When Giants Fall: How roots make for thriving communities

January 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

I recently came across what I am going to go ahead and assume is a ‘viral’ long-form story editorial. I say this in large part because it appeared on BuzzFeed, which as we all know is the arbiter of all things ‘viral.’ It is, however, rare that their articles are more than GIFs or “20 things cat owners hate about Tamagotchi,” this was an article that was cerebral and inspiring.

The article, entitled “Why I Bought A House In Detroit  For $500″ was written by a Drew Philip, tells a story of a 23 year-old purchasing a home not long after moving into Detroit and slowly and painstakingly fixing it up. That is, of course, the most superficial reading of this article, what Drew articulates about his experience is a feeling that I can sympathize with; its a story about naivete, optimism in spite of reality, community, and an ethos that can start to rebuild our forgotten cities one block at a time.

 I thought I was making a sacrifice. I thought moving here was staying home when everyone else was leaving the state. I thought I was going to change the world and had some vague notions of starting a school. I cringe at how naive I was. I first rented an apartment in the city, sight unseen, that didn’t have a kitchen sink, so I did my dishes in the bathtub.

From the perspective of many of my peers, staying put where you grew up means you dropped the ball somewhere along the way. You couldn’t “get out” and as a result you were “stuck” in wherever (read: any rust-belt town). Not me! I wanted to be ‘stuck’ and in doing so wanted to challenge the ideas of my peers who are bending over backwards in New York or LA and most recently the Pacific Northwest, just to pay rent. It’s lovely there, I hear, lots of amenities, bike lanes, organic  grocery stores, and all your favorite bands will be sure to stop through on their nation wide tour. I say this in part because it’s true but also because it is this type of attitude – my attitude – that has become so polarizing. I get a lot of ‘If you visited you would love it’ (this I am certain is true) and ‘Can you blame me for leaving?’ (no, no I can’t) but by far my favorite is ‘you are so self-righteous aren’t you?’ – the answer to that one is more complicated and what I’d like to discuss further.

In my mind, I moved back to Cleveland from Chicago because I felt ‘I could make a difference’, I would be a ‘big fish in a small pond’ in order words, self-righteousness. I thought I had all the answers, I thought doing something was better than nothing, after all, this is the place where I grew up. It formed and informed my worldview. How could I not give a shit?

Well, as it turns out, it’s really easy to not give a shit and moreover if “giving a shit” is your modus operandi you can do that just about anywhere, not just in the rust-belt. Any city would benefit from you/someone like you being there. It’s this idea that all the people in scenarios similar to Drew Philip and others are viewed somehow as self-righteous saviors of their city when in reality they are not, and that accusation misses the point entirely. Drew hits the nail on the head when he discusses the interaction between United States Social Forum and Detroit in 2010:

One of the events I did see was a march staged by professional protest coordinators who had come in from California opposing Detroit’s trash incinerator, the largest in the United States. It’s located in Poletown. We have an asthma hospitalization rate three times the national average…

The protest would march down Detroit’s main thoroughfare and past the incinerator, presumably raising holy hell and sticking it to the man. They needed a place to stage the making of the props — hundreds of spray-painted sunflower pickets, miniature incinerators, signs. One of my well-meaning neighbors offered The Yes Farm, an abandoned apothecary where we occasionally staged art and music shows.

I guess no one saw the irony in cutting down real pine trees to make fake sunflowers. Or that a protest to demand clean air would use so much aerosol spray paint. But the real irony came when the Social Forum was over and it was time for the out-of-towners to leave for the next protest.

“What are you going to do with all this stuff?” we asked.

“Why don’t you just recycle it?” they said.


They left it all in The Yes Farm and split, leaving it for us to deal with. Now we had another pile of trash to clean up and nowhere for it to go. So while they were gallivanting off to the next good deed, that shit went into the incinerator and into our lungs.

This was the first time I heard, “I love it here! I think I’m going to move next summer.”

These folks who came to the United States Social Forum were well-intentioned. They, for lack of a better term, ‘gave a shit’ but were totally misguided in their approach. They came, they stirred the pot a little bit, they left, and that was that. Believing that they could make a difference in a weekend, they came and they left. At the end of the day it is staying power that holds the weight. It can be viewed as and cloaked in self-righteousness but  it is those who plant roots who are the ones who get to reap their labor.

