Touring Project Row Houses: Lessons on Arts as Anti-Gentrification Urbanism in Houston’s Historically Black Third Ward

On this block sits a one-story shotgun house with a modest “A”-frame structure. Two parts comprise the home’s street facing façade: a window centers the right half, while the left half indents inwards towards a front door. White paint unites the entire house’s exterior; this paint also covers and accents the horizontal wood beams that adorn this house.

Nine other nearly identical replicas—more one-story white “A”-frames—surround this house. In this near uniformity lies a story about the inception of these homes, and their continued meaning making in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood.

These homes sit along Holman Street less that a quarter mile from a mammoth interstate intersection, and some two miles south of Houston’s Downtown. They are part of Project Row Houses. Founded in 1993 by artist Rick Lowe, Project Row Houses is, as described on its website, “a community platform that enriches lives through art with an emphasis on cultural identity and its impact on the urban landscape.”

I toured Project Row Houses (PRH) in late May 2018 as part of this year’s Association of Arts Administration Educators (AAAE) conference. What most impressed me: PRH’s unwavering commitment to centering the needs of its mostly African-American community and residents (the majority of whom are marginalized due to race, gender, and income) amidst gentrification threats.

The tour included a welcome from Executive Director Eureka Gilkey and a neighborhood tour by McKenzie Watson, Guest Services and Membership Coordinator. Days later, a plenary at AAAE featured an interview with founder Rick Lowe and Director of Strategic Partnerships Tamika Evans. Essential lessons from them close this post.

Much has been written about arts and gentrification. Notably, sociologist Sharon Zukin researched artists in 1980s New York City lofts in then-fringe neighborhoods and Richard Florida has written about the role of the creative economy in the neoliberal growth of cities. But in these discourses, there is often an unstated link between mostly white artists who move to and make work in mostly non-white urban margins, and the role of that racial difference in sparking gentrification.

More recently, the term “artwashing” was coined to describe “the work and presence of artists and creative workers is used to add a cursory sheen to a place’s transformation,” and to attend to race and racist processes of gentrification involving the art. [More on artwashing here and here.] Journalist Peter Moskowitz has also been more explicit about that link between white artists gentrifying non-white urban areas. He does so through redlining, writing in 2017:

Redlining not only depressed the economies of inner cities, it created an entirely new kind of people in the suburbs—the white middle and upper-middle classes. For the first time in American history, the majority of white people were living largely privatized lives in single-family homes, without many community spaces or diversity, a lifestyle that reinforced the ideal of the nuclear family, with a stay-at-home mom and a working father. When the children of that economic and cultural experiment we now call “white flight” looked around, and decided they didn’t like what they saw, they began moving back to cities. In the 1970s, New York, San Francisco, and every other major urban center began experiencing an influx of a new kind of white person—one raised with the aesthetic, economic, and spatial values of the suburbs.

[…] suburbanization unleashed on cities a deluge of artists who cared more about marketable aesthetics than about art that could create social change.

In the 1930s, the racist process of redlining (whereby government backed home loans provided top rates to whites, and abysmal rates and denials to blacks regardless of financial healthy) racially segregated Houston, as it did in a majority of sizable U.S. cities. [See the unparalleled Mapping Inequality for more.] Through redlining, white bankers and governmental officials marked a majority of Houston’s Third Ward (a mostly African-American neighborhood) in red, that is, as “hazardous”; a yellow mark meant “definite declining” and delimited the remainder of the area. They did so solely due to race, because the neighborhood was mostly black. In redlining, those banks and officials denied mortgages and/or gave black residents the worst mortgage rates solely based on race, and thus divested from black people and black spaces. They also, in lining white areas blue and green, subsidized white neighborhoods with the best mortgage rates and investments.

Texas Map & Blueprint Co. (1930): Street Map, City of Houston, Texas, circa 1930. http://hdl.handle.net/1911/91602.

Through Moskowitz, we can make an argument linking aesthetics and race (as I’ve written about before), about how dense, redlined, and non-white urban areas that were once economically devalued due to governmental racism became, in the late 20th century, attractive to white artists who grew up in green-lined (and thus white and economically valued) suburban areas. U.S. gentrification narratives often narrowly focus on white artists entering non-white neighborhoods. Linking redlining to gentrification—whereby the presence of white artists in non-white neighborhoods attracts neoliberal capital and in turn displaces existing residents of color—then, more robustly animates how aesthetic and racialized values have been differently attached to white and black bodies because of past and continued racialized urban investments, and frames work by existing residents to confront dehumanizing neighborhood change.

