April 19, 2013
In a one-year preparation for RAIN's 40th anniversary, I'm digitizing and commenting upon RAIN's very first issue of October, 1974. More than just reminiscence, I believe this work is important in many ways, not least because is helps us see that community workers of 40 years ago had a tremendous impact on the world.
The Local Economy Cookbook
January 31, 2011
This article, from RAIN April 2008, provided a few interesting patterns for economic revitalization through locally-based small projects in the post-financial-meltdown world.
If communities can organize quickly, disasters caused by Wall Street could in fact strengthen
First, the downturn will deprecate the unsustainable habits of City governments and Chambers of Commerce, which deplete local resources for the benefit of the privileged. Second, the "alternative" strategy, nurturing local small business and and othe local activity, can move to the fore -- cooperation emerges, neighborhoods are revived, etc.
Today, we must push for that transition, and initiate community projects that provide immediate economic energy. Here are a few common approaches to getting things off the ground.
Workshops: train your future colleagues
People with skills need colleagues, whether they are plumbers or custom shoemakers. They need to spend as much time teaching as possible, in order to find talent to expand their operations. This needs to be facilitated by the community, because it benefits the local economy. These people must be sought and helped.
The skilled people cannot spend their time training all interested person for free, in the hope that one will be a good fir. Big companies sometimes do that, institutions can do this, but a tiny local businesses cannot.
The answer is paid workshops. Teach a class in your expertise, oriented towards the opportunity. Charge the students, so you can afford to do it. See who excels ... and you'll have found your colleagues.
Workshops can cover any topic or art, and be taught at any level of abstraction, from cooking to painting to construction.
But they can also directly benefit the community. Say there's a historic building that needs restoration ... but there's not enough money in the local economy to finance it. Why not have professional restorers teach workshops on site while actually repairing a building? The students get a potential new career, the professionals find potential future colleagues, and, happily, a lovely building gets restored.
Say you have a successful vegetarian food business: you cater, you have cafes, and you have a product line sold in local stores. It's too much to manage. You need to find that rare combination of super-cook / product manager ... so why not teach workshops in creating vegetarian products for local distribution? Teach for the role that is needed.
The Inside-out University
If you put enough of these workshops together, you have a People's University, oriented towards the needs of the community.
This is, in many ways, the opposite of education as currently conceived, where the internal structure of the institution trumps the needs of the surrounding community. The People's University, while still respecting the student, puts the communities needs first, so it can always be agile and self-sufficient.
It might seem like a vocational school ... and of course it's a related idea ... but it's much looser: courses come and go based on immediate local needs for import replacement, from farming to making toothbrushes, and the opportunities afforded by local talent. Since it's a local university, it is focussed on community needs, eliminating the wasteful intermediate concepts of the national economy: "degrees", "careers" etc.
Note that otherwise local talents are usually on their own, and hence, no matter how talented, they are less likely to succeed in the community. If they are on their own, they may struggle unnecessarily to succeed economically, to develop a community of local colleagues, or to make an impact on the global scene.
The People's University is an important step. It can group the workshops into loose, changing "departments" with "curricula", publications and cooperative marketing, so potential students (and teachers) can more easily discover what's on offer.
It's important to avoid the "campus" mentality ... the classes should be part of the community, the departments
The Course Catalog, the bedrock communication tool of modern Universities, may be inappropriate for the kind of economic revitalization described here. Courses are hidden in forbidding catalogs, in much the same way students are hidden away from real life when they work in a closed campus. A more appropriate communication tool might be a People's University newspaper supplement, part of an already popular paper. There must be a matching website, worth reading for its coverage of emerging projects and opportunities, as well as a clearinghouse for information on new project-driven workshops. And regular postering around the town.
Public flash presentation meetings
There are many stages to economic revitalization. The workshop, or the People's University, is at the beginning of the incubation of economic activity that extends local talent. But what's before that? How to people just hear each other out? They need to listen to each other's ideas for projects, spaces, solutions etc.
The key is the public networking meeting. There are many possible formats.
One of the best formats is the open flash presentation, where anyone can speak for 5 minutes, providing the opportunity to identify potential collaborators. People are then naturally encouraged to form groups around the various topics raised. The meetings are facilitated, and communication tools are provided ... whether web services, computers with internet connections, or bulletin boards, etc.
"Speed-dating" brokerage events
To overcome the social inertia that prevents interaction, flash presentations can be followed by one-on-one meetings between everyone presenting. This encourages more people to present.
One kind of event that can be helpful is a project faire, where people can drop in to talk with groups already working on launching new projects. Any stage can present. People are used to going to faires where existing groups are advertising their work at public events. But the "project faire" helps projects that are just about to be born, and are looking for colleagues and other support.
Late RAIN cartoonist and community renaissance man Paul Ollswang's archive site is on its way back up.
The West End Proposal
December 7, 2009
The original 1995 West End community mega-proposal for Downtown Eugene is now online here. Stay tuned for updates, including the historical position of this proposal, relative to the battles against Globalization and Urban Renewal.
