By Rhyd Wildermuth
I stood in the street-front garden on a languid August evening. The sun had set, the heavy Friday commuter traffic dwindled on the arterial street before me, a pause of quiet settling over the city before the raging hoards of week-end revelers awoke to earlier memories of life.
The gloaming light faded just as the street-lamps ignited, shining amberic yellow across the concrete stones radiating the last of the day’s heat into the cooling night. I breathed in, deeply, taking in the intoxicating scents around me. Nicotiana filled the heavy, thick drunk air as I unraveled the garden hose, my bare feet brushing against chamomile and mint. I opened the spigot, directing a slow spray of water on the baked-earth in which nasturtium, victorian lilac, and heather rooted amongst human-high blades of vetiver and taller-still sunflower.
Nothing ready to harvest those weeks in August; all the greens had long-before gone to seed, and the tomatoes and peppers not yet ready. I liked that time of year best, in between one harvest and the next, my garden planned to explode in heady blossoms while vegetables and roots swelled pregnant in the long heat.
This was my home, a shared house in the middle of the city in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, then still an enclave of queers, artists, urban service workers, hipsters, and old Black families sharing the same streets and cafes in the 10 blocks near my garden. One of the first neighborhoods established on the forested hills, ancient trees still winning out over perpetually cracked concrete, centuries-old roots throwing off asphalt and brick with easy indifference.
The house was built early in the 1900’s, but I was much newer to it, having moved just after the WTO protests in the last year of the last century. The neighborhood was gorgeous, playful, the spirits and animals curious and kind, the side-streets as much a foot-path as the sidewalks, alleys hiding mysteries, swelling with quiet contentment. It was a good place, all I needed and wanted of a neighborhood, a city, a world.
That night I stood outside to water my garden somewhat distracted. Several things weighed on mind, particularly the increasing costs of living where I did. The neighborhood was in upheaval, that slow war of gentification and displacement, increasing costs without increasing wages. The rent on our place had not yet gone up, but all the other expenses were becoming difficult to manage on my full-time social work income, even after sharing the burden of rent, utilities and food with my lover and roommates.
My lover was inside at the time, with another lover. I’d wanted to give them some time to each other, and I’d wanted to stand in the garden. I’d suspended candle lanterns from the branches of an Elder tree another lover had rescued 6 year before, other lanterns swayed from wrought-iron sections of fence we’d found in alleyways and converted into trellises for climbing Cathedral Bells, Morning-Glories, and Black-eyed Susan vine. Amongst those planted vines, ivy–cut back years before—crept back to war with a rather resilient clematis, and amongst those candles and vines, wild lupine and scotch broom and opium poppy peeked through, each flower and shrub and vine a story, each planting of it a relic of my life always ready to be relived.
I sat for awhile, perhaps over-watered, lingering, wondering if they’d had enough time alone, wondering if I should make maybe take tea in thegarden. It was a beautiful night–all options seemed pleasurable, all paths leading towards contentment. I’d decided on tea, but just as I turned, I heard my neighbors’ voice call out.
“Hey! You got a transfer?” he asked. I turned, glad to see him. We’d known each other for over a decade, and he’d been there long before I’d arrived. At 15 years in my home, I was a newcomer—he’d lived there his entire 45 years, which were short compared to his grandmother’s 96 years.
“Yeah,” I said, digging the paper bus ticket from my over-full pockets.
We had an illegal trade going. He started it a decade ago, running across the street to hand me a crumbled purple ribbon of newsprint, an unexpired bus transfer. I’ll admit, a stranger running at you, shouting as you wait for a bus, is a bit startling, and I was probably awfully defensive that first time.
“Don’t pay,” he’d said, stopping in front of me. “I got a transfer.”
At first I’d refused. Metro transfers are non-transferable, and I was more a liberal then, and less the anarchist. I imagined it my moral duty to pay for public transit, regardless of how poor I was. But the man was nice, and he’d sprinted a hundred feet across a busy street to give me a free ride, so I accepted.
