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Class and Press in the New Miami

Gean Moreno

Sean Black, Hobe Sound, Florida, 2013.

Of course nothing could be more out of fashion these days than considering the class perspective that a piece of writing may embody. It’s like flipping open a Razr in the Apple store. Dissecting an article to see whose interests it upholds gives off a whiff of a stodgy old exercise that has been exhausted and has undergone the terrible fate of becoming an academic practice, dead and dry and slightly embarrassing. And it’s taken to be this, when it is lucky enough to not just come off as the pure resentment of entrenched lefties—defeated curmudgeons always suspicious of everything anyway.

And yet, objectivity, too, seems a bit unnecessary these days. Complete and straightforward objectivity. The conceit that it is possible and should be attempted, I mean, particularly in reporting. Journalists often seem to like to angle their stories, to deliver them from a certain perspective in sassy cadences, rallying against vapidity. They are, after all, the ones on the ground, prodding beyond appearances, picking up on the nuance that mere empirical observation may gloss over, trying to hold our attention, understanding atmospheres or attitudes that inform the facts but may not quite be a part of them. They know the real story and some leeway is necessary to be able to get on paper the full complexity of what they are dealing with. Irony and bold coolness often become an index of familiarity with subject matter.

It is in the angling of the story, in the perspective assumed when telling it, that the reporter may unwittingly position himself or herself on the side of particular interests, and establish unintended commitments. It may even be more innocent than this. It may be the “natural” way of telling it that the story ostensibly demands—if we are going to be realistic about things, as they say—that is itself skewed to one side or the other. This criticism is, of course, not new. But it has been silenced for a long time.

I began to think about these things last year when I read a short article in The Miami Herald (“Federal Judge: Miami will get a Hearing to Make Homeless Case,” Oct. 30th, 2013) by Charles Rabin. It was an update on the progress of City of Miami’s challenge to the Pottinger settlement. The settlement was the outcome of the 1998 ACLU-driven Pottinger v. City of Miami case. It allows homeless individuals to undertake life-sustaining activities, such as sleeping, eating, and erecting provisional structures on public land when shelter space is unavailable. And not just “lighting fires in parks, public nudity, and sleeping on sidewalks,” as the article gnarls the allowances through tendentious vocabulary, obviously for effect. The settlement protects the homeless population from police harassment and arrest, from what was once called “pest control” by the city’s finest. That the city at the time of the lawsuit had 1350 emergency beds, according to The New York Times, for a population of 5000 homeless individuals rendered the general unavailability of shelter space an incontrovertible fact.

On October 23, U.S. Federal District Judge Federico A. Moreno granted the City of Miami a hearing to prove that the 15-year-old settlement is due for modification. The decision pivots on this 1992 ruling by the Supreme Court: “Modification of a consent decree may be warranted when changed factual conditions make compliance with the decree substantially more onerous.”

As Rabin writes, since 1998, Downtown has undergone substantial changes “including the construction of 20,000 new condos, the opening of more than 200 retail stores and restaurants, new cultural venues, and a population that has swelled from 39,000 to the current 65,000.” While these changes are of course significant—they have literally altered the city—they are extraneous to the problems the settlement addressed in the first place. The Pottinger settlement addressed the discrepancy between the amount of shelter beds for the homeless and the population of homeless. It had nothing to do with concerns over real-estate development, retail-space growth, new cultural venues, etc. Since there weren’t enough beds, the right to certain life-sustaining activities on public land were legally extended. The question, then, should address the changes in relation to this problem. It’s not about how many condos have been built, but how many new shelter beds have been installed and what other provisions have been put in place. Rabin, echoing the developer-friendly arguments of City of Miami, passes apples for oranges.