I used to encourage anyone with a pulse to move to Cleveland. I’d say “the rent is cheap! the food is great! and the people are friendly!” I have changed my tune in the past year or two. I have seen people who were totally comfortable living in the suburbs – where I grew up mind you – now all of a sudden excited about living DOWNTOWN!!! Now more than ever, people who have not been exposed to ethnic or economic diversity are entering neighborhoods and making off the cuff assumptions that are both patronizing and reflective of the colonizing mindset that most gentrifiers unknowingly carry with them. I will hear people talking about how ‘ghetto’ it is – or was a couple years back – and how they cannot wait for the newest wave of 200 lofts to come online. Economic promise to most folks in Cleveland is seen most clearly in our current downtown occupancy rate of 96%. What is missing from this equation is that not everyone wins in this scenario, its a rising tide that lifts only some of the boats while washing others over.

Really? Are we Miami now?

I sing a different tune now, I see 96% occupancy in downtown Cleveland and, sure, its great for the cities core – no one has lived there in years – but it is a scary prospect for its surrounding neighborhoods. We may have some of the highest rates of foreclosures and vacancy in the nation but we also have proud neighborhoods with identities characterized by the residents who live there and have lived there. With luxury loft apartments coming online at a record setting pace I wonder if the West Side Market vendors will even be able to afford to live in Ohio City or if the ancestors of Italian immigrants will be able to continue to call Little Italy their home. I wonder why my fair city is spending $330 million on a highway going directly through some of Cleveland’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, as if urban renewal worked out well the first time around. I wonder why we prioritize the needs of “professional” sports teams over and above the well-known needs of our community. I don’t want ‘just anyone’ moving to Cleveland. I want people who are critical; who think about economics, the planet and their relationship to these things differently than most. I want people who are willing to get their hands dirty, meet people they normally wouldn’t, and folks who are okay with being uncomfortable.

Our problems are vast but I firmly believe that the solutions to all of our problems are already here – in one shape or another, we don’t need another study to tell us what we already know. We are our own worst enemy and our only hope. To borrow a quote from our pal Drew Philip, ““We want things to flourish, but we want them to have roots.”

Across the Pond Cooperativism: Milwaukee and Mondragon.

January 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

In September of 2013 I had the privilege of taking a trip with the Praxis Peace Institute to Mondragon, Spain. It had been a dream of mine to go there for a few years, so I jumped on the opportunity. Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC) is the world’s largest cooperative complex. They provide 83,000 full time jobs (100,000 people including part-timers) all over the world, and in the Basque region of Spain they have about 33,000 workers. They made €7.9billion in 2012. There are other places that you can read all about Mondragon. Philadelphia cooperator Caitlin Quigley wrote a rather insightful piece about this same trip here.

My biggest impression was “wow, they’re really doing it.” The cooperative movement that is just starting to pick up steam here in the US pales in comparison to the size and scope of Mondragon. I was overwhelmed with hope that the movements happening here can be successful and long-lasting. And there are of course plenty of lessons to be learned from Mondragon that can help our movements get there.

The cooperative complex is essentially a vast cultural and economic institution. There are cooperative schools for young children up through college. There is a co-op research and development firm and a separate firm to foster entrepreneurship and new ventures. There are co-op factories suffering a fate similar to American factories. The big-box stores Eroski (think Target, but a little smaller and more grocery-oriented) are cooperatized in Basque country (though the stores are not co-ops in the rest of Spain). The people there build cooperative apartment complexes together. Cooperativism has made its way through nearly every aspect of life. Employment is around 95% in Basque country, and crime is extremely low. It’s hard to say whether all this suggests Americans could do that or if we shouldn’t even try.

Worker-ownership is key there. On the first day, our guide told us a story about a major electronics corporation VP and Directors coming to Mondragon to find out how MCC manages intercooperation and worker engagement. They basically wanted to figure out how to make workers happier. Our guide said he responded by showing them this: MondragonStructureofPowerThat is to say, in a standard corporation, capital has all the power, and labor is a tool to be wielded to maximize capital, whereas in a cooperative, capital is the tool to be used in the service of labor (the workers). This, he explained, was why they have happy workers. I imagine a lot of cringing ensued.

The worker-centric approach of Mondragon has major implications for how we approach cooperativism here. A quick anecdote: when the co-op bar I work at was forming back in 2010, it was conceived of as a consumer co-op. There were two big reasons for this. One was that the food co-op that kind of birthed it was a consumer co-op so we had experience with that form, and the other more important reason was that selling memberships in advance of opening the business would be the principle form of capitalization for the business. In other words, we wouldn’t have opened our doors had it not been for early memberships, and lots of them. But now, this particular co-op has a bunch of workers who, despite adding value to the job, don’t own the place any more than many of their customers. And as a result, there is arguably no incentive to make it the highest performing business of its kind. (Of course there are other contextual factors, like the character of the neighborhood and the bar itself; and the workers DO get to run the place under the auspices of a pretty worker-friendly board.) Seeing the level of performance and pride, as well as the social and fringe benefits a network of specifically worker-owned cooperatives brings to the table made me think we’ve been approaching co-op development in the wrong way in certain contexts. I think this has to do with the need the co-op seeks to meet.

