Who is the city for?

The impetus behind this blog post came largely from my anger and frustration over a particularly reactionary news story posted by a local news broadcaster in Portland. This type of story is the bread and butter of local newscasters, which as a whole seem to tend towards reactionary and propertarian politics. The story is called Is Portland Over? and spends its time bemoaning the face that poverty and trash exist in Portland's downtown. It then links this to a decline in tourism dollars flowing into the city.

The framing of this story raises an important question which is the question of who the city ought to spend its time prioritizing. When a news story spends as much text expounding the views of tourists as it does city inhabitants, it implicitly signals that the city of Portland is not for the inhabitants, but for the tourists. That's to say that the city is not, in this conception, for the people who live and work in the city and who by living and working there make the city.

Yet this is the conception that seems to govern the decisions of Portland city government. Indeed, I would not be shocked to find that many city governments are making their decisions based on the same rubric. The anarchist critique has always said that state and capital go hand in hand, and this is one example of that. By focusing on the city brand, on tourism, on the image of the city to non-inhabitants, the city chooses to boost and strengthen sectors of the economy, like hotels, at the expense of the people of the city. In a way this ends up as a public subsidy because a certain amount of funds are spent cleaning up trash, clearing out homeless residents of the city, on policing, and on advertisements to entice tourists to visit.

This focus on tourism and consequently non-residents has two effects. The first is that the city ends up choosing to harm city residents for the benefit of tourists. In Portland this takes the form of homeless sweeps. These sweeps displace people, exposes them to police, and takes their belongings elsewhere, often to eventually have those belongings discarded. This is a horrendous choice that the city makes against its own people. Secondly, the city has to engage in a flattening and reduction of itself in order to present a sanitized image to tourists. For Portland, this involved the flattening of Portland into Portlandia and the erasure of the actual people within the city in favor of their distorted reflection in the city brand.

What is the way out of this cycle for autonomous urban movements? City inhabitants cannot depend on the city government to change things, given that big business is behind the tourist push. The strategy must be twofold. First, the city brand itself should be pushed back against. This is different from a hatred of tourists, since it is normal and good to want to visit new places. It is instead a push back against the false image presented by the city. Secondly, an autonomous urban movement should develop cooperative institutions that weaken the economic power that the hospitality sector has on the city. This would look like a re-orientation from a service oriented economy dependent on exurban and tourist dollars to one that is locally oriented and independent.

#urbanism #tourism