Sam’s AAG 2016 Roundup

I, like many North American geographers, just got back from the 2016 American Association of Geographers meeting in San Francisco, California. While it is often an overwhelming experience, I do always enjoy the AAG, with this being my third conference. I feel like I am finally starting to figure out how to make good use of my time at these things. In this post I am going to write about the highlights of my conference. In a second post I will provide some tips for graduate students attending the AAG based on what I’ve learned over the years.

I saw a lot of great talks this year and managed to connect with some people I was hoping to meet. Here I’ll provide some summaries and thoughts on what I liked the best, roughly in chronological order. The names under session titles are the organizers. Many sessions had a bunch of great talks, but I’m just picking highlights – it’s still a ton!

Sam’s 2016 AAG Highlights

#1277 Race and the Agrarian Question II
Emma Gaalaas Mullaney – Bucknell University
Levi Van Sant – University of Georgia

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux from Hamline University (University of Minnesota coauthors Alex Liebman, Matt Gunther, and Monica Saralampi) presented a great paper titled “Re-valuing yield: negotiating race, values, and the agrarian question in urban agriculture.” She chronicled their efforts to establish a community land trust (CLT) with a focus on urban agriculture (UA) and combating gentrification in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Their project sounds interesting and Valentine did a great job connecting the issues the project faces to historical and on-going processes of racialized dispossession and uneven development. I wish she had more time to talk about her process of developing ‘popular metrics’ to measure their agricultural and social yield, an interesting kind of critical quantification project aimed at arguing for the relevance and impact of UA.

#1431, #1531 Land, Justice and Agrifood Movements: Trajectories and Tensions I-II
Katheryn Michelle Glowa – UC Santa Cruz
Antonio Roman-Alcalá – independent farmer/educator/activist
Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern – Syracuse University

Somehow I missed the CFP for this session of great papers! I would have loved to participate in this conversation, but was glad to see the presentations.

Garrett Broad from Fordham University discussed the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the tension between socialist and small capitalist/entrepreneurial elements of their project. He tried to complicate some of the debate (e.g. here) that has occurred both over time and recently with the release of the film Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which some have claimed did not properly recognize the BPP’s socialism. I think Garrett’s project to explore some of the contradictions and material rationale for the combination of self-determination, socialist ideals, and often entrepreneurial practice. This history continues to infuse much inner city black social organizing, as he illustrated with the example of Community Services Unlimited in South LA. Ultimately he makes the point that food justice work needs to figure out methods of self-sustaining funding if it is to be successful. I would have liked to see more attention paid to the larger national context of neoliberalism and (though it was addressed further in the questions) the ways that state repression (e.g. COINTELPRO) pushes under-resourced organizations towards entrepreneurship. Hopefully I can find some time to see his full argument in his (2016) book More than Just Food, which might be interesting to read alongside Lester K. Spence’s (2015) Knocking the hustle: against the neoliberal turn in black politics.

Josh Sbicca from Colorado State University gave a great talk on the issue of private property in the food justice movement, mirroring lots of the questions I have been asking myself during my field research in Cleveland. His paper asked some great broad questions that cut to the heart of some of the tensions in the movement. Ultimately he fell onto a position inspired by J. K. Gibson-Graham (2006) that stressed the need of the movement to both challenge the idea that our world and human behavior are entirely capitalist and to try to find ways to redistribute surplus in innovative ways that carve off a section of the economy from capitalism. He used the example of Planting Justice in Oakland, which employs formerly incarcerated people to do paid work installing gardens for some of the Bay Area’s wealthy and to use that revenue stream (among others) to subsidize their work building community gardens in low-income areas. He envisions a food justice movement that produces “despite- or non-capitalist value” that can take over unused space and link to form a network of distributed food production. I am inspired by his vision, but as with most work in the vein of Gibson-Graham I always come back to a concern about the need to think the social totality. This is a tension in my own thought I have yet to resolve and plan to work through as I start to analyze my current project. Josh’s work will no doubt be helpful as I do so.

