To begin, I feel completely unqualified to write on this subject, and also obligated to put words to it. What do I know about the long trajectory of US immigration policy, the contemporary politics of Central America and Mexico, or the extent of political organizing on/around the US Mexico border? Not much, especially compared to many thoughtful scholars, including Jenna Loyd and Alison Mountz, or Patricia Ehrkamp.
But this is also the moment – the moment of asylees having their children kidnapped by the US government, of concentration camps on the border, of racial incitement by the administration against immigrants – when it is incumbent upon us to speak, even if it is not enough. In saying I’m going to to speak up even though I don’t feel qualified, we ask our communities to hold us accountable to do more.
As a scholar, I have been thinking for a long time about persistence. In my own work, I think about the persistence of things called ‘public amenities’ in the landscape. In turn, I also think about the persistence of ideas that seem outdated, or those which seemed pretty good but disappeared. And lately I think about the persistence of political actors whose cruel actions have overwhelmed many of us as of late. What combinations of power, influence, organizing, and inertia cause things to stick around? For good and for ill.
Last year, I wrote about the current US administration’s call to cut the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB – home of PBS and NPR). I noted then that the proposals were frustrating but not surprising: indeed, they had been hanging around in the CATO Institute’s Handbook since 1995. That is, the plan to cut all that remains of the meager federal funding for arts and culture in the US has persisted for at least 24 years through an independent organization with lots of wealth and ties to power. The policy has been waiting in the wings. It gets published and re-published every couple years, as its supporters wait for the right political moment to roll it out. Persistence.
So as I have been following the current administration’s actions on immigration at the US-Mexico border, I have been thinking about the persistence of ICE, an agency that is relatively new to the federal law enforcement landscape, having been established after 9/11. Before it was added to the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, pieces of ICE came from the US Customs Service, and Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), among others.
This got me thinking about some time I spent in new Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005 – 6. While there, I mostly cooked for the Clinical Staff at Common Ground Health Clinic. I also handed out respirator masks and did some medical interpreting in a weekly mobile clinic for the affiliated Latino Health Outreach Project (LHOP). (The organization, which no longer exists, was formed in when two independent volunteers began going out to give tetanus shots to Latino migrant workers doing demolition jobs, and evolved to provide other basic medical services in downtown New Orleans and in a suburban church.)
What appears here is from an email newsletter I sent to my friends and family (social media wasn’t really a thing yet) after a mobile clinic in a parking lot.
When the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents round up our patients, we are just closing up the mobile clinic at the labor lines for the day. Until I saw the vans with the emblem, I hadn’t realized how creepy and distopian “Department of Homeland Security” seems. The agents seem to come out of the concrete we are standing on; I look up and all of the men are up against the wall. As they empty one man’s pockets, all that falls out is a bar of soap we had given him in a hygiene kit.
[People at the mobile clinic are always happiest to receive these bags sent by church groups from across the country: a face towel, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste. I try to let it remind me about the privilege of a hot shower and the ability I have to take care of myself.]
An aside: We read about the anti-immigrant sentiment in the news, and the bills being put through congress, and I feel like my hands are tied. Truth is, I could probably have called my congresspeople last week and I didn’t. I did, however, go to the mayday rally here in New Orleans, as did tens of thousands of people in LA, New York, Chicago, Philly and San Francisco. To me, rallies feel good, but also futile, as there is an ignorance and power machine running the country, using fear to motivate people to mow over each others’ rights. (Note to self: call legislators.)
So, the men are thrown into these white vans, and driven off. We five medical folk, just minutes earlier feeling so good about a smooth day in the parking lot mobile clinic, stand and watch, powerless. When we get close enough to see, they shout at us. “You are interfering with a federal investigation! Do you want to roll too?” Another patient, a Black man, walks up beside me and says softly “Naomi, I know you think this is wrong, but I don’t want to see you get hurt. These guys are real assholes.” It feels good that these guys are looking out for me, and I understand my own limits too.
The vans drive off. I feel very un-brave.
