Monday, March 2, 2009

Our Own Boulevards: Capital's constructions from Van Buren to the Champs-Élysées

Introduction by Phoenix Insurgent
There are more people in motion in America now than at any time in recent memory. Immigrants displaced by the forces of reaction; workers dispossessed due to layoffs; families uprooted by foreclosure; inner city residents removed by gentrification. The cities we live in, like everything else in capitalist society, are a reflection of the battle between our limitless desires to constitute our lives, and Capital's authoritarian demand that we adhere to its calculating will.

With so much up in the air, and with a vacuum steadily filling the space once inhabited by Capital, the next few years will surely see the clash of competing visions of social organization. How will we organize? Where will we put down new roots? Where will we stay and fight? Who will fight whom? These questions as of this writing remain unanswered, although we catch glimpses in the factory occupations and riots on one side and the cops, cameras and the army on the other. Though we can't see the future from here, we expect answers soon.

In an attempt to find these answers, we have attached two essays from the past that address the political nature of the city in different ways. Towards understanding them together. below is a new analysis of the two pieces by Phoenix Class War Council member Collin Sick. The first piece is Jean Reynolds' analysis of South Phoenix. The last is from the insurrectionary journal, Killing King Abacus. Both pieces appeared within a year of each other, although they offer different critiques of the city. We hope you enjoy the two together.

by Jon Riley

Below are two pieces that have greatly informed the politics of those of us involved in Phoenix Class War Council.

“South of White Phoenix” appeared 10 years ago as an article in a broadsheet published by the original Bring the Ruckus (BTR) collective, based here in the valley. BTR are heavily influenced by Race Traitor politics, a tendency that sees any revolutionary movements’ success in the United States as hinged upon an attack of white supremacy and an end to the courting of the white working class by the elite.

The author Jean Reynolds’ piece is noteworthy for the dissection of the South Phoenix as a clearly defined political space created solely for the placement of people of color. These were not neighborhoods created by working class white mobs violently evicting Blacks and Latinos from mixed neighborhoods to enforce segregation, rather a mobile conceptualization that crosses streets and river beds as communities of color are moved from one neighborhood to another, largely by the hands of capitalists. Many of the bankers and executives from the valley disguised their racism by calling it simple economics. Take this 1965 Phoenix Point West interview with an unnamed business executive, from Bradford Luckingham’s Minorities in Phoenix (page 174):

“You ask about the Negro problem in Phoenix. Understand now, if you want to know what I really think, I can’t be quoted. I can’t have the company I work for associated with what I say. If you’re going to use my name, then I’ll repeat the standard line – civil rights, education, tolerance, the whole bit. But as a businessman and a taxpayer, I think there’s a real problem. We’ve got all those people down there [South Phoenix] and let’s be honest about it, most of them are costing the rest of us money.

They’re uneducated, unskilled. You can’t hire or use half of them. Their crime rate is way up. They can’t pay any taxes. I’m not anti-Negro, but you wanted my opinion. Just from the standpoint of simple economics, the city would be better off without them.

Another thing, with all the civil rights marching and demonstrating, how long is it going to be before some half-educated crackpot gets these people all excited and we have a first class race riot on our hands? This has nothing to do with prejudice; I’m talking straight economics and the city’s image. I don’t think there’s any question about it; Phoenix would be better off if they weren’t here.”

This is typical of the cross-class alliance between whites that is needed to enforce segregation on people of color. With segregation breaking down in Phoenix in the 1950s, people of color in the valley were quickly rebuffed by the elite with the creation of “South Phoenix,” virtually ensuring that a defacto housing disparity and widespread poverty would continue in the Valley of the Sun.

The second piece (“In the Distance: Suburbia against the barricades.”) comes from another influential tendency to Phoenix Class War Council, this from the short-lived insurrectionary anarchist publication Killing King Abacus, The unsigned piece analyzes the class geography of Paris and squarely places the blame on Georges-Eugène “Baron” Haussmann, the architect of class war urban planning under Napoleon III. His brutal renovation of Paris became a near blueprint for city planners across the US. Haussmann’s project in Paris took back control of the physical make-up of Paris for the French elite, in order to diffuse the power the small streets held when the insurrections and revolutions ignited and communards and workers rushed to barricade them. Though it achieved this to the relief of the bureaucrats, the capitalists had it their way as well. Haussmann aimed to construct a city that would “detain and fix the rootless and to channel workers into linear movement: from home to work, from work to home (from “In the Distance”).” He would surely be pleased to look upon Paris now, a hub for elite capital, complete with its large boulevards and massive public transportation apparatus, in other words the perfect mechanisms for the transportation of labor.

