On November 2nd, Philadelphia Councilwoman Cindy Bass introduced legislation to further regulate corner stores and restaurants — specifically to introduce new restrictions and reinforce existing restrictions on these stores. The bill has passed through City Council and has now been signed by Mayor Jim Kenney as of December 20th. The contents of the bill can be viewed on the city’s website, here.
News about this bill has been circulating around the internet. The articles are generally condemning the Councilwoman’s bill as an unfair imposition on business owner’s rights to operate as they please. The Conservative Tribune claims, in an article called “Big City Dem Wants Bulletproof Glass Banned for Being Racist“, that the bill is evidence that: “We now live in a world where almost anyone and everything can and will be labelled ‘racist.’ Some store owners in Philadelphia are the latest victims of the PC police.” But the liberal majority in the city government agrees that the bill would improve quality of life in the city and passed it unanimously. We would like to criticize both of these positions and provide our own view from the perspective of poor Philadelphia, and use this example to draw attention to larger problems in American politics, particularly how the interests of the poor and working class are never represented. A better source for this story is Philadelphia’s The Inquirer, who published a more balanced article called “Barrier windows in Philly beer delis: Symbols of safety or distrust?” that tries to present both arguments and provides good testimony from some stores owners, but as a piece of reporting it does not look at the wider situation.
Councilwoman Bass is a liberal and a Democratic Party politician, and a black woman from North Philadelphia. She told Fox29 News: “We want to make sure that there isn’t this sort of indignity, in my opinion, to serving food through a Plexiglas only in certain neighborhoods.” This is in reference to the statements of Yale sociology professor, Dr. Elijah Anderson, who describes the presence of bulletproof plexiglass as a “symbol of distrust”, a suggestion that the customers are not “…civil, honest people.”
Bass’s statement is strange. Why would the plexiglass barrier make us indignant? Is it because it shows that we live “…only in certain neighborhoods”? Well, those “certain neighborhoods” are poor neighborhoods. If you live in a poor neighborhood you know it, and your problems definitely have a lot more to do with affording your groceries than whether or not the cashier selling you them is behind glass and wire. What Dr. Anderson of Yale fails to recognize, or does not say clearly enough, is that if the glass and wire is ugly it’s ugly because it reminds us of our own desperation and the desperation we are surrounded by. If it were not a symbol of the reality of poverty and violence it would not be troublesome. The trendy coffee shops and restaurants of University City and the recently deceased neighborhood of Fishtown are often decorated like warehouses and factories, with exposed piping, steel, and gritty lighting to create an urban atmosphere — the people eating there are not reminded of the reality of hard labor and poverty because it is not a reality to them, it is an aesthetic choice. Dr. Anderson and Councilwoman Bass equate the presence of bulletproof plexiglass with an aesthetic choice meant only to impart a message and ignore the circumstances that created it. The most important factor, regardless of whether the plexiglass is necessary or not, is finding out why it is there in the first place.
Poverty is violent. Most of the danger comes from the lack of jobs, healthcare, and education, but those threats sometimes spill over into robberies and shootings. Bulletproof glass is a sad reality in poor neighborhoods, a reminder of the interaction between one person robbing a store because they’re struggling and another person trying to run a little store. And these people running the stores are treated as the primary opposition to Councilwoman Bass’s bill. Bass claims that “…the bill has been mischaracterized by the people who run those stores – people who are exploiting a loophole in state law and hurting the neediest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.” The stores she is referring to are corner stores in poor neighborhoods in Philadelphia. These are redlined neighborhoods (Philadelphia is such a good example of redlining that a map of our extensive racial segregation is used for the Wikipedia picture describing redlining). In short, these are neighborhoods where there are none or fewer of the Wawas and Acmes and stores of similar reputation as are available in places like the Far Northeast, Chestnut Hill, or Center City. That’s because opening them in Strawberry Mansion, East Germantown, Kensington, and similar neighborhoods is considered a bad investment due to the high poverty and the crime that comes with that poverty. The owners of Acme and Wawa can afford higher rent in wealthier neighborhoods, or can place their stores strategically on the edges of poor areas.