Diana Denham and Amy Coplen from Portland State University presented a paper on a larger project looking at UA and gentrification in Montreal and Portland, which they are working on with their colleagues Dillon Mahmoudi, Adam Brunelle, and Nate McClintock. As the environmental gentrification that can accompany UA is a concern I share, I found their project fascinating and important. They discussed how UA requires land, labor, and capital subsidies to survive and it acquires those subsidies through relying on a food justice ideology that facilitates the acquisition of free land and subsidized/self-exploitative labor, a pattern that mirrors patterns found elsewhere in the food movement (e.g. Ekers et al., 2015; Galt, 2013; Weissman, 2014). They argue for an approach to UA that connects growing to a wider network of social activism around affordable housing, jobs, anti-racism, etc. Ultimately the effect of gardens on gentrification might be measurable, but it probably pales in comparison to the differences in housing policy between Portland and Montreal, including rent control and social housing.

Katheryn Glowa was the last present on her work looking at a particular garden under threat by an expanding tourist pier in Santa Cruz. Antonio Roman-Alcalá was the discussant and provided a good praxis-focused discussion of the papers. Hannah Wittman‘s (UBC Land and Food) presentation on the results of her work with new farmers on the Farm Folk City Folk community farms program was also very interesting. Particularly relevant given the discussion of alternatives to strict private property in other sessions (CLTs, coops, etc.) was her finding that the vast majority of new farmers prefer single proprietorship private property to other forms of ownership. Caitlin Hachmyer‘s presentation compared the municipal uptake of food movement ideas in Boston and Philadelphia. It will be interesting to think about the tension she identifies between discourse and practice – especially around land and zoning – in the Cleveland context. I look forward to checking out her MA.

#1679 Author Meets Readers. James Ferguson, “Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution”
Jenny Cameron – University of Newcastle
Katherine Gibson – University of Western Sydney

James Ferguson‘s (2010; 2013) work on neoliberalism stands out to me as a rather creative approach to thinking about the role of market fundamentalism and the changing structures of states. As one of the major buzzwords in contemporary academia, neoliberalism is a slippery concept and I appreciate his attention to detail and his perspective on the study of universal basic income. This session examined his (2015) recent book, which plays on the old adage of “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” One of the starting points for the book is the basic fact that especially in the cities of the Global South (but also in many cities in the North), many of today’s citizens do not have much or any opportunity to pursue formal waged labor. Or, as Ferguson says, “Teach a man to fish and you create an unemployed fisherman.” Speaking in general terms, this means a turn away from a “politics of production” (create more jobs in a Keynesian sense or seize the means of production in a Marxist one) to a “politics of distribution” (redistribute the social surplus, presumably without overly affecting production). Ferguson develops this idea through the observation that many urban dwellers engaged in the informal sector spend a lot of their time in complicated relations of “distributional labor,” spending time making claims on the social surplus through kinship ties, lobbying the state, etc.

The session had an interesting panel: Katherine Gibson (University of Western Sydney), Colin Marx (UCL), Sophie Oldfield (University of Cape Town), and Katharine Mckinnon (La Trobe University). They touched on numerous aspects of the book, but what I appreciated was the interesting overlap discovered between Gibson-Graham and Ferguson here. Both seek to shift the analytical and political focus from Marxism’s concern with production to distribution. J. K. Gibson-Graham are usually associated with local, small-scale solutions, but Katherine defended their approach as a global one that has just seen empirical application in local settings. Ferguson’s book is much more concerned with the state and the claim or right to a fair share, which he sees as central in contestation over distribution and the new politics of distribution he tracks through South African cash transfers. They said they shared a sensibility if not a theoretical approach. Ferguson’s work seems like an interesting new contribution to scholarly efforts to think past or through neoliberalism.