The basic reason co-ops form is to meet a need. Historically, farmers pooled their resources so they could purchase equipment and supplies and market their products together (their need was access to markets and an economy of scale). Food (grocery) co-ops today exist in most cases to deliver “natural foods” to areas that don’t have natural foods (This is a big part of the reason co-ops are seen as a hippie thing). It makes sense that food co-ops are mostly organized as consumer co-ops. The need being met is the consumer’s need for food. Many thriving food co-ops also have volunteer labor. This helps lower prices (among a host of other impacts) to meet the basic human need the consumers have to eat. But at a co-op bar, what is the need? There are dozens of bars in Milwaukee. So the need wasn’t for another one. In our context, the need is really for employment. We rounded out our mission to reflect a couple of additional needs (co-op development and a social activist-oriented gathering place), but in practice we have about ten people doing value-added customer-service work for a member base that does not get to volunteer, and who does not have a serious “need” for the product we are offering. This type of work requires employee ownership in order to have engaged, motivated workers who want to innovate.

How do you say “eureka!” in Euskara?

But at Mondragon, there is a somewhat more clearly delineated line between the low skilled, low education, repetitive, semi-automaton labor that is required of much of their industrial jobs and the flexible, challenging, variable, highly skilled type labor that happens in other jobs. In either case, Mondragon has found consistent empirical support for the “mutual gains” model, where people are a key asset to be invested in for company improvement, rather than the alternative “conflicting outcomes” model where human resources are a cost to be minimized in order to improve organizational performance. They studied industrial jobs regardless of sector, cooperative or not, and regardless of past performance to come up with these findings, by the way. But industrial jobs nonetheless.

In the big retail outlets called Eroski, they found a different result: organizational performance increases with job strain. Highest productivity corresponds to low job satisfaction. The data suggests Eroski should pursue a model with low satisfying/paying/skilled jobs and high expected turnover to maximize profit. This is an industry that is extremely cost-sensitive (low price strategy), which drives down investment in employees. How can Eroski be sustainable AND value workers in the context of these results?

In our case, the bartender’s mixology skills and face to face customer service skills are a little harder to quantify. They’re clearly adding value. Same with the cooks at the consumer-owned food co-op’s cafe. Should all value-added jobs be in the realm of worker-co-ops? In the service industry, what’s the difference between value-added and non-value added? What’s the best way to develop employees in a worker-owned/managed setting? How do we even know the right way to structure our co-ops?

The answer to those questions should be the subject of further study, but I have a hunch going back to the initial co-op-theoretical question of “What is the need this co-op exists to meet?” and the context-sensitive question of “Are these value-added jobs?” can help determine the form: worker, consumer, or hybrid.

Mondragon’s success poses another totally different problem however, and it also has to do with worker ownership. The worker-owned industries at Mondragon have pursued growth just like any firm under the capitalist regime. Sure they value the workers, but they also value profit maximization. Worker-ownership in capitalism requires the same growth paradigm as traditional corporate ownership. But it doesn’t have to. One of the things that I find really exciting about the smaller-scale cooperative developments happening in the US is their willingness not to pursue growth for growth’s sake. Growth requires resources, and overuse of resources kills the planet. Our friends at Just Coffee have made a decision to stay at about their current size despite opportunities to get way bigger. Our food co-op has decided to stay in the building where it was founded, directly contrary to some other food co-ops that pursue rapid growth.

Another advantage of staying small is that it preserves democracy. Smaller democracies allow for a greater proportionate voice for each participant. But as Caitlin Quigley so aptly noted:

The cooperative model is built for democracy, but one member, one vote is only an invitation. Co-op members still need to show up to meetings and they need to be informed about what they’re voting on. More participation means stronger co-ops that actually reflect the needs and goals of their members. The cooperative model is a structure, and we have to create culture within that skeleton.

Mondragon has seen such success in part because it treats democracy as a precious resource. It’s the wellspring of their strength and their innovation. No matter how we structure our cooperatives, or how big they get, practicing and honing democracy is integral to the sustainability (both economic and environmental) of the businesses.