September 30, 2009
Check out Rain Magazine's Flickr page. Photos coming to this site soon.
January 21, 2009
September 11, 2009
Rain magazine founder Steve Johnson has launched a website of his work at www.stevenreedjohnson.com
We're starting to put a smattering of old Rain content into this new wiki for Rain editors.
Bootstrapping: reversible equations and the café theory of squatting
April 13, 2008
Squatters can sustain their occupation of abandoned buildings, by opening a café. In a city, if they do it well, and differentiate themselves, the café will get them local support, with which to petition for residence.
This doesn't happen often in the US today, where landlords in many cities are allowed to sit on empty properties indefinitely. But at many times & places, squatting has been a viable, direct-action approach to urban revitalization.
It may seem like a sequence:
1. live in the building
2. open a café
3. get community support
But, really, this is just one path to the final goal, a "community-supported residence-café", if you will:
Z: "community-supported residence-café"
a: "live in the building"
b: "open a café"
c: "get community support"
or Z = a + b + c
Say you have "c", and have almost all the components for "b" -- but you don't have any investment -- how are you going to finish "b"?
It turns out, that the key is "a": get squatters. If people live in the building (kind of an entrepreneurial community) they can run the café, completing the equation.
So, it turns out that to bootstrap a community project with no money, these "puzzles" must be completed, in some order. If you don't have one piece, work on another piece, until the whole is complete.
One can imagine a computer program in which these equations reside: it lets you find the pieces, and helps you to identify those that are missing from a successful community project.
New Strategies for Economic Relocalization
March 20, 2008
In the 1970's, we called it "import replacement". Local economies can be revived by it, neighborhoods too. It's a strategy that creates jobs, reduces consumption, increases local environmental awareness, and broadens the connection between people who work, and people who shop.
Relocalization is not protectionism. It's pride of place. It's humane. It makes sense. Of course we want to buy bread from that great independent baker down the block, rather than something produced in a factory.
Import replacement has always been the community alternative to the massive, wasteful economic development juggernaut of modern capitalism. Subsistence agriculture, small-scale manufacturing, appropriate technology ... these are the tools of community independence. When economies collapse, local production booms.
Whenever a community organizer is asked "but, what can we produce?" ... the first answer is always "what are you buying?" Everyday, people buy things their community could produce. If we nurture our production base, the skills and level of creativity in our community improves, and we can more easily weather difficult economic times and resource shortages.
Today, with increasing transportation costs and greater pressure to increase profits, relocalization has become increasing viable as a sustainable business strategy.
So, even in the US today, your community can beat import prices.
In the photo above, we see typical, inexpensive meal-in-a-box products found at a local natural food store in Eugene, Oregon. The box on the left is a relocalized "copy" of the one on the right. It is comparable in quality, and it's 30 cents cheaper. Because it doesn't need to travel as far.
"Economy of scale" is an abstraction that is usually applied incorrectly. Corporate monopolies and oligopolies often use it to justify their power and profits, even for products you could make more cheaply in your own house. Food is a perfect example -- there is no packaged food that comes close to the quality and low-cost of a homemade equivalent, and yet the premium on packaged food is astronomical. Is this "economy of scale"? The industry that mass-produces food would have us think so.
Places and products
In most of the world, the displacement of local production, along with the loss of economic independence, that has accelerated since the industrial revolution, has been accompanied by an increasing destruction of places of community.
Neighborhoods were replaced by "zones" for shopping, working, education, and residence. This has been especially true in the US since WW II. Since production was commodified, neighborhood coherence was less valued by planners, architects, developers, financiers, politicians etc. Awareness of this problem has improved in recent years, but the rate of neighborhood destruction, and conversion to mass-production, is still heady.
Given this, why not reverse both trends together? Why not relocalize products and recommunalize places?
One possibly useful tool is a "geographically-focussed incubation network". We're building one to revitalize downtown Eugene, Oregon.
Downtown Eugene was drained and destroyed by Urban Renewal and automobile economics over the past 40 years, and much of it is abandoned, or feels that way. A popular new nightlife district recently sprang to life, and there's now community interest in filling the surrounding empty spaces.
A recent measure to increase Urban Renewal spending (which was defeated) caused a rift among people focussed on downtown, but it was followed by a kind of increased energy and reconciliation, and an agreement that creative, grassroots solutions could help to fix the problems.
To spark such solutions, a citizens' group is hosting a series of "networking events" ... the intention is to bring together all levels of people who might help each other to actually do something positive downtown. This means an open, all-level gathering of potential partners, clientele, entrepreneurs, non-profit organizers, developers, investors etc. It means trying to get people to:
1. start a project
2. gather steam for it
3. figure out how to make it real
4. present it to the larger community
The biggest difficulty in launching a new venture, is visibility. How does the talent to relocalize, the desire to relocalize, etc. become visible to the community? Without a permanent exchange on which to announce these desires, potential cooperation becomes lost.
