Bob Simpson looks at how the ability for arts and culture to thrive relies upon working people’s fight for a space of their own.


“The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” — David Harvey , The Right to the City

By Bob Simpson

Red Wedge

June 17, 2013 – The 1968 French student-worker uprising popularized the phrase “The Right to the City” from philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s book Le Droit à la ville. According to Lefebvre the right to transform the urban environment cannot be restricted to people who own substantial property, hold citizenship papers or are otherwise deemed to have a higher social status. It means all of us, regardless of race, gender, age, economic status or any narrowly defined category. The city is a place of possibilities and we have a basic human right to make those possibilities realities.

Lefebrve’s subsequent book, The Urban Revolution helped to expand on his Right to the City ideas. Written in 1970, the book speculates rather accurately how urban society would evolve. There is a now a World Charter for the Right to the City which came out of the Social Forum of the Americas held in Ecuador during July 2004. The Right to the City is a global movement as the urban dispossessed around the planet struggle to humanize their own cities.

I was reading Lefebvre’s The Urban Revolution while riding the CTA Red Line on an April morning earlier this year. I was headed to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. The economically and racially diverse Uptown community was fighting school closings and the forced exile of working class people to benefit wealthy real estate interests and corporate school privatizers.



View of Uptown from the Wilson CTA stop.

Led by a new organization called Uptown Uprising, Uptown’s embattled residents had called for a rally and march to show how the power of concentrated wealth was destroying a community. With blue skies overhead, I arrived at the Stewart Elementary School playground where Uptown Uprising was gathering. Stewart Elementary, along with Stockton Elementary in Uptown, was scheduled for closing. In Chicago, school closings are often closely linked with financial speculation and gentrification.
Reggie Spears, the Stewart music teacher, was leading his band students in a lively display of musical talent, while parents and students were making colorful signs on the playground’s artificial turf — for the city is a place of creation.


For the urban elite, creation consists of monumental glittering hi-rise buildings that can easily pierce through low lying Lakefront clouds. Like Shelly’s Ozamandias they scream,” Look upon my works ye mighty and despair!” For the working class residents of Uptown, creation is a more modest affair, done on a human scale. You can often chat personally with the artists, musicians and poets who live or perform there.

But the arts require spaces for their creation. Many Chicago grade schools do not have any music programs, much less have a band. The loss of Stewart meant another creative space gone in Uptown. It’s a stark message to the diverse working class youth of Uptown. Your dreams and creativity mean nothing compared to the allure of real estate speculation. Your diversity, which is a powerful engine of creativity, is of no consequence to those who know only financial spreadsheets and investment tips.
The same can be said of other Uptown cultural spaces like the American Indian Center, the Green Mill and the Peoples’ Church. It is unlikely any would survive the financial Katrina that the city’s wealthy elite would like to unleash on Uptown.

In the formulation and implementation of urban policies, the collective social and cultural interest should prevail above individual property rights and speculative interests. — World Charter of the Right to the City

Or, as the old song goes, the working class needs both bread and roses.

Getting ready for the Uptown Uprising rally

I watched as Uptown Uprising organizer Stavroula Harissis, armed with her clipboard and a broad smile, attended to last minute rally details, while Marty Ritter of the Chicago Teachers Union passed out window signs in Spanish and English that opposed school closings. Chuy Campuzano, who leads chants at many Chicago rallies, was walking among the children carrying his ever-present bullhorn.



Left: Community organizer Stavroula Harissis. Right: Stewart Elementary music teacher Reggie Spears.

Harissis is relatively new to Uptown, but that is well within the Uptown tradition. Over time the neighborhood has been a destination for a variety of new residents including Southern Appalachian white migrants, Native Americans from across the continent, as well refugees from wars around the world. In the highly segregated environment of Chicago, Uptown has stood for multiracial diversity. 
There cannot be a Right to the City without the free movement of peoples and the desire to live amongst each other in peace.