Clichy-sous-Bois and South Phoenix everywhere

Naturally there are important dynamics to note when comparing Haussmann’s radical restructuring of Paris in order to better facilitate Capital's domination of the new industrial era and the manner in which U.S. planners applied the Haussmann model. Much like the anonymous Phoenix executive quoted above, Haussmann, too, would also not likely have seen any need for a superfluous population, especially one comprised of the immigrants and descendants of indentured slaves from the former colonies, or in the case of the United States from the colony that existed within.

World War II devastated France, and much of the reconstruction efforts came from an immigrant influx from France’s North African colonies. Their efforts were rewarded with the construction of massive public housing estates, the ghettos to house their children and grand children. While white French planners in the era after the massive overhaul of Paris created the ghettos as a self-congratulatory olive branch to the thousands of new immigrants, white Americans simply abandoned the metropolitan city for the suburbs. Their flight was aided by the massive new freeway systems that made it possible to travel to the factory or office miles and miles away. Not only did post World War II American urban planners see it necessary for the suburbs to exist in order to create space and bring a piece of nature to middle and working class whites, but also to function as a release valve easing the wide spread paranoia whites felt as the breakdown of legal segregation saw families of color moving into previously all white neighborhoods.

Phoenix’s history is unique, as one of the cruelest and polarized urban environments in the U.S, with great amounts of wealth accumulated amidst the stark poverty of the reservations for Indigenous people. But along side this resides an assigned political space/internal containment policy for people of color within the city limits.

BTR is correct to assign the status of South Phoenix as a white supremacist political construction that has for years locked people of color in isolation, suffering the violence of benign neglect from the state. We see the similarities in South Phoenix and in the poverty-stricken suburbs of Clichy-sous-Bois, itself at the center of the insurrections against racism and police violence pervasive in French society. While we agree with BTR that the attack on white supremacy is central to the struggle, we also recognize that the systems of control are so advanced that the struggle for freedom must also be a total attack against the ideology of the city, until it no longer remains a political space dominated and shaped by Capital.

There is little doubt the Haussmann would smile upon the fate of the French Arab, African, Muslim, and immigrant populations stewing in the decrepit suburbs on the outskirts of nearly every major French city. We see the sociopathic legacy of Haussmann’s systems of control reflected in the white supremacist mirror of America. This vision stares back too, as Clichy-sous-Bois and the other ghettos like it continue to explode in rage against exclusion, poverty, and alienation. It is obvious, to even the most casual observers, that a massive crisis is reshaping the economic, political, and social geography all humans inhabit. Where will the “Clichy-sous-Bois”'s of the world develop in this crisis and where are capitalists already planning the next “South Phoenix”?

But we know that the plans of Capital always emerge in response to our own desires to construct our own lives and our own boulevards. We make our own paths. What will they be?

How the North Was Won

by Jean Reynolds
Bring the Ruckus

Why is it that such a large percentage of people of color live in south Phoenix? Is it because people just like to live with “members of their own race,” or are there deeper reasons? A look back at Phoenix history reveals that this segregation came about through government-supported policies. These policies upheld white privilege at the expense of Blacks, Chicanos, and other people of color.

Many of us have heard about segregation in the South. That kind of discrimination was practiced here, too. Prior to the 1950s, whites enforced total segregation of Blacks from Phoenix churches, schools, theaters, and restaurants. Similarly, residents of Mexican descent were forced into the basements of churches, inferior schools, the balconies of theaters, and only allowed to swim in public pools or dance in popular dance halls one day a week. It was a taboo to cross Van Buren and enter the “north” part of Phoenix (except to work) until well in the 1940s. Blacks and Chicanos were denied access to well-paying jobs. Instead, they often took menial jobs such as such as farmworkers, industrial and manual laborers, laundry workers, or as maids for middle-class or rich whites.

Drawing the color lines
But this kind of segregation wasn't the only kind of discrimination that existed. Government policies and local real estate developers enforced another kind of segregation which kept southern Phoenix black and brown, and north Phoenix white. During the 1930s the federal government created the Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC), which mainly provided financing for homes and business loans. Another program, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), encouraged banks to lend money to prospective home-owners by offering insurance on “approved” homes.

