Guerilla Gardening and the Problem of Property: An Analysis of Our Situation and Response to Block Club

FTP Chicago

Brave the wind and the waves, everything has remarkable abilities!

On Affordable Housing and Anti-Gentrification Strategies and Methods

    With the publication of Block Club Chicago’s recent piece, we find it necessary to both respond to the claims made in the article and to analyze the contradictions that have heightened since its release.

The primary question of this debate seems to be one of methods and strategies: which method is more capable of addressing the structural dynamics and contradictions that are responsible for gentrification in Albany Park. The method proposed by a coalition of Social Democrats and developers prioritizes reform over militant action; the method proposed by us, FTP-Chicago, prioritizes militant action over reform. It is important to recognize that FTP-Chicago does not oppose affordable housing, but a debate arises over whether or not a reformist approach constitutes the best method of fostering and preserving affordable housing. FTP-Chicago’s method is currently dependent on a three-pronged strategy: the development of community-owned, community-run programs and assets; slowing down evictions via tenants organizing; and revolutionary militancy. Although our organization is relatively new, these concepts are not;  we see our current method as connected to a larger anti-capitalist praxis which we seek to develop and foster through direct community organizing and the expansion of the “small”-scale programs we are currently maintaining. The strength of our method is derived from the emphasis we place on militant action. We believe that the method of Social Democrats is ultimately a futile effort, only capable of gaining short-term victories while leaving the larger system that perpetuates gentrification and displacement intact. Additionally, we would argue that the Social Democratic coalition maintains the logic of Neoliberalism:

“the neoliberal housing marketplace…simultaneously displaces people for profit and celebrates public participation in the making of affordable housing” (Huq 33). 

The problem of “affordable housing” has never been quantity, but distribution and investment. In the United States, there are 3.5 million unhoused people, but 18.6 million empty homes. This discrepancy arises from market forces acting on the housing industry. It becomes most profitable for development companies to buy up and hoard real estate without putting it to productive use, such as by housing the unhoused. The dynamics of capitalism in housing are not challenged when these same developers are tasked with developing affordable housing. Even in Chicago, where the number of unhoused people and empty homes is likely less incongruent, the 11 developments approved for LIHTC will provide 1,083 units in a city in need of 120,000. That is less than 1% of the total housing needs for the city (Spielman). These developments are a stopgap at best, and require a more holistic approach to significantly curb gentrification.

Additionally, the construction for the development project will not begin for months, if not years. According to Rossana Rodriguez’s estimates, the project should begin construction in early 2021, but given the current economic crisis and the prospects of a worsening epidemic, it is reasonable to assume that construction will be delayed. We have stated that we will not disrupt any construction should that ever occur. 

By uniting a Social Democratic coalition with the interests of former JP Morgan executives and development companies, these activists are legitimizing the intrusion of corporate interests into Albany Park. This coalition is particularly worrisome when you realize that Celadon Holdings is a Limited Liability Company, an LLC. “[I]t has become predictable to a scary degree that whenever an LLC buys a property in Albany Park, the result is this: eviction and displacement of existing tenants,” (Huq 33). LLCs are known for their role as the leading force of gentrification in Albany Park. LLCs are only the fragmented legal faces of larger real estate corporations, who use this legal instrument to minimize accountability. Let me explain. LLCs are preferred in real estate business because “of the lack of corporate formalities, decentralized management structure, and partnership passthrough taxation.”35 In simple terms, owning properties through LLCs means that “investors in a corporation should not be personally liable for bad things the business does” (Huq 23).

What’s more, the Social Democratic strategy in this ward exemplifies the pitfalls of the top-down Social Democratic strategy at large. The affordable housing plan has thus far included no input from the working masses in Albany Park. Rather, the deal has only existed within the back rooms of JP Morgan executives, local politicians, and liberal activists. The project cannot realistically be an expression of the will of the People.

Given the need for a holistic and multifaceted approach to combating gentrification that actually involves the working masses of Albany Park, we were surprised and disappointed by the smug dismissiveness of community organizers in response to the Block Club article. Many members of Rossana’s political party, the 33rd Ward Working Families, took the article as an opportunity to lie about us and diminish our work. These commenters, many of whom had participated in or promoted some of our previous direct actions, called us “cosplay revolutionaries” and described our membership as predominantly white, thereby erasing the hard work of the majority of our membership. The Alderwoman herself called the garden project “a laugh” in a since-deleted Facebook post, whose comment section was full of “progressives” erasing our colonized members and their work. Moreover, we have been willing to collaborate, despite some commenters claiming the opposite. We have been in rather constant communication with the Alderwoman, for example. Two days before we published our first note on the reclamation project, we had spoken with Rossana over the phone. Though both Rossana and FTP were trying to schedule a follow-up discussion, we felt it prudent to clarify our project and line. We were not trying to cut our conversations with the Alderwoman short.

We remain willing to engage in a productive dialogue and hammer out an agreement that involves community input. Rather than making unprincipled attacks against us, we hope to receive a respectful response that seeks to mediate between our plan to create a guerilla garden and the Social Democratic coalition’s plan to build affordable housing. We are not “feds” or hooligans; we are committed to helping the People of Albany Park via Maoist organizing methods.

