Today we welcome a guest post from Courtney Elizabeth Knapp, author of Constructing the Dynamo of Dixie: Race, Urban Planning, and Cosmopolitanism in Chattanooga, Tennessee, just published from UNC Press.
What can local histories of interracial conflict and collaboration teach us about the potential for urban equity and social justice in the future? Courtney Elizabeth Knapp chronicles the politics of gentrification and culture-based development in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by tracing the roots of racism, spatial segregation, and mainstream “cosmopolitanism” back to the earliest encounters between the Cherokee, African Americans, and white settlers. By weaving together archival, ethnographic, and participatory action research techniques, she reveals the political complexities of a city characterized by centuries of ordinary resistance to racial segregation and uneven geographic development.
Constructing the Dynamo of Dixie is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Trumpism and Anarchist Problem Solving: Forging Mutuality when Government Fails
The Trump administration’s preoccupation with “deconstructing the administrative state” is making it increasingly difficult for governments to fulfill their most basic social functions. On May 23, 2017, the White House released its FY 2018 budget, which proposed the elimination of 66 federal programs, including many programs that fund local urban planning and community development activities. For example, the budget proposes $6.82 billion in cuts to Housing and Urban Development (US HUD) programs alone (from FY 2017 funding levels). This includes the total elimination of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and HOME programs, a 67.6% reduction of the Public Housing Capital Fund, 11% reduction in public housing operating funds, and a nearly one-billion dollar cut in the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Other proposed cuts relevant to urban planners include, but are not limited to, a $633 million reduction in Commerce Department spending, including the elimination of the Economic Development Administration and Minority Business Development Agency, and a $499 elimination of the National Infrastructure Investments (TIGER) program.
How will ordinary communities respond to the draconian and revanchist politics of the Trump era? Will we despair, or resort to zero-sum infighting? Perhaps instead we will collaborate to discover and create new relationships, resources, and opportunity structures capable of sustaining communities in the absence of traditional governmental support.
Though it may sound oxymoronic, I would like to suggest that one possible response to Trumpism is a turn toward anarchist approaches to community planning and development. There are many misconceptions about anarchism; the term is frequently mischaracterized as civic destruction, disruptive chaos, and the violent overthrow of government. Closer examination of the literature reveals a flexible framework concerned with the multitude ways that ordinary people spontaneously form communities of security and belonging in the absence of, alongside, and sometimes in opposition to mainstream institutions and opportunities structures. What do these everyday struggles and social experiments have in common, that bind them together as anarchist praxis? James C. Scott (2014) argued that ordinary politics and popular movements often display mutuality and cooperation in the absence of hierarchy or state rule, tend to tolerate the sort of confusion and improvisation that accompanies social learning, and seem to encourage spontaneous cooperation and reciprocity. Anarchist planner and architect Colin Ward (1973) contended, “far from being a speculative vision of a future society, anarchism is a description of a mode of human organization, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operate side-by-side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society.” Understood this way, anarchism encompasses ordinary politics of resistance, subversion, and alternative world building; it is evident in the everyday community building efforts of marginalized people and communities across the world. Indeed, Scott maintained “anarchist principles are active in the aspirations and political action of people who have never heard of anarchism or anarchist philosophy.”
This notion suggests possibilities for radical relationship-and-community building and development in the absence of Republican support for traditional urban development and social services. My book Constructing the Dynamo of Dixie: Race, Urban Planning, and Cosmopolitanism in Chattanooga, Tennessee traces the histories of Black, white, and Native American placemaking and community development over three centuries of Chattanooga’s evolution. The book considers the racialized context of the city’s historical development, including the forced removal of the Cherokee, Black slavery, and nearly a century of Jim Crow policymaking. But the main focus is on reconstructing histories of ordinary people, who came together to forge communities of safety and belonging despite, and often in direct opposition to, violent color lines designed to keep people of color excluded from institutional power and emerging economic opportunity structures. In a sense, the book is a history of local anarchist praxis among communities who would most likely not consider themselves ‘anarchists.’
However, Constructing the Dynamo of Dixie also discusses the intentional application of anarchist values of mutuality, cooperation, improvisation, and horizontal decision-making to community planning and development challenges in the city. Examples of anarchist praxis in Chattanooga include neighborhood free stores, the redevelopment a vacant property into the People’s Park, and a five-month long community planning initiative known as the Planning Free School of Chattanooga. In the absence of governmental and private market support, marginalized communities take care of themselves. In the Trump era, with the future of the administrative state uncertain, we would be wise to work harder on establishing and strengthening the ordinary relationships in our lives that will support and sustain us in the absence of a traditional liberal welfare state.
Courtney Elizabeth Knapp is assistant professor of urban and regional planning at California State Polytechnic University. You can follow her on Twitter, or visit her website. You can read her previous UNC Press Blog post here.