Black Corona

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Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community  
Cover
Author(s) Steven Gregory
Publisher Princeton University Press
Publication date 1999-05-21
Pages 296
ISBN 0691029369

Anthropologist Steven Gregory notes early on in his introduction to Black Corona, “This is not a book about a “black ghetto” or an “inner city” community.” Rather, Gregory works utilized the ideas of Foucualt, Habermas, Nancy Fraser and Antoni Gramsci to reevaulate discursive ideas around urban communities and the politics that emerge from them. Published the same year as Roger Sanjek’s The Future of Us All, both anthropologists explore the daily political interactions between individuals within the Corona and East Elmhurst neighborhoods of Queens. For Gregory, what emerges is a complex and nuanced negotiation and renegotiation of the public sphere by various groups including state actors. Counterpublics (Fraser) develop to disseminate information for mobilizing communities forcing a restructuring of hegemony and discourse. The interplay between state agencies’ public spheres and the counterpublics of opposition serve to shape and determine present and future rhetoric that in turn has wide ranging effects, “Through an ethnographic study of neighborhood activism in Corona, I argue that the process of forming collective identities is not only key to our understanding of how and why people collectively act; it is also a critical axis of conflict in struggles between the people, the state, and capital.” (14).

One of Gregory’s key points revolves around the need to look more closely at informal or daily political networks such as tenant associations, block associations, and local civic society (such as Baskin’s organization of the CCA and its subsequent efforts). Electoral politics, as other recent historians such as Luis Alvarez and Nayan Shah have pointed out, provide only one barometer of community relations and health. Cultural politics in the form of community gatherings, town hall meetings, and local celebrations form a key arena of social interaction and negotiation. Moreover, these negotiations do not occur in a vacuum, instead government policies, structures, and actions help to shape dialogue not only between the municipal government and civic activists but between activists as well. For example, the Port Authority’s various efforts to obscure their plan for a rapid transit light rail to JFK and LaGurdia met stiff resistance from numerous Queens communities. However, rather than present the concerns of these neighborhoods as one set of unified reservations, the Authority presented them as individual and unconnected, lending one to believe that the seriousness of each was questionable or at the very least easily fixed. Moreover, the Port Authority used the media to “manufacture consent” while telling Manhattan audiences in the Upper East Side that Queens residents strongly supported the measure. If all one knew of such developments centered on the pronouncements of public officials such as Claire Schulman (Queens Borough President at the time) then one might conclude this to be true. Again, Gregory highlights the need to look beyond electoral politics and elected officials, who represent a very specific viewpoint that at times stands at odds with a majority of their constituency. The need for communities to both organize by place (community/neighborhood) but then couch their concerns in the rhetoric of a citywide population complicates the role of opposition in the face of a large government bureaucracy. Gregory provides another example regarding the impact of the government’s place in the public sphere when he recounts the September town hall meaning held in Astoria, originally meant to provide a forum the disparate Queens civic and block associations in which to organize a resistance to the planned AGT. Here Gregory argues the impact of Guiliani’s Police Strategy #5 (sometimes referred to as “broken windows policy”) illustrates both appropriation of government rhetoric by local Astoria activists and the state itself. In Plan 5, the city appropriated the “quality of life” language that had prevailed for over a decade among civic activists, “At the ideological level, Strategy No. 5 appropriated the concept and language of “quality of life” politics, narrowing its purview to signs of disorder that could be read by residents in their local communities. Whereas neighborhood activists used the “quality of life” concept to refer to a fluid and heterogeneous set of problems and issues, ranging form environmental pollution and school overcrowding to crime, graffiti, and poor municipal services, Strategy No. 5 reinscribed quality of life as a moral category which, eliding the power realities that structure urban life, drew its content from a politically shaped notion of deviance …” (233). Activists then used the ideological language of the the plan to articulate concerns, ignoring the AGT issue, focusing on perceived “illegal immigration” and overcrowded housing in the community that revealed a strong nativist tinge. Ultimately, the effort obscured the original reason for the meeting reducing opposition. [like Sanjek, this is reminiscent of Mike Davis’ work on slow growth movement (SoCal) in City of Quartz – appropriation of public spheres by counterpublics – even elite counterpublics – occurred there as well but with diff results … also, the Clarence Stone’s Regime Politics , though failing to focus on the community resistance to development in Atlanta seems to suggest that an inability to rise above the politics of place dooms local civic society in their efforts to resist the imposition of state development plans … both Gregory and Sanjek eviscerate the “global city” trope promoted by successive mayors from Koch to Dinkins to Guiliani]

Like Roger Sanjek’s The Future of Us All, Black Corona begins much earlier than the last half of the twentieth century which much of the work explores. Though a black population resided in Corona-Elmhurst earlier than the 1950s, urban renewal accelerated the process bringing many more blacks to the community as their previous homes and residences had been pushed out by Robert Moses’ urban development. As the community bulged, class differentiation among blacks developed leading to a local spatialization “Neighborhood deterioration in black areas of North Corona, tied to overcrowded housing and poor municipal services, fueled a spatial differentiation of the community along class lines. Many black working and middle class residents sold or rented their homes in Corona and bought houses in East Elmhurst.” (63). However, Gregory carefully notes the danger of focusing too narrowly on such class differences, “Class and status differences, real and imagined, remained crucial factors in reckoning black identities and social relations and in conditioning the specific effects of racial exclusion, but the experience of neighborhood decline exposed the vulnerability of black residents in both neighborhoods to wider structures of racial exclusion and injustice.” (65) In the civil rights period, the “conflation of race, class, and urban space in the ideology and practice of public authorities and the private sector would be the focal point of activism in Corona –East Elmhurst …” (66). By the 1980s and 1990s, the state had adopted a “raceless” middle class template that promoted broad interests while obscuring the racial and ideological conditions that had created many of the community issues so centrally of concern to local residents. Like Sanjek, Gregory cautions against such developments as they paper over the structural circumstances that created problems in the first place, presenting unrealistic solutions (as seen in the Port Authority fiasco).