#2283 The historical geographies of radical geography
Linda Peake – York University

This session provided another series of papers in what is now a five year process of examining some of the histories of the development of North American radical geography. While this kind of session can feel a bit navel-gazing, I do think that learning the history of geography is important, both  for being able to position and understand my own work in its historical context and to learn from past mistakes to improve the discipline. This year Linda Peake (York University) provided a nice introduction, providing some background to the project. While some of the work done by Linda and Eric Sheppard (2014) and Trevor Barnes (e.g. 2004) has begun to chart the history of radical geography, Peake stressed that much work remained to be done. She pointed out specifically that Trevor and other’s work on the history of the quantitative revolution and Bill Bunge (see e.g. Heynen & Barnes, 2011) has meant other important chapters in the history of radical geography are still out of sight, including the formation of CONGA, SURGE, the Union of Socialist Geographers, etc. The research is also difficult because many groups like GPOW and CWAG have not left much of an archive, so much of the work being done now is collecting scattered written documents and conducting interviews with participants who are still alive.

Nick Blomley and Eugene McCann (Simon Fraser University) presented on the radical history of SFU during the 1970s. They discussed the connections between Toronto and Vancouver, including the formation of the Toronto and Vancouver Geographical Expeditions inspired by Bunge. They also showed the institutional and geographical factors leading to the radical community at SFU, including its more modernist alternative to the traditionally conservative UBC, the arrival of political exiles from Ireland and South Africa, and visits by the emerging leaders of radical geography in North America. Also important was the support of the department chair, Michael Elliot Hurst, who radicalized at this period as well and used department resources to support leftist projects.

Eric Sheppard (UCLA) and Trevor Barnes (UBC) spoke about the influence of Baltimore on David Harvey’s work and radicalization, arguing that the city was a “truth spot” (Gieryn, 2002) for Harvey, whose experiences trying to understand the city led him to Marx.

Chris Knudson (Clark University) presented research co-authored with Matthew Huber (Syracuse University) and Renee Tapp (Clark University) on the early years of Antipode at Clark University, seeking to understand how the institutional environment shaped the rise of the journal. They argued that Clark’s long history of environmental determinism and eugenics within geography – that is, its backwardness – was influential in creating a strong shift in culture once another supportive department chair (Saul Cohen) used an NSF grant to hire new radical professors, many of whom attracted radical graduate students who were important in shifting the department left.

Jamie Peck and Trevor Barnes (UBC) chronicled the rise of “industrial geography” at Berkeley in the late 70s/early 80s. This period saw the department’s legacy of cultural ecology in the vein of Carl Sauer change to a more overtly politicized economic geography through transatlantic interaction with European theories of the international division of labor and regulation theory.  These theories landed down in one of the centers of the neoliberal and high tech revolution, with Silicon Valley and Ronald Reagan standing in as figure for this new era of flexible specialization. I also really liked Trevor’s description of the hire of Alan Pred as a “radical geography Trojan Horse.” Pred led a lefty seminar that attracted students from geography and planning, leading to a historic connection that continues to this day. There were also some other interesting details about how faculty strategically misrepresented themselves to get hired, e.g. Dick Walker giving his job talk on wetlands, despite his dissertation being a Marxist analysis of suburbanization!

Finally, Audrey Kobayashi (Queens) discussed the historical relationship (mostly of separation) of white academic radical geographers from the political movements of people of color. She posed an extremely interesting research question of why radical geography has pretty consistently failed to address issues of race, but did not have time to develop it and also said she has more research to do on the topic. I’m curious to hear and see more about this project, as the evidence of a neglect of race historically is pretty clear (as shown in her own work), but a grounded analysis of how this dynamic is institutionally and disciplinarily reproduced would be very valuable.

#2625 GeoHumanities Event III: Special Session featuring Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro: “Mapping the Infinite City”
Douglas Richardson – American Association of Geographers

I have always loved Rebecca Solnit‘s writing so I was happy to see her speak again. Her atlases are amazing and I liked her way of describing the relevance of maps. I had never encountered Joshua Jelly-Schapiro before and was impressed by his work. Highlight of the session was probably a sneak peak at one of the maps from the newest atlas of New York (Solnit & Jelly-Schapiro, 2016) that depicted Staten Island as “Shaolin,” a mythical region of kung fu as imagined by the Wu-Tang Clan and based on Joshua’s interview with the RZA.

