latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
manda Huron’s Carving Out the Commons is a strong contribution to literatures on diverse economies and the urban commons and it advances thinking about the workings of non-market forms of housing in gentrifying cities. It is an intellectually important book and should be discussed among scholars in urban studies, geography, and women/gender studies. Perhaps more exciting, as it is a highly engaging read, this book can be useful for students learning about critical and radical theory and organizers who need to translate these concepts into political education and community action.
Huron begins with a clear and coherent synthesis of her theoretical grounds in the commons, bridging institutionalist and alterglobalizationist perspectives and including a feminist lens. Her contribution here—to treat the commons as less an existing object than as an ongoing and active practice of communing—is based on extensive qualitative work with residents of housing cooperatives in Washington DC, in buildings that have been maintaining their tenant-run status over decades.
The book is very strongly contextualized in Washington DC, a ‘Chocolate City’ now rapidly losing Black population to displacement. Huron traces the longer history of political disenfranchisement and segregation that contributes uniquely to DC’s current challenges. Race figures in the book’s descriptions of the cooperative organizers, boards, and residents as African-American, African immigrant-identified, and Latinx, working in cross-racial alliance; and the discussion of the importance of these projects in light of the long racist exclusion from property ownership for Blacks in U.S. cities. It also takes an explicitly feminist approach to understanding the day-to-day work of commons-keeping. The gendered nature of cooperative housing operation is, as Huron notes, not often directly remarked upon by the co-op volunteers themselves. However, as Huron concludes, it is women’s knowledge of the nature of the work that must be utilized both to expand cooperatives themselves and to recreate them with new non-patriarchal gender relations.
This is a book about, mainly, Black (and Indigenous Central American) women doing commons- but the analysis doesn’t quite emerge as a theory of Black feminist commoning. I found it essential to connect up the findings here to theory that centers Black women. Whiteness, including White theory-- the great body of critical scholarship that often treats racism casually—simply cannot get us far enough to understanding actually existing capitalism and spaces of resistance; and more importantly, cannot get us far enough to building a different way forward. Whiteness itself is counter to the commons, to the collective—Whiteness is inextricable from the commodification of bodies and of land, it is synonymous with the extraction of resources and of wealth and opportunity hoarding. What could we make of the D.C. housing commons story if we explicitly turned away from the theories generated out of (under-examined) Whiteness and centered the story of how African American and African immigrant people are forming a solidarity in a diasporic Black community?
Here I appreciated considering, alongside of Carving Out the Commons, the work of Shana griffen using a black feminist geography lens to describe housing displacement as a reproductive justice issue, with attention to the particular ways that capitalism and its institutions bear down on black women’s bodies and choices, and what it means to them to exit from those systems. The book also stands well with Zenzele Isoke’s work in Newark, which uses bell hooks’ idea of homeplace, a personal and political space for Black women’s resistance, to conceptualize ‘selling in’ as the professional and voluntary work of Black women in their communities. I read Huron’s discussion of social reproduction in the commons in the particular politics of Washington D.C. in dialogue with Isoke’s deeply contextualized description of the work of home-making, “reconstructing and reconfiguring relationships of trust, positive reciprocity, cooperation, and care within and between black people and Newark’s political imaginary.” With the rich texture of qualitative data presented in the book from Huron’s research participants, it is possible to ask, as Akira Drake Rodriguez does when examining Black women’s experiences as heads of household in public housing, “what does opportunity look like for her and hers?” People of color, and particularly Black families headed by women, are the most precariously housed and in jeopardy in gentrifying neighborhoods, and are the primary organizers creating and maintaining economic alternatives. Theorizing the work of Black women and Indigenous by being explicitly intersectional of race, class, and gender could open up more pointed questions and possibilities.
While Carving Out the Commons is a sophisticated scholarly work, it is also one I could imagine assigning in undergraduate and graduate courses. I can’t help but think that Huron’s experience in organizing with community and teaching at the University of District of Columbia has something to do with the writing style of this book. The empirical work—brought to life with rich description and extensive use of the participants’ own voices—is transparently described and made very accessible. As a colleague at a similarly urban-serving and community engaged, high access university as Dr. Huron’s, it is tremendously exciting to find a book that speaks to the most important issues my students are grappling with in their personal and professional lives while providing an approachable treatment of theory and research. The question of whether it is possible to maintain community control and affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods is of course of intense interest. The thoroughly written research design and visible infrastructure of methods, analysis, and drawing conclusions makes this book especially useful for reading by students learning how to move between theoretical and empirical thinking. The book serves as an example of scholarship addressing a real and significant problem that can be illuminated by theory. The conceptual map is unfurled, the path is traced and followed in a way that a student seeking to “do critical theory” can see how to link up exciting ideas to data that, in turn, informs the advancement of those theories. Huron’s grounding in the diverse economies approach advances us away from either a dire fatalism about ‘late capitalism’ or a romantic notion of revolutionary collectives—into the more productive ground of actually occurring cooperatives and the work of maintaining them.
Likewise, adding this book to the library for political education with communities seeking non-capitalist modes of housing and homemaking, alongside of work on Black organizing, will be useful for organizers and community members. As residents of gentrifying neighborhoods seek possibilities for sidestepping the narrative of individual wealth building in homeownership, rooted in an urban context of poor and working class people of color resisting disenfranchisement, this book provides not only inspiration and vision, but a clear eyed evaluation of the challenges, opportunities, and additional alternatives.
 Shana griffen’s work is found at http://www.displacedneworleans.com/
 Zenzele Isoke, 2011. “The Politics Of Homemaking: Black Feminist Transformations Of A Cityscape.” Transforming Anthropology, 19(2):117–130. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-7466.2011.01136.x (Quoted from p. 118)
 Akira Drake Rodriguez, “Remarks from UAA 2018: Review of The One Way Street of Integration: Fair Housing and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in American Cities by Edward G. Goetz” accessed at