Now a neighborhood of 15,000 residents, Houston’s Greater Third Ward currently has a population that is about 64% black. From 2000 to 2013, home values nearer downtown have risen over 176%, displacing many long-time residents. Project Row Houses centers historic and existing black residents, and humanizes those made most vulnerable by contemporary neoliberal development, and past redlining. From my tour, I learned that it does so in at least three ways.

First, PRH uses its resources to respond to the needs of the community, including confronting racial policies that have long dispossessed black residents in Houston. During her welcome, Executive Director Eureka Gilkey told us how PRH centers the question “How can we use our resources to respond to the needs of the community?”

Eureka Gilkey introducing Project Row Houses to our tour group

Some answers in the organization’s 25 year history include:

-Preserving housing stock. PRH started one of the first affordable housing programs in the neighborhood and more recently purchased 20 units from a slumlord, renovating them to become safe and quality places to live.

-Bringing back small businesses along Emancipation Avenue, which runs by Emancipation Park. Emancipation Park is the oldest park in Houston and in Texas. Bought in 1872 by former slaves who pooled together $1,000, the park celebrates Juneteenth, the day commemorating the emancipation of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865 (two years after the Emancipation Proclamation). In the 20th century, Emancipation Avenue had myriad of black-owned businesses that acted as a refuge for black residents denied entry into mainstream businesses elsewhere in Houston. In the past few decades, real estate prices have jumped from $5/sq. ft to $100 sq. ft. PRH has helped to anchor small businesses including NuWaters Co-Op, a food market.

-Working with University of Houston and Texas Southern University, universities located in the greater Third Ward, to hire residents who live in their zip codes.

-Using the majority of their annual budget of $2.6 million (which is mostly foundation funded) to sustain these structures.

Ultimately Gilkey emphasized how the work of Project Row Houses recognizes the complex the racial and classed effects of gentrification, and fights against how long-time residents have been displaced without recourse and resource. She detailed city policy issues, including the fact that if you are a renter in Houston, you cannot be part of your neighborhood’s civic organization and are threatened by same day eviction. However due to PRH’s community-engaged work, by 2018 some 22% of land in the neighborhood was owned by non-profit and churches, organizations that do not adhere to capitalist development plans.

Second, PRH invests spatially in its community. During our tour, McKenzie Watson revealed how the structures that define Project Row Houses – the row houses, but also homes for single mothers — all invest spatially in the marginalized community. Here are some of PRH’s spatial work:

Young Mothers Residential Program“The purpose of YMRP is to empower low-income single mothers and their children in achieving independent, self-sufficient lives. YMRP has supported roughly 100 mothers and their families, some of whom have gone on to earn doctorates, law degrees and become community leaders and entrepreneurs.”

Murals across from the Young Mothers Residential Program homes

Row House CDC: “Project Row Houses and Rice Building Workshop collaborated to create a series of row house-inspired duplexes to provide affordable housing for people in the community. In 2003, Row House CDC was created to act as a sister organization of PRH to manage the Affordable Housing Program.”

Cookie Love’s Wash n Fold, a laudromat for PRH residents named after a neighborhood resident

Small Business Incubation: “PRH’s Incubation Program provides space, time and/or mentorship to artists and creative entrepreneurs working in the early stages of project development. The incubation program affords creative entrepreneurs the opportunity of operating within a close-knit community of artists and activists in addition to operating on a neighborhood level with members of the Third Ward community and beyond.” Many businesses are begun by former PRH residents.

Inside Crumbville, TX, a vegan bakery owned by Ella Russell (center) incubated by Project Row Houses

Inside NuWaters Co-Op with a member-owner

Inside NuWaters Co-op

Many incubated businesses are near Eldorado Ballroom, owned and renovated by PRH, the historic home where 20th century black audiences, denied from white-only theaters, were able to see traveling black musicians.

-Space for Art: From Public Art, to Residencies, to low-cost studio space, PRH is spatially thread by and led by art.

A stretch of row houses on Bastrop St used for art installations including radio broadcasts

“Neighborhood Fantasies” exhibit

Third, PRH animates an artistic thinking about its mostly black neighborhood. The AAAE plenary featured Rick Lowe (founder) and Tamika Evans (Director of Strategic Partnerships) in conversation with Sixto Wagan (Director of the Center for Art and Social Engagement at the University of Houston). Rick Lowe detailed the inception of Project Row Houses; how high school students visited his studio and questioned the greater goal of his work. As he detailed in 2006:

I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.