If a physical area is revitalized through creation of new local businesses and activities, then it's easy to be visible. But the same cannot be said of the desire to expand, to branch out, to cooperate, collaborate, and form flexible economic cooperative networks. These things are necessary for the survival of neighborhoods and local economies, as they are constantly assaulted by marketing attacks from outside corporate interests.
One solution is a team of people who constantly try to connect everyone. In a different age, a chamber of commerce would have played this role. But now the need for cooperation and fluidity is great, so we need new tools for those who are trying to repair their torn community economies.
One obvious place to do this, is the community memory of our age: the world wide web.
The Main Street fight against Wall Street is high-minded, positive, but almost completely hidden ...
Democracy and Detroit
March 29, 2013
There's been a sudden decline in democracy in Detroit as Michigan's Emergency Manager law attacks the city's people. Of course, US cities are not really democratic to begin with (although they're a touch more tractable than the national government): people need to fight for city-level accountability. Still, the very existence of such a transparent Shock Doctrine-style law is a violation of any notion of justice and suffrage.
What Detroit needs is more democracy and control by its citizens, not less. They've always needed more popular control over large corporations, factories, banks and City expenditures.
But there's no well-used mechanism for direct democracy these days, so the thinnest veneer of public interest, the council-manager system, has instead been blamed, and a dictatorship has been installed, intended both to hurt working people in unions as quickly as possible, and to feed corporations who want access to City contracts & resources.
I can't wait to see how the people of Detroit fight back.
The city has experienced something like an underground renaissance in recent years, fueled by rock-bottom rents, and proud urbanites finding hope amidst the crumbling infrastructure of an establishment that previously colonized their lives and dreams.
The place is vibrant. You only need to dig a little.
For example, look at the recent Oscar win by Searching for Sugarman, an extraordinary home-grown story.
Or take a new rock album American Twilight, from a transnational band that once featured in a poetic Wim Wenders movie, and which has now relocated to, and revived within Detroit: Crime & The City Solution.
Discussions, debate, and calls to action for revival and renewal in Detroit are everywhere. That's a good sign. As are the signs of workplace democracy and worker ownership among their neighbors in Ohio. Let's try to reverse the direction of the shock doctrine!
Drilling for community outrage
February 18, 2011
What does it take for a community to fight for itself? In Arkansas, natural gas extraction activity related to fracking is causing earthquakes, hundreds of them in the past few months. Even an energy industry lawyer writes of "concerns about air pollution and noise from the many heavy trucks and power sources needed to fracture the rock thousands of feet below the earth; drinking water contamination from spills and poor casing and cementing techniques; methane migration to water wells; the use of billions of gallons of fresh water in the fracturing process; and the safe disposal of billions of gallons of flowback water after the rock has been fractured." If you use Natural Gas, write to your utility, and ask them to support the regulation of fracking -- at the moment, the industry is fighting tooth-and-nail against regulation. Consumer pressure will help the many extraction communities fight for their environments.
World-class Community Ownership
February 7, 2011
January 29, 2011
The United States leads the world in one aspect of wage-slavery: the US is the only country with no laws requiring vacation. Big Business' anti-labor, anti-social attack of the last century has given the US worker, in the richest country on earth, the most unbalanced life in any stable society. CBS did an excellent story about this last year, No Vacation Nation. As the Europeans in the video point out: if vacation isn't the law, then you will worry about losing your job when you take a vacation. That describes the US perfectly.
An old idea, which should be in the constitution of any society, is "the right to work, and the right to rest". These things are so basic, and so well understood, by all of us, and yet it is not even on the agenda in today's trivialized political arena.
Of course, we need more. People need work that is both independent and cooperative, which develops potential, in an environment that provides incentives. But to even begin on that path, we need to make it impossible for employers to encourage the self-abuse of over-work.
Not litigious enough
January 25, 2011
The documentary Hot Coffee is at the Sundance Film Festival. It explains where the idea that "the US is a litigious society requiring tort reform" comes from: it was a fantasy heavily promoted by corporate interests over the last 15 years, part of a successful capture of the justice system to reduce corporate responsibility towards people and communities, and increase profits. Beware of "Mandatory Arbitration", keep an eye on your "Chamber of Commerce", and get involved in your local judicial elections! Corporate greed destroys economies: keep out the corporate candidates!
Canadian Urban Renewal
January 12, 2011
For a personal, poetic, wild statement against the insensitivities of "Urban Renewal", look for Guy Maddin's 2007 Canadian documentary: My Winnipeg.
October 21, 2010
In Italy, the beautiful car-free city of Venice is finishing a 40 megawatt emissions-free algae biomass plant in 2011, to power half the city. Video of the power plant here.
October 15, 2010
Shweeb (human-powered rail) is certainly cute, and might find a place somewhere, in some transportation mix. But it really only can help people to cope with the awful structure of modern cities. It doesn't fix it. It might be fun as a community project, in the mold of a neighborhood-built rail system.
October 8, 2010
The Solarbaum: urban public art with tracking solar panels
October 6, 2010
Johnny Knoxville's "Detroit Lives!" documentary: grassroots opportunities in "abandoned" cities
The visible economic underground
September 28, 2010