Magical Urbanism

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Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City  
Author(s) Mike Davis
Publisher Verso
Publication date 2000
Pages 128
ISBN 1859847714

Mike Davis adds to his prolific output concerning Southern California history especially his attention to Latino immigration and urban life. Less angry then City of Quartz but not much less polemical, in Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City, Davis argues that the new influx of Latino immigrants are remaking/reimagining cities in ways both similar and different to preceding waves of newcomers. Technology , transformation, and the mobility of labor all contribute to the creation of new transnational communities and identities that both confound and fascinate observers like Davis.

Economic and political developments of the 1980s and 1990s ushered in demographic changes on both sides of the Mexican-US border. In many ways, the border space itself transformed into its own unique cultural space altering aspects of the American Southwest and the interior of Mexico simultaneously. For example, the border industrialization that first gathered momentum in the 1960s pushed many Mexicans toward not only America but also Mexico’s northern border. Women especially found work in maquiladoras, while new transnational suburbs such as Chula Vista housed the managerial classes operating the border factories. Davis notes that NAFTA did not just affect Canadian-US-Mexican economic relations but also greatly increased Asian investment in the region. The influx of Asian capital created new factories that courted Mexican labor and consumers. Few other regions facilitate the Latino-Asian interface to the extent of the border region. One troubling aspect of industrial developments along the border but also urban America reveal “immigrant social networks” that often depend on the “superexploitation of women” reinforcing traditional gender roles. [violence toward women has been an especially notable development in the maquiladora region].

Davis points out that many working class latinos have occupied formerly working class white suburbs such as South Gate [think My Blue Heaven]. Additionally, as many have found in New York’s housing market, immigrant homeownership and housing starts have served as a economic catalyst for many urban regions. A little noted insight into such growth reveals that Black homeowners benefit greatly from such racial succession, “the insatiable immigrant demand for family housing has allowed older African American residents to reap unexpected gains in home sales …” (52). Dilapidated neighborhoods now bustle with economic, social and political activity. Without Latino immigration into the nation’s cities economies would diminish and populations decline.

Transportation and technological innovations alter the traditional pattern of immigration. The ability to send remittances over long distances serves to support the economies of various nations such as Mexico. The example of Redwood City where Mexican residents remit wages back to their hometown in which to construct infrastructure illustrates this unique facet of globalization. Technology also means a reorientation of ethnic and class identities. If the latino residents of Redwood City occupy working class status in America, their contributions to economic development in Mexico marks them as “dons” or significant players in their respective hometowns. Moreover, dual citizenship and the ability to vote in national elections despite physically residing in the United States magnifies this new transnational identity and influence. However, the growth of sister cities like TJ/SD have not proceeded equally. Though Tijuana’s demographic remains significant, its infrastructure continues to lag well behind population expansion.

Still, Davis and others see problems in how American municipalities and the nation itself responds to Latino demographic change. Davis deconstructs the various border methods used by authorities to make immigration more difficult from the construction of ten lane highways near the border to zoning laws that limit social and economic activities in the homes of Latinos to city ordinances limiting use of public spaces to specific hours or charging fees for park usage all in order to discourage Latino civil presence. The media seems to only highlight the negative events that occur in regard to Latino immigration as in the case of Woods and S.O.S. A 1990s repetition of the Sleepy Lagoon case, media outlets from the conservative Orange Country Register to the Los Angeles Times unfairly portrayed Latino residents as welfare recipients and gang members. White Orange County's reaction to the Woods incidents seemed to anchored in racial mistrust and demonization.

Political mobilization among Latinos though developing, plagues the municipal power of most Hispanics. In most cases, Latinos remain underrepresented in municipal, state, and federal governments. Lack of education, racism, immigration status, and the inability or the prevention of Latinos from exploiting the growing technological labor markets have retarded economic and political advances. Worse, in a situation that seems to parallel the fortunes of the African American community in the 1970s and 1980s, Latinos and Asians inherit the “hollow prize” of municipal control just as federal and state monies shrink while deindustrialization (and demilitarization in places such as SoCal) robs blue collar workers of employment. As well, several mayors, most notably Richard Daley have co-opted Latino populations at the expense of African Americans which furthers antagonisms between the two communities, preventing more fruitful unified political action. Even worse, as Davis suggests with the exception of Chicago, it remains unclear if Latinos gain any economic or political advantages from such alliances.

Urban education, long in shambles, also traps Latinos. The unfair demonization of bilingual education (Davis suggests that the term has been too widely used to designate a variety of programs not just bilingual education and that its success depends on teacher quality and implementation more than any flaw in its actual premise). Rising higher education costs, including those of community colleges, remain out of reach for many Latino workers. The lack of commitment to urban education and the proliferation of inexperienced, unprepared educators continues to limit student success. For example, per capita student investment in California has declined in recent years. [here it might be important to consider that though sometimes maligned Bush’s No Child Left Behind Policy did attempt to remedy some of these issues … one might disagree with its emphasis on test results and test prep or argue that it’s been too narrowly defined to help all urban and rural systems, it is nonetheless a national commitment to education that no previous administration attempted … as well, one could argue teacher certifications reveal little about competent teaching, experience and content knowledge remain stronger indicators … education schools are notoriously deficient] The emergence of a public sphere that denigrates Latinos as previously mentioned did not limit itself to media and protest movements like SOS. Prop 227 [English Only] and 187 furthered such discourse. Davis argues that 227 “was about reinstitutionalizing discrimination and legalizing the deprivation of knowledge and educational opportunity. The proposition sanctions the rejection of Latino culture and our language in society and the public schools.” (128)

How does Davis envision a brighter future? Vigorous trade union activity such as that of the SEIU’s “Justice for Janitors” and activities serve as Davis’ hope. Unions have traditionally not adequately reached out to Latino workers but a unified multi-ethnic/racial alliance might reinvigorate trade unionism [this seems somewhat dubious, union membership has been consistently shrinking for decades and while perhaps illustrating greater potential in LA, Chicago, NY, SF .. other less union oriented cities might find it more difficult].

One problem with Magical Urbanism stems from its occasional dip into essentialism or something akin to essentialism. For example, Davis posits the following, “Latin American immigrants and their children, perhaps more than any other element in the population, exult in playgrounds, parks, squares, libraries and other endangered species of U.S. public space, and thus form one of the most important constituencies for the preservation of urban culture.”(55) One wonders how this is proved? Moreover, most urban communities enjoy public spaces, determining the hierarchy of who likes it “most” seems problematic especially since cities such as Chicago and NY in recent years have expanded public space enormously but usually as result of the hope that such “green spaces” might lure back the middle classes (one might argue especially the white middle classes).

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