#3138, #3238 Social Geographies of Urban Abandonment
Sara Safransky – UNC-Chapel Hill
Erin Collins – American University

This session was one I originally was interested in, but they already attracted a lot of attention, especially to research on Rust Belt cities, so I didn’t get in. It was very thought-provoking to attend, however. The session came about through some work that Sara Safransky and Erin Collins are doing to think about the spatial dimensions of “social abandonment” (Biehl, 2005) and “economies of abandonment” (Povinelli, 2011) in the context of their respective research in Detroit and Phnom Penh.

Their CFP actually prompted me to explore this literature and it has been interesting to think about the concept of social abandonment in the context of Cleveland. I hope to engage with Sara’s work (2014; 2016) on the topic in her research site of Detroit. My initial feeling is that the ideas of loss, mourning, ruination, etc. are present in Cleveland but more noticeable in their mundane and everyday nature compared to the more dramatic and visible example of Detroit. The production of social abandonment through institutions and systems of oppression is also present, but I keep coming back to a feeling of it being less visible and contested in Cleveland, an issue I am working through myself currently.

Sara started the two sessions off with a nice introductory and conceptual paper co-authored with Erin laying out their vision of what the geographies of urban abandonment mean and how they are constructed. They suggest three moves that this emerging research area should make (from my notes, might not be exact):

  1. Recognize multi-generational histories of dispossession and abandonment;
  2. Trace the spatial and racial constitution of “valueless” populations;
  3. Interrupt and resist the narratives of abandonment used to devalue such places and people.

Summarizing the sessions’ papers they also summarized the process of abandonment occurring through two primary paths: displacement (about the creation of severability and the process of leaving or replacing) and disconnection (how populations can stay in place while also being disconnected).

Finally, they suggested five areas for topical focus:

  1. Technopolitics
  2. Race and space
  3. The obduracy of urban abandonment (through a focus on materiality and infrastructure)
  4. Resistance
  5. Politics of responsibility

I found this paper a stimulating way to reconsider some of the literature on gentrification, shrinking cities, and concentrated poverty. Like Sara’s previous work, I think it can pose a politically helpful response to what sometimes feels like rather apolitical questions (e.g. our city is losing people, what can we do to stem the tide?) by connecting the processes of abandonment to larger structures of uneven development and displacement. Their conceptual framework also nicely allows for a wide understanding of abandonment that pays attention to both material and discursive processes and their co-constitution.

Jacob Dougherty (Stanford) gave a polished talk on his research on public cleaning campaigns in Kampala. He argued that such cleaning campaigns constitute a project of governmentality seeking to call middle-class moral subjects to action to clean up the “slums,” drawing on colonial binaries of white/black, civilization/barbarism, order/disorder, cleanliness/filth, etc. I saw some interesting connections to the moral discourses employed in Kampala and those evident in the US: 19th and 20th century urban progressivism, contemporary food waste campaigns, and even some of the responsibilizing discourse employed in both the urban renewal era of “neighborhood conservation” and today’s revitalization efforts in cities like Cleveland.

Joe Darden (Michigan State University) presented a very nicely thought out presentation on the structural forces behind Detroit’s bankruptcy, which I believe is forming the background for his book-in-progress on Detroit after bankruptcy. He highlighted four major factors: place, race, class, and politics. He traces the history of policy decisions, economic restructuring, white suburbanization, redlining, job suburbanization, disinvestment, and the concentration of poverty and poor housing. He ultimately makes the point that the bankruptcy was political, motivated by a right-wing state legislature and governor and a lack of mass political power for African Americans.

Gerry Pratt (UBC) provided a different perspective on abandonment from the Bagong Barrio in Manila, which she argues is a site of abandonment despite being densely populated and busy. She focuses on the rise of the Philippines’ foreign labor export strategy and the creation of a remittance economy as a form of abandonment, with much of the population of Bagong working abroad (she estimates 60-70%). She illustrates the painful experiences of separation and dispossession that have accompanied the rise of this economy and the insecure land tenure that also affects the area.

Kate Derickson (University of Minnesota) was the discussant and provided a very thoughtful response to the papers. She echoed something I was already thinking, which is questioning what is specific about abandonment as a concept compared to dispossession, displacement, invisibilization, etc. She sees the unveiling of the mechanisms, processes, and techniques through which people and places become abandoned as key. I also really liked her point that ultimately this approach is politically useful in that it unveils abandonment as a “bait and switch,” showing that “we’re not at all apart, we’re not at all separate.” This emphasis on unveiling the mechanisms through which interdependence is severed – or appears to be severed while actually reworking power relations – was a key insight, I thought.