What these programs meant in reality was that many white people in Phoenix bought new homes while most people of color continued to live in substandard housing. Why? because both the HOLC and the FHA relied on certain standards to determine property values. These standards were based on the race and class of the residents living on the property. This is how it worked:

HOLC appraisers surveyed Phoenix to determine the “security” of properties. They crated a map, labeling the best properties with an “A” and the “hazardous” properties with a “D”. The appraisers relied on local real estate standards to grade the properties. Local developers created these standards by ranking people eon a scale of racial desirability. For example, whites of northern European descent were given the highest rating, while Blacks and Chicanos ranked the lowest on the scale. According to Phoenix real estate guidelines, if a non-white family moved into a neighborhood north of Van Buren, property values would begin to decline. Whites, on the other hand, took full advantage of HOLC and FHA programs to move into better homes.

Inventing south Phoenix
South of Van Buren, most neighborhoods were already poor. Federal loan programs and local banks ensured they stayed that way. Before someone could get a loan to buy a house, start a small business, or improve her or his property, their land had to be appraised. The appraisal was based on the HOLC map. Residents of these neighborhoods couldn't get financial help because they lived in areas rated as “hazardous.”

Therefore, people of color were not just excluded from homes in north Phoenix neighborhoods, they were denied money for economic growth and development in their own communities. The makings of a poor “south Phoenix” had begun.

In the 1930s, “south Phoenix” was defined as the area between Van Buren and north of the Salt River, which is now considered downtown. After World War II, many Blacks and Chicanos (and other poor folks) began to move to cheaper housing south of the Salt River, which was an agricultural area outside the city limits until 1960. This is the area we now call “south Phoenix.”

As we can see, “south Phoenix” is not a fixed geographical area but a concept, defined as wherever people of color are concentrated. This concept stillexists in people's minds today and is a direct result of federal policies and local practices that maintain white privilege.

The next south Phoenix
Now the city is planning to develop the Salt River area – from 24th street to 19th Avenues, from Baseline to Buckeye. A plan called “Beyond the Banks” envisions a recreational are, hotels, and other dreams of grandeur. What happens to all the poor, mainly Chicano and Black folks in these areas? They'll have to be removed if the city wants to attract all those visitors and businesses. So, again the past, people of color will be forced to live on some other piece of land unwanted by whites, perhaps out of the city's boundaries. When that happens, yet another south Phoenix will emerge. Unless we do something to stop it.

In the Distance: Suburbia against the barricades.
Haussmann and City Planning: the birth of the human tide

From Killing King Abacus #1

"Having, as they do the appearance of walling in a massive eternity, Haussmann's urban works are a wholly appropriate representation of the absolute governing principles of the Empire: repression of every individual formation, every organic self-development, 'fundamental' hatred of all individuality."--JJ Honeger 1874(Benjamin, 122)

"But by the any standpoint other than that of facilitating police control, Haussmann's Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Guy De Bord

Haussmann did not invent city planning, the Romans and ancient Chinese planned cities. Modern cities were planned and built in the British and French colonies earlier than in Europe. Washington DC was planned and built on an empty field decades before Haussmann refashioned Paris. What was different about Haussmann's Paris is that he built his new national capitol on top of the old Paris, a pre-industrial city. Haussmann's Paris reveals more about the architecture of capitalism and of the nation state than L'Enfant's D.C because it shows us what Haussmann chose to destroy as well as what he chose to build. In his demolition of poor neighborhoods and narrow streets we can see what he considered a threat to the new state and economy.

Boulevards were already replacing narrow streets in Paris two decades earlier than Haussmann took office, but on a much smaller scale. During the July revolution of 1830 an ironic twist befell government soldiers. The large squares of granite that were being used to pave new boulevards were dragged up to the top floor of houses and dropped on the heads of soldiers. These stones became a common source of barricade building materials. In 1830 there were 6,000 barricades. Haussmann took office after both the 1830 and 1848 insurrections, in 1853. In an attempt to prevent other insurrections, Haussmann tried to eliminate the construction of barricades by destroying narrow streets and replacing them with wide boulevards. He also built boulevards in order to allow for the easy transport of troops "connecting the government with the troops and the troops with the suburbs" and allowing troops to surround neighborhoods in the city. (Benjamin, 137-8) By paving boulevards Haussmann facilitated the regulated and regular movement of troops.