My great grandfather was an undocumented immigrant in this country; so were lots of our relatives. Then what gives me the right to be here?? I tell that to people sometimes who ask me why I’m helping people who undermine our economy, who steal work from ‘real’ Americans. And though I could also make a million arguments about the varied permeability of the US border over time, about the amount of money that immigrants provide our tax base without receiving equal services in return… I do this work because there is no one looking out for these people. They have come here to work; they work without safety equipment, and often without pay; then they are arrested and deported. So I hand out respirators and talk to men with no homes and no families, and feel un-heroic.
Before I left SF this last time, all sorts of people told me how proud they were that I am going to “save the people of New Orleans.” Oy. Vey. And then the people here are always thanking us for coming here and helping. (And I acknowledge that I suffer from a certain amount of this Jewish tendency: “Oh this dress? I bought it at Marshall’s for ten bucks!”) But really, heroism is trying to rebuild your house in a low lying flood plain and support your grandma and travel thousands of miles from home to send money back to your family in Mexico/El Salvador/Guatemala/Texas. I just try to notice once or twice a week.
Reading my own words 13 years later, I think a few things. One is: I fell down on the job. On one hand, Katrina – and Common Ground in its 2005-6 incarnation – changed me politically, as it did for many people. It got me rethinking race and racism in the US, how governments and their agencies work, and what building justice looks like. On the other hand, I haven’t been calling my congresspeople. I haven’t been paying attention in the ways that were so obvious during the Bush II administration. I have gotten two graduate degrees, I have supported students doing good work, but ICE has persisted, has further embedded its own existence.
Today I persist in writing.
I’m not sure what I have to say yet, but you’re here and maybe I have gotten you to think about what action means, too.
Here‘s one place I think is doing good work; maybe you will give them some dollars and they will pay the bond for folks who have been detained, and provide them with legal services. The organizations that have persisted for so in fighting for justice on the border are spread thin right now; they have big ideas waiting in the wings, too.
About a month ago I came across a number of articles, including this one in the Portland Tribune about proposed budget cuts to Portland Parks and Recreation, and particularly the recreation centers, in light of increasing costs in labor and facilities. In the last week, the city has released the complete budget proposal, which includes shuttering a number of community centers, and dialing back programming at the existing ones, due to a budget shortfall of around $6 million.
This is an incredibly shortsighted decision. It goes against the city’s purported values, including equity and sustainability. It will shut down long-standing facilities that will be difficult, if not impossible, to recover, which serve their communities in terms of both physical public spaces, and relationships that have been built up over years, if not decades.
As a scholar of public spaces, I think about how places for gathering in our cities support good lives for people in everyday ways. In my own ethnographic research, I found that elders who belong to a swim team in a local community center report better health as well as an emotional support network as a result of having a local community center to attend every week. Other benefits of public space to the body politic and to neighborhood vitality have been well-documented in ethnographic and large-n studies; this is more than just a feel-good endeavor.
To take one specific example from this budget year, it is cynical to pit the Sellwood community center (which is proposed to be shuttered due to expensive repairs) or the Laurelhurst dance center against the centers in the eastern (poorer) part of the city, with the idea that the relatively-more-affluent families will fend for themselves. Indeed, all should be funded. Decisions like this increase inequality within and across neighborhoods. That is: as one community center goes, so eventually will go all. The ‘realignment’ proposed in the budget (to consolidate programming in bigger centers, rather than support many neighborhood centers) is just the first step.
Furthermore, the notion that the relatively-more-affluent don’t need common public spaces along with everyone else, takes them out of the fight for good public amenities, as they become less and less served by them, and ‘public’ comes to be equated with ‘the worst the city has to offer.’ We have seen this with public schools across America, and we will see it with our public spaces if we treat them like pawns of a particular budgetary year.
The community centers provide recreational, arts and cultural programming, and a place to hang out, for so many. This value is never sexy or photogenic. These centers don’t have epic events, just a slow, plodding everyday vitality that connects people to one another in the halls and on the steps. Senior citizen yoga, ballet for small boys and girls, beginning guitar for people who never plan to become musicians, basketball for young people to enjoy the thrill of playing; these are the small ways a city stays public, and keeps the worst of our increasing American inequality at bay. Those who fight for the cause of public space tend to be few, because we weren’t set up to have to fight for it year upon year.