Interestingly, Gregory and several residents he speaks to, push back against tropes celebrating the Great Society and Civil Rights Movement. The politicization of the each and the government programs that followed disconnected activists from the community. Once funded, activists and their organizations served two masters the state and its constituents. Inevitably, Gregory and others seem to conclude, state funding often won out in terms of decision making. Gregory lobs similar criticisms at the city’s more general decentralization such as its community boards which he argues do not truly engage the community and it ways allow for the municipal government to control New York’s neighborhoods while seemingly devolving authority to locals (he points out individuals must be appointed to the Community Board and that they don’t actually hold that much power). The key for Gregory revolves around illustrating how “the identities, interests, and political commitments of black homeowners are formed and negotiated thought the struggles over the built environment that pit residents against a medley of public authorities and private sector interests.” (17)

Thomas Holt and others have contributed work on the black public sphere and Gregory contributes to this dialogue exploring the numerous avenues that local activists engage the general public sphere in an effort to reformulate their own community’s place in it. For example, Edna Baskin’s mobilization of black youth to help clean up local areas/parks in Corona-East Elmhurst, publicly subverts the idea of dangerous black male youth and the “garbage” they burden a community with. Instead, by mobilizing the oft disparaged group into a public action, now they become the positive solution, no longer creating trash but eliminating it. At the same time, it also subverts the “disorganized community” trope so often applied to minority urban areas. Baskin, Helen Marshall, and Ruth Rothschild (who also play large role in Sanjek’s work) illustrated the importance of women in these developments. Like Sanjek, Gregory applies an odd formulation, drawing upon ideas of domesticity as the reason (and one that to be fair his subjects identify themselves, rightly or wrongly) for their actions in the public sphere. Moreover, at least with Baskin, an awareness of “family values” and negative discourse about “black male masculinity” led some to present their work and organization through the lens of a patriarchal family structure, “Edna’s tactical appropriation of patriarchal ideology to present a strong face to institutional power and to disrupt negative images of black masculinity illustrates not only the complex manner in which racial and gender ideologies crosscut in the construction of political subjects and space; it also illustrates as Lil Abu Lughod put it, that “intersecting and often conflicting structures of power work together,” sometimes positioning women in the equivocal situation of both resisting and supporting existing power relations.” (133). Gregory draws upon the works of others to explain this apparent “centerwoman” approach which Karen Sacks suggests is “first learned in a household context, by bringing them to bear in the workplace in the form of an oppositional working class culture.” (133). The importance of these actions reside in “struggles over the social meanings of places like Lefrak City that we see most clearly the constitutive relation between the symbolic economy of representation and the political economy of urban spaces.” (16)

The diversity of the black public sphere also provides Gregory with another lens for exploration. Gregory argues in the introduction that the complexity and nuanced nature of black urban life has been obscured by established tropes of isolation, dysfunction , and simplistic class differentiation. Working and middle class blacks receive little attention or become subsumed into a “vague mainstream” [here his work reminds me a bit of Patillo’s Black Picket Fences and Black on the Block; each focuses on these groups and their problems and efforts in resistance on Chicago’s Southside] In addition, “little attention has been devoted to the social and institutional structure of urban black communities and most notably, to relations of power.” (10) Generational, ethnic, and class differences pervade black communities as much as any other. The added migration of blacks in the 1950s and later from the West Indies in the 1960s-90s, meant that blacks carried very different associations to and with the Corona-Elmhurst community. Even when united in a movement such as SAVE, differences in approaches, institutions, and subjectivities emerge. The black church as in many other communities serves as a vital force, but newly minted “buppies” question its utility in electoral matters while older more established civic activists remained tied to the institution. The daily processes of engagement are the lens “through which black identities and interests are elaborated and contested in everyday life and in realation to a plurality of cultural, political, and economic determination.” (17)

Criticisms

— Gregory’s illustration of how competing publics and counterpublics influence one another is incisive and convincing, however, when ascribes the growth of militant particularlism solely to Police Strategy No. 5, he ignores the influence of media in creating such discourses…. The media’s reporting of crime in the 1990s and 2000s often overrepresented criminal activity even as rates declined and certainly contributed to the “militant particularlism” so evident in his example .. to ignore this process undermines his point somewhat… in general Gregory does not account for media influence adequately

— on the media his prime examples are newspapers, but its fair to ask since most citizens, no matter their race/class/ethnicity no longer derive much of their information from such publications, how representative are they? How much do they affect public spheres/discourse?

— like Sanjek, the anthropological lens sometimes sounds smug and places Gregory in the awkward position of providing commentary to specific events while inserting himself as well …

— Sanjek and Gregory highlight the importance of women but seem to couch it in domesticity tropes … aren’t they falling into tropes themselves here? Isn’t this somewhat essentialistic? To his credit, Gregory attempts to navigate out of this corner

— his discussion of “invisible spatial identities” though provocative, for me needed a bit more explanation or exploration (page 143)