All persons have the Right to the City free of discrimination based on gender, age, health status, income, nationality, ethnicity, migratory condition, or political, religious or sexual orientation, and to preserve cultural memory and identity in conformity with the principles and norms established in this Charter.” — World Charter for the Right to the City

Earlier migrants to Uptown had sought jobs in the small and medium-size factories that once dotted the North Side of Chicago as well as in the huge sprawling steel mills and manufacturing plants located mostly on the South Side. I worked in a small North Side factory for a few months when I moved to Uptown in 1975 from Washington DC. Some of these factories were unionized, helping to push wages up for everyone, union and non-union alike.

Traditional Marxists look upon the industrial proletariat as the standard bearers of revolution. But Chicago’s industry largely disappeared into the Global South as capitalists sought non-union low wage labor. Today Chicago is global city of finance, with serious amounts of capital flowing into real estate instead of production:

It can even happen that real estate speculation becomes the principle source of capital, that is, the realization of surplus value. As the the percentage of overall surplus value formed and realized by industry begins to decline, the percentage created by real estate speculation and construction increases. The second circuit supplants the first, becomes essential. The role played by real estate in various countries (especially Spain and Greece) continues to be poorly understood, poorly situated in the capitalist economy. It is a source of problems. — Henri Lefebrve, The Urban Revolution

Marxist economists can disagree with Lefebrve’s use of the term surplus value as it applies to real estate speculation, but the role of the industrial proletariat in cities like Chicago has greatly diminished. An already racially divided US working class is becoming increasingly atomized into various forms of low wage contingent labor even as the public sector is being privatized.
Who then will form the nucleus of a revolutionary social movement for justice?

Taking back the street with signs and chants

Lefebvre talks about the street as public space. While recognizing the negative effects of what he calls the “invasion of the automobile,”  he celebrates the street as form of “spontaneous theater” where an individual may become “…spectacle and spectator, and actor.” Despite traffic rules, traffic signs and regulations about public gatherings, the street becomes a place of unpredictable movement where surprises blossom:

The urban space of the street is a place to talk, given over as much to the exchange of words and signs as it is the exchange of things. A place where speech can become “sauvage” [wild and free] and, by escaping rules and institutions, inscribe itself on walls. — Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution

Chants of “Lets keep Uptown for everyone," “Save our neighborhoods! Save our schools,” and “Don’t hate! Educate!” rang out as leaflets were distributed to passersby. The signs and chants encouraged motorists to blow horns in support, resulting in a cacophony from cars, trucks and buses. Pedestrian supporters smiled, gave thumbs up, raised their fists and sometimes stopped to chat briefly. This noisy spontaneous support for protest is fast becoming a tradition in Chicago’s working class neighborhoods.



Left: Young people of Uptown. Right: Picketing on Broadway Avenue as passersby honk their horns.

Yet few people park their vehicles or interrupt their sidewalk travel to spontaneously join these protests. They cheer for groups like Uptown Uprising as they would a favorite sports team, but do not normally join the events. Lefebrve attributes this passivity to a recognition that urban democracy is mostly a sham, a shadow play at best.

The politics of noisy neighborhood protest can lead to local victories that encourage people to fight for subsequent local victories, but this seems to have little effect on the overall power structure of the city. Lefebvre also believes that it is very difficult for people to see the city in its complex totality, especially those who are migrants from rural areas or smaller towns. People’s vision is limited by past experience, by consumer consumption and by incessant media propaganda.

But beneath this seeming passivity are a mass of unsolvable contradictions that on occasion burst forth in unexpected displays of massive urban resistance. The Occupy Movement, Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Wisconsin Uprising and Taksim Square in Istanbul are recent examples.
That April day in Uptown was not one of those days. But I’m sure some of the organizers hoped that sunny day was at least a dress rehearsal.

School closings, affordable housing, and Uptown’s Alderman Cappleman

Rally speakers discussed the relationship between school closings, low wage jobs, affordable housing and social services in the ward. The name of Uptown’s Alderman James Cappleman came up often. He has been waging a protracted war against poor people since he was first elected. This included trying to shut down one of the last “men-only cubicle hotels” (called SRO’s in Chicago). These serve the poorest male population. Cappleman also tried to prevent the Salvation Army from distributing sustenance to the hungry from their regularly scheduled food trucks. Cappleman’s arrogance and general inaccessibility is a major reason why Uptown Uprising exists at all.

