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Engels at the “Brookings Institute”

March 30, 2009
By

David Harvey

Famed CUNY (and former Johns Hopkins University) geographer David Harvey’s Marxist approach to social theory and urban policy has weathered four decades of criticism and refutation. That, presumably, is why he was chosen to give the opening lecture of the City From Below conference, this past weekend’s gathering of activists and grass-roots organizers that, according to its web site “isn’t just about academics and other researchers talking to each other and at a passive audience.”

Harvey stood on Federal Hill at 5 p.m. Friday to deliver an updated speech of his 1991 essay, “A View from Federal Hill,” which first appeared in The Baltimore Book, a collection of articles by leftist historians that sought to untangle the city’s web of past social, racial, and labor conflicts by telling the stories of its underheard and disenfranchised actors. Harvey’s essay, the last in the book, is sort of the capstone for the various arguments made but also a vision for the future: Looking at the Inner Harbor, he argues, it’s clear that Baltimore’s civic leaders have chosen a city that privileges the tourist and banking industries over the industrial world of the working class, so where do we go from here?

On Friday, Harvey said some of the exact same things he wrote nearly two decades ago. The Maryland Science Center is atrociously ugly, and looks like a military fortress rather than something ordinary people ought to use. He revisited the Baltimore City Fair and the former mayor William Donald Schaefer administration’s efforts to clean up the damage of the 1968 riots by building shiny new buildings and hotels. He attacked Baltimore’s pro-tourist image, embodied by the Inner Harbor, as just that: an image and a false savior that does little but mask the tragic social problems that have dismantled Baltimore’s working-class neighborhoods.

“In a sense, the public was subsidizing the corporate world this whole time, while at the same time finding it’s not been profitable,” he said of the tax breaks that made Harborplace and the rest of the Inner Harbor renaissance possible. “The idea that the city can do well while the people do poorly never seemed to cross anyone’s mind.”

To a certain extent, Harvey’s talk was as dogmatic and humorless as you’d expect from a guy who began talking about alternatives to capitalism when it was intellectually fashionable, and who has adjusted his view very little in 40 years. It didn’t matter that he appeared puzzled when he gestured at Harbor East and Harborview and dismissed them as “ugly” without even knowing what the buildings were, or that he still seemed to think of the William Donald Schaefer Tower as the home of Merritt Savings and Loan, a company that went bust in 1985, rather than the state office building it is now. The point is, Harvey, now a New York resident, was not at all up to date on Baltimore and the crucial issues that confront it today, but he appeared to think that his arguments still were relevant.

At other times, the professor had interesting things to say about urban theory in the context of the current economic meltdown. He recalled quoting German communist progenitor Friedrich Engels at the meeting of a Baltimore civic panel while he was a Hopkins professor: “The bourgeoisie only has one way to solve its housing problems, and that is to move everything around,” he said. Then, his story goes, someone at the meeting said, “That’s a brilliant insight. Who said that?” When he identified the speaker, the same person asked, “Engels. Does he work at the Brookings Institute?”

As unlikely as this story is-who at the Brookings Institution has ever made arguments about the “bourgeoisie”?-it had apt application in the current housing and overall economic crisis. The financial meltdown is an urban crisis, Harvey said, and demands an urban solution. Since Bethlehem Steel, the shipping business, and all other vestiges of thriving industry left Baltimore, the city has been left with a financial system based on moving money around, from one pot to another, an endless string of Ponzi schemes and hollow investment bubbles, all of which eventually led to the current collapse.

“This is the kind of kind of thinking [city leaders have]: if you’ve got a difficulty, move it around,” he said. “This is the landscape capital built. What kind of landscape would we have built?”

And he’s not wrong. The planning of downtown over the last half-century is not without problems, not above criticism or reproach. But there are many ways to attack the city’s historical and current use of property taxes, public incentives, and planning. See Stephen J.K. Walters and Steve Hanke-economists at Loyola University and Hopkins, respectively-who write Wall Street Journal op-eds and Institute of Justice reports about how the city’s woes can be solved by halving the property-tax rate and bolstering private property rights protections. They object to the same things as Harvey, but are his polar opposite, ideologically.

And yes, the City From Below is a conference organized by anarchists and ground-level community organizers who get a thrill when they hear a world-famous social theorist like Harvey calling for “systematic invasion” of vacant properties by the homeless and for the establishment of a National Reconstruction Bank to take on foreclosed houses and making them into affordable housing projects. But in the end, it was a little disappointing to hear such an eminent academic pandering stale solutions for fresh problems.

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