An in depth understanding of the economics of the city, especially the relationship between the legal and illegal economics of the city, is necessary to understand the situation. The crime and poverty endured by the people of the city is usually explained away as a result of “poor morals”, inter-generational gaps in leadership, or simply stating or implying that the inferiority of black and brown people is the primary cause. These excuses that obscure the actual situation are common enough that we feel it is necessary to explain in detail these economic circumstances — economic circumstances not referring to simply the “state of poverty”, but the exchange of products, labor, profits, and power that determines who is poor.
This crime and poverty that makes much of the city bad for investment is there because the people living there don’t have money to spend to make it worth investing in. What results is a cycle of poverty, which is normally described as functioning something like: “to be poor is to be unprofitable and to be unprofitable is to be poor, and to be a criminal is one of the few routes available.” But this is wrong, because the poverty of some is very profitable to others, and the poor need to remain poor for that profit to be made.
Some activities deemed criminal, such as selling marijuana, are in themselves an easy and harmless additional income, and one that is genuinely appreciated by the community. But nonetheless due to its illegality it can only operate on a black market in which the wealthier sellers with the supply are rarely at risk, because despite the highly decentralized and casual nature of (local) marijuana trade, profit is still made primarily off of the poor sellers who risk the most and make the least, risking imprisonment and murder to sell a few ounces. This creates an illegal job market mirroring the legal job market, in which “street level” employees and working managers produce profit for the administrative bosses. It reproduces the legal business model, but without any of the labor laws regulating the treatment of employees, and an overt legitimization of violence in which an employee can be killed with no repercussions for something such as switching companies for a better wage. And, most importantly, this black market is in reality not separate from the free market of law-abiding citizens. The demand for the marijuana supplied by dealers comes from everywhere in the United States, all the suburbs, and small towns branching out from the cities, which cumulatively far outnumber the inner city population. These suburbs and towns are largely white and policed more sparsely by state troopers or local police forces, police that are more forgiving of drug crime in a well tended suburb where they are respected among peers than in a city neighborhood where their interests are opposed to the interests of the community. Which is not to say that within these communities there is not police abuse or class struggle (and the difference between even a modest working suburb and a trailer park cannot be overstated) but instead to emphasize that the illegal economy of the drug trade is part of the economic fabric of even the most idyllic middle-class American suburb, those huge portions of the population that would like the right to use marijuana “responsibly.” These people reject its criminalization, often on the grounds that to only be available through criminal channels taints the otherwise innocent nature of marijuana. Here we see the worker who provides the marijuana as dehumanized and made equivalent to the process in which the product is received. The logic of the customer as more important than the worker (“the customer is always right”) informs our understanding of criminality, so that though both parties in a transaction are doing something illegal, the person providing the service is associated with the entire process of the drug trade, whereas the customer is associated only with the purchase. Further than this cultural attitude, there is immense interest in cashing in on the immensely profitable potential of legal and regulated marijuana sales, both on the part of the corporations that would be making the sales and the government bodies that would be funded by their taxation.
There are of course those opposed to the entire process of illegal drug trade, purchase, distribution, and consumption. But they are very much the other side of the same coin that is legal profit being made by the drug trade, as the mass imprisonment of those involved in the drug trade — 46.3% of all US prisoners are in prison for nonviolent drug offenses — is incredibly profitable. That almost half of all prisoners are in prison for drug offenses means that half of the labor available to the prison system and the state is coming from communities much like those in Philadelphia where the illegal drug trade is informally a major employer allowing for people to survive — an illegal trade that is serving to supply not just poor city folk but all of America with their recreational drugs, and a trade that is extremely profitable even for those who oppose it as it provides plenty of free labor, as is allowed under the 13th Amendment that bans slavery except in cases of punishment for a crime. It is much more profitable for the state to have the surplus population imprisoned and providing free labor than it would be for that surplus population to be made up of freemen requiring legal employment.