Results from Our Direct Community Engagement 

During our food distribution programs, we seek to concretely implement two Maoist principles: the mass line and social investigation. Our food distribution program has become the focal point of our organizing. It is a linkage between FTP and the People, a space where we engage the community and investigate their needs, allowing us to restructure our campaigns and actions around the results of our investigations. For instance, since people at our previous distribution spoke of the need for hand sanitizer and the utility of the masks we gave out, we have decided to purchase bulk hand sanitizer and bottles for free distribution. This “small” action exemplifies the strength of our approach: we are able to correct and rectify mistakes, display methodological and strategic flexibility, and narrowly tailor our programs for the community while fostering a dialectical relationship between our organization and the People.

From our recent discussions with the People, it was evident that the masses were receptive and enthusiastic about our garden. “For decades, that lot has been empty; it’s time we take initiative and do something ourselves,” was a common theme throughout our discussions. We have heard no complaint raised or objections brought forth against the establishment of a garden from the hungry, working-class residents of Albany Park we seek to organize. Folks are excited, offering to work at the garden and donate their seeds.

The idea of building a network of community gardens is fundamentally linked to our desire to expand the scope of our food distribution program. Some tell us to drop this lot, to just let this go. To this we say no. The seizing of this particular garden represents a radical act which disrupts the assumptions and logics of the status quo: it allows people to see the illusory nature of private property and it returns the lot back to the colonized working class, rather than simply letting developers and former JP Morgan executives hoard and accumulate more land. Telling us to drop this ignores the fact that we stand next to this unused land every Sunday while talking to people who don’t have reliable sources of healthy food. 

Poison Dirt

We would also like to offer corrections to the Block Club Article. We had been aware of the history of the lot as a gas station well before the reporter reached out to us. The comrade who spoke directly to the reporter had not been made aware of the history, but the committee responsible for the garden project was well-aware and planned on and already began constructing the raised beds recommended to avoid contamination. We sent a clarification to the journalist that he acknowledged, so it’s unfortunate he continued to publish the paragraph that said we were not aware of the history of the lot. That said, we have self-criticized for the miscommunication.

We want to be as clear as possible regarding the risks and safety precautions we are undertaking to complete this project. The soil we are building on has some level of contamination. We are using raised beds to reduce the chances of exposure to contaminants such as PAHs, benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethyl benzene which are commonly found on lots that used to be tenanted by gas stations. 

We chose this gardening technique because the clean soil and organic matter used to build the raised beds creates a physical barrier between the People’s produce and possible contamination in the ground soils. We have already constructed our raised beds. They will be installed by placing a layer of landscape fabric on top of the ground soil and adding clean soil and organic matter. A fabric layer will create a barrier beneath the soil in the bed which will prevent plant roots from entering the contaminated ground soil below. 

Additionally, we will be covering walkways and other areas of exposed soil with mulch, grass, or other groundcover to help reduce dust migration and splashback onto the People’s produce to protect the community against exposure when gardening.

The accusation that this lot is non-arable is an attack on our efforts to empower the people to retake the land that is rightfully theirs. As supply chains crumble and food costs skyrocket, more and more people are dependent on the Feed the People program. The fresh produce grown on this lot will be a consistent nutritious addition to the non-perishable groceries and store bought goods distributed to the People every week. 

While the Albany Park capitalists would lead you to believe that growing on a former gas station lot is an endeavour to be ridiculed, other rust belt cities such as St. Louis encourage their residents to establish gardens on such lots as long as they take the proper yet simple precaution of using raised beds. (https://www.stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/sldc/real-estate/garden-epa-best-practices.cfm).

The Communist Other

Alex V. Hernandez’s article also reproduces an understanding of communists we believe is harmful. For Alex Hernandez, we are an “anonymous group” that “blurs [our] faces in online images.” In the context of this framing, we are ominously positioned as a “chapter of the Maoist Communist Party.” A group that has “only […] been active in Albany Park since late January.” This framing is a reproduction of anti-communist propaganda from the Cold War: communists are secretive and malicious, a foreign intrusion.

This reactionary understanding of communists completely ignores the realities of FTP’s organizing. We blur our faces to protect the privacy of our members, demanding that we show our faces is the ultimate authoritarianism (a flawed term, but a useful one in this context). Even then, claiming that we are anonymous is simply untrue. We openly display ourselves in public; we dare to openly speak the name of “communism.” Furthermore, FTP-Chicago is a city wide project, our formation has comrades in every corner of the city. The Albany Park neighborhood was the place we initiated our first branch because many of our members have organic ties to the community: some have lived here for years, others have lived here all our lives. To say that our organization does not know the people or the area is incorrect. The formation of a Revolutionary Communist group in Albany Park is born out of disagreements with both the electoral and anarchist organizing dominating the neighborhood. We are constantly growing our membership and community involvement through our Feed The People program because we hold onto the idea that the masses are the true heroes and the real makers of history. 

Sources:

https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/95197/Huq_CapstoneReport.pdf?sequence=2

https://chicago.suntimes.com/2020/3/30/21200000/affordable-housing-tax-credits-chicago-coronavirus

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