That act started our long friendship. Whenever I’d see him, I’d say hello, and offer him any unexpired transfers that I had if he was waiting at the stop. Sometimes he’d leave his on the sign-post by the bus shelter, and then I started doing that too.
My large balcony overlooked the street and the bus stop, and I’d sometimes spot him offer used transfers to others, too. Most would refuse, particularly the well-dressed white women, and I’d watch their body language show their fear or disgust of the large Black man trying to save them a couple of dollars.
That evening, I handed him mine–an ‘Owl’ transfer, good until the next morning, and then offered him a cigarette, though he hadn’t asked. I enjoyed his company, despite always forgetting his name. He always forgot mine, too, no matter how many times we’d offer them to each other. After most of a decade of talking, laughing, sharing a beer or sprinting across a busy street to save the other guy a few dollars, names really didn’t matter as much as everything else.
We stood outside together, talking, watching the street lamps flicker and the increasing weekend traffic begin to flood the street. My mind was still a bit distracted by my lover’s guest inside, though not from jealousy. The man inside was a writer, too, a left-leaning journalist for a local alternative paper, who’d written several articles about this recent wave of gentrification in our neighborhood. We didn’t agree on much—he saw the changes as good and inevitable; I saw them as horrifying as my steady income seemed to pay for less and less each month. We’d talked amiably about it, though, but the matter weighed on me.
In the garden, I asked my neighbor and co-conspirator against the rising cost of public transit a question I’d been meaning to ask for several months. As my friend had lived in his home his entire life, and his grandmother was the first to live in their century-old house, I figured he’d have some insight. And I’d wanted to know how he’d fared during the sub-prime era a few years before, when predatory mortgage brokers would go door-to-door trying to get poorer families to take out equity loans or to sell their home altogether.
“Hey,” I asked. “Did you and your grandmother ever get hit by the loan sharks a couple of years ago?”
“Shit,” he’d said, dragging his cigarette, one eye scanning the street for the bus. “We still do, and the real estate agents. There was a woman here just yesterday–she comes by every week trying to get my grandma to sell.”
I probably looked a bit stupid from the shock. His grandmother was almost a hundred years old, suffering from age-related dementia, could barely remember her own name let alone make such a decision.
He told me he had to chase another out of his house a month before–his grandmother had let the real estate agent in while he was gone, and by the time he’d arrived his grandmother was already fumbling with a pen to sign away the home she’d been born into. He’d torn those papers up in a fury and pushed the woman out.
A house next to us had sold for almost a million dollars a few years before, after its owner had paid my landlord and another to cut down trees to increase the view from its windows onto Lake Washington and the Cascade mountains (I never learned how much my landlord was paid). The house next to my friend’s rented for six thousand dollars a month, the house on the other side of him had sold and was being torn down for new apartments.
The hyper-inflated market for housing in a dense and vibrant neighborhood offered quite the buy-out for those whose desire for money outweighed their sense of place and ties to their home. For him, though, despite being employed only part-time while caring for his very elderly grandmother, it made no sense to sell and move from the house built by his great grandfather.
He told me there’d been plenty of times he was tempted when the electricity was about to go out because of unpaid bills. Worse, several of the mortgage brokers pitched hard–he was in his mid-forties and had never owned a car, never traveled. A mortgage or a sale would mean he could buy a car and wouldn’t need to bus all the time, wouldn’t need to trade transfers with his neighbor to make ends meet.
Making a Killing
You might not know the scam here, particularly if you are white–I was ignorant of this myself until about a decade ago.
Black home-owners are continuously targeted by real estate agents and predatory lenders in neighborhoods primed for ‘urban renewal’ (that is, gentrification). Because they’re minorities, their plight and position elicits little sympathy and solidarity from the middle-class white liberals who dominate the politics in many cities, and their high unemployment rates often mean they are more likely to endure long periods of poverty and have less access to the lines of credit freely offered to middle-class whites.
