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Class war on Olympia’s sidewalks

Gentrification, homelessness and the battle for public space

On August 24, 2018, Olympia Parks, Recreation and Arts Director Paul Simmons made the dramatic and apparently unilateral decision to shutter the Artesian Commons Park. The park is a small, asphalt-covered area featuring tables and a basketball hoop and devoid of green space. It also contains Olympia’s Artesian Well, a natural spring, which remains open.

Public parks as good for business

Notably and notoriously, the park is an important hangout for street youth; as such it is illustrative of the crises of homelessness and poverty afflicting Olympia. The Artesian Commons closure decision was issued on the unusual basis that threats from park users had been directed against city staff. The spuriousness of such a claim is indicated by the lack of any parallels in the way officials deal with other public concerns: sidewalks aren’t closed when muggings, public intoxication or street harassment are reported, for example.
The decision to close the Artesian Park was informed by class and the political pressures of gentrification. In fact, in an unusually honest follow-up to his original statement, Simmons asserted that “Our parks are supposed to enhance the quality of life for people around them. It’s supposed to make businesses better, it’s supposed to make property values increase. Unfortunately the challenges surrounding this one are doing the opposite.”

Public parks as good for community

A few weeks later, on September 22, protesters cut locks, tore down the fence and occupied the Commons. Over 100 street kids, anarchists and other community members and activists played basketball, shared a meal from Food Not Bombs, hung banners and streamers and chalked the concrete.

In just a few hours this festive and joyful expression of defiance was met with riot cops, arrests, pepper balls and concussion grenades. Although obviously outflanked, protesters temporarily re-opened the Commons a second time following initial expulsion. Police failed to fully disperse the crowd for hours. Three people were arrested during the protest, a few more would be picked up in its aftermath; others sustained injuries from concussion grenade shrapnel.

Homelessness and the meaning of public space

The Artesian Commons closure and attempts to re-open it with direct action are significant events in a wider historical context of general anti-homeless and criminalizing tendencies in Olympia as well as periodically explosive social conflict over questions of homelessness and public space in the city.

This essay seeks both to analyze homelessness and public space under capitalism generally and in Olympia in particular, and to provide an historical account of the criminalization of homelessness and struggles for homeless rights. Through this analysis it is hoped that readers will be able to see that conflicts between the homeless and municipal governments and business owners are an analytically and practically neglected but potent dimension of class struggle found throughout urban capitalism.

Moreover, contingent upon that hope is the hope that radicals and leftists will support or join movements in solidarity with the homeless. Despite the fact that homeless individuals compose a fraction of the general population, the class dynamics of homelessness fundamentally characterize the nature of municipal governance and gentrification, and thus have implications for society at large.

Gentrification and the politics of public space

Gentrification is a process of urban and neighborhood change characterized by displacements of established, lower-income residents and (usually) influxes of newer, wealthier residents, with accompanying changes in racial demographics, economic composition and physical infrastructure. From this definition political conclusions are frequently forged that indict individual consumer habits or entire lifestyle categories, such as that of ‘hipster’ or ‘yuppie.’ While understandable, these assumptions are analytically shallow.

Fundamentally, gentrification must be understood as a process inherent to capitalism. Under capitalism, the dictates of profit determine all economic decisions, including within the realm of housing. How much housing is built, where it is built, and who it shelters are all decisions made in the interest of profit.

Distortions in the local economy

Gentrification, at its core, involves fluctuations in levels of capital investments in housing markets in varying areas. This causes some neighborhoods or cities to experience increasing property values and the attendant rise in property prices, rents and other basic living expenses, i.e. to “gentrify.”

The City government vigorously enforces unfamiliar rules against property owners that are seen as too homeless-friendly.

Increasing investment levels in certain regions occurs simultaneously with disinvestment in other regions, causing some areas to experience underdevelopment. This inverted relationship between gentrification and underdevelopment occurs at a range of geographical scales, from that of the metropolitan area to the global level.

Demands of a profit-driven community

Property investment flows are mediated and facilitated by states that encourage gentrification in the respective territories they govern as a means to grow economies, increase profit rates and secure sources of taxation and revenue. Governments offer tax credits and subsidies to developers and, as discussed below, actively criminalize marginalized residents and certain behaviors while enclosing and policing public space in an effort to make areas more attractive to investors.

The role of public space in a capitalist economy

‘‘Public space” refers to places relatively open and accessible such as parks, public bathrooms, public libraries, sidewalks or squares. Public spaces are usually owned and managed by municipal governments, although some are “privately–owned public space.” While rarely owned by private enterprises or utilized as sites of direct profit realization, public space is governed according to the interests of the state, which in turn reproduces itself by protecting the interests of capital within particular geographic territories.