She also mentioned the power and irony of creating “absent presences,” drawing on her own work with the Gullah/Geechee nation, who are regularly told that their culture is dying despite evidence of its survival. She links this process to on-going silencing and abandonment under settler colonialism and white supremacy. She also drew on Clyde Woods’ critique of research as “autopsy,” where the role of the researcher is restricted to cataloguing and describing violence instead of finding and strengthening refusal and resistance. She used this idea to put a nice twist on a question posed by Jacob in his talk, when he questioned to whom does “cleaning up the slums” feel good? She asked the presenters and audience, “To whom does research on urban abandonment feel good?” This question is a key one for researchers working in post-industrial cities like Detroit and Cleveland to ask themselves: why are you here? Is it simply to catalog the decline of a city, or is it to make visible the processes through which a place and people are systematically abandoned and to find spots of resistance and to strengthen them?

In the second session it was great to see my old undergraduate advisor, Jessica Graybill (Colgate University), present on her community-based research project on the impacts of refugee resettlement in Utica, New York. Tia-Simone Gardner (University of Minnesota) gave a theoretical and semi-autobiographical presentation on her research into “white flight and black inhabitation,” examining the history of the neighborhood in Birmingham, Alabama, where she grew up. The most fascinating part of her talk was definitely the survey photograph of her house she found in the archive with her mother. The almost ghostly photo shows their house shortly after it was built in an exclusive neighborhood that attracted the city’s wealthy white industrialists. From this photo – in a genre of usually drab and “objective” depiction of the housing site – stares back a young white boy in a diaper looking into the camera and a black domestic worker is at the front door. This “haunting image of black servitude” (her words as I have them in my notes) provided a good example of a jarring moment in the research process, especially given its personal nature. I had a bit of a hard time placing her exact research project, due most likely to my limited knowledge of some of the theory she is working with, but I would definitely be interested to see where the research goes.

Zachary Levenson (Cal Berkeley) gave a talk on South Africa’s Temporary Relocation Areas, levying a critique of Polanyian interpretations of the post-Apartheid welfare state. This vein of thinking sees the focus on universal provision of housing as an example of the counter-movement pushing back against the social dislocation of the market. His ethnographic research suggests instead that the normalization of temporary housing and squatting and the peripheralization of poor populations has seen dispossession and inequality created through the actions of the state, not (only) the market.

Cian O’ Callaghan (Maynooth University) gave us a glimpse into his larger research project on post-crash property vacancy in Ireland. I had not come across his work before and was very glad to find it, as I think many of the patterns he observes are also taking place in the US. He made several (perhaps too many for 15 minutes!) arguments, but two that stood out to me were that 1.) the symbol of the vacant house often absorbs the critical energy of the media and many experts, rather than focusing on the causes of the housing crisis; 2.) temporary projects that reframe vacancy as an entrepreneurial opportunity don’t represent an adequate solution to these root causes and can in fact be used strategically to represent certain areas of the city as vacant and primed for redevelopment. I think this pattern certain mirrors some of what I’ve observed in Cleveland (Rosenman and Walker, 2016).

Erin Collins (American University) provided a nice bookend to the sessions with her concluding remarks. In addition to summarizing the presenters and posing some good questions, she also made two final points I thought were noteworthy. One was again raising the question of where abandonment fits in relation to other concepts (dispossession, vacancy, etc.) and the other was adding a third way that abandonment is produced: investment. I think it is a good point to make that some of the social abandonment seen in the papers was not only from disinvestment, but I wonder what it would mean to connect that to a political economic approach that accounts for the accumulation and circulation of capital? The three processes they suggest (disconnection, displacement, and investment) are all pretty intimately linked, so I suppose the challenge becomes specifying how each operates to produce abandonment.