At the plenary Rick Lowe also made us think about the relationship between art and the community, even admist neoliberal displacement, saying “in a market economy, we exercise our role in the market as well,” “you loose things when you scale up,” “as an artist, you make something and you think about it,” and “having an expansive mindset integral to the whole thing.” Lowe suggested framing residents as artists, as those with expansive and creative mindsets, is integral to the work that Project Row Houses does.

Sixto Wagan, Tamika Evans, and Rick Lowe at the 2018 AAAE Plenary

Tamika Evans, director of Strategic Partnerships, also expansively revealed how through centering arts, “PRH had the capacity to dream” and to “empower people and engage community through direct action.” She also incisively queried, “What does it mean to be a in a community with another human being?”

By thinking artistically, by working artistically in its neighborhoods, Project Row Houses makes an expansive space for its community and confronts the spatial dehumanization of black people. Especially in urban processes like redlining and gentrification, black people aren’t given multitudes of meaning. They are just marked in redlines as “hazardous” or through development as “to be displaced.” By contrast, Project Row Houses has allowed for multitudes of meaning to be re-attached to black residents from animating Emancipation Park, to housing single mothers, to making space for black businesses, financial aptitude, and of course, art.

Unless otherwise noted all images are by Jasmine Mahmoud. 

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UCS 010 Feinberg on Theater, Labor and La Tabacalera in Madrid

UCS 010 Feinberg on Theater, Labor and La Tabacalera in Lavapiés, Madrid

Conversational interview inspired by scholar Matt Feinberg’s article “From cigarreras to indignados: Spectacles of scale in the CSA La Tabacalera of Lavapiés, Madrid,” published in the International Journal of Iberian Studies (26.1-2, 2013). Approached simultaneously at the urban, regional and national scales, topics include the interconnection between economy, labor, protest, culture, and selling urban space. Discussions also fold in notions of produced authenticity centering on the figure of the tobacco-rolling cigarrera, zarzuelas, and tourism during the Franco dictatorship.  [LINK TO ORIGINAL PUBLISHER]

Biutiful Barcelona [10-15-minute video research article trailer]

My undergraduate students are busy making iMovie video final projects for a non-traditional literary survey class and I figured I might give it a try (theirs are much better I assure you). I’ve done this as a 10-15-minute video version of the argument I make in a recent article. Maybe it is more like a research article trailer… Anyone else out there making video articles? [It helps that youtube (at least for my account) allows video uploads of up to 15 minutes.]

The article is:

Fraser, B. “A Biutiful City: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Filmic Critique of the ‘Barcelona             model.’” Studies in Hispanic Cinemas 9.1 (2012): 19-34.

Toward an Urban Cultural Studies [video posted online]

For anyone interested in watching it here is a link to the lecture–or rather to the exercise in organized rambling–I gave at the University of Kentucky, now on UK vimeo:

“Toward an Urban Cultural Studies: Henri Lefebvre, Space and the Culture(s) of Cities”

To watch video, click above or go here: http://vimeo.com/50215247

Thanks again to the Department of Hispanic Studies there. The prezi itself can be seen in the background on the screen, but as announced before can also be viewed here. See also this previous post for more general information about the talk.

Toward an Urban Cultural Studies [prezi]

I just returned from delivering an invited lecture at the University of Kentucky, which I titled:

Toward an Urban Cultural Studies: Henri Lefebvre, Space and the Culture(s) of Cities.

Clicking on the above link will take you to the prezi that accompanied the talk, which includes video and audio clips, although it leaves out the first 15-20 minute set-up which was devoted to the academic spat between C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis in their 1959 and 1962 lectures (see an earlier post). The talk was a form of organized rambling at a general level about Lefebvre’s insights into cities, the timeliness of urban cultural studies, interdisciplinary issues in general, David Harvey, city rhythms, and so on, so a lot is left out of the prezi alone, but it may still be interesting to watch. Given that I was pitching the talk so broadly, I was thrilled that so many non-Hispanic Studies faculty/students were able to make it.

If you haven’t seen or used prezi before (higher functionality/privacy free for educators with an .edu email address) I can say that it may blow your mind as a presentation format (I was blown away when I first saw this used at a conference last year). After watching a prezi (many are ‘public’/freely available on the site to view) it becomes clear just how much power point presentations are linked to the cultural moment in which I grew up–which revolved around linear slideshows of non-digital photography (didn’t you hate it when that one slide got stuck in the projector?).

