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Atomic Blonde is Pure Hell on Heels

My review for the Eagle

“Atomic Blonde” drives a stiletto straight into the jugular of every “girl power” spy movie out there, literally and figuratively (watch the trailer and you will see what I mean). Based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston, Sam Hart and Steven Perkins, “Atomic Blonde” is set in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is collapsing.

Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a British MI6 operative sent to Berlin to find a watch that contains the names of wanted agents, including a double-dealing mole known as Satchel. All this while supposedly collaborating with the MI6 contact in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy).

The ethos of “Atomic Blonde” is pure 80s with a “Drive”-esque neon palette and a new wave soundtrack to match, but this doesn’t lead to saccharine bliss (take a scene where a guy stomps someone to death to Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”). The soundtrack is also a reminder that the line between new wave and goth is a thin one. Even in the most ebullient of songs, there is a tension, a conflict, a turbulence. Director David Leitch deftly captures the disquieting energy in the air as walls tremble; rebellion is stirring the city awake while Siouxsie Sioux sings about cities in dust. In fact, this is one of the many subtle charms of the film— without being polemical, it is political in the subtlest of ways. A scene where Russian spies are shooting at German and British enemies in a crowd of protesters is a wry commentary on the shadowy workings of the state— in plain view, yet so inscrutable.

“Atomic Blonde” resoundingly disrupts the vapid “girl power” spy genre (yes, there is such a genre— think “Alias” and “La Femme Nikita”). The film is not overtly feminist, but Charlize Theron is every woman who has been called “bitch” by some old-boy type. As she soundly thrashes the archetype, she asks, “Am I still a bitch!?” The patriarchy ends up smashed in more ways than one. Lorraine also has to contend with questions of how well she is performing at her job— sound familiar? Her character, without relying on ham-handed political messages, is nevertheless that of a woman who doesn’t have time to take the numbers of those she has kicked to the curb. The dark humor of beating up men to the tune of George Michael’s “Father Figure” will not escape you. Similarly tongue-in-cheek is the way Lorraine makes fun of her male superior by saying had she known about an ambush, she would have “worn a different outfit.”

The fighting scenes in “Atomic Blonde” are edge-of-your-seat spectacular. The action avoids unrealistic hyperbole— in fact, it is mostly hand-to-hand combat. Theron, doing most of her own stunts, punches and kicks her way through the film with steely abandon. This is the picture of cool. There’s your girl power.

Grade: A

AFI Documentaries 2017

My review of AFI Docs 2017 for the Washington City Paper

Recruiting for Jihad

Directed by Adel Kahn Farooq and Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen

Recruiting for Jihad follows Norwegian Islamist Ubaydullah Hussain, who is the spokesperson for The Prophet’s Ummah, a Salafi-jihadist group. Hussain is of Pakistani descent, born in Norway and all too aware of the social benefits he enjoys in his position. Speaking to a recruit, he intones, “You will never be at home in Norway.” The native Norwegian recruits seem no more “at home” either—they all lament a life of “meaninglessness” before Islam. That is one of the greatest tensions exposed in the film: the way radical groups like Hussain’s manage to bridge the gap from conversion (or reversion, as it is called here) to jihadism. Two of the native Norwegians have never even been to Syria, yet are eager to fight there. Hussain emerges as magnetic and affable, at first—seemingly only interested in offering people a community. Yet, the uneasy way he responds when probed about his support of terrorist acts and ISIS exposes the fissure behind the façade of radicalism. The film is an enthralling look at the maddening disorientation of modern life—a Norwegian longing to be a part of a war in a place in the world he has never been, a Pakistani whose relationship with Islam is molded by an English imam… culture, identity, religion—all terms shown to be hard to unpack in a global world.