One of the article’s problems is that it nowhere presents or points to any investigation regarding the veracity of the claim that “material conditions” as they relate to the homeless population have improved, as suggested in an affidavit signed by Alyce Robertson, Executive Director of the Downtown Development Authority, (hardly a neutral party in all this). It’s the only place where any claim regarding improved material/factual conditions for the homeless is found in the court transcript. As such, it should be the center of attention, as it actually speaks to what would determine whether the Pottinger settlement should be amended or not, what makes compliance with it these days onerous or not. Someone should have demanded numbers.

But the problem in reporting pointed out in the previous paragraph is accompanied by what may have once been called, in a different world, in a language that may feel dusty now, a problem of ideology. The article takes the image that a particular group has generated—that of a shiny new Downtown that has brought benefit to all—as a tool to perpetuate its interests, which at the very least involve an understanding of all urban space as commodity, as the way things really are. It may behoove us to remember the insights of feminist writer Marilyn Frye here: this is less the real as we usually think of the term than as it is employed in Spanish as lo real, the royal, that which belongs to the king, the truth as determined by the seat of power. It’s what is decreed as being real.

Getting rid of the monarchic dramatics, we can say that what we end up with here is an image that corresponds to what an affluent class needs as a public and shared narrative in order to perpetuate its interests. And it’s not that they have imposed it on us directly, through some particular form of coercion, but they have gotten it out there and entrenched it in the public imagination, often in oblique and diffuse ways, by co-opting the structures through which such a narrative is generated, distributed, and defended, from jurisprudence to journalism. In our case in particular, the problem pivots around the fact that the “modifications” that the City of Miami seeks, and that the angle of the article suggests are necessary, will only increase the benefits to one part of the population, to the detriment of the homeless, while all along passing this off as beneficial to all of us.

How does the article angle toward claiming the need for modification? At the very least it employs euphemisms currently deployed in the war against the poor. It calls gentrification change. It reiterates the idea of modification, where what is really sought is an abolition of the allowances extended by the Pottinger settlement. Rabin nowhere points out that what is really onerous about compliance with the decree in the New Miami is that its inhabitants will not be safeguarded from the un-sexy image of homeless people ambling about, sleeping under awnings, washing up in the park’s bathroom. And this image is jarringly incongruous with those new inhabitants’ expectations, with the prices that they are paying for condos that overlook the bay. That the supposedly most important thing the Pottinger settlement allows the homeless to do is light “fires in parks, public nudity, and [sleep] on sidewalks,” according to Rabin, should already clue us in to where the article is coming from.

Where else is the angling revealed? We see it in how the article tacitly proposes that the Pottinger settlement affects downtown Miami only. Or rather, in the way that it neglects to highlight that the Pottinger settlement extends certain affordances to a poor population throughout the City of Miami, even in neighborhoods that have not yet “benefited” from rampant gentrification. To modify the Pottinger settlement because change—and not even the change that would make the settlement open to modification—has visited one part of the city is to retract the allowances it legally extends everywhere else, in parts of the city that have been visited by no change at all. What this also does is obfuscate the fact that the Pottinger settlement has served as a tool for individuals who challenge the status quo of the local housing authority, cronyism, and market practices. It was the settlement that prevented a police raid on the nascent Umoja Village squatters’ camp in 2006, in Liberty City, an African-American neighborhood miles north of Downtown and not yet graced by a Herzog & de Meuron museum. The Village was a direct result of a growing homeless and under-housed population in the neighborhood generated by Federal programs, like HOPE VI, which shrunk the amount of available public housing and made no provisions to resettle the families it displaced.

The Pottinger settlement has been a survival mechanism for homeless individuals throughout the city and a tool of land activists who stand against waves of rampant gentrification, of unregulated property speculation, and of government shortsightedness. To attempt to pass it off as only an obstacle to the new downtown Miami and strip it of its usefulness in challenging certain social injustices and bureaucratic gaffs within a larger geographical circumference—and to say nothing along the way of the actual indictment to our existing and corrupt social arrangements that homelessness represents—obfuscates what is really at stake in “modifying” the Pottinger settlement.