Special thanks to U Kentucky Professors Susan Larson and Aníbal Biglieri in particular, and also to many other faculty members from both the Department of Hispanic Studies there (and its fantastic graduate students) and beyond, for making it such a great experience!

New interview with Sharon Zukin

reblogged from http://www.citsee.eu/interview/naked-city-authenticity-and-urban-citizenship-interview-sharon-zukin
NAKED CITY: ON AUTHENTICITY AND URBAN CITIZENSHIP. AN INTERVIEW WITH SHARON ZUKIN
Naked City

Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at CUNY Brooklyn College, New York. One of the United States’s most widely read sociologists, she has been an active participant for many years in public debates on cities.  Regeneration, and the place of culture in cities are particular interests. Her latest book is Naked City (OUP, 2010). She is interviewed here by Richard J. Williams, Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. The interview took place in a quiet alcove in in the University’s Playfair library on 11 June 2012.        

R.W: To start with, if you could say something about your last book, The Naked City, which was very widely read. Looking back on that, what was that about, what was the main thing you wanted to say? 

S.Z: Just as the novelist, Paul Auster, has a New York trilogy, I think I as an urbanist have a New York trilogy. Naked City is the third instalment after Loft Living and the Cultures of Cities – the last instalment in my attempt to look back over thirty years of change in New York, from about 1980 to 2010, and to come to grips with the economic, social and cultural sources of change.  Some people say that New York City has lost its soul during the past thirty years, and to a certain degree I agree with that. There have been changes that have made New York more like other cities. Also, they have made New York a more expensive city and a less fascinating place. I was concerned to look back over the same area that I had researched for thirty years to try to understand better, and more deeply, the causes of these changes.

R.W: There is a word that you use in Naked City – and I think it is in the subtitle – ‘authenticity’.

S.Z: Yes, the A word.

R.W: The A word. That’s a word that gets used in lots of different contexts.  What do you mean by ‘authenticity’ in this urban context?

S.Z: I chose very deliberately to use the word ‘authenticity’ to talk about changes in New York.  I wanted the slipperyness of the term to allow people to understand that the city changes in ways that are both acceptable and not acceptable for both objective and subjective reasons, and our criteria for evaluating change in the city are both objective and subjective.  I wanted to come to grips with the constant changes in big cities which we experience as making them “inauthentic” and the necessity of adapting to the new people who come to the city all the time. New York, for example, is a city that regularly acknowledges its immigrant bases. Even the mayors talk about New York as an immigrant city. They are not ashamed of that.  And I wanted, simultaneously, to defend longtime residents’ right to stay in place against forces of eviction and newcomers’ right to establish their own places in the city.  So I chose a term, ‘authenticity’, that would include both origins in a very primeval sense, and new beginnings in the sense of constant change. 

R.W: There are lots of examples of what you call ‘authentic’ spaces in the book. If you were to pick one of those, what would it be?

S.Z: It’s hard to say now. I used to answer by saying that ‘my neighbourhood’, which is Greenwich Village, is an authentic space, but Greenwich Village is very much beleaguered.  There are zoning rules and historic district designations that prevent wholesale demolitions and rebuilding in a monolithic skyscraper format. But the area has become much more expensive in recent years. There has been a huge influx of students at New York University, which is a very large, private university in this district. And during the past couple of years I have seen my neighbourhood shopping street, my little local high street, change into a service centre and restaurant mall for undergraduates.

R.W: Yes, a mall is, I think, a great word to describe what’s happened there.

S.Z: Very much so.  This transformation has occurred at the same time that the nearest public park, Union Square Park, has become a tremendously lively public space, much better used and more deeply used by the public than ever before.

R.W: Yes.

S.Z: Even though – and I write about this in the book – the public space of Union Square is managed by a private business association (which is called, because it carries out public functions of managing public space, a public-private partnership).  So I don’t know what authentic spaces are left in New York City. I’m hoping that the city as a whole still appears authentic.

R.W: Well, I think it certainly does.  My favourite authentic space you describe was the Hispanic food courts – food carts, I mean …

S.Z: Trucks.

R.W: Food trucks – and this is not actually in Manhattan, it’s in Brooklyn.  Is that culture still going on?