Haussmann's Paris was more than just a city. It was a symbol; its monuments and boulevards created an image of the capitol of a powerful empire. The fancy new boulevards that were part of this image pushed rents up just like recent "urban revitalization" projects. In 1864 Haussmann gave a speech venting "his hatred of the rootless urban population." (Benjamin, 12). The construction of boulevards drove the proletariat into the suburbs and increased the population of wandering homeless. Working class neighborhoods were destroyed to literally pave the way for boulevards, and when this didn't drive workers out of the city rising rents did. Haussmann's destruction and construction placed neighborhoods that were likely to revolt outside of the city. Boulevards allowed traffic to flow to the center of the city. The movement of workers' homes to the suburbs meant that 'commuting' to and from work was born on a mass scale.

"Hundreds of thousands of families, who work in the center of the capital, sleep in the outskirts. The movement resembles the tide: in the morning the workers stream into Paris, and in the evening the same wave of people flows out. It is a melancholy image...I would add...that it is the first time that humanity has assisted in a spectacle so dispiriting for the people." A. Gravneau, L'ouvrier devant la societe -Paris, 1868 (Benjamin, 137)

Haussmann aimed to detain and fix the rootless and to channel workers into linear movement: from home to work, from work to home, a precursor to metro, boulot, dodo.

Haussmann planned the construction of railway links between the center of Paris and its outskirts during a period in which the European railways expanded considerably. "Space is killed by the railways and we are left with time alone." -Heinrich Heine (Rice, 207) Space may not have been killed by the railways but high-speed travel has made travel time a greater consideration than travel distance. What Georg Simmel said of money can be said of the modern city. They both allow connections between previously distant things but make that which is close more difficult to reach. While distances were conquered by the railways, the nearby slipped further away. That is, at the same time as transportation and communications allowed one to reach far away places in a short period of time, ones neighbors became more distant: industrialization demanded more hours of work and more travel time to and from work, there was less time to socialize.

Let's not forget that the separation between work and leisure time is accompanied by the separation between living and working spaces. Industrialization and the subsequent proletarianization of large sectors of the population created this separation on a mass scale. Peasants had worked at or near home, those that had worked and lived in separate quarters generally found that the distance between these 2 points increased with industrialization. The increasing partition of time into working and living in separate spaces effected customary meal times, household labor and its sexual division, family relations and leisure activities. This separation began a process of increased dependence on consumer goods for previously home produced items. The creation of suburbs increased the distance of this separation. This separation corrodes the type of relationships that could form a basis for attacks on the established order. This separation organizes the spatial and temporal imposition of consumption and production. The prevalence of the spatial and temporal separation between work and 'life' was born with industrialization but has come to appear timeless and natural. The naturalness of this separation kills the passion for freedom by limiting our capacity to imagine any other organization of space and time than the repetitive constriction which capital imposes on us.

North American Suburbs: the paved dream.

Before World War II, the U.S. was already a highly industrialized country. Thus, the conditions I describe above were already common to North American cities. From the 30s on, the distance dividing living and working spaces increased exponentially as millions of Americans moved to the suburbs, highways were built and millions of Americans bought cars in an attempt to close this increasing distance.

The federal government employed millions in the thirties to build a new landscape. After WWII the Veteran's Mortgage Guarantee Program provided low cost housing to millions of people. From the late 40s to the mid-60s developers built 23 million new homes. Industry followed these mostly white new suburbanites out of the city, partly because unions were weaker there. In the 40s and 50s the government invested millions of dollars on the suburban infrastructure: gas, electricity, roads, sewer systems and highways. They built thousands of roads and highways allowing for easy movement between suburbs and city centers. Poor neighborhoods were unable to resist the construction of highways through their neighborhoods whereas rich neighborhoods had the clout to prevent this from happening. One more recent example of this is the construction of a highway in South Central Los Angeles while the rich of Beverly Hills were able to stop the construction of a highway in their neighborhood.

The defense department spent millions of dollars on freeways after the war. Just as Haussmann's boulevards were strategically useful to the military, highways could potentially be used as runways to land bombers. More significant though was the alliance between, car companies, the oil and rubber industries that lobbied for the construction of highways, and the state. These companies used the coercive power of the built environment to insure the consumption of their products. Suburbanization was a perfect accompaniment to the construction of roads, highways, and mass produced automobiles. Greater distances between work and home along with terrible public transportation (again thanks to the friendship between government and car and oil companies) created a need for automobiles.