In a more pragmatic vein, with climate change, the city is suffering hotter and smokier summers, colder winters, and less predictability in terms of when Portlanders will be able to spend time outdoors. This particularly affects small kids, their parents, and our elders. The community center and the pool must be at the center of a plan for climate resiliency, not an afterthought. Anything less will lead to a weakening of our social ties and a retreat into our homes and tribes just at the moment we could use more time together, learning in everyday ways how to build a more just future based in cooperation and sharing of space.
Just as Portland must fight to keep a roof over the head of all her citizens, we also must fight to keep a home for the public in our long-loved community centers. Budget priorities are social and cultural priorities. Beyond the kid in tap shoes, or the elder who keeps fit with their friends is a question of our dedication to public life in a moment at which the social fabric itself is fraying. It would be thin reasoning if a city that has attracted tremendous wealth in the past few decades did not figure out how to marshal enough revenue to maintain these spaces in a meaningful way.
We published an article in Urban Geography: “User fees and the permeability of public space at municipal pools and bathhouses in New York City, 1870 – present.” Find the article here.
In this article, we combined my archival research from The Amphibious Public with Laura’s work on municipal policy-making, particularly in terms of fiscal decision making. Using pools and bathhouses in New York City as an historical example, we show how fees were administered (or cancelled) at various times in the city’s history in order to promote values, uses, and public-making by different groups. Put differently: paying the fee at the pool has a social dimension! It is not just a way to pay for operations (though at times it has), but rather it sets up a relationship of the user to public space that is markedly different from free general entry (though anyone who uses New York City pools in the summer knows that those have plenty of restrictions as well.)
Looking forward to hearing from you. Contact me at email@example.com
This coming Saturday night, Sept 15, I will be at La Mama theatre in New York City, in conversation with playwright/director Kevin Doyle about the new play from his company, Sponsored By Nobody, THE AЯTS.
The play deals with the history of federal arts funding in the US, particularly the founding and subsequent de-funding of the National Endowment for the Arts. I am there to chat because of the paper I published this past spring in Arts and International Affairs, entitled Goodbye to the NEA?
I’m so pleased to be part of this effort connecting academic study with the arts as a topic, and with art in live theatrical performance. See you in NYC!
Hi all! Some news!
Starting now, I’ll be a (Visiting Assistant) Professor at the University of Toronto, in the Department of Geography and Planning. I’m on leave from Portland State University, as my partner got a job here in Toronto (UT-Scarborough: Arts, Culture and Media) and we decided to come and see what Canada has to offer.
In our first 48 hours here, Canada has offered us Greek food, a lot of rain, and very polite immigration officers.
I will miss my students and colleagues at the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning sorely, but I will be back to visit, continue archival research, sit on some graduate student committees, see friends, and swim in waterfalls.
This fall, I’ll be teaching an undergraduate class called Urban Planning Processes, and a graduate class called Planning Decision Methods. I look forward to learning a new city — its history and its systems — and meeting students with a different perspective.
If you’re in town, get in touch and we’ll go get dumplings!
I got to review City Unsilenced: Urban Resistance and Public Space in the Age of Shrinking Democracy, an edited volume on protest around the world in the last decade, centered on Urban Public Spaces, for the journal, Urban Studies.
“In response to austerity politics and market-based governance of urban land, large-scale social protest has erupted in the public spaces of cities across the globe. In City Unsilenced: Urban Resistance and Public Space in the Age of Shrinking Democracy (Routledge, 2017), editors Jeffrey Hou of UW-Seattle and Sabine Knierbein of SKuOR, Vienna – both scholars of the dynamics of public space – have compiled the stories, strategies and theories derived from social movements in urban spaces since 2011. In this volume, the collected authors demonstrate how public spaces in cities operate as both the subject and object of civic unrest.”
Check out the full review here and let me know if you can’t get behind the paywall.
I was quoted in Quartz magazine (online) regarding a recent spike of white people calling the cops on Black people in public spaces. (BTW, it’s the reporting that is new, not the bad behavior of white Americans.)
“Calling the police in these instances is about having “the power to say you don’t belong here,” says Naomi Adiv, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, whose research explores power dynamics in public spaces. Adiv says that the issue of who is feared, and who is seen as having a “right” to be in a certain space, is deeply intertwined with race and the US history of segregation.”