The Right to the City includes the right of all residents to participation in decision making and to appropriation of public space. Did Alderman Cappleman ask the residents of the SRO and the hungry people who gather around food trucks to participate in an open democratic process? Did he respect the right of the Salvation Army to appropriate public space to feed people at their own expense?
Cappleman and his affluent supporters believe they are a new urban aristocracy who should have unlimited power to remake Uptown in their own image. Uptown Uprising does not agree.

Across the street from the rally site is a large Target store, one of many new stores that now exist in Uptown. I mentioned the new Target to a rally-goer standing next to me. She liked the Target and expressed no particular animosity toward the wealthier residents of Uptown. The new stores made it easier for her to shop. As for the wealthier residents, she and the other Uptown Uprising supporters I spoke with expressed a desire for an Uptown diversity that included the affluent as well.

But is a truly mixed income neighborhood even possible?

Uptown has demonstrated its ability to maintain a racially and ethnically diverse population, but can it sustain a population that reflects social class diversity as well? So far, the answer has been a surprising yes. Gentrification was already well underway in 1975 when I lived there. But in 2013, Uptown still boasts a substantial working class. This has only been possible because of almost constant struggle.



Some faces of the Uptown Uprising.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, groups like Jobs or Income Now (JOIN), the Young Patriots and the Heart of Uptown Coalition championed the right of working class people to decent jobs, housing, healthcare and police protection rather than police brutality. The Young Patriots, a revolutionary group made up mostly of impoverished white southern migrants, made common cause with the revolutionary Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Organization (a Puerto Rican group).

This Rainbow Coalition, as it came to be called, demanded revolutionary change in our socio-economic system, while also providing social services like healthcare and nutrition programs for children, needs which the Chicago political elite had somehow “overlooked.” When their organizations disbanded because of government repression and internal disagreements, their work was continued by the Heart of Uptown Coalition into the 1970s and 1980s.

These efforts eventually led to the election of Helen Schiller as Uptown’s representative  to the City Council, herself a product of the Rainbow Coalition. Schiller served from 1987–2011. Today, Uptown Uprising is among the many groups in Chicago who continue the tradition of multi-racial radical working class organizing.

Uptown Uprising rally speaker Virginia Hester, a 50 year resident of Chicago’s North Side and also member of the multiracial North Side Action for Justice (NA4J), called for affordable housing and equal education from the wealthy Gold Coast to mixed income Rogers Park, the boundaries of North Side Chicago. The NA4J describes itself as “a grassroots, member-controlled organization that builds power for low and moderate income people in order to advance the cause of economic and social justice on the north side of Chicago and across the globe.”



Left: Peggy Terry of JOIN. Right: Virginia Hester.

For those familiar with Chicago’s seeming relentless drive for gentrification and the closing of neighborhood schools in low income areas, Hester’s call to action may seem hopelessly utopian and naive. It would require a social revolution far more profound than even the labor revolts of the 1930s or the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

But the 1968 urban rebellion of Paris, the one that gave rise to the Right to the City movement, voiced a key slogan: “Be realistic! Demand the impossible!”

What may impossible now, may become everyday reality in an unwritten future.

The march through Uptown

The march began from Stewart Elementary and wound it’s way though Uptown with minimal police presence. Perhaps the number of strollers with babies and parents with toddlers in hand or on their shoulders convinced them that the 200-300 marchers were not a public menace. The procession was more than a march. It was also a public education project, another growing Chicago neighborhood tradition. There were stops with short presentations about the socio-economics of life in Uptown.

One important stop was at Truman College, the large community college that serves much of the North Side. It provides important educational resources for Uptown residents, but that came at a cost, the destruction of low income housing and another forced exodus of working class people. In 1968 Uptown community activists presented a plan for low income housing that would rehab the old buildings on what is now the Truman site. The plan included social services, playgrounds for kids, and a community center for the projected 8000 residents.



Left: More marchers of the Uptown Uprising. Right: Telling stories of the neighborhood as Chuy holds the bullhorn.