But many of them owned homes, particularly in areas that were once considered poor and undesirable neighborhoods. And for families like my friend’s, the home was theirs, long-ago paid off or never borrowed for in the first place. Without income, though, and without easy credit, the house becomes the only thing they can draw from, and banks are too-often willing to take a house as collateral on an ‘equity loan.’
There are many ways a loan can go wrong, the most obvious one being that jobs are lost or medical crises ensue, and the failure to repay that loan (often for relatively small amounts compared to the value of the house) means everything is lost.
Because we live in a racist, Capitalist Democracy, profit is the only religion and any problems you endure are considered your own responsibility, even if those problems were caused by manipulative land speculators and bankers composing confusing loan agreements. And speculators often target Black home owners because they know they are poor, often strapped for cash, less educated than their white neighbors, and their lack of political power means their complaints are often ignored or considered hysteria by those outside their communities.
Mortgage brokers and loan officers (who, like real estate agents are often paid on commission) see Black home-owners as easy targets, particularly since the pay-off for a loan default is often extra-ordinarily high compared to the amount lent. During the sub-prime mortgage crisis, when interest rates were low and regulation was lax, brokers and real estate agents targeted Black home owners particularly, approving loans with variable rates (often interest rates that tripled after a year of repayment), making a ‘killing’ in new housing markets.
During the heady days of the ‘sub-prime’ mortgages, it seemed I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about the new rage in home ownership from friends and strangers. Everyone wanted to get in on ‘Flipping,’ where you buy a house, hold it for a year or two, and sell it for $50- to $100 thousand more than your original loan, pocketing the difference as profit.
“In fact,” a long-time friend of mine explained after he flipped his first house, “you wouldn’t have to work for others anymore. Rhyd–you could write while fixing up a house. And they don’t care how much money you’re making now–they’ll give a loan to anyone. You’d be stupid not to.”
Lax regulation, high unemployment, and government policies to push home ownership as the ‘American Dream’ created an overheated engine of profit for those who did the transfers. And each sale meant a little more profit, and many people were buying only to sell again, with no interest in the communities they bought homes in.
It all seemed really, really wrong…and it was.
A friend got caught on his second house as the market collapsed, and he, along with many, many other people, were all ‘underwater’ (owing more on their loans than the resale value of their houses). But worse than the obvious game and great ‘forgetting’ of everyone involved (they, like me, had witnessed the dot.com bubble in Seattle, after all), was the fact that this shell game was being played at the expense of poor and Black folk, who lost their homes in droves when the money they’d borrowed to pay down medical debt, perform long-needed repairs, or get them through an economic rough-patch couldn’t be paid back. They lost not only the roofs over their heads, but also the decades and almost centuries of rootedness that came from living in the same home as your ancestors.
And in the last 6 years, another round of the shell-game had begun in our city and our neighborhood. Large internet technology companies had begun expanding their profit-ventures and needed more workers to help them do it. Traditionally Black and gay neighborhoods became war zones again, threatening to push both him and I out in favor of a whiter, straighter population.
Ancestral Trauma and the Cycle of Violence
The ancestors of many Black folk in America were hauled from their homes in chains in the hulls of ships, becoming an uncompensated labor force to subdue the colonized lands of the Americas. From one great break of ancestry to another, the descendents of folks living on the continent of Africa found their traditions severed by the ravenous lust of Capital both through slavery and through the pillaging of land speculation.
Marxist historians speak of a process called “Primitive Accumulation,” [Primitive as in ‘primary’ or ‘initial,’ not as in the ‘opposite of civilized,’] the plundering of natural resources (wood, minerals, people). This accumulation usually involved violence–the Crusades, imperial conquest of South America, and slave-taking were all acts of Primitive Accumulation, and all resulted in great wealth for European rulers and merchants. That initial accumulation of wealth at the point of the sword then became the wealth that we now call Capital.
Primitive Accumulation caused massive displacements of people and destruction of societies–the deaths from conquest in the Americas and the hauling of humans in chains across oceans being obvious examples. But this way of gaining wealth is never very sustainable–one can only plunder so many ancient cities of their gold and people before there’s no longer any gold or people left to plunder.