An Insignificant Man

Directed by Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla

An Insignificant Man is the story of the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, “India’s Bernie Sanders,” and his 2013 campaign for Chief Minister of Delhi. That politics are as dirty in India as much as in the West is all too apparent—clientelism, voter bribing, corporate control over government, thuggery. The film is a political thriller in every sense of the word—the stakes are high, with goons assassinating one of the candidates from Kejriwal’s populist Aam Aadmi Party. Missing from the narrative, however, is Kejriwal’s involvement with the Anti-Corruption Law and social activist Anna Hazare; the film picks up when he decides to go from lobbying for the law to turning the movement into a political party. An unassuming (and often far too serious) figure, Kejriwal is hardly the charismatic leader of lore. But his dogged determination shines through, as does his ability to deliver on campaign promises few believe he can—cutting the electricity bills in half and providing free water. Far from a wide-eyed tale about the triumph of populist democracy, An Insignificant Man showcases that even in the muck of politics, incremental changes can truly be momentous.

La Libertad de Diablo

Directed by Everardo González

La Libertad de Diablo riffs a little bit on Tempestad, a film that played in last year’s AFI DOCs, in that it captures the banality of violence in Mexico. The narrative technique is trenchant and unsettling. Director Everardo Gonzales interviews victims and perpetrators of violence. They all wear flesh-colored masks, which make them look ghoulish and eerie, effectively blurring the line between victim and perpetrator, illustrating how truly tenuous that distinction is. The masks preserve the anonymity, yet are stretched thinly enough over the faces to show them wracked by emotion and to see the dampness of tears at the eye holes. Some of the killers earn as little as $10 per kill. A mother talks about finding the sneaker of her dead child. All speak of fear and the pervasiveness of violence at all levels, including the police and government. The masks render the speakers skull-like, as though the living are not too far from the dead.

The Suitcase–An Immigrant’s Story

As presented at an On The Move panel for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 2017, in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

“Everything I owned was in a suitcase,” is too vast to comprehend. A suitcase can be heavy, like your heart, or too light, at least to carry a life. You try to find that one pair of shoes you can wear year-round, and you put that pair on so it doesn’t weigh down the suitcase too much. That pair ends up being the British-made “Clarks”—shoes you can’t really buy in the US in the early 1990s. Of course, that one pair–utilitarian though it might be–dubs you “the girl with the weird shoes” for the rest of the school year.

If that was the only “weird” thing about you, you would consider yourself lucky. It’s not. Your parents, too, could only bring a suitcase.

A suitcase can’t hold furniture. Your “home” becomes a collage of clashes, a very weird modern art piece. You end up collecting whatever you find abandoned in trash heaps: on the side of the road, a hand-me-down. The kindness of strangers is spoken about reverently through the various objects in your apartment. A gutted, giant sound speaker becomes the bench you sit on. A couch cushion becomes your floor bed. The table is foldable; the chairs are foldable; everything is compact and compactable…probably even compostable.

At first, you eat sandwiches consisting of hot dogs and mayo; once you discover that hot dogs are only supposed to be eaten in buns, you attempt a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so you know…you can eat your lunch in peace just once.

Everything is transient; ready to be picked up and moved wherever it needs to go. And every object that you are required to own becomes fraught and imbued with meaning-—in school, the teacher states you are required to purchase a “binder.” You are not even sure what that is, but you are sure your parents can’t afford to get it for you…because everything they own came from a suitcase, remember? When they buy you a McDonald’s $1 burger, you keep the paper it came wrapped in for a little bit, not because you want to recall the not-terribly-tasty experience but because you know that your parents thought really hard on how to spend that money they probably needed for much more important things.

All the dishes in your house are mismatched; not a single cup or plate has a mate.

School becomes the place you go to be made fun of; at a certain point, it doesn’t even bother you anymore. At first, you eat sandwiches consisting of hot dogs and mayo; once you discover that hot dogs are only supposed to be eaten in buns, you attempt a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so you know…you can eat your lunch in peace just once.

This is what it looks like to be an immigrant—or at least this is what it looked like for an impossibly awkward 13-year-old me. Mismatched, belonging, fitting, proper, part of a set—words that don’t seem to mean much…or maybe they mean too much. Like the objects in your apartment (not your home, really), you are impossibly out of place and mismatched. Sometimes you are “quirky,” but mostly you are “weird.”

You will never again be part of much of a set. The only order and sense will reside in your memories, precariously sewn together from the patchwork of experiences past and present.