#3455 Political Ecologies of Environmental Control, Conflict and Crisis III
Maano Ramutsindela – University of Cape Town
Bram Büscher – Sociology of Development and Change, Wageningen University
Elizabeth Lunstrum – Department of Geography

This session was the one I presented in. My more urban geography/urban political ecology-influenced work was a bit out of place in a more development studies/political ecology session, but I still was glad to have found a home at the AAG and thought the session went well.

Tobias Schmitt (University of Hamburg) gave a talk based on his fieldwork on drought in Northeast Brazil. He presented a theoretical framework starting with Foucault’s concept of the dispositif and incorporating ideas from post-structuralist and structuralist political ecology, Actor Network Theory, and even some Althusser. He then used this framework to present results of a discourse analysis of drought, placing its depiction as a natural disaster within the context of uneven power relations.

Melody Lynch (McGill University) presented her research looking at conflict over natural resource use in a national park in Indonesia. She presented evidence of covert forms of everyday resistance that indigenous fisherpeople use to support their livelihoods, despite significant repression by local authorities who imposed the park boundaries on their traditional territory.

I was up next, presenting a paper titled “Re-imagining Cleveland: exploring the tensions between decommodification and market intervention in vacant land reuse.” The paper was received pretty well I thought. This was my first attempt at writing up some results from fieldwork, so I had the interesting experience of reading it and realizing my thinking has already changed as it is so fresh, but it was a good first try. Here’s the abstract:

North American Rust Belt inner cities are currently facing the combined effects of housing and land abandonment stemming from long-term population loss and the more recent acute effects of the home mortgage crisis. A growing number of vacant land reuse strategies are emerging at both grassroots and institutional levels in response to this situation. Cleveland, Ohio, is home to a significant example of such projects called Re-imagining Cleveland, which is a competitive vacant land-reuse grant program that began in 2007. In this paper, I investigate the tensions within such land-reuse projects, which can be interpreted on one hand as decommodifying urban land and creating alternative community economies, or on the other as interventions into the housing market that seek to increase property values and prepare disinvested neighborhoods for eventual turnaround. My investigation is grounded within a normative project of uncovering how community-based movements to decommodify or otherwise gain access to land might proceed in cities with high rates of land vacancy. I draw on interviews with nonprofit staff, city officials, and community members to unpack the strategies and tactics that Cleveland residents are using to gain access to vacant land. As the local state in cities like Cleveland turn towards sustainability as a ‘fix’ for local economic development issues, it is important to understand how to advance the struggle for equitable and socially just futures.

Finally, Maano Ramutsindela (University of Cape Town) gave a pretty fascinating talk reflecting on a recent experience he had working with one of the other organizers, Bram Büscher (Wageningen University). They published a paper (2015) together that was critical of the Peace Parks program in southern Africa and actually received some significant blowback from the powerful nonprofits associated with the program. They then got very meta and analyzed their experience, trying to understand how and why a powerful conservation industry would act to silence them. I thought it was a very interesting presentation and a pretty shocking example of threats to academic freedom.

#3665 IJURR 2016 Lecture: Sabotage, Ostentation, and Attitude: Transformations in Modes of Collective Life in São Paulo’s Peripheries
Ananya Roy – UCLA
Teresa Caldeira – UC Berkeley

The 2016 IJUUR lecture was given by Teresa Caldeira (UC Berkeley), who presented a very ethnographically rich take on changing “modes of collective life” in a peripheral neighborhood of São Paulo (Jardim das Camélias) where she has conducted fieldwork since the 1970s. Her overall goal was to illustrate changes in the “genres of representation” used in working class families and to relate these to changes in the “mode of collective life” of inhabitants of these peripheral neighborhoods. She provided detailed exposition of these changes in five areas: space, housing, the social role of women, consumption, and music. For each site she traced changes, which generally corresponded to a (unevenly and precariously) rising standard of living, class distinction through decoration and debt-financed consumption, and changing gender roles as the labor movement waned and women entered the workforce. Two central examples of changes were from stoic formal portraiture to selfies at parties and from race- and class-conscious (but often misogynistic) rap to consumption-focused funk ostentação.