Though it is perhaps easier to see how the sale of marijuana does not justify enslavement, the same is certainly as true for genuinely harmful drugs. Most opiate users become addicted with legal pain medication and eventually need more than can be legally given to treat the same symptoms, creating a demand for the illegal sale of an addictive and dangerous substance that was, in most cases, originally prescribed legally by doctors — “nearly 80 percent of opioid users reported that their first regular opioid was a prescription pain reliever.” And this demand comes from outside these neighborhoods, from the mostly white and mostly wealthier suburbs who have the need and the money to spend on it, while the supply of opiates comes in through the ports of Philadelphia and Baltimore. This gives these poor city neighborhoods deprived of work and wealth a resource to sell and a market to sell it to. All of it is highly illegal, and of course the drug trade itself is operated by its own exploitative system of hierarchy, so that the people selling pills and heroin on the street and interacting with their customers are nearly always the most poor and desperate, and it is these poor desperate people who are punished with prison, felonies, or assault and death from competition in the drug trade.
This is the desperate context the question of plexiglass bulletproof windows needs to be considered within. And these must be the people ivy league professor Dr. Elijah Anderson is referring to when he says “of course some people are bad,” in his advocating for removing the glass, putting those “bad” people up against his “civil, honest people”, which would seem to suggest that his bad people are uncivilized and dishonest — just irrational criminals.
Because of these conditions, especially the cheap property and the high demand for groceries and convenience stores, the owners of the corner stores in question are very different demographically than the owners of any stores outside of poor city neighborhoods. They are overwhelmingly immigrants or children of immigrants — after all, we call them papi stores because so many of them are owned by Latino immigrants or members of Latino communities founded by immigrants. In other parts of the city, cornerstores and grocery stores are owned by black African immigrants, or Asian immigrants. Having considered this let’s return to the Councilwoman’s statement: “…the bill has been mischaracterized by the people who run those stores – people who are exploiting a loophole in state law and hurting the neediest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.” The only people who have expressed their discontent about this bill in the news have been a number of Asian operated stores who were asked to comment by The Inquirer after the bill had already been introduced.
Here there emerges the issue of inter-community exploitation among people of color, in the United States particularly the relationship between Asian immigrants and black Americans. This is itself a peculiar issue in the context of American liberal dialogue — the standard claim among up-to-date liberals and many true leftists is that racism is only possible with the presence of institutional power based on race, along with the insistence that white people are the only people with institutional power based on race. In most of the world it is true that, as a result of centuries of slavery, genocide, and colonial domination, whiteness is a major determinant of social rank and institutional power. But in places such as India, the Philippines, and much of Latin-America, (among many other places) that institutional power of whiteness is often exercised by people who are not white by American standards. Places such as mainland China also have their own racial chauvinism with its own exploitative systems of powers — which we do not claim whatsoever to be evidence that white supremacy is any less destructive or pervasive than it is, but rather to make sure we do not simplify the world into powerful whites and the unified, fragile non-whites who are without difference and conflict. The implication of stating universally and without qualification that only white people can exercise institutional racial power is that the only power that matters is the power that is exercised by white people. It is the liberal White Man’s Burden, disguised as pity and guilt.
But, even acknowledging the real possibility that Asian immigrants could be exploiting poor black neighborhoods, we find that in the United States the primary issue remains white supremacy. Though some non-white immigrants may profit from that environment created by white supremacy they certainly are not doing so to any greater extent than a black cop or councilwoman, and in most cases have much less institutional sway than either the cop or councilwoman, which is obvious considering that their main offenses seem to be selling alcohol and protecting themselves from gunfire. The poverty and redlined racial ghettos that allow Asian as well as Latin-American and African immigrants to set up and operate viable businesses at all, were created by and are maintained by white supremacy. Anybody who has set up their only family operated store in a neighborhood where robberies and shootings are so frequent that bulletproof plexiglass is worth investing in does not have a lot of money to begin with. Crucially, the fact that the majority of those who were in touch with the press concerning this were Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants should not be seen as an indication that it is only these groups that are effected, as Asian people who generally face less harassment and possess greater wealth than black or Latin people may have simply been more willing to contact or answer the press. It is also likely the press themselves were less willing to reach out to black and Latin store-owners. As a result, the following experiences we have are all concerning East Asian American and East Asian immigrant store-owner’s experiences concerning the safety of their stores:
Michelle Tran, who owns the Wayne Junction Deli on Windrim Avenue, said to The Inquirer: “I would love it if it were Center City, I could sell $8 burgers and $10 beers,” as opposed to $1.25 beers, said Tran. “But it’s a solid working-class neighborhood.” Mouy Chheng, the first to speak against, said her 19-year-old son was fatally shot by two armed robbers at the family’s South Philly convenience store in 2003 when it did not have a bullet-resistant window. Peter Ly, a West Philly beer deli owner who made news after he was shot three times in December 2011 when he went to deposit money at a Cheltenham bank, told Council of another incident a decade ago when he was shot six times during a gunpoint robbery at a beer deli he then owned on Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia with no bullet-resistant window. He has a partition in his current business. Bill Chow said a customer who claimed Chow shortchanged him threw bleach at him through an opening in the window even after he showed the man the surveillance video disproving his claim. Jeff Liu, owner of Kenny’s Seafood & Steak, put plexiglass up in his shop because a man he had asked to stop selling drugs outside of his store returned firing a rifle at cars parked outside. Also reported by The Inquirer: “Sae Kim, who owns Broad Deli on Broad Street near Susquehanna Avenue in North Philadelphia, said his business has been threatened numerous times but never robbed at gunpoint, crediting the bullet-resistant window as a deterrence…Before his family took over the business 20 years ago, the prior owner’s son was fatally shot when there was no partition. About 15 years ago, Kim said, a man with a knife tried to rape his mother-in-law but she was able to escape to safety behind the partition and lock the door.”
Councilwoman Cindy Bass and Dr. Elijah Anderson do not even acknowledge that the majority of these stores are owned by poor people of color, and in doing so ultimately avoid actually confronting the issue of white supremacy or poverty at all, instead trying to restrict the lives of the poor even further because some practical element that is part of our survival is also incidentally a reminder that surviving while impoverished is a struggle, a reminder that you live in “those neighborhoods.” Only someone who doesn’t live there could forget.
The Councilwoman’s dismissal of the detractors as “people…hurting the neediest neighborhoods in Philadelphia,” is particularly disgusting in light of the rampant gentrification that is exploiting the “neediest” areas, gentrification that is not only condoned but encouraged by the majority Democrat Philadelphia city government as a means of “developing” the city. It says enough that she takes issue with the owners of small, community cornerstores protecting themselves from the very real danger of gun violence, but does not object to encouraging the robbery and destruction of peoples homes that occurs when landlords sell entire blocks and apartment buildings to a condo baron like Allan Domb. Councilwoman Bass and her liberal friends are trying to beautify the city, and they’re framing it with progressive language. The conservatives against this bill, such as those in the Conservative Tribune mentioned above, think that by opposing such a restriction they are advocating for free business practices. What they don’t understand is that successful businesses, such as those run by Allan Domb, never advocate for all around free business practice but rather the particular freedoms that are of interest to them. Such as the tax abatement that real estate companies insisted be passed to help kick start their development. The city passed it under the guise that it would help homeowners, but the $690 dollars saved on your rowhome property tax is helpful but doesn’t mean much at all after Allan Domb saves a million from it and buys your entire block and displaces your family and neighbors to build a new apartment building for Temple University students or “young professionals.” The freedom to take homes more effectively is something a successful real estate business advocates. But the government run beautification of the city is also necessary to protect their investment and raise property values higher, and the further restriction of the lives of the poor, merchants or otherwise, is necessary for that.
This is the crucial point that those conservative and capitalist analyses of the situation misunderstand. Successful businessmen are not at odds with the state, and they don’t support unilateral free trade — they require the tax breaks and subsidies provided by the state, and most of all they require the immense protection provided by private property laws, police forces, and the court and prison system that uphold those property laws and police forces. Allan Domb is not at odds with the regulation of the state, he requires it to protect his trendy colonist tenants from the people who used to live there: the poor people excluded from the legal market via lack of education, redlining, felony charges, general lack of any available industry and the systematic destruction of unions since Reagan, now forced to try and make a living on a black market outside of government regulation and getting arrested and killed for it. Removing the bulletproof plexiglass is one part of this supposed beautification process, and though it may seem on the surface that this restriction is an affront to the freedom of businesses, it is exactly the product of the unchecked freedom of businesses to determine government policy in such a way. It is not a question of business interests against restrictive government policies — they are one and the same, as businesses expect the city government to clean up the streets to make sure their investments are secure, and the city government is able to act as if it is concerned with the well being of the populace through strategic “reforms” such as this. (Individuals in the city government may very well be concerned with the well being of the populace, but as long as the city government is dependent on corporate development for their individual campaign funding and the wealth of the city, they will be acting against the health of the city.)