Peter and the Farm Movie Review

My review for the Eagle newspaper

Title notwithstanding, Peter and the Farm is a documentary about Peter and, as an afterthought, his farm. If you are looking for pastoral poesy, this is not the film for you. If you are looking for a bird’s eye-view of a farmer’s life, well, this is not it either. A film about a curmudgeonly, self-obsessed man who is not particularly likeable? Most definitely.

Director Tony Scott follows 68-year-old Peter Dunning’s life on his farm in Vermont. Considering the setting, there is surprisingly little insight about farming per se. The viewers do get some exposure to the back-breaking grind that it is, for example, to make bales of hay with machinery that breaks down daily. This scene will disabuse you of any ideas about the neatness of those bales.

There is a great deal of visceral footage, quite literally. There is a blood-and-gore-and-viscera scene of Peter slaughtering a sheep—selling organic meats at the local farmer’s market is how Peter earns a living as a farmer. The shot, however, is incredibly gratuitous. One has to wonder why Scott even included it. Speaking of which, this is a question viewers might have many times throughout this film; yes, this is supposed to be a stream of consciousness opus, but about half of the film is Peter’s mumbling through tenuously connected stories and non-sequiturs. A more stern editing hand would have been a boon to this film.

Peter and the Farm suffers from too contrived of an attempt to be arthouse and instead simply ends up…arty. A scene in which Scott zooms in on the dead face of a coyote Peter has killed is unabashedly “oh, look how deep and metaphorical this is.” Except that it is not. In attempting to take us down the rabbit hole that is Peter’s life as an alcoholic, the film’s atmosphere captures the same heavy quagmire and nightmare that Peter is suffering through. In other words, the drudgery of Peter’s life is unloaded on the viewers, who must also begrudgingly get through the film.

Peter, an artist and poet of sorts, has lost all four children and his three wives to his alcoholism. While his despair and depression is palpable, it is hard to muster up pathos when he spends the entire film railing, howling and lashing out. It is hard to feel sympathy when we are presented with exactly how he has pushed everyone away from him. “There’s not a part of this farm that has not been scattered with my sweat, my piss, my blood, my spit, my seed, my sh*t, my tears, fingernails, skin, and hair. I’ve spread and lost hope over every acre. This farm becomes me. I’ve become the farm,” he bemoans. This statement is one of the most poignant revelations of the film—that the farm is all that is left for this man.

Peter and the Farm succeeds in giving the viewer access inside the harrowing,  quotidian existence of one particular farmer. While broader social commentary is lacking, it is, nevertheless, compelling in that it dispels romanticized ideas of bucolic paradises and other idylls of this ilk.

Grade: C

Equity Review

My review of the film Equity for The Eagle

f the women in the film Equity are the “She-Wolves of Wall Street,” the men may well be the hyenas, sneakily feasting on the carrion of the wolves’ spoils. Director Meera Menon offers a female perspective on the epitome of a bastion of male domination. Equity upends the very underpinnings of the financial thriller genre—the glorification (and conflation) of greed and power and the lionization of the “ol’ boy network” as the only interesting and significant players. Like The Big Short and Margin Call, Equity lets us look under the hood of the Wall Street machine, exposing the lifeblood to be as much “scoop” and “perceptions” as it is cold hard facts. The film asks, “Why are women not allowed to like money and to enjoy power?”, Or better yet, as Anne-Marie Slaughter asked, “Why Can’t Women Still Can’t Have It All,” (which, cheekily enough, is actually referenced in the movie).

Naomi Bishop, played with steely intensity by Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, is an investment banker adept in helping companies go public. Yet, despite her formidable portfolio, she is only as good as her last IPO, which was not particularly successful. Her smarmy boss’ explanation for why she won’t be getting a promotion is “the perception” that she “rubbed people the wrong way” on her last IPO and that this is “not her year”—very objective criteria, you see. So much for Wall Street’s reliance on data and not emotions. Determined to prove herself (how many times over!?), Naomi sets her sights on Cache, a social network that prides itself on its privacy controls. Unfortunately, there are far too many egos to coddle and no one in Naomi’s circle can be trusted personally or professionally.

