Urban Cleansing by Class: The Perfect Crime

Vice-Mayor Roxanne Qualls does not like the title of Alice Skirtz’s new book, Econocide: Elimination of the Urban Poor. You should take that as a good sign.

Qualls said as much on June 6, 2012, when Skirtz received the prestigious Charles P. Taft Civic Gumption Award from the Charter Committee of Greater Cincinnati. Three proclamations were read that day. Senator Eric Kearney and Representative Denise Driehaus represented the State of Ohio, and during the Vice-Mayor’s reading of the City’s proclamation, she hesitated over Skirtz’s book title, joking that the publisher should have changed it. Qualls was gracious in naming June 6, 2012 as Alice Skirtz day in the City. But Skirtz had the last laugh, explaining that her publisher did indeed change the title ftom its original Econocide: The Perfect Crime, fearing the title suggested a novel and not the real life the book documents.

Honoring Skirtz with the Civic Gumption Award was long overdue. Skirtz either founded or co-founded many significant organizations that address deep social need in Cincinnati, including the Drop Inn Center, Peaslee Neighborhood Center, Affordable Housing Advocates, and the Cincinnati and State Coalitions for the Homeless. In the mid-80s when the AIDS epidemic reached crisis proportions, she and her husband, Ken, acquired the home next door to house people with HIV/AIDS, arousing fury among her neighbors. That Skirtz sided with the suffering tells you a lot about her.

Econocide: Elimination of the Urban Poor could not arrive at a better time as two narratives about Over-the-Rhine vie for public attention in Cincinnati. The first narrative is probably what most people think about Over-the-Rhine: poverty. In this narrative Over-the- Rhine is wildly out-of-control, a neighborhood marked by crime, drugs, shootings, and homelessness. The second narrative is the one of “rebirth,” or “renaissance.” In this narrative, spun in the name of economic and business development, 3CDC hails as the hero, working block-by-block to rescue the neighborhood’s historic stock and to bring new life to a “dying community.” Here, “renaissance” is not about building social obligations to one another or promoting humanitarian purpose. No, “renaissance” automatically assumes that upscale development meets the needs of all incomes, a sloppy conflation that is just not true.

There is a third narrative. And it is completely erased by the first two. This narrative is the fact that truly heroic efforts have built life and addressed desperate social need in Over-the-Rhine over the last 35-40 years, represented mostly by the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement (grassroots organizations dedicated to human rights and social justice). That the People’s Movement continues to succeed today, within political-economic circumstances that counter it at almost every turn, is remarkable. The power of Skirtz’s book is that it brings to light how those political-economic circumstances have played out time and again, and submerges the third narrative the People’s Movement embodies.

The theoretical heart of the book is spelled out in the chapter “Like Genocide, So Econocide,” a title that suggests links between the two. What worries Skirtz, and should worry everyone, is that in a world objectively more and more unequal, “notions that poor people pose ‘perceived or symbolic’ threats to a larger, more privileged community set the stage for their exclusion from the universe of obligation.” (28) That’s one powerful statement. And it puts Skirtz on the world stage with the likes of scholars and pundits such as Atjun Appadurai, Slavoj Zizek, Arundhati Roy, Henry Giroux, Mike Davis, Adolph Reed, Aihwa Ong, and others chrouicling politicaleconomic trends where “surplus” populations are written off and targeted for removal. Appadurai, for example, sees a “worldwide tendency to arrange the disappearance of the losers in the great drama of globalization,” and Zizek sees the most important social relation today as the one “that separates the excluded from the included,” and where the state “perceives the excluded as a threat and worries how to keep them at a proper distance.” Those are alarming notions. It’s like the Indian reservation has morphed into the prison, and what the prison can’t accommodate, policies and ordinances will. Forget the relation between the haves and have-nots; our world is fast becoming a relation between the haves and those-not-needed-nor-wanted.

As egregious as what Skirtz and others explain, it may not be genocidal. Genocide is serious stuff, and Skirtz does not play fast and loose with the term. She does not equate econocide with genocide, but at the same time, she examines how it may be genocide’s precondition. When our daily, common parlance is liberally peppered with “welfare queens,” “panhandlers,” “beggars,” “the homeless,” you have to wonder how these terms infect the thinking of policy makers in their deliberation of legislation.