The rest of the bill includes a minimum of required seating and prohibits the sale of alcohol by dramatically heightening the requirements for a store to be considered a restaurant with grounds to claim a liquor license. This is again done under the guise of humanitarian concern for the people in these neighborhoods, with Councilwoman Bass saying, “Would you feel safe with an illegal liquor store next door to you, selling shots of cheap booze at 10 a.m. to loitering alcoholics?” Certainly alcoholism and harassment are a problem, but Bass completely neglects to mention that the social life of these communities often heavily involves these places. And those “loitering alcoholics” aren’t bogeymen, they’re members of that community, someone’s parent, someone’s child, someone’s friend. People hang outside the stores and talk and drink and listen to music and dance and flirt and argue. The culture of this social life often finds itself revolving around unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcoholism and lean. But removing the community coping mechanism does not solve the problem, it only kills the community social life and isolates its members, as has happened in the suburbs where each building and store is neatly sorted by its purpose, each family neatly sorted into their home, and each family member into their room. These people are not any healthier. Opiate addiction and suicide afflict suburbanites from various wealth brackets just as much as they affect the urban poor, but once you leave the city you will be hard pressed to find any kind of flourishing social life until you get to the trailer parks or the rare town that doesn’t exist only as the residential section of a stripmall. The suburbs and the wealthy neighborhoods in cities and rural areas might have better access to healthcare to treat addiction, as well as access to other potentially less destructive diversions that allow them to cope, but it is clear that the need to cope is just as present there as it is in the poor areas. This ubiquitous need to cope with alienation, along with the persistence of some degree of communitarian culture among the poor in particular, leads to the cultural logic of gentrification.
Gentrification is first and foremost a material reorganization of wealth and labor spurred by technological shifts. The rapid decentralization of industry into dynamic networks like Uber, Amazon, AirBnB, and any other number of services formal or informal that can be performed online or partially online without the necessity of a factory, warehouse, or office location allows in turn for a rapid centralization of corporate power. Because employees do not actively associate with one another at any central location they are radically atomized and have no leverage to demand better working conditions or rights — no workplace to occupy to stop production if they wanted to, and no way of preventing their swift and permanent replacement with any of the other individual’s desperate for work. Likewise, in the case of Uber and AirBnB and similar entities, the employee is being paid by the customer instead of the company, though the company has a guaranteed share of the profit, meaning that the worker is encouraged to compete to undercut their own wages and profitability in competition with other employees, resulting in them legally making far less than a minimum wage that is already far below sufficient to live on — $3.37 an hour before taxes. To say nothing of tech companies like Facebook and Google that require a relatively small labor force for the immense amount of profit they make, and because their operation is fundamentally digital and decentralized, they have no reason to operate anywhere other than accessible urban areas with good technological infrastructure, and no reason to hire anyone other than middle and upper class professionals, whether they be genuinely wealthy or indebted middle class students. This new model of employment does not only not require their centers of production to be situated in densely populated urban areas, but very much prefers that they not be. Wal-Mart and Amazon distribution centers are mainly located in rural, conservative areas that are desperate for jobs and unlikely to unionize. With industry’s production centers moving to rural areas, and administrative centers moving to urban areas, there is less demand for “unskilled” industrial labor in cities, and more demand for administrative labor and management positions. The real-estate industry is able to leverage this transfer into the seizure and conversion of working class neighborhoods and poor slums. They are able to make massive profits from a housing market that has prices relatively cheap for those middle class students and professionals who want the employment opportunities offered in big cities, and simultaneously far too expensive for poor city residents to purchase new properties when they are evicted by landlords excited to sell the decaying tenements they own to the real-estate companies offering far more than they can manage to make in rent from their poor tenants.
