenous. In the sliver of Washington, DC where I live, this means groups of high schoolers and middle schoolers are Black, while the kids on toddler playgrounds are white.

Corner stores have dealt with this gentrification in the typical ways: They have begun to stock kombucha, organic almond milk, and craft beer. They have taken the bullet-proof partitions down. And they have banned anyone under the age of 18 from coming into their stores after 3PM without their parents.

3PM means after school. And kids who are not with their parents are those who are old enough to be out on their own. Combine this with the racial dynamics of the neighborhood and you’ve got a community full of Black kids who are not welcome in neighborhood stores.

This is not the case in all neighborhoods. It is the case in mine.

Last night we sent my 10-year-old daughter and her friend to the corner store to pick up some cooking oil so we could get dinner ready. She carried a reusable shopping bag and a $20 bill, and walked three blocks to the store where we have shopped since she was a baby. When they got there, the shop owner turned them away, citing the 3PM policy.

We paused when they came home empty-handed. My daughter is biracial and her friend is Black, and this is one of the many times when a parent has to wonder how much that matters. So we called a white friend and asked her to send her son to the same store. He went in by himself, and came out with gummy bears.

My partner and I separately had long conversations with the store owners after this. It felt like a bunch of busy words filled up the air while we spoke. This couldn’t possibly have happened, they said. Or the kids must have gotten mixed up and gone to a different store by mistake. Or they must have done something wrong while they were in the store.

These are small businesspeople. I know they work long hours and they have been friendly to us in the past. They probably have families of their own to protect. But they turned away 10-year-old kids trying to buy cooking oil. I have no idea what is in their hearts and minds, nor do I care. What I have is evidence that the 3PM policy has turned into a cognitive finger-snap for them. They see Black kids in the store [snap!], they send them away. They see a white kid, they allow him to spend his money.

To help register the impact that we and our neighbors hope to make by not shopping at this store anymore, the kids have made stamped postcards with the market’s address on them. They say, “Because you turn Black kids away, we have chosen to spend our money at a different store today. We spent $______.” Let’s hope their mailbox fills up, and their cash register empties out.

 

(Image Credit: Patrick Smith / Getty Images / Washington Post)

Pushing the Sex Out of the City

In 2004, then D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams announced a plan to build a brand new baseball stadium around Half and O Streets SE to house the newly purchased Montreal Expos. The land chosen for the new baseball stadium was home to one of the largest conglomerations of gay bars and clubs in the city including a couple of strip clubs.

On February 13th, the first of the displaced clubs was able to reopen in SW after much debate about the ordinances restricting the rebuilding of all the clubs.  The location chosen for the stadium seems hardly accidental, as this less than picturesque area of the city had been considered too seedy and dangerous for the average citizen, especially at night.  Yet, it was the only area where these clubs had been allowed to exist.  Queer culture had literally been peripheralized and pushing it out of this area, by way of literally dropping commerce onto it, meant that this section of SE had just been designated for gentrification.

Over the past decade, the D.C. landscape has been transformed both by physical structures and in the dispersal of its population.  The city’s gentrification is far from accidental beginning with the plan of Mayor Williams to increase tax revenues for the city.  Entire sections of the city have been re-established as middle-income trend spots where there once existed rent-controlled low-income housing and families.  This has also meant that historically black neighborhoods, like Shaw, U Street and Columbia Heights, have changed drastically in their ethnic make-up as well as class.  While the black exodus moves further east and into Maryland, the landscape of the city becomes de-urbanized and includes oddities like a corporate mall on 14th and Park Streets NW where there was low-income housing 4 years ago.  With the higher class and sometimes semi-suburban façade comes an expectation of what types of people will be frequenting and living in these areas.  Such assumptions about what safe and higher-class look like have from the beginning been police-enforced.

While gentrification is an intensely complicated and problematic situation overall, I am concerned that it has been an assault on the sexual geography of the city as it had been known for decades.  Overt alternative sexualities, like sex work and queer culture, are displaced by gentrification and city ‘beautification programs’.  These elements are often correlated to dirty underbelly of the city and not to be seen in civilized or safe areas of town.  Sexual elements, however, do not disappear simply because the rent goes up in a neighborhood; after all queerness did not flee the city when the bars were paved over.  Visible signs of sex work or queerness is physically pushed beyond the perimeter of “good” areas of the city and into progressively more neglected areas.  In D.C., this has meant that street work has been moved further east and closer to the Maryland border as well as literally marching a group of workers to the Virginia border.    The pushing is being done by the Metro Police Department’s prostitution unit, which has been given more tools and legislation to combat prostitution.  Remember the “prostitution free zones”?  They aren’t just saved for major events and tourist attractions but are usually used crack down on groups who have started working within the gentrified zone.  I’m sure that those lovely signs are very assuring to the residents of those areas.  A fancy billboard in certain areas, I think, could do wonders for real estate values.

Harass, though, is probably a better word than combat, if we’re defining the role of the prostitution unit.  Even MPD doesn’t claim to be able to make prostitution end within the District.  They don’t even necessarily claim to make life easier for those performing it on the streets.  Considering some of the propositioning that takes place by officers, some sexual harassment protections or a decent firehose could really be useful on the streets.  Instead, former police Chief Ramsey portrays “those residents who must endure the presence of prostitutes and their paraphernalia in our neighborhoods” as ‘victims’ of prostitution.

The areas that workers are forced to move to are often more residential or industrial but they are also significantly less safe than the areas previously worked.  This is because these areas are both geographically and literally peripheral.  They are often very low-income if they are residential or highly unregulated and violent.  Such policing creates a progressively more dangerous and violent situation for those being regulated.  This is ironic considering that so many proponents of the abolition of prostitution sight women’s rights as justification.  Yet, it assumes that by practicing sex work a person somehow forfeits their ability to be treated humanely rather than prodded and herded like stray cattle.  These tactics, however, assure that the issue remains out of sight and therefore out of mind for the majority of the public.  How can this be service and protection?

(Image Credit: StudyLib)