Equity’s plot alone is certainly compelling and filled with the kind of tension viewers expect from the genre. The way in which the film provokes the audience into questioning assumptions about gender roles and the corporate environment, however, is its greatest asset. Naomi’s right hand woman Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas, one of the film’s producers) finds out she is pregnant. In one particularly memorable scene, Erin, in the middle of her ultrasound, wants to take a client’s phone call. Her husband pointedly rebukes her, telling her that the client would want Erin to “enjoy her sonogram.”

The film aims to make the viewers squirm and it does so with great aplomb, putting front and center so many of the assumptions about women and making the viewer question them not only in the context of the film but also in one’s response to their portrayal in the film. Meta indeed. This is what is so incredibly ground-breaking about the film–why are we made uncomfortable by Erin’s attitude toward her pregnancy as a nuisance that will ruin her career? Why do we assume Naomi wants to be single and childless and never notice the sacrifices she has made to get to play with the big boys? Why do we assume that women are not supposed to like money?

The way the men are portrayed in Equity is also quite interesting–one gets the sense that like hyenas, they stand by, awaiting to feast on the hard work of others. They are incredibly chauvinistic, paternalistic, but mostly bumbling and terribly inept. The head of Cache, the IPO Naomi launches, is the ubiquitous tech bro, more interested in eating expensive sushi with beautiful women than anything else. In her personal relationship with an investment banker, Naomi’s character shines as the kind of woman we rarely see in films–guarded with business matters and not quick to brag or tell anyone that will listen to her business, literally. The cause of her downfall is not the usual gullibility or lack of foresight–it is people betraying her or not trusting her. We get the sense that while Wall Street is a game, Naomi still plays by its rules. The ones seeking to break them are the men who created them.

Equity also excels is in portraying the process of a company going public in accessible, layman terms. In that sense, it also shows just how reliant the stock world is on gossip, hearsay, hunches, “perceptions,” and tips–the irony is not lost on the viewer, as these are the very things that have been labeled to be the hallmark of the “feminine.”

The film truly shines in upending commonly-held ideas about heroes and antiheroes…or should we say heroines. The women of Wall Street may inhabit a world utterly unfamiliar to us, but the way in which they are forced to navigate around the roadblocks constantly placed in their path will not be. If the film is feminist, it certainly does not blare its politics through a megaphone. The very existence of Naomi on Wall Street is already incredibly impactful and Equity shatters the glass ceiling of everything you might believe about them.

Grade: A

Les Cowboys Review

My review for The Eagle

Les Cowboys riffs on John Ford’s The Searchers in a modern-day take on the story of a father looking for his lost daughter. Screenwriter Thomas Bidegain’s previous films Le Prophete and Rust and Bone showcased the same subdued yet visceral ethos that he brings to his directorial debut here.

The film opens at a country-western fair in France, in 1995. Alain (Francois Damiens), his wife, and two kids, Kelly and Georges/Kid, are the epitome of the wholesome family. The person who rides off into the sunset is no valiant cowboy, however, but Alain’s sixteen-year-old daughter Kelly. In the original film, the “bad guys” are the Comanches (racism found its way into cowboys movies, too). Bidegain’s Les Cowboys centers on “the Other” of present day–”radical” Muslims.

As Alain begins to search for Kelly, he discovers her notebooks (filled with Islamic propaganda) and finds out she has run away with her boyfriend Ahmed (whom they did not even know existed). What is especially mesmerizing about the film is that the suspense does not come from wondering if the father will find his daughter–very early on in the film, Kelly sends the family a letter asking them not to look for her and that she has chosen this life for herself.

So, we know immediately this will not be a more cerebral Taken or a whodunit. Alain’s all-consuming obsession with finding Kelly is what is most poignant and engrossing; his pain and bewilderment are palpable. Played with firebrand intensity by Francois Damiens, we see the same ardent love a father feels for his daughter transformed into an equally devouring, Don Quixotian quest that incinerates everything in its path–Alain, too, in the most literal sense. Alain goes everywhere from Syria to Yemen and Amsterdam, a broken man trying to find a broken bond. When a smuggler tells him that his daughter is not his daughter anymore, we can see how true yet utterly hollow that rings to a father.