The first thing worth mentioning about the talk is the impressive the depth of her research. The over 30 years of research was definitely apparent, as she painted a picture of change at the neighborhood level and within a specific family that served as key informants and a case. She had photographic records of changes in the family and the built environment and clips from rap videos that really helped illustrate her points. Overall the depth of her knowledge of the community was evident and presented very well.

I did have a few reservations and questions, however. One was about the conceptual/theoretical language she was using. She seemed to be referring to a specific concept with this term “mode of collective life,” which sounds sort of Durkheimian, but does anyone know what literature/scholar she is referencing exactly? It was therefore not clear to me if this was a concept that was bounded or divided by race, class, gender, and other forms of social difference, or if it was supposed to be more about a kind of hegemonic mode of representation.

The second major issue was related to the question of explanation. Her talk was heavily descriptive and I wondered where she actually located levers of social change. She did make a few more causal arguments, such as that the increased entrance of women in the workforce has led to a backlash by men who feel threatened by losing their status as breadwinners, a form of fragile masculinity she sees manifested in musical representation. One of the audience members asked a question that also got at this issue and related it to the present day, asking how she related these changes to the rise of the new right in Brazil, a particularly pertinent question considering she did not mention at all any of the current events going on in the country. Perhaps I missed the point, but there did not seem to be a strong political stance taken on the decline of the labor movement and the rise of household debt, which I would certainly expect. Thinking more about relating these changes in modes of representation to changes in Brazil’s political economy seems key here, and she certainly did that a bit throughout, but the exact relationship there felt underspecified to me.

#4129, #4229 Planning revitalization in racialized neighborhoods in White colonial settler societies
Melissa Fong – University of Toronto

These two sessions were very interesting to me, both in the context of my research and as I recently moved back to Vancouver, the place much of the work presented was examining. Melissa Fong (University of Toronto) organized the session because she felt that much of the work on gentrification she encountered did not pay sufficient attention to processes of racialization and on-going relations of colonialism. She put together a great group of papers, with her own examining the politics of respectability among Chinese residents of Vancouver’s Chinatown, an area that is experiencing increasingly significant gentrification. Jon Peyton (University of Manitoba) presented work co-authored with Jeff Masuda (Queen’s University), Trevor Wideman (Simon Fraser University), and Matt Dyce (University of Winnipeg) looking at how Vancouver restaurants and bars are reproducing narratives and processes of settler colonialism as they expand into low-income neighborhoods. Many of the examples presented – such as a bar literally named Colony – come from Mount Pleasant, my new home, and explicated some of the trends I have been seeing in the city for years.

My supervisor Sarah Wakefield (University of Toronto) presented the results of some community-based research she has been conducting in Hamilton, Ontario with several collaborators on a resident-led revitalization project titled “Code Red.” She revealed how discussions about race and class inequality rarely happened at community meetings unless they were properly facilitated to address these issues. A central issue was that newcomers – often white gentrifiers coming to Hamilton as part of the sprawling Greater Toronto Area – avoided these topics or using coded language to voice a desire to remake their neighborhoods free from working class residents or people of color. These newcomers were also usually educated and versed in the skills required to participate, leading to them fitting into the process and being heard, while other groups less able to do so were not heard.

I was happy to see Sarah Launius (University of Arizona), who gave a great talk on the politics of recognition at play in a revitalization plan in Tucson. She drew on Glen Coulthard’s (2014) Red Skin, White Masks to show how recognition of indigenous and Mexican-American culture in these plans was used symbolically to brand Tucson for the creative class, but is not following through on commitments to take this heritage seriously in a way that benefits and is led by these groups. However, she shows that this process goes beyond simply commercializing heritage and represents an ongoing process of settler colonialism.

Ann Markusen (University of Minnesota) presented a much more meta-level analysis of the relationship between place-making and gentrification, based on a recent debate she had with Roberto Bedoya in Tucson. I thought the points she made in her talk – how it is crucial to relate place-making efforts to the US’s history of colonialism and racialized dispossession – were a good contribution to the session, and the paper sounds like a very good paper to lay out this history in a way useful to students of urban studies. I felt a bit bad as the nominated timekeeper that she had to rush through her talk, but I look forward to seeing the paper in the future. Jeff Masuda (Queen’s University) gave a nice summary as discussant as well.