Capitalism is a more systematic and efficient method of plunder, as it invests those stolen resources into localized cycles of oppression. Consider–the effort to hire an army willing to risk death to conquer another people for its wealth is intense, requiring state sanction and ideological support (the Crusades, the War on Terror)–and this method is usually only available to kings. For lesser lords (and their descendents, the ‘Bourgeoisie’), it was easier to exploit the people around them rather than traveling overseas.
But Capitalism operates, still, on the same logic as primitive accumulation–the ‘creation’ of wealth from finite resources. Humans can only work so long before they tire, and consumers can only buy so many of the same dress before they no longer need any more dresses. There is always a limit to the amount of money that can be made in any venture, whether it is conquest of ancient societies or mass-produced trinkets. The wells run dry, the mines empty, the storehouses fill to overflowing.
The Capitalist, like the conqueror, is never sated, since the entire point of both Capitalism and Conquest is to gain ever-increasing amounts of wealth (unlike for the worker or the slave, which is do do as little work as possible while still surviving or not getting beaten). So Capitalism must find new ‘markets,’ new fields of conquest from which wealth can be derived. And sometimes, it does so by destroying what is already there in order to make profit from rebuilding it.
When a neighborhood undergoes gentrification, land and buildings are changed or replaced in order derive more wealth from them. Old houses that are only being lived in or rented at stable rates become targets for Capital-seeking investors and real-estate agents. If you own a house your entire life, you’re not making money for anyone else by living there. Renters provide some wealth for landords, but because there’s only so much that can be squezzed from a renter’s income before they must move, Capitalists actively displace renters in favor of higher-income people.
Old houses are torn down to make room for denser apartments and condominiums, old apartments are renovated or sold as condominiums, and the people who lived previous are either ‘priced out’ or forced to leave through lease terminations.
This cycle of upheaval is not new.
Consider some of the earliest upheavals caused by Capitalism, not in the Americas or in Africa, but on the very islands where Capitalism started. The Highland Clearances and other Enclosure movements were the first salvos in the transition from Primitive Accumulation to Capitalist exploitation of peoples.
Wealthy landlords and tribal chieftains pushed people (often kin) from land they’d worked for centuries in order to derive more wealth from that land through ‘improvements’ (in essence, the beginning of industrialised farming). Some were sold as indentured servants because of unpaid rents, others were marched away and left to die, and the vast majority faced a choice–move to the towns and work in the factories other Capitalists had set up to turn their lifeblood into wealth, or travel across oceans to the conquered lands of North America and Australia in order to start again.
Of course, the lands those displaced peoples moved to were already inhabited, and the history of all European colonies is written in the blood of indigenous peoples. Those First Nations and Aboriginal peoples had varying responses to these newcomers. Some sought peace, others sought war, but neither tactic proved successful in keeping their own ancestral lands from the Enclosures that sprung from the British Isles.
The United States, particularly, has seen multiple waves of displaced peoples. Enslaved peoples from the African continent, indentured servants and refugees from the “Progress” of Capitalism in Europe, and of course, the very people who lived on this land before the whole cycle began–they are all victims.
‘Round the Prickly Pear
Gentrification is seen by many as a natural process. In a way, it is– it;s initiated by a very small but particularly destructive element of the natural world—humans, or more specifically, Capitalist humans. And though displacement of peoples is not new, the kinds of economic displacement seen since the birth of Capital, is a different thing altogether than what was seen in the past.
Gentrification is a kind of opening of a new Capital-producing market , created by destroying what was already there–and it’s a super-heated engine of destruction in many cities of the United States currently. I’ve many friends in the Bay Area, for instance, for whom the exorbitant rent-increases has become so absurd that they’ve taken on a sort of war-trauma. The same occurs in Seattle now, with apartments friends rented 4 years ago at $1000/month now renting for $2000, a 100% increase over half-a-decade.
