November 2014

Nic Grosso


Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes from San Francisco's Housing Wars by James Tracy

Upon first reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I was thrown for a loop. At eleven or twelve, I had never seen anything quite like it. "Was there something wrong with this copy?" I wondered. And "how could anyone miss this many mistakes?" Every time someone spoke, the page would become littered with twisted, broken, and fractured language,. Maybe this was a long lost early draft of the novel, maybe in my hands I held literary treasure. Flipping pages onward with no sight of any improvement, I ran to my parents.

"What's wrong with this book?" I showed them the novel chockfull of errors. So many, often so slight, one could forgive any one of them individually but as they wore on with no let up, I simply could not sit idly by.

"No, no -- the author wrote this way on purpose. He was trying to mimic the sounds of the local dialect."

I was stunned. You could do that? You are not forced to conform to the standardized English, to the protocols and orders established all around us? From that moment on my perspectives widened, nothing was out of reach or unattainable. If one path wouldn't lead me to where I wanted to go, I would take another, or invent my own.

It was with similar sensations that I found myself moving through James Tracy's Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes from San Francisco's Housing Wars. As a longtime activist, Tracy brings us firsthand accounts from many protests, rallies, and other forms of civil disobedience used to combat the evictions, rent hikes, privatization, and corporate move-in that had plagued many of the working-class neighborhoods of San Francisco. Numerous individuals have been forced out of neighborhoods that they'd helped build with little recompense or consideration. And here Tracy brings us these stories with a sense of urgency and passion, not to make us pity this population, these people being priced out of their homes and communities, but instead to point to a more insidious problem: the fact that this is not chance or random but rather how the system is programmed to function.

Again I saw a call or a demand for an alternative to the standard. Where one turns a blind eye to the trampled few when the potential for millions of dollars in profit awaits, something must change. Tracy reveals a political structure that allows neighborhoods to fall into ruin in order to sell the idea of neighborhood revitalization and urban renewal, or in other words the displacement of the low-income families and small business that used to populate the area.

If there is any major weakness to the book, it is something that Tracy cops to in its first pages, if not in the title itself. Tracy is not offering a full overview of the housing crisis or the gentrification of San Francisco's famous Mission district even if many of the anecdotes left me hungry for more information, a more complete view. This is not Tracy's goal. He is not striving for objectivity or an omniscient view of the scene. With dispatches from the front lines, he instead offers heavy counterpoints to the stories propagated by politicians and corporations. Tracy reveals the bureaucracy and power moves made against these supposedly powerless communities, highlighting the variety of tactics used to reap the greatest profits with little regard for the human cost.

Now where this book offers its greatest contribution to its readers is in the many practical measures it suggests, plans of action communities can take to fight back against displacement. Tracy cuts through the red tape. By calling attention to the widespread displacement as not just a secondary effect of market fluctuations but as something built into the market structure, he hopes to evoke change. But these are not just wishes upon stars, he offers concrete steps that can be taken to develop a more symbiotic relationship between the market and people, one more considerate of human needs and conscious of the ways communities grow and persist.

Too wise to profess some easy fix, Tracy offers a set of paths that can be tailored to fit a variety of communities, a way forward to build a more humane future for our cities and their citizens because, as Tracy stresses, calling to mind the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, decent, safe housing should not be a luxury but a basic human right.

Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes from San Francisco's Housing Wars by James Tracy
AK Press
ISBN: 978-1849352055
200 pages