This is the material situation that leads to gentrification, capital operating as always for the sake and consolidation of capital, but as with all material phenomena, it produces an ideological mythology through our perception of and interaction with it. On the part of those directly facilitating the transformation of these neighborhoods such as city government and real-estate figures, this ideology takes the form of “beautification” and “urban renewal.” But for those who settle in gentrified neighborhoods, their experience is often characterized by a similar mythology as the noble savage caricatures of colonialism and patronizing neocolonial liberalism, and it can certainly be said that the ideology of gentrification justifies an internal mode of colonization. Genuineness, culture, and danger are all associated with the poor in a similar way they are associated with “primitive” tribes and peoples. But the genuineness and the culture isn’t some special feature of poverty — it is a result of people who are not tied so tightly to an exploitative economy of wage labor because they are barely allowed to participate in it at all. From the neglect, there is some space for creative human flourishing, real culture growing in the gaps of what is measured and regulated. Never in a suburb do multiple generations hang out on the street on a Friday night and yell and laugh with each other the way people do in the ghetto. Never do you see everyone pouring down the street celebrating a wedding or mourning a death. Of course, the conditions in those gaps of regulation aren’t something to be desired and everyone living in poverty wants out of it. But the wealthy and suburbanite mystifications of the social life of the poor shouldn’t stop the poor and the working class from realizing our unique position.
The whole economic system of neoliberal capitalism depends entirely on the obedience of those providing cheap labor. But to have reliably cheap labor it needs to keep so much of the population on the margins of the world it creates — and from our place on the margins, we can see that another world is possible. Gentrification tries to reduce social life to a commodity; investors try to buy a community and find themselves with only sanitized dollhouse neighborhoods and the same alienation of white-vinyl suburban developments dressed in a different costume. Capitalist liberalism is the humanitarian face of this process, and its the face we see the most of in the government of cities. We should never forget, when we consider the city government’s intentions when it frames impositions on our social life as public service response to complaints, that in 1985 when the city bombed the MOVE house, they claimed it was a response to neighbors’ complaints about the smell of the compost and the announcements made on their loudspeaker. Then the city government burnt those neighbors’ houses down and left them homeless. They burnt down a neighborhood by claiming that the specific, situational, and legitimate complaints of community members gave them the right to enforce a transcendent will of the city however they saw fit, even if it meant they would destroy a community that existed in reality for the sake of an ideal city. It is the same reasoning that now leads them to undermine and ultimately demolish entire communities for the sake of the renewal and improvement of the ideal city composed of market speculation, potential profits and investments, instead of acting on behalf of the existing city composed of people and the communities they have created. In the words of the late Philadelphian folk-singer Erik Petersen, may we all “stand up to save your neighborhood, fuck the city, burn it down,” in the sense that the conception of “the city” exists only as a justification for the regulation and exploitation of many interdependent communities.
Liberalism can occasionally be useful in facilitating reforms that are undeniably meaningful for the people effected by them. To this end, advocating for reforms such as tenants’ rights, low income housing, safe injection sites, etc, are all worthwhile, though they must be done strategically and always with the explicit qualification that the reform will ultimately be insufficient, a band-aid on a cancer patient. Moralist impositions on the autonomy of communities, such as this ban on bullet-proof plexiglass, should be unilaterally opposed. Conservatism is at least admirable for its claimed suspicion towards the government and unwillingness to relinquish autonomy, though more often than not this is somehow accompanied by an undying, unquestioning loyalty towards and support for the police, the armed agents enforcing the interests of that government and rarely held accountable for abuses of power robbing people of their rights. Neither of these ideologies address the underlying issues of society at large. Both depend on each other to, from different angles, enforce the assumptions of capitalism and the free market and ensure that no alternative is entertained. But a radical alternative is sorely needed, and Philadelphia is a city with a rich history of radicals fighting for true liberty. To name only a few, Quakers and Black Panthers attacking the institutions of slavery and white supremacy in their respective centuries, the Industrial Workers of the World building unprecedented multiracial dockworkers’ unions, and now organizations like Philly Coalition for Real Justice, Philadelphia Tenant’s Union, Philly Socialists and soon the Tubman-Brown Organization all following in this tradition.