Co-oprification: Introduction

Monday, January 2, 2012

Visualize gentrification. Start with a block of "urban blight:" run-down houses, empty storefronts, a warehouse windowed with broken glass or plywood. It wasn't always like this. Once this place was new, and sooner or later it will be renewed, because an urban location is valuable. How will that come about?

Renewal is exciting, but it's also hard. Crime, reputation, disrepair, and inertia will all be battled before a "bad neighborhood" becomes popular again. Hardly anyone wants to fight those fights alone, so nothing much will take place at all until one of two things occurs. Perhaps neighborhoods nearby will become so expensive that sheer market pressure thrusts a critical mass of new buyers and residents into the "frontier." Or perhaps real estate developers will sense the opportunity early enough to buy up the land, redevelop it, and "flip" it.

In either case, the transformation will be sudden, and quite possibly contentious. Prices will jump by orders of magnitude. Existing residents will be displaced. Before long, even newer residents will be displaced -- the artists and entrepreneurs and other "pioneers" who helped attract new buyers but didn't buy when property was cheap. If real estate developers are involved, whole blocks might be erased to make way for shiny, new blocks of condos, bank branches, and tanning salons. This is how money is made. After all, the army of businesses and home buyers and even municipal services wouldn't sink blood and treasure into a risky gambit with no promise of a reward.

So the picture we have now is mixed. It's certainly prettier than the blighted block we began with. Buildings are being used and maintained, not left to decay. Crime is dropping and property values are rising. However, beneath the surface the story darkens. Prices are getting brutal, so that even residents' friends can't afford to move in. Trendsetters are now moving to the "next" neighborhood. The keepers of local history, residents and buildings alike, have gone. So have the informal networks of familiarity and trust between neighbors that make a place a community.

And yes, there is money here now -- there must be, with businesses so busy and rents so high -- but it costs so much just to be here, the place may be doing less than it appears to help families build wealth. Most of the real profit was already captured, in the short period of the boom, probably a lot of it by people and institutions who don't even live here.

Renewal done differently

Now visualize an alternative. It's a process pointed in the same direction as gentrification: start with a struggling block and make it prosperous. The major difference is that residents organize ourselves, recruit the critical mass of new blood ourselves, and capture the profits of transformation ourselves.

Instead of seeing the broken-down homes, storefronts, and warehouse replaced by a new condo development, try picturing those buildings incrementally spruced up by a few local groups. One is a business running a corner bakery and cafe, with bulletin boards and wifi and open mic nights, the kind of drop-in community hub that seems to lie quietly at the center of every great neighborhood. Meanwhile some green entrepreneurs are transforming that old warehouse into an aquaponic indoor farm, selling the produce to local restaurants and households through a CSA. A third group has converted the space above the cafe into a daycare and after-school co-op.

Behind it all is a real estate collective, which owns the buildings, rents them out to the resident households and ventures, and provides a local investment opportunity to those who want to keep their wealth close to home. This collective is corporate, in that it's big enough to plan long over time and wide across the block, but it belongs to the community. It keeps its profits and decision-making on the block and it equalizes property investment over the block. It brings improvements without generating havoc, it enables the community to preserve historic architecture, and it brings the rents up without jacking them sky high. None of the home-grown ventures we've pictured here -- to say nothing of a diverse community of residents -- could survive big rent hikes.

Finally, there is the commons. The commons could simply be the block's interior green space, protected from the street behind buildings, perhaps where some backyard fences used to be. But why stop there? The commons could also include secure storage garage for bicycles, a big home theater and a party dining room any resident can sign out for gatherings, a safe play area for neighborhood kids, a shared van for shuttle trips downtown -- in short, any facility that could relieve pressure (and square footage and expense) from individual households, foster community fellowship, and improve all residents' quality of life. After all, who wouldn't rather watch a DVD with friends on a big projection screen than at home alone on a laptop?

Welcome to co-oprification. It is a vision, you could say, of gentrification done from the grassroots. I propose that, if we truly do it ourselves, the community and its habitat will look so different that the whole process deserves a new name.

Instead of enriching corporations downtown, this form of neighborhood renewal would be both by and for its own people. Perhaps none will become Donald Trump. (We can hope!) But all who build -- businesses, homes, families, community -- should stand to gain, and that starts to sound something like the American Dream.

Piecing it together

This vision of co-oprification combines three proposals: the commons, co-oprified commerce, and collective ownership.

The commons is simply an agreement to share some amenities so that everyone doesn't need their own. Amenities of the commons could be anything from a vegetable garden to a whole building with a theater, workshop, and guest rooms.

Co-oprified commerce represents a basic truth of community: that it is more than just a place to hang your hat. The heart of a community is work, education, and ongoing team efforts that express the community's values to the world. Co-oprified commerce, which may include anything from a school to an internet start-up (or both!), is distinguished by being integrated, formally, with residential decision-making.

Collective ownership ties it all together, providing the economic and social framework to make co-oprification possible. So it is there that we will begin to dig deeper.

  1. The Collective
  2. Co-oprified Commerce
  3. The Commons
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