As for a linkage between Milwaukee and Mondragon, it’s still hard to say if Mondragon’s success is a sign we could do it here or whether the specificity of its historic, cultural, environmental and economic context should be taken as a warning not to even try. There are obviously a lot of things we can learn from them, but Mondragon’s size forces them to engage in the rapacious capitalist behaviors of other multinationals. They’re really great for the Basques, but how are the workers in their Chinese and Mexican factories treated, since they’re not worker-owners? The co-op-cultural best practices they have honed to make democracy flourish throughout the business and social life of the area are in my opinion the best takeaways from Mondragon. I’d prefer small neighborhood businesses running cooperatively and focusing on localism over huge firms that participate in the global market.

When I was there, I heard capitalists referred to on more than one occasion as “the enemy.” In spite of their global footprint and arguably relativistic philosophy of worker ownership, they still proclaim never to give up, never to “let them win.”2013-09-08 15.53.57 2013-09-08 21.54.22 2013-09-08 13.21.54 2013-09-08 14.34.11

Peter Murphy, Milwaukee cooperativist

Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2013: Some People are More Equal than Others

December 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Right to the Our City

September 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

“The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” – David Harvey: The Right to the City


This excerpt from David Harvey’s essay, “The Right to the City” has been weighing very heavily on me lately. It succinctly expresses the problem and solution to the question of urbanity. The problem: urbanity, currently, allows us to conceive of ourselves as autonomous individuals who merely exist in a codified system.  This complicates “social ties, (our) relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values…” and we are left with a society very much like the one you and I know and experience on a day-to-day basis. The beauty, and answer to this dilemma resides in the fact that our initial understanding of the modern condition of urbanity has been askew all along. Urbanity is inherently co-dependent, and  relational rather than independent and egocentric. Knowing this is empowering and taking this sentiment to heart has the capacity to be transformative in every sense of the word.

Part of the reason that we have so many societal wows is because we often think of ourselves as individuals rather than members of a larger whole. It should go without saying that this phenomena is shaped, in large part,  by economic systems that we, seemingly, have no control over. The transformative power of Harvey’s sentiments is how his solution has been framed, namely; it is our right to transform systems, particularly given the fact that we created them. The shame of the situation resides in the fact that a system that we has become perverted to no longer serve the interests of the masses, and perpetuate divisive tactics that underscore the believe in the individual over and above the common(s) good.

So, how do we shift paradigms, what steps need to be taken to re-awaken our sense of community, and belonging to and for one another?

It can also look like this:

Cities are ours lets see that they help us to see, really see, each other as dependent upon each other because we are.

The Protagonists of Utopia

January 16, 2013 § 1 Comment

Last night, on January 15th, I had the privilege of seeing Italian ethnographer, and Rust-Belt lover, Allessandro Coppola, speak at Cleveland State University as part of the Levin College of Urban Affairs Public Forum program.


Allessandro Coppola

Dr. Coppola was revealing his findings from his most recent work, ‘Apocalypse Town: Tales from the End of Urban Civilization’, a title he fiercely detested but, in the end, was forced to accept. His book, yet to be translated from Italian to English, tells the story that readers of this blog are familiar with; shrinking cities wrought by de-industrialization, failed urban renewal programs, and governmental policies that favor sprawl over a robust urban core.

The perspective of his lecture bore greater significance than its content. This is not a jab or backhanded compliment to Dr. Coppola, but rather a recognition of the fact that most of the audience last night knew on a personal level the very phenomena he had been trying to convey to his Italian audience. He knew this, the crowd knew this, and it was through this mutual understanding that gave us, Cleveland natives and in a very clear sense the subjects of his book, a space to step back and really take in the magnitude of our work, our struggle, and our vision.

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How Modern-Day Eugenics Spreads Dumb Ideas like a Virus

January 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Last week, the folks over at Richard Florida’s The Atlantic Cities wrote a real think piece. The article, entitled ‘How Economic Segregation Spreads Crime like a Virus’, is built upon a fairly simple and understandable premise; when varying economic groups are living within isolation, rather than integration, crime rates rise. Mind blowing, right?!

So why am I wasting my time telling you about a real whoop-dee-doo article that came out of intensive research from the cats over at the Brookings Institute and the D.C. Crime Policy Institute? Because in no uncertain terms is this article littered with unadulterated classism and ambiguous flashes of racism, and that’s a real problem. Not to mention that I think we can all agree with the idea that eugenics is a bad thing.

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“Slum Beautiful”: St. Louis Is Only Part of the Story

July 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

This past week The Daily Mail featured a photo essay by St. Louis photographer Demond Meek entitled “Slum Beautiful” in which the artist chronicled some of the city’s abandoned buildings and crumbling lots. In the article, “City of Ghosts,” Meek told the Daily Mail, “I wanted to focus on the buildings that were once considered beautiful or treasures- a few that could be fixed up with a little bit of love.”

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