Embedded in the private economy and the state is the proposition that public space exists to ensure consumption in the formal economy. This proposition is in sharp tension with the reality of public space’s uses, which are varied and contradictory. Along with formal workers and consumers utilizing public space to access their respective workplaces and sources of goods and services, public space is also utilized as living space, locations for subsistence in informal economies and sites of subcultural expression. Homeless people use public spaces, such as benches and parks as dwelling space, skaters, punks and others use squares as sites of recreation and lifestyle experimentation, and street vendors, sex workers and drug traffickers and others in the informal economy use sidewalks as sites to procure an income.

Proscribing some community members

In the context of gentrification, with increased investment and commerce in formerly underdeveloped areas, an ever-greater emphasis is put on policing certain behaviors and activities and the people who exhibit them in public space. Municipalities increasingly enact and enforce ordinances and regulations that criminalize public camping, loitering, sleeping on benches or in cars, skateboarding, or smoking in public. Moreover, public spaces are increasingly inaccessible or being removed entirely, from the shuttering of public bathrooms to park curfews and removal of benches.

Olympia and its downtown core

Olympia is currently experiencing waves of gentrification and new investment in real property. As property values increase, area rents and home prices skyrocket, and with them comes general price inflation. While this phenomenon is increasingly geographically widespread throughout the whole city, real property investment remains particularly concentrated in the downtown core.

In Olympia, gentrification has been concentrated mainly in the downtown area with its relatively small amount of existing housing. Downtown is also somewhat distinct with its highly visible and concentrated homeless population, estimated to be in the hundreds in the daytime. Although downtown is amidst a market-rate development boom, most construction is occurring on previously vacant lots. Thus these developments are not directly displacing lower-income renters through the redevelopment of low-cost housing. Nonetheless, they contribute to displacement indirectly because such large influxes of investment in property markets leads to near universal property value increases in a given region. Like elsewhere, the city government seeks to encourage development through a range of financial incentives.

Increasing dominance by commercial interests

Along with market-rate developers, business owners, their political front groups and the municipal government are also agents of gentrification in Olympia. These actors seek to boost commerce in the downtown core through a range of initiatives. There is a push to orient Olympia’s economy towards tourism through various municipal-sponsored projects, such as the bi-annual ArtsWalk events and promotion of cultural activities at Percival Landing Park, while other parks and public spaces are neglected. The business front group, Olympia Downtown Alliance (ODA), hosts “Third Thursday” monthly business booster events, lobbies for pro-business policies and provides technical assistance to member businesses.

The component of gentrification that is primarily driving conflict in Olympia, however, has been the right to use public space with the intimately related efforts by government and businesses to criminalize and displace homeless individuals.

Stern economic realities

As noted earlier, downtown is home to a visible and concentrated population of hundreds of homeless people. The homeless presence downtown is an obstacle to gentrification in Olympia (and elsewhere) for a number of reasons. First, anti-homeless prejudice runs deep, despite the fact that huge swaths of American society currently are or are on the brink of experiencing housing instability.

Olympia is no exception to this trend, with many residents telling business owners that they refuse to venture downtown due to the presence of the homeless. Second, many homeless people seek daytime shelter in warm businesses and nighttime shelter in the alcoves of storefronts. On top of often holding prejudiced anti-homeless attitudes themselves, business owners have a material interest in banning or displacing homeless people on the basis that they don’t consume at the same rate as housed people. Third, municipalities like Olympia also have a material interest in displacing homeless people in an effort to redirect funding from social services into more promising revenue-generating activities.

A policy of making life unliveable

The City of Olympia actively criminalizes homelessness through the enforcement of a number of ordinances and codes. A No Sit/Lie ordinance prohibits loitering, a camping ban forces people out of parks and off sidewalks and a range of parking regulations effectively bars sleeping in vehicles. The city government vigorously enforces unfamiliar rules against property owners that are seen as too homeless-friendly. Property owners who allow homeless people to sleep on their property are targeted by code-enforcement for allowing sub-standard shelters (lack of sanitation, running water, etc.) on their property.

Moreover, social services are dismal. The discrepancy between the number of shelter beds available and those in need continues to increase. What services are provided, either via the municipal government or non-profits, are constantly under threat of closure due to financial difficulties or political pressure.

Bobby is an Olympia-based organizer involved in housing justice efforts and homeless solidarity movements. Simmons quote is from KIRO7 broadcast Aug 24, 2018. For more on the political economy of gentrification see Short Circuit: An Anarchist Approach to Gentrification and The New Urban Frontier by Neil Smith.

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