Big cities have been the bastion of the working-class and labor movement and of the racially and nationally oppressed. Most elected officials from these cities are Democrats. Virtually all of the trade unionists, African Americans and Latinos and most of the women elected to public office come from these cities and were elected on the Democratic line.
But far-reaching transformations taking place in the nation’s big cities may change all of that. They are a product both of capitalism’s ceaseless drive for maximum profits and conscious plans by the leaders of the system, especially the most reactionary ones. The housing, construction and development boom of recent years, which only recently has shown signs of slowing, is changing the class and nationality composition of whole cities, and with it reducing the Democratic majority.
High-rise luxury apartments, condos and offices; waterfronts privatized with luxury dwellings, hotels, recreational facilities and restricted parks; cruise liner ports; big-box stores; sports facilities featuring luxury boxes; glitzy casinos — all these are reshaping our cities. They are being financed by a host of federal, state and city public subsidies ranging from 30-60 percent of total costs, while finance capital — the big banks, developers, real estate and construction corporations — divide up 100 percent of the profit.
In cities like New York, economic planners appear to consider such development projects a permanent solution to problems of economic growth and jobs. The cities offer ever more subsidies to persuade developers to undertake projects with no use except profit.
In fact, these projects are socially harmful. They are a waste of public resources that could be used to build and maintain schools and recreation facilities, finance real low- and moderate-income housing, pay public workers decent salaries, and in other ways create more jobs. Worse, these projects drive the lowest-income people, African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Latinos and white working people, out of central areas to suburbs and beyond.
At first signs of such projects, real estate values in the area inflate. Rents go up for apartments and small stores. Real estate valuations and taxes for small homeowners soar. After a lifetime of thinking that at least their homes are safe, people are driven out. The developers calculate on attracting back the better-off people who had earlier moved to the suburbs. City planners calculate this movement will reduce social welfare spending in the city, while increasing the tax base. One consequence is that urban districts that have been represented by African Americans or Latinos once again become represented by white candidates less sensitive to the needs of specially oppressed peoples.
Recently The New York Times reported that development is returning Atlanta to a majority-white city as African Americans are pushed into the suburbs, and suggested this may lead to the end of Atlanta’s string of African American mayors. A study just completed in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y., shows a 17 percent drop in the African American population in the last few years due to such development projects.
These projects, made possible by huge giveaways of public funds, are justified as ways to “revitalize” cities and generate jobs. The developers seek to divide the widespread opposition with offers of small concessions to benefit a small group, while the overall-harmful consequences remain and the developers realize huge profits. An example of such concessions is the offer to provide 20-30 percent “affordable housing.” In New York City, this can mean rents as high as 33 percent of a $146,000 family income — hardly “affordable” for most working families.
Throughout New York, mass struggles are taking place against such projects. The best known is Atlantic Yards, the biggest project in Brooklyn’s history, with 17-20 high-rise buildings, two-thirds openly labeled “luxury,” and a basketball arena proposed for the busiest intersection — to be financed by nearly $2 billion in public money, out of a $3.5 billion total cost. A big movement against this has developed, and polls show public opinion opposed.
Expected to be approved in six months, Atlantic Yards has not achieved approval after three years. One reason for the success in halting the project has been its location in the districts of three progressive Black elected officials: Councilwoman Letitia James, state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery and Congressman Major Owens. Owens, whose record on all issues is among the most progressive in Congress, is retiring. Five candidates, four African American and one white, are vying to replace him in this 62 percent African American district. Only one of them, Rep. Owens’s son Chris Owens, opposes construction of Atlantic Yards. Wall Street and the powers that be prefer the white councilman, but they will take anyone but Chris Owens, because he is part of a unique combination of progressive African American leaders standing in the developers’ way. The outcome of the Sept. 12 primary election will determine whether a progressive continues in Congress to fight the Bush administration. But it will also impact the citywide fight over whether the billionaire developers should have their way.
Daniel Rubin, a Brooklyn resident, is a member of the national board of the Communist Party USA.