9/11 happens and Georges/Kid (Finnegan Oldfield), Kelly’s brother, starts working for a relief organization in Afghanistan, secretly hoping to run into her somehow. John C. Reilly makes a (somewhat comedic) appearance as an American mercenary. The cadence of Les Cowboys is certainly compelling; the plot unfurls at an engrossing clip. The way traditional western film tropes are translated into the present is also quite creative. Kid, unlike his father, doesn’t want to pull Kelly away from her new life. He simply wants to see her and make sure she is alright. The final scene packs a stunningly emotional wallop, sans any words exchanged.

Les Cowboys will haunt you long after it’s over, and not because of what it states outright but because of what it implies. The dialogue is minimal to non-existent, yet the actors are able to educe a lyricality from their characters that is eloquent beyond any words. Alain’s character is stoic, like a true cowboy, but he is not one-dimensional.

The film also obliquely addresses racism and Islamophobia by pulling it out of the shadows, without commenting on it. In one scene, a man tells Alain that “now that you see how we live, you understand what has happened”–Alain gets enraged that the man is trying to engage him in some sort of a political discussion when all he cares about is Kelly and nothing else. The scene speaks volumes about how hatred also grows out of thin air–we don’t get the sense that Alain holds any prejudices until the fruitless quest that saps everything from him leads him to the point of calling the people he encounters “ragheads.”

Les Cowboys chooses to stay mum on politics, yet Kelly’s character who voluntarily chooses to leave her Western lifestyle behind, also offers a trenchant perspective that belies the broad-strokes stereotype of “brain-washed” and “abducted” women as the only ones who join radical Islamists. Nevertheless, just because it lacks in histrionics, it is no less moving. Les Cowboys does not ride off easily into the sunset without jostling you awake first and making you question the difference between good and bad guys and searches and crusades.

 

AFI Documentaries 2016 Reviews

My reviews of the 2016 AFI documentaries

AFTER SPRING

Directed by Ellen Martinez, Steph Ching

Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan, was built in 2012, a year after war broke out in Syria. It now houses most of Syria’s refugees—about 80,000 residents, more than half of whom are children. Ellen Martinez and Steph Ching’s documentary After Spring, executive produced by Jon Stewart, offers a look at life inside this city of tents. After Spring, unlike some other documentaries on the camp, does not romanticize the “look, there are shops and cell phones and restaurants” aspect of Zaatari. In fact, it underlines the bittersweet reading of this—that this camp has existed for so long and that with only 1% of refugees worldwide being granted asylum, this camp is life, and not some temporary limbo they must pass through and endure. A Korean teacher builds a Tae Kwon Do school for the children, but education and care are hard to come by—not because Zaatari is mismanaged but because Zaatari relies on the largesse of the World Food Program and other donors for any of its services.
After Spring offers a look at life of precarity, uncertainty, and struggle, that is, sadly, the closest semblance to normalcy and home for millions of people worldwide.

THE LAND OF THE ENLIGHTENED

Directed by Pieter-Jan de Pue

The Land of the Enlightened is a docu-fiction, a fairly unusual film format. Shot over seven years on 16mm film, it’s stirringly beautiful and fairytale-like. A band of children (who jokingly call themselves “brass bandits”) live in an old abandoned Soviet base in Afghanistan and survive by trading in opium, discarded shells, lapis lazuli, and any other wares they might chance upon during their caravan-robbing escapades. Director Pieter-Jan de Pue also offers footage from one of the last remaining U.S. military bases, while a narrator intersperses stories of a great king in Afghanistan’s history. One of the film’s most visceral scenes shows American soldiers shelling and shooting at a hill, where someone is hiding. The image of nature being blasted into smithereens by a relentless onslaught of firepower makes for heavy emotional viewing and offers a unique take on what war actually looks like. The children are neither powerful nor powerless—they neither want your pity, nor can one forget that they never had a childhood. They drift through the wreckage of a war-ravaged reality, salvaging and scavenging.