And infect they have. This book charts this process of how certain populations become skewed as “economic others”-aliens in their own community-where the city/corporate machinery pumps at full capacity to remove, erase, dispose, displace, make invisible, ignore, exclude, incarcerate, and arrange the disappearance of populations deemed offensive to “preferred socioeconomic purposes” and to the “benefit of business.” (29)

For Skirtz econocide takes three forms in Cincinnati, and these structure her book. Part One documents the many municipal legislative initiatives and polices that aim to “ensure economic homogeneity by removing economic others from the community through exclusion ordinances perpetrated to remove such individuals from certain places and through development maneuvers, codified by ordinance, that eliminate public and private spaces where groups of economic others congregate.” (5) Here, Skirtz closely examines such policies as the multiple panhandling ordinances (begun in 1995), the Drug-Exclusion Ordinance (1996), and the exclusionary decisions made by the city/ corporate elites to ignore the people’s preferences in Over-the-Rhine to keep their deep-water pool and basketball courts in Washington Park, for example.

Part Two chronicles not the direct removal of economic others which was the focus of Part One, but their indirect removal through the elimination of housing options from the market. As Skirtz says, “removal in this instance is of housing, not people, but this results in a contrived scarcity of affordable housing, eliminating economic others from the market and certain communities and neighborhoods.” (5-6) Here Skirtz navigates through HUD policy shifts (Section 8 and Hope VI), Tax Credit Project rejection as when the city at first supported ReSTOC’s Vine Street Community Project but then in process did everything it could to undermine it (2000), and the Housing Impaction Ordinance (2001), to name a few. All her case studies show how the provision of affordable housing came under direct attack, especially when such provision was attempted by the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement.

Part Three documents a growing trend in urban governance—the “surrendering” of city functions over to large, corporate entities “in the areas of housing and public space.” (150) As in Parts One and Two, an ample roll of ordinances, resolutions, and actions reveal clearly this “privatization of city governance,” the upshot of which ensures economic homogeneity, legitimizes economic ineqnity, neutralizes efforts for social justice, and absolves the city of its responsibilities to effect decisions about public life in the public arena. Now “camouflaged in the fabric of a market economy and business ideologies” (149) democracy contorts into something far removed from what it should be. Skirtz does not mince words here: “When policy making is surrendered to public-private partnerships or privately empowered bodies without accountability to the entire community, and without recourse or provision for redress of grievance, established principles of democratic society are jeopardized and are at risk of being bastardized.” (151)

Econocide: Elimination of the Urban Poor is not polemical gloss. In chapter after chapter Skirtz relates story after story that delves deeply into 1) the details of policies and ordinances that have been harmful to those most vulnerable in our society, and 2) how decision-making about who gets what in the city has been shifted to the likes of 3CDC, which undermines democracy and enables that harm with the city’s blessing. The message is relentless, but only because the repetition of inanity by policy-makers, academics, and corporate leaders who should know better has ruled the day. And, now, in light of Western and Southern’s straight-up bullying of the Anna Louise Inn, or the city/3CDC push to remove the Drop Inn Center from Over-the-Rhine, or the recent rules for Washington Park targeting those homeless, generated through email exchanges by the City Park Board, 3CDC, and the police out of view of the public in violation of sunshine laws, econocide is not only alive and well, but thriving. “Can Cincinnati learn?” is a huge question.

One good starting point to learn to resist the trajectory of econocide is to read this excellent book. This could be an interesting litmus test. Will people, especially the powerbrokers, actually take up her arguments? Those of privilege, of course, have the power to ignore or dismiss without actually engaging something on its own terms, and they exercise that power all the time. Case in point for our purposes here is a quote from Bill Donabedian, formerly of 3CDC, who commented on the Cincinnati Enquirer feature by Mark Curnutte of Skirtz’s book (a comment that was scratched from the record by the next morning): “For the first time in a long time, there is hope and opportunity in OTR. This woman’s perception is obviously tainted. Maybe that’s because she could never bring this kind of success to the neighborhood.”

Someone should send Mr. Donabedian Skirtz’s book.