S.Z: Yes it is.  And it’s really a story of how foodies shaped views of the space’s authenticity. The acceptance of the Latino food vendors, who come from a number of different Central American and South American countries by the broader public was conditioned by food blogs that began to appear on the Internet in the early 2000s. The Latinos had been selling food at the soccer fields in Red Hook, near the Brooklyn waterfront, since the 1970’s, at first very informally and then more formally as a cash & carry operation.  By the late 1990s or early 2000s, a lot of foodies from different ethnic and social backgrounds had become acquainted with the Salvadoran papusas and Mexican huaraches and all sorts of other dishes, and they began to talk and write about these foods.  So their tastes for exotic foods, or should I say for the authentic foods of the homelands of immigrants, drew a lot of other people, not immigrants and not Latinos, to Red Hook.  Meanwhile, Red Hook, which had been quite a dilapidated industrial port area and a working-class neighbourhood since the 1960s gradually began to pick up.  I can’t say Red Hook has been gentrified, but a small number of good restaurants owned by young chefs and bars and food shops opened there, and then finally, in 2009, a giant branch of Ikea, the Swedish modern furniture chain, opened on the waterfront.  So, you could almost see the neighbourhood of Red Hook caught in the vise of dependence on two types of globalisation: globalisation in a big way by Ikea, and globalisation in a small way by the Latino food vendors.

R.W: Mm.  I was just fascinated by this collision of two different kinds of globalisation – an unstable but fascinating situation – full of contradictions.

S.Z: Yes, it is really fascinating.  It’s probably the districts that are teetering on the jagged edges of underdevelopment and commercial globalisation that we find most interesting now. Probably that was also true of New York in the 1970s, when so many creative people moved to downtown locations and really thrived on these jagged edges – moving between security and danger.

R.W: Mm.  There’s a figure, a great figure, who runs all the way through the book, and that’s Jane Jacobs, the urbanist.  What does Jacobs, and her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, mean to you exactly?

S.Z: Jacobs is the iconic thinker and observer of cities, particularly US cities. She is the person who, against all odds in the mid twentieth century, extolled the messiness, the grittiness, the tentativeness, but also the firm friendships of city life.  When I say against all odds, I mean against the extreme pressure of suburbanisation in terms of investment of funds, building of infrastructure and movement of the middle class from the cities.  Suburbanisation was the strongest force changing the habitat of Americans in the last half of the twentieth century.  And against this huge, popular and elitist world of sentiment as well as against a growing crisis of capital disinvestment, Jacobs said that city life is the most real.  She didn’t use the word ‘authentic’, but she would have used the word ‘authentic’ if she were writing now.  Cities are the most authentic form of human life and Jacobs is the one who laid down the “authentic,” humane, social design principles that most urban planners in North America cherish today.

Remember, of course, she was writing in the North American context, where cities are young, where most cities are designed on a grid system, and where there are dramatic inflows and outflows of capital that from one year to the next create gigantic structures and just as suddenly demolish them. Jacobs praised the small blocks, the narrow streets, the small shopkeepers, the individuals and families who make up the social bonds of city life.  She aggressively promoted values of autonomy – community autonomy, I should say.  Not necessarily individual autonomy but community autonomy, and self-reliance from state intervention that we identify with communitarian politics, not with left-wing politics.  In the 1950s and early 1960s she fought successfully against the urban renewal plans of the state because she was a great mobiliser, together with many of her neighbours in the western part of Greenwich Village.  She fought the plans of the city government, articulated by Robert Moses, a bureaucrat and wielder of great public sector power and funds, from 1930 to 1960.  He had plans to demolish parts of Greenwich Village, as he had demolished parts of New York City, in order to build roads, highways for automobiles and trucks, and large public housing projects, generally making the city more modern and more efficient, but ultimately less coherent to the people living here.  So Jacobs is the iconic urban writer, against whom other urban writers must measure themselves – and so I did.

R.W: Do you model yourself on Jacobs?

S.Z: I appreciate her common sense and her iconoclasm, and I definitely admire her writing style. For an academic, it is extraordinary that ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, Jacobs’ master work from 1961, is written without a single footnote.

So, that’s what I aspire to – to write for ordinary people. I so deeply admire Jacobs’ writing ability and her ability to capture lived experience within a few telling anecdotes and phrases.