TEMPESTAD

Tempestad is a trenchant commentary on the human cost of government corruption in Mexico. Mexico-based director Tatiana Huezo (The Tiniest Place) tells the story of two women—Miriam, a mother and a Cancun Airport worker, arrested on false charges of human trafficking and sent to a prison run by the Gulf Cartel, and Adela, a circus clown, whose daughter disappeared and has never returned, likely abducted by a cartel. Huezo never shows Miriam; instead the film is an evocative riff on everyday life in Mexico—images of people riding a bus, people working at a market make for an innovative (for documentary film-making) technique, which isn’t as befuddling to the viewer as one might think. Tempestad allows the voices of the two women to weave a story devoid of patois and bare in its brutality. Miriam describes herself as one of the country’s many “pagadores”—people literally made to pay with their lives, so the government may pretend it is doing its job. The “prison” she is sentenced to asks Miriam’s family to pay $5000 to “respect her life” and $500 each week thereafter for her “keep.” Those unable to pay are murdered. Tempestad unsettles in a profound way; villains shift shapes and the people are the ones buffeted about in this powerful tempest.

Nasser’s Republic Review

My review of Nasser’s Republic, a part of Filmfest DC, for the Washington City Paper

Gamal Abdel Nasser was the very embodiment of the proverbial “charismatic leader” you read about in political science textbooks, but Nasser’s Republic: The Making of Modern Egypt steers clear of breathless paean-singing. Instead, the film captures the process of shaking colonialism’s chains and building a nation. It also offers a very comprehensive look at the anti-Western, pan-Arabism movement, showing Nasser as equally pragmatic and idealistic. The themes Nasser’s Republic tackles are big, yet the film is able to give a panoramic view of the issues of nationalizing an economy, gaining public support, contending with the Muslim Brotherhood, and wrestling with the thorny issue of what democratization and nation building actually looks like. Through interviews with Nasser’s daughter and a number of scholars and journalists, a portrait of a doggedly hard-working leader emerges. Nasser’s political milieu turns out to be not too terribly different from modern-day Egypt’s, and as such, it’s essential viewing for anyone interested in how a country moves from colonialism—and its effects—into autonomy. But sometimes autonomy can devolve into autocracy, and that’s something Nasser’s Republic does not shy away from exploring.

Department of Parks and Gentrification: A Tale Of Dogs and Men at the Shaw Dog Park

View here.

And any fool knows a dog needs a home, and shelter from pigs on the wing.”—Pink Floyd

 

“A place is a meaningful site that combines location (the geographical situation of a place), locale (its physical and material characteristics), and a sense of place (the feelings and emotions that are introduced by a place, especially through representation) (Anguelovski 47). Local social relations and their links to a broader system produce a place over time. People shape places through their interactions with each other and with their locale, and places shape residents through the political and physical processes that intervene in their lives.

I initially conceived this project as a study of cultural displacement via the creation of the Shaw Dog Park on 11th and Rhode Island Streets, in Washington, DC, on the former site of Canchita, a pick-up soccer court. What I discovered was quite different–sometimes, the best laid plans of dogs and men are just that; the heroes and the villains are the most unlikely ones; community is elusive but can be found on asphalt, gravel, or concrete…and that a discourse of us vs. them is not a good lens for studying gentrification. So, here’s a tale of two packs laying claim to the same turf.

Theoretical Background

Place attachment is an essential characteristic of people’s feeling toward a place, and it is defined as an affective bond between people and places. Place attachment provides a sense of security and well-being, defines boundaries between groups, and anchors memories, especially against the passage of time. The ties that exist among residents are based on connections between people who live there and also on the setting, building layout, and characteristics of public or semipublic places. For example–“narrow streets and alleys allow people to develop social and cultural outdoor activities so that residents recreate a piece of village life and build connections to each other” (Anguelovski 47).

