Local Action

Saturday morning finds me in front of my apartment building in Park Slope, Brooklyn holding a clipboard and collecting signatures on a petition. Am I turning into the American Long Hair? I do a quick wardrobe self-check–nope, no images of dead bearded revolutionaries anywhere in sight. But I do get the chance to speak a bit of Cantonese, when I meet, for the first time, my neighbors three doors down. Chi Ping and Chi Ling are lawyers who own a magnificent old Victorian house with a turret; they are the only Cantonese left on the block.

The rental building next door used to be filled with about 15 Cantonese-speaking families, from the opposite bump on the M-shaped economic pattern that now prevails in both New York and Hong Kong (where, yesterday, the stock market hit a record volume, while a new report showed a record number of HK people living on less than $500 USD a month).

My old leun geui were recent arrivals from Guangdong. They lived in tiny single rooms, and did manual labor and piecework to get by–when I’d walk home late at night, the curtain-less windows of the front apartment revealed a scene out of Jacob Riis: the greenish glow of a bare flourescent tube, a pale, middle-aged Chinese woman hunched over a sewing machine, surrounded by bits of zippers and strips of cloth.

One of the things I’d dreamed about when I first started to tackle Cantonese was that someday I’d be able to go next door and get to know my neighbors. Now my language skills are up to the task, but all the Chinese people next door are gone. Three years ago, their landlord–a Cantonese businessman named Mak–kicked them all out and renovated the building into condos, which he then sold to mainly Caucasian yuppies at 800,000 US a pop. (To give you some context, these flats are roughly twice the size of mine, purchased 8 years earlier for less than $50,000).

I mention the tale of the vanished Cantonese because in a way it explains why I am standing out on the street with a clipboard on a Saturday morning, doing what Long Hair and his buddies would call a chim meng wuht dung 簽名活動, a signature campaign. Ostensibly, I’m collecting signatures of support to present to the New York City Department of Transportation to try to get some speed bumps installed on our little block, which is located right off a busy thoroughfare and has become a drag strip for speeding SUV’s.

But that issue is just an excuse. What we really want is to make contact with our neighbors, collect email addresses and get them motivated to join and work with our Block Association. So that we can join the larger movement that’s afoot here in the neighborhoods of New York– working to shut down the Unchecked Reign of the Property Developers.

I used to think it was one of the great ironies of my life that I happened to choose to live in two neighborhoods–Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Soho, Hong Kong–that are being rolled over by rapacious and short-sighted property developers, in collusion with a greedy, corrupt government. I’d arrive from Hong Kong indignant about the Star Ferry clock tower being demolished in the middle of the night, only to discover that a bunch of politicians in a back room in New York had made a sweetheart deal with a fat cat developer to turn a big parcel of state owned land near my Brooklyn apartment into a condo tower project planned to have a higher population density than Mongkok.

But soon I understood that these things are neither ironic nor coincidental. Both New York and Hong Kong are part of the same worldwide phenomenon. Real estate nowadays is like tin or diamonds or oil: a scare and coveted trans-global commodity.

Back in the 18th and 19th century, entire nations practiced rapacious and exploitative development. Back then this was called colonialism. But colonial rulers, albiet in self interest, did build public roads, sanitation systems, parks, municipal buildings and schools (and, sometimes, they created whole modern cities, like Hong Kong, Singapore and Calcutta).

Similarly, major Western cities, from the late 19th until around the mid-20th century, put civic amenities and public space high on the agenda. Again, there was a self-interest motive–the bourgoisie and power elites feared that if poor urban immigrants didn’t have access to light, air, sunshine and space, there’d be rampant disease, crime, or even widespread revolts. So vast public sums were spent constructing grand avenues and gracious parks, monuments and statues, fountains, pools and promenades for the enjoyment of all classes. My neighborhood in Brooklyn is highly desirable today because it’s surrounded by the fruits of this 19th century beautification zeal. The value of my property is soaring because of public-sector investments more than 100 years old.

But gradually, for reasons too complex to get into now, cities stopped earmarking their resources for public space and amenities. Corporations took over from nation-states in the property exploitation game, and now everything is on the chopping block.  It’s more extreme in Hong Kong (again, see Alice Poon’s key book about power and property in HK), than in New York (here in NY, unlike HK, there are landmarked buildings and districts, and a fairly powerful architectural preservation lobby).

And somewhere along the way, people living in cities like New York and Hong Kong stopped viewing public amenities as their right, as something that civilized modern cities are supposed to provide. Our expectations have downsized. The propaganda of privatization is so strong that nearly everyone, rich, middle class and poor, is fantasizing about how they’ll make a fast profit flipping a flat, or a house or a skyscraper, instead of planning neighborhoods with space and amenities that add value to property for generations to come. For most of us, this jackpot will never be anything but a property bubble fantasy. 

Others, and I count myself in here, may get a tiny benefit out of the bubble, but their rights as small property owners–and as citizens– are always going to be (sorry about the pun here) Trumped by the interests of the big players, the Bruce Ratners and Sun Hung Kais of the global real estate grab. The big guys get preferential treatment and tax breaks galore. I get to pay for those tax breaks, and then live with their construction traffic and noise for five or ten years. Not to mention the heartbreak of watching a rich, lively mixed neighborhood like the one I moved into years ago on Staunton Street in HK turn into an expat food court.

This morning I got another email newsletter from Local Action, the Hong Kong activist group that sprang up in the wake of the struggle over the Star Ferry terminal. They’ve been sending out weekly Internet missives since December of 2006, long, thoughtful essays about the politics of property, historical preservation, and identity and cultural memory in Hong Kong. My Chinese isn’t good enough to read the quantity of info they send–it would take me hours to translate it all–but I skim the headlines and occasionally peek into their Chinese-langua
ge blog, so I can keep up with their news. (Today it’s not good: on Friday, the Legislative Council defeated the motion that would have stopped funding the removal of Queen’s Pier and gummed up the project to carve a highway along the waterfront. They may try a judicial review next.)

Still, it makes me happy that Local Action has gotten even this far. Like the Brooklyn-based blogs and groups that have been fighting the Atlantic Yards mega-development, Local Action uses the Internet to move popular opinion and to organize the public to come out and attend all the little, obscure town planning meetings where these projects get rubber stamped. Publicity, and opposition groups of outspoken, informed people may not be able to completely stop the deals and the giveaways, but it will force the big guys to work harder to get away with it. And that will slow things down, hopefully until the bubble finally bursts. I want to believe that the future can be changed by ten million e-mails.

Local Action’s Cantonese name is Bun Tou Wuht Dung, which literally translates as “Action from home turf.” The lovely Chinese character, tou
, is one of my favorites: it means “earth”. Like a lot of the basic characters, tou looks a lot like what it symbolizes: the long lower horizontal line is the base, elemental and solid, from which all things reach upwards.

The fight for the human right to a healthy living environment–for sunshine, a stable climate, clean air and open public space, for cultural ways and our memories of place–is shaping up as the great global battle of our time. It is a struggle as big as the earth, and it reaches from Hong Kong to New York, to everywhere. Ignore bun tou wuht dung and you risk losing the ground beneath your feet.

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