However, Jacobs’ ideals have been adopted by today’s government bureaucrats, so that everyone is a Jacobsite, in New York especially.  I suppose that everyone in her two adopted cities, New York – and Toronto, where she spent more of her time after the mid 1970s– has to say that they admire Jane Jacobs.  But from the point of view of gentrification, the very values that Jacobs espoused are the values that gentrifiers adopt to dislodge long-time residents who are poorer than they, and to impose their sense of social and aesthetic order on spaces. So the urban village ideals that Jacobs advocates, in fact become gentrifiers’ ideals and levers of power to displace long-time residents. On the other hand, another fetishisation of Jacobs’ ideals is accomplished by government bureaucrats who have re-zoned large areas of New York City since the beginning of the 2000s. They have re-zoned the avenues for high-rise, high-density construction of apartment houses, but they have maintained low-rise, low-density building heights on the side streets.  Paradoxically, this two-faced re-zoning has the effect of driving up property values because real estate developers are now interested in buying properties on the big avenues, to demolish existing structures and build high rises, usually luxury high rises, while the small townhouses on the side streets are taken by people who want to buy into this monopoly situation for beautiful small houses.

R.W: And Jacobs has been very useful for real estate development.

S.Z:  Yes.

R.W: What do you think – and this is to bring things up to date – what do you think she would have made of the ‘occupy’ movement?  What did you make of it?

S.Z: I don’t know what Jacobs would say. I hope she would support the ‘occupy’ movements around the world and relish the challenges to power that ‘occupy’ represents.  But Jacobs herself was not someone who attacked state power or the power of capitalists.  When I re-read ‘Death and Life’ a few years ago before I wrote ‘Naked City’, I was surprised to see something that I had not truly noted the first time or even the second time I read the book – that Jacobs’ main target is urban planners. Urban planners usually don’t have much power in the U.S. They work for government or they work for real estate developers, but you never find accusations against the rapacity of real estate developers or bankers in her book and you don’t really find much involvement with government.  In fact, as I said a few moments ago, Jacobs herself was a communitarian in her politics.  She shied away from reliance on the aid of the state, particularly on zoning, because she didn’t trust the state.  But I really don’t know whether she was, what can I say, left wing or right wing, whether she was anti-Stalinist and therefore didn’t trust the state, or whether she was just a conservative American and didn’t trust Franklin Roosevelt. Or perhaps the atypical concentration of power in urban planner Robert Moses’s hands struck her as a greater problem than the power of banks or private-sector real estate developers’ power. 

R.W: I sometimes think – I sometimes think the latter, you know, with occupiers.  I wonder if she would have been out on the street telling them to clean up their tents. But it’s an interesting question. Before we started, there was one term that I asked you to comment on, and I just want to return to that. The term is ‘citizenship’, which you said, in your context, had not been very useful.  If you could just say that again, explain what the difficulty was there.

S.Z: Scholars around the world have joined with political activists to speak of citizenship being the general framework of human rights and a more equitable access to resources.  In the US I think we have a legalistic understanding of citizenship, for the most part. Academics, of course, use citizenship to talk with other academics around the world about social rights. But most ordinary men and women in the United States think of citizenship in terms of documents – documents to be able to live and work in the United States. So citizenship, for me, reflects the concerns of my undergraduates and their families, many of whom are immigrants. Citizenship for me is a legal category.It is not the same as talking about social rights or the right to the city; it’s a legal understanding of national citizenship.

R.W: That’s very interesting because I think that some of the audience will be thinking that citizenship might be a big enough term to incorporate the right of the city, and it could be citizenship made from below.

S.Z: In Latin America this is very much part of the term, I understand that, and again, my friends and colleagues, who are also social scientists, use citizenship to speak to a global audience about rights. Perhaps I’m being too provincial about this, but I just haven’t had occasion in my work to use ‘citizenship’ in that way.

R.W: Well, I think that in itself is very interesting.  Let’s just have the last question then, which is very simple. If you were advising somebody who was interested in cities now, maybe thinking about writing about them, studying them or whatever, what would you advise them to look at?

S.Z: I became an urbanist by accident because I was assigned to teach urban sociology courses when I was just starting out as a young assistant professor.  But I have been happy writing about cities because cities really are cauldrons of democracy. Cities are the places where the most basic clashes of social rights occur now – the right to a job, the right to shelter, the right to have food. Cities are just so fundamentally places of challenge that I think there is nothing more satisfying than shaping your life in cities. Not only that, but cities are the gates to tremendous migrations of population; they really are mixing grounds, places where values clash.  I won’t say that cities are places of freedom, but they are places where people try to make freedom, and cities always have a very basic character of diversity. This is what I so deeply appreciate about city life. 

R.W: Are there any particular cities that you have visited recently that you would say you would really like to know more about?

S.Z: Well, I don’t think it’s a secret that New York is my favourite city, but I particularly like big cities. I like a lot of hustle and bustle in cities.  And I’m afraid that I probably prefer the most environmentally challenged cities, wherever they are in the world.