Place attachment is indelibly tied to questions of identity. The relationship of people to a place and the feelings they develop toward it contribute to the formation and protection of their identity. Place identity is shaped through interactions that create values and beliefs. The identity of a place is often the object of controversies, conflicts, and traumas. “The loss of place has devastating consequences for protecting individual and collective memory and identity as well as restoring mental wellness. When planners displace people and demolish houses, they leave residents homeless physically and mentally as their memories are destroyed” (Anguelovski 48).

Parks hold an especially important place in public consciousness. “In the environmental arena, neighborhood green space plays multiple roles for low-income populations and residents of color. Residents use public spaces with plants and trees to develop social contacts with each other and feel less vulnerable in their neighborhood” (Anguelovski 49). As playgrounds and parks encourage children and youth to play outside freely, they also increase the sense of safety for families and create a dynamic outdoor and street life (Newman 103).

Parks are seen as stages for urban behavior, where residents from all walks of life and forced to interact and socialize. They are where the social is drawn into a dialogue with nature. “Parks can function as an unpredictable commons of a city and as such are a threat to any political order that invokes the idealized notion of the ‘public’ as a claim to legitimacy. Therefore parks, public squares, and open spaces in general are a source of continual anxiety for those seeking to safeguard normative definitions of the public. Parks and public spaces are continually subject to efforts to “fix’ what can be viewed as unruly vibrant commons” (Newman 74). Therefore, control of the public space is important on both an ideological and literal level. As areas of protest and dissent, parks are monitored and regulated by power impositions framed as preserving of law, order and public safety.

Gentrification brings to the forefront clashing ideologies on public space. The more romantic view of public space as where people can come together organically and in an unrestrained sense is in direct contract to the view of public space as a place of ordered, controlled “recreation.” Recreation is re-created and created by rules—what constitutes “recreation” is very much a contested process. Setha M. Low, an anthropologist who studies public spaces in New York City, believes such spaces are becoming increasingly off limits. As parks get beautified, she argues, poor people feel uncomfortable in what increasingly feels like an elite landscape.

Affluent residents and tourists appreciate heavily-policed public spaces, while black and Hispanic men, fearful of harassment, avoid those places. Teenagers avoid spaces with long lists of rules and regulations; the homeless are deterred by police harassment and perverse contraptions meant to prevent them from even so much as laying down on a park bench. Street vendors, part of the fabric of street life, feel increasingly beleaguered. Low says, “We’re becoming more homogeneous in our neighborhoods –- not less -– while the city is becoming more heterogeneous over all.” Even as an influx of new immigrants has enhanced the city’s overall diversity, she said, many neighborhoods have become more segregated.

In his research, “Social Exclusion and Space,” Ali Madanipour explains the ways in which our world is divided by physical, economic, and social barriers. One’s ability to move freely through spaces gives one a sense of pride, while “some members of society are excluded in the ‘mainstream’ and where this exclusion is painful for the excluded and harmful for society as a whole” (Madanipour 159). Urbanist Mike Davis explains that with privatization of space comes the marginalization and exclusion of “unsavory” populations. “The universal and ineluctable consequence of this crusade to secure the city is the destruction of accessible public space. The contemporary opprobrium attached to the term ‘street person’ is in itself a harrowing index of the devaluation of public spaces” (Davis 180). Socio-spatial exclusionary forces characterize all built landscapes: “A combination of formalized rules and regulations, informal codes and signs, and fears and desires control our spatial behavior and alert us to the limitations on our access. Through these, we have come to know whether we can enter a place, are welcomed in another and excluded from others. More restrictions on our access to our surroundings would bring about the feeling of being trapped, alienated and excluded from our social space” (Madanipour 162). These types of exclusionary forces are especially palpable in gentrifying neighborhoods.

In her article “Of Dogs and Men: The Making of Spatial Boundaries in a Gentrifying Neighborhood,” Sylvie Tissot argues that animals play an interesting role in the processes of social inclusion and exclusion in a gentrifying neighborhood. She writes that residents who move into mixed-income, “inner-city” neighborhoods generally express a taste for diversity while simultaneously attempting to distance themselves from “undesirables.” Dogs and the resultant dog parks are a symbol of newcomers’ attempts to control their environment and they allow for a discourse of a “diverse community” to be deployed (i.e. all dog owners are welcome to these parks). In reality, this mythical “diverse community” simply never materializes.