Similar in Portland, Oregon, as well as neighborhoods in large cities across the country. In other cities, natural disaster (like in New Orleans) or economic collapse (Detroit) have led to even more damage to Black folk, as investors and traitorous politicians have colluded to rebuild cities without their traditional inhabitants. In all cases, though, the mechanism is the same, and the victims have much more in common with each other than they do with new residents moving into their respective cities, yet rarely do they fight in solidarity.
But why not? Some of this absence of solidarity derives from racism, but there’s an understated problem in our understanding of Gentrification which also prevents united fronts against Capitalist displacement.
Too much written about this process situates it in a narrative of cycles, a progression of neighborhoods derived from natural law and inevitability. From this view, the answer to complaints about rising rents and destroyed communities range between ‘get over it’ or ‘there’s nothing that can be done.’
A less-heard point sometimes arises, though, and it has more merit. I heard it often from my anarchist friends in the middle of the last decade, an important reminder that whites did this to First Nations peoples before, and we’re all on stolen land.
This is true. Unfortunately, the result of that argument is usually a complete dismissal of the very real damage done to people when their homes are taken through predatory loans or their rents increased so much they have no choice to become displaced.
The problem arises because so many different peoples, of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, have all fallen victim to Capitalist displacement. The land I currently live on was stolen from the Duwamish peoples more than a century ago; it is still stolen from them, and worse–the Federal Government does not recognize them as an tribal group, and therefore all their claims are legally null. The Black families who lived here were descendents of people displaced by force from their homes in Africa, victims of primitive accumulation and the European thirst for Capital.
And then…there’s me. Some of my ancestors were displaced from the British Isles during the Enclosures and the birth of Capital. Others fled mainland Europe during the Enclosure of their land, or became refugees of Capitalist wars. Not all, mind. I’ve a rumored but unverified First Nations ancestor on one side of my family, and on the other, an unfortunate “Boston Brahmin” ancestor. And I’ve already been displaced several times in my life through poverty or rent-increases.
We could construct a hierarchy of victimhood in the relentless history of displacement by employing metrics of innocence, complicity, and ancestral ties. And we should and must tell those stories, and we should and must do everything to right those wrongs.
But here’s the problem– the insidious trick of Capitalism is that the violence it perpetrates upon people determines their future actions, too. White (a false racial construction) settlers, displaced from a myriad of European lands, helped displace (sometimes by direct violence) indigenous peoples and each other, like abused children who grow up to repeat their childhood trauma upon others. The violence enacted on them became the violence they enacted upon others.
More horrifically, Capitalism offers a path out of poverty and ancestral trauma if one agrees to renounce all kin, class, and ancestral ties. The descendent of African slaves who becomes an immigration enforcement officer, the victim of the Enclosures and the Clearances who agreed to help the English enforce its laws against the Irish, or became a colonial administrator in India, the Irish descendents who swelled the ranks of violent police forces in New York, Boston, and San Franscisco, the “Buffalo Soldier,” the Tribal leader who signed away mining rights for personal benefit, the poor-born of any race who becomes a manager or foreman–each is preyed upon twice-over by Capitalism, forced into horrible circumstance and then offered a treasonous path to personal survival.
When we try to parse out all the histories of complicity, we miss the point, much like sorting buckets of bailed water on a sinking ship according to half-full/half-empty dichotomies. The question should not be, “who suffered most?” but rather “why haven’t we stopped this suffering?”
In a gentrifying neighborhood, newcomers are often confused by the reactions of those their presence is displacing. No one person displaced another; in San Franscisco and Seattle and in all these other cities, each person is making an individual choice to live in a different place, often times following work. The problem is never each individual person, but the systematic weakening of the communities being displaced (long before real estate agents and property owners identified the neighborhood as a new market), a state which not only enables but often encourages the destruction of older neighborhoods, and under all of this, entire societies which have lost touch with the spirit of the land beneath their feet and the meaning of place.
And it’s that weakening of ties to place where our primary resistance and revolutionary assault against Capitalism must begin.