It was to be named Hank Williams Village to honor the mostly white southern migrants who lived there. A series of back-room deals with landlords doomed Hank Williams Village and Truman College went up instead. City planners fronting for powerful financial interests always “know better” what working class people want without ever planning a democratic process to find out what that really is.

Planners, programmers and users want solutions. For what? To make people happy. To order them to be happy. It’s a strange way of interpreting happiness. — Henri Lefebrve, The Urban Revolution

After marching on the sidewalk of busy Wilson Ave, we turned on to North Beacon Street, a quiet residential thoroughfare. Almost immediately voices among the crowd began saying, “Take the street!” An elderly woman next to me sounded the call with particular enthusiasm.

So strollers, toddlers and all, we poured into the street and took up the familiar chant,” Whose streets? Our streets!” With the police nowhere in sight, parade marshals took up the rear to watch for oncoming cars as a new exhilaration swept through us.

The street is a place to play and learn. The street is disorder. All the elements of urban life, which are fixed and redundant elsewhere, are free to fill the streets and through the streets flow to the centers, where they meet and interact, torn from their fixed abode… Revolutionary events generally take place in the street. Doesn’t this show that the disorder of the street engenders another kind of order? — Henri Lefebrve, The Urban Revolution

We stopped at the now shuttered Uptown Hull House, a descendent of the famous Hull House on Chicago’s then ethnically diverse working class West Side. Started by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889. Hull House had the city’s first public playground, bathhouse, and public gymnasium. It was a meeting place for the city’s low wage workers, labor activists, feminists, socialists, anarchists, progressive reformers and others.

The Hull House neighborhood art programs were especially popular and included painting, sculpture, clay modeling and basket weaving. It’s “Little Theater Movement” helped birth the Chicago experimental and small theater movement. Jazz great Benny Goodman took music lessons there as a child.

Many of our present (and very much threatened) public welfare programs can be traced to the activities of Hull House in the early 20th century. The original Hull House expanded into the Jane Addams Hull House Association and settlement houses sprang up elsewhere in the city.

Besides its social programs, Uptown Hull House also had regular art shows and was at various times home to the Organic Theater, the Pegasus Players and the Black Ensemble Theater. Playwright and screenwriter David Mamet got his start at the Organic when it was located in Uptown Hull House. It was not only a cultural space for Uptown, but for the entire city of Chicago.

In January of 2012 the Jane Addams Hull House Association, plagued by a reduction in public funding and a sharp increase in demand for its services, went out of business. Uptown Hull House abruptly closed. City authorities failed to step in and help the 122 year old organization which has done so much for Uptown’s working class. Yet, when projects that benefit Chicago’s wealthy elite are proposed, the money tap always seems to magically open.
The Uptown Hull House building was bought by David Gassman who plans to turn it into expensive apartments. He told critics of his plan: "If you want to buy the building, then you should buy it and you can do what you want.That’s what I would tell anyone who doesn’t like it. Don’t live in America. That’s how it works.”

Urbanization is a channel through which surplus capital flows to build new cities for the upper class. It is a powerful process that newly defines what cities are about, as well as who can live there and who can’t. And it determines the quality of life in cities according to the stipulations of capital rather than those of people. — Interview with David Harvey

Despite the fact that Uptown Hull House improved the quality of life for many of its working class neighbors, surplus capital as described by David Harvey won the battle.
After paying our respects to the Uptown Hull House we marched down the street to Stockton School, which like Stewart, was slated for closing. Many of Stockton’s students are homeless or have special needs. Despite support from the Uptown community, both schools were among the 49 schools that were shut down by CPS in May of 2013.



Left: Taking North Beacon Street. Right: Stockton School.

As more schools are closed and public education is privatized through charters and turnarounds, the flow of surplus capital into education is becoming a deluge. Hedge fund operators and bond traders are touting investment in education as The Next Big Thing for generating mega profits.

In Uptown and other working class communities across Chicago, these school closings are seen as a way to push low income people out of the city by destabilizing neighborhoods and disrupting the education of their children. It is an attack on their children’s lives whose effects will extend far into their future.