The second session was jam-packed and had a great group of papers. Margaret Pettygrove (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) argued that the City of Milwaukee’s support of urban agriculture has emphasized the goal of inner city revitalization without paying attention to how this is assuming a deficit in black communities and is spurring gentrification. Lisi Feng (University of British Columbia) gave an overview of the Vancouver housing crisis and constructions of “Chineseness.” Megan LaFrombois (University of Illinois – Chicago) gave a great, tight critique of “tactical urbanism” and how it is often employed in a way totally blind to race and class inequality. Her paper will pose a great critical response to this trendy planning concept. Anna Livia Brand (University of New Orleans) gave us a glimpse into her on-going detailed research on historically black neighborhoods in Chicago and New Orleans. Trevor Wideman (Simon Fraser University) presented research on Vancouver’s “Japantown” being co-authored with Jeffrey Masuda (Queen’s University), that uses the concept of “critical toponymy” to explore the struggle over what to call the area of the city now being re-branded as Japantown.

Finally,  Wendy Shaw, (University Of New South Wales) provided a truly insightful conclusion as discussant. She was very glad to see an emerging area of critical scholarship on gentrification that centers race and white supremacy, an area she has been working on for years. She stressed the need to continue to link neoliberalism to imperial and colonial projects and urged the presenters to be specific and careful in their study of racialization, using examples from her own work (2007) to remind us that “white” is not a coherent or settled category.

#4516 Progress in Human Geography Lecture: Gillian Hart – Relational Comparison Revisited: Thinking through Interconnections
Pauline McGuirk, – University of Newcastle, NSW
Susan Roberts – University Of Kentucky

This lecture by Gill Hart (UC Berkeley) was a thought-provoking effort to make some interventions in the debates around comparison occurring in both urban studies and subaltern studies (especially around assemblage (see e.g. Derickson, 2014; 2016) and between Chakrabarty (2000) and Chibber (2013)). Gill had already put forward her own concept of “relational comparison” in her first book on South Africa (2002), in which she was using geography’s locality debates to understand the politics of the World Bank advocating for post-apartheid South Africa to pursue a development path similar to East Asia. In the lecture helpfully offered several different conceptualizations of relationality before offering a new take on the concept.

Her original formulation of “relational comparison” was contrasted to positivist comparison, which sees specific all cases as variants of a general process. Relational comparison instead seeks to understand how processes are co-constitutive through in-depth historical and critical ethnography. In her book she called into question “impact models of globalization” that understand local sites simply being affected by global processes; instead, she argued that the local scale is a key site of contradiction and negotiation, drawing heavily on Massey’s (e.g. 1993) arguments.

In the lecture she detailed how this older formulation was no longer adequate in her thinking, pointing to the changes she tracked in her second book on South Africa (2014) and a current research project comparing South Africa and India. She drew some links between her thinking and Philip McMichael’s (1990) concept of “incorporating comparison,” which she saw as sharing her use of Marx to establish a “progressive-regressive” non-teleological dialectical method that always moves from concrete to abstract to concrete, seeing concrete concepts as a product of abstract and generalizable relations. However, she argued that McMichael’s concept needed some help from Lefebvre to theorize space and time.

Therefore she posited a new “conjunctural comparison” that was roughly formed by adding the approach of incorporating comparison and relational comparison. She then spent some time specifying her use of dialectics, drawing on OIman (2003) and Harvey (1996). She also agrees with some of the critiques of Harvey (e.g. Massey, 1993; Wright, 2006) that Harvey’s grand theory tends to not allow much room for the concrete to push back against the abstract, or for non-class forms of social difference to play integral roles in these abstract systems. While she did not get to everything she hoped to discuss, she hopes to flesh out more of what her vision of relational comparison means in the paper, but I certainly think it sounds like a productive contribution to what feels like a bit of an impasse in the literature. I found her talk very captivating and helpful despite it being largely conceptual and theoretical.


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One thought on “Sam’s AAG 2016 Roundup

  1. Pingback: Sam’s AAG 2017 and “Doing Urban Studies Differently” Workshop Roundup | Food, Equity, and Activism Study Team

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