Alienation is built into the city and into the suburbs, in its concrete and asphalt. Take the example of Los Angeles, the city built to accommodate cars but not walking human beings. In LA many people think nothing of driving 45 minutes just to go a bar to have a drink. Instead of having neighborhoods where one finds a whole street of bars or cafes, places to socialize are spread out over the city. North American cities lack any pre-capitalist history; they were built from the beginning by the dictates of capital, with government help. The result: urban blights that are more adapted to the automobile than the human being.

Unfortunately cities that predate capitalism can be also transformed into concrete monsters. In Torino, Italy the gigantic FIAT plant began assembly line mass production based on Ford's model decades before the rest of Europe. The result is the same as occurred in U.S. cities: mass production needed mass consumption to perpetuate itself, a cityscape was built that conformed to the requirements of accumulation. Someone had to buy the cars, to make this possible the car companies made sure that roads were built. Torino is a rare European example of the results of the dominion of a car company and its allies over a cityscape. Concrete partitions between seemingly endless apartments and a proliferation of roads have surrounded the walkable narrow streets of the old city. The FIAT plant employed a large percentage of Torino's residents for many decades. The employees were scattered throughout the city while the FIAT was in one location, the result: auto, boulot, dodo.

Back in the U.S.A., the suburban lawn and backyard were offered to a section of the working class and to the middle classes. The alienation from nature they experienced in their new automobiles and at work was compensated for and then hidden by an equally alienated but much more pleasant relationship to nature at home. Forced to buy what they could easily make at home if there were time, watching adventure on TV, the suburbanite resorts to control over nature where he lacks control over his own life. Therefore we observe bushes trimmed into squares, a neurosis for mowing lawns and meticulously planted rows of flowers. Garden stores have proliferated and the suburban yard has become nature as commodity. The suburban yard, the lies on television and 17 choices of toothpaste all helped perpetuate the illusion of the American dream. The American dream is lifeless and as uniform as the suburban lawn; it is produced by the television instead of by subjects that intervene in life in order to transform it. The American dream hides the degrading reality of a processed life from those "lucky" enough to afford it. Where private property reigns the ownership of one's living space, work-space, and just about every other space by capitalists the property poor individual is perpetually constrained. Suburbs conceal alienation from nature and other human beings as well as the lack of power that suburbanites exercise over their own lives at home and at work.

The separate ownership of living and working spaces divides opposition to Capital into labor and rent struggles. On the other hand, the illusion of homeownership (getting bank loans to buy a house) gave millions of workers a vested interest in the system of private property, and diffused any potential struggle against landlords. This has resulted in community action to protect the property values in a given area. Workers have organized to keep other workers out of their neighborhoods. When millions of blacks moved to northern cities, white neighborhoods tried to prevent blacks from moving into their neighborhoods in order to protect their property values. This "community" action" is in many cases the action of illusory communities. The average suburbanite or city dweller doesn't know many of her neighbors. When she chooses to take community action to protect her property value, this is a "community" connection based on money, and seldom on direct human connections.

While Haussmann's Paris served to create an image of the capitol of a powerful empire, city revitalization projects create an image of the new "beautified" city that is sold to us under the guise of community pride. In both of these examples this was achieved through the displacement of the poor. The "community" is sold to us with citywide celebrations, city fairs or official Millennium celebrations. The State and the media help create and perpetuate these imagined communities, that is, communities which lack commonality based on direct human relations but are instead based on an abstract conception of common identity, the most obvious example of this is the Nation. Capitalism destroys human connections but it replaces this vacuum with imagined communities.

Haussmann built boulevards to prevent the construction of barricades and completely destroyed the neighborhoods where insurrection was most likely to occur. These neighborhoods reappeared in a different form in the suburbs. North American suburbs are built so that few direct relationships of the sort that Haussmann paved over ever develop. Communication is as much a threat to state control as barricades. In the suburbs, houses are far from shopping areas, places to socialize, and work places. Meanwhile the suburbanite is sold the idea that she likes this on TV, and is bought off with excessive consumption. The suburbanite is lost alone in a labyrinth of reflections. Unable to find anyone to discuss anything of substance with, she is left with only images for companions. While the suburbs were being designed to placate and stupefy, the inner cities were becoming increasingly marginalized economically. Haussmann destroyed slums to prevent insurrection, but in the U.S. slums sprouted up right in the shadow of the American dream. During the Rodney King Riots, suburbanites watched the adventure on TV.


Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. Eliand, Howard and McLaughlin, Kevin Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity Cambridge:Blackwell, 1990.

Rice, Shelley. Parisian Views. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997.