Pauline Lipman has written extensively about education and the Right to the City:

Education is integral to a movement to reclaim the city. It‘s a demand for all those locked out of equitable access to public education and dispossessed of their schools, a demand for public schools that are not exclusionary (racist, homophobic or discriminatory) and for all those who simply desperate to find a “good school” for their children. It is also a cry for education that develops our human potential, that prepares us to be subjects of history—to read and write the world. In the words of the indispensable radical educational journal Rethinking Schools, an education that is critical, multicultural, antiracist, projustice, hopeful, joyful, kind and visionary. – from "The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race and the Right to the City"

The Right to the City and the Urban Revolution
After leaving Stockton School the march headed back to the Stewart playground for refreshments and informal discussion as people began heading home. As I helped Stavroula Harissis carry some of the PA equipment back to her small apartment, I thought about my own brief participation in Uptown radical organizing almost 40 years before. And today here I was with a young visionary fighting similar battles, battles which predated both of us.

After the 1848 Revolution in France, Napoleon III assigned the architect Haussman the task of removing the rebellious working class from the center of Paris. He leveled the slums of the inner city and in the words of David Harvey,”…using powers of expropriation for supposedly public benefit and did so in the name of civic improvement and renovation.”

The idea was to use surplus capital to move the working class a safe distance away from the growing bourgeoisie. Harvey believes that the Paris Commune of 1870 and the 1968 French worker-student revolt were in part, an attempt by the working class to reclaim the city that been taken from them.
In the late 19th century Frederick Engels pointed out the obvious, that impoverished working class people are simply moved elsewhere like pawns on a chess board, taking their poverty and class exploitation with them:

…whether this is done from considerations of public health or for beautifying the town, or owing to the demand for big centrally situated business premises, or, owing to traffic requirements, such as the laying down of railways, streets (which sometimes seem to have the aim of making barricade fighting more difficult)… No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is always the same; the scandalous alleys disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise by the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success, but they appear again immediately somewhere else. — Frederick Engels, "The Housing Question"

In its own 21st century circumstances, the Uptown Uprising is fighting a similar battle against what Engels described. Chicago’s financial elite, through their messenger boy Rahm Emanuel, wants to drive out much of the city’s working class population, especially those who are people of color. It is ethnic cleansing by financial manipulation.

One of the criticisms against the Right to the City movement is how vague it is on what it will take to actually gain the rights detailed in its charters, manifestos, proclamations, books and scholarly articles. 

Here in Chicago, I often hear people say that we must move beyond protest. That we have spoken out in public meetings; that we have worked on insurgent electoral campaigns; that we have petitioned; that we have picketed; that we have sat-in; that we have been arrested and beaten, and all of that is true. But somehow it is not enough. We must move beyond that. But to what?



Some more faces of Uptown’s future (hopefully).

Chicago has not had an urban insurrection on the scale of Istanbul, though that is a possibility. It might help, but we are one city among many and the crisis is global. There is a democratic spirit sweeping across the planet and where it will take us is very unclear. Up against the clock of an increasingly dysfunctional global capitalism and the terrifying prospects of major climate change, we take action because we must, leaving many questions unanswered.

What does social revolution mean in the 21st century is one of those unanswered questions. Civilization and perhaps the survival of the species itself may be at stake. I like to think that some answers might emerge from diverse and rebellious communities like Uptown. They are centers of a raw creativity in culture and the arts, those expressions of the human spirit so necessary to any revolution. There are communities like Uptown around the planet in this age of mass working class migration. They are in part, the global working class in miniature, learning how to build solidarity instead of division.

No wonder they always seem to be under threat from the bulldozer and the eviction notice.

The democratization of the right to the city and the construction of a broad social movement to enforce its will is imperative, if the dispossessed are to take back control of the city from which they have for so long been excluded and if new modes of controlling capital surpluses as they work through urbanization processes are to be instituted. Lefebvre was right to insist that the revolution has to be urban, in the broadest sense of that term, or nothing at all. — David Harvey, The Right to the City

Bob Simpson is a long-time Chicago activist and writer.

Category : Capitalism / Culture / Organizing / Working Class

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