From Strong Roots, We Fight
Capital requires new markets to expand, but the earth is limited and we only need so much shit. Enclosures are an old trick, and the displacement they cause generate both more profit for the rich, but do something even more vital for the smooth running of Capital: displaced peoples lack community, become desperate, and most significantly of all, have no access to their history.
Slaves hauled across oceans cannot visit the graves of their ancestors; peasants forced off land cannot visit the old wells and stones which rooted their world firmly in the other. Old contracts with the land are broken, old gods forgotten, and the standards once used to judge if an act would serve the community or damage it fall away.
Capitalist displacement is also Capitalist disenchantment; it is the reason for which the traditions of people are perpetually destroyed. Rootless people are easily controlled and coerced, people without the stories, myths, and spirits of a place have nowhere to turn beside the market for the creation of their meaning.
Capitalism needs us to be displaced, pushed around by its invisible hand. We must stand in fight, root ourselves in place, learn the names of our neighbors and the trees on our streets, seek out the sources of our water, trace our streams under pavement, learn the origins of our food and the histories of our homes.
We must tell the stories of our place to each other, creating new communities, new peoples unwilling to move when they tell us to go, untempted by profit in other towns, unafraid to confront the haunting ghosts of those buried in our graveyards, uncowed by threats of property laws and poverty outside the logic of the time-sheet and the work-day.
For those of us in the Americas or in other former colonies of the proto-Capitalist empires in Europe, we must begin by seeking out, offering our aid, and helping to restore the peoples displaced by our ancestral traumas. The Duwamish are not the only First Nations people written out of existence in the United States, and the successor states of British Imperialism have a particularly horrible history of violence against the people they conquered—the British, after all, started Capitalism.
We must become rooted in the land and communities, and we must refuse the Capitalist’s game of divide-and-conquer. In cities like Seattle and San Francisco, waves of ‘tech workers’ are displacing others. They, moving to cities for high-waged work, have no ties to the land, and no community when arriving except their (Capitalist) employer and others working for them. The 100-year old Black woman whose house they might purchase means nothing to them; they don’t know her story any more than they know that of the land upon which her home was built.
But we must remember—they are mere tools, ‘buying in’ to new Capitalist ventures and selling their labor to powerful Capitalists. They contribute to the destruction of communities by renting and buying homes at exorbitant rates (against their own self-interest). They become the weapons Capitalists wield in new wars of accumulation, often unwitting and too-often indifferent, rootless themselves, colonial settlers no different than those who became colonial servants in India for the British crown. They are not the direct cause of gentrification, but they become ‘class traitors,’ slobbering on their knees and choking at the altars of Capital—just like the rest of us. They, and we, must refuse to destroy the lives of others in return for scraps from the tables of the rich.
And from our position of rootedness and solidarity, we must directly attack Capital. It is the Capitalists who are in power, who start this engine and keep it stoked hot, making a killing from our attempts to make a living. Aided by complicit governments bloated and drunk on tax money, political donations, and their lust for power, the Capitalists have perfected the pillaging wars of Colonialism in a system so pristine we cannot fully unravel its knotted patterns of destruction.
But that knot cannot be unraveled; it must be cut. We cannot ever hope to find an answer to Capitalist displacement of peoples without fighting Capitalism, nor can we hope to rectify the wrongs that Capitalism has caused to peoples until Capitalism is no longer a threat.
The answer’s under our feet, in the places we live, the communities from which we’re alienated, in the spirits of the air and tree and grass in our neighborhoods.
The answer is both a change of place consciousness and a resurrection of class-consciousness, a solidarity between peoples and the spirits of place, a new treaty with the land and its inhabitants (living and dead, seen and unseen). Even when displaced (as I was), we must see every place as our home and a site of beautiful resistance. And those who refused to leave, those who, like my transfer-trading friend and neighbor, who bravely choose land, history, and community over the treason of the Capitalist buy-out, must be be honored, supported and defended, because it is they who can show us best the importance of roots.
We have allies, seen and unseen.
We must join their fight.