Barnumbia loves to forget that our campus is an exemplar of gentrification. Bwogger Layla Alexander attended an event on promoting housing justice and ways in which to identify and resist systems that target society’s most vulnerable members.
Barnumbia is often referred to as a “bubble.” Despite being situated in Morningside Heights, a neighborhood adjacent to (and, arguably, within) East Harlem, our campus and the surrounding establishments (think Nussbaum and Junzi) present a strikingly different demographic both racially and socioeconomically.
Yesterday evening, I had the privilege of hearing a discussion on these circumstances in “Homes for All, Cages for None: Housing Justice in an Age of Abolition,” a public event co-hosted by the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Professors Christina Heatherton and Craig Willse, who have devoted their lives to studying the relationship between gentrification, housing access, and policing, led us through an engaging dialogue on how the most vulnerable members of society are often plagued by constant surveillance, poor living conditions, and, ultimately, premature death.
Heatherton opened up by defining the “carceral state,” a state in which our lives are structured by our relationship with policing and prisons. “Some feel immune” to this state, she explained, while others exist as “subjects of the carceral state waiting to be catalogued.” When faced with an issue in a carceral state, the default solution is policing, which poses a major threat to neighborhoods facing gentrification as “actions in a place become criminal when the value of that place changes,” Heatherton pointed out.
Willse then went on to discuss the concept of housing justice, or the idea that “everyone deserves housing at all times.” While many activists associate the idea with changing laws, Willse asserted that legal action wasn’t enough, as “material conditions” are often neglected during the legal process. Willse continued in reminding the audience that those without housing have often been left behind, even by far left activist movements, and that at the root of housing justice was a fight against racial capitalism.
Soon after, Heatherton introduced the crucial term “broken window policing,” or the constant monitoring of urban settings to prevent smaller crimes (such as vandalism or participating in shadow economies) and, thus, maintain an orderly environment which then reduces the likelihood of large-scale crimes occurring. A broken window signals neglect in a community, she explained, and this image creates a fear of greater crimes occurring in that same community. Oftentimes, these crimes are seen as “personal elements” rathern that elements of “government abandonment,” she continued, and “criminals are seen as individual forces.” These notions have sparked a wide array of racist legal codes, both Heatherton and Willse pointed out, all playing on “white feelings of danger” and we, as activists, ultimately needed to work towards more safety and more stability in our nation’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
During the Q&A, one audience member asked about the role of universities in the fight for housing justice. The speakers responded in noting that universities play a huge role in changing the value of housing in an area, as not only do college students drive up housing value, but they come and go, making it easier to change rents. The issue, then, does not only relate to the university’s actions, but its inherent existence in the neighborhood.
When spending time on campus or in Morningside Heights, it can be easy to forget that we are participants in gentrification, but in educating ourselves on the matter, we move one step closer to providing justice for those in the surrounding community.
Home sweet home via Public Domain