Pets constitute social markers, and relationships to them are also based on contrasting socioeconomic norms—for example, “doggie spas” and other such markers of affluence are not available or socially accepted for people of different socio-economic statuses. The market has been very responsive in catering to the new class of “yappies,” as I have come to jokingly call them. Case in point: there are now “Yappy Hours” with taglines such as “Looking for a way to spend quality time with your friends and Fido at a local bar or restaurant? Try a Yappy Hour, where pets attendance isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged.” By extension, dog parks perpetuate this marking of social territory, if you will.

Dog parks are loci of processes of both inclusion and exclusion, especially from a dialectic perspective. Gentrifiers actively use public spaces to create social boundaries; to define insiders and outsiders. The spatial boundaries allow them to distinguish themselves from the poor, long-term minority residents of the neighborhood, but this relationship is ambivalent and fraught. On one hand, gentrifiers staunchly defend dog parks as spaces for “everyone” and as communal gathering spots that encourage friendship building of a genuinely inclusive nature.

They also deploy a rhetoric of difference from “those people living in the suburbs.” The kind of commitment to community discussed so frequently is intended to be in sharp contrast to the “anonymity, isolation, and homogeneity of the suburbs.” Discourses about the dog park are of a liberal bent, connoting openness to ethnic and sexual minorities. In the Charles Park Association document that Tissot studied, dog parks are described as “where people from different racial, religious, social, and economic backgrounds meet and recreate together with their pets” (Tissot 265)

On the other hand, a concurrent narrative thread about the particularistic rights of dog owners is also in place. The dog park is supposed to be good for the community and not only for dog owners because it builds relationships in an urban space. But dog owners are quick to stress another—perhaps paradoxical—point at length in their letters: “that dog owners pay taxes, and as such, are entitled to have a space adapted to their specific use. Like parents for whose children the neighborhood maintains playgrounds, ‘dog parents,’ as one letter says, are also entitled to specific, dedicated space” (Tissot 270).

Conspicuously absent from the conversation is any mention of the potential conflicts among park users and among dog owners of different socioeconomic status or race, and when they do, it is only through euphemism or feigned unawareness. In his article “The Back-to-the-City Movement: Neighbourhood Redevelopment and Processes of Political and Cultural Displacement” Director of American University’s Metropolitan Policy Center Dr. Derek Hyra, discusses the resultant political and culture displacement and feelings of community loss. Some long-term DC residents are not as enthusiastic about dog parks. “Marshall Brown, a political strategist and father of former DC City Council Chair, Kwame Brown, stated, ‘They [the new white residents] want doggie parks and bike lanes. The result is a lot of tension. The new people believe more in their dogs than they do in people…This is not the District I knew. There’s no relationship with the black community. They don’t connect at the church, they don’t go to the same cafes, they don’t volunteer in the neighbourhood school, and a lot of longtime black residents feel threatened’” (Hyra 1766).

The way in which this cultural displacement takes place is quite clear—new residents are better able to lobby and navigate the channels of power to effect the changes they want to see. Long-term residents or immigrant residents, distrustful of byzantine bureaucracy and police authority, lack the political will power to advocate for their needs. “As new upper- and middle-income residents have come into the community, some have joined civic associations, seized political power and have advocated for policies, including limited parking, the removal of go-go clubs, bikes lanes and dog parks, which cater to their tastes and preferences. The combination of the political takeover and development of new amenities is associated with fear, resentment and civic withdrawal among some long-term, African-American residents” (Hyra 1767).

According to NeighborhoodInfoDC (http://www.neighborhoodinfodc.org/wards/nbr_prof_wrd2.html), the total population in Ward 2, where the Shaw Dog Park is located, was 56,986 in 1980. It rose to 76,883 by 2010. The percentage of African-American residents halved—in 1990, it was 19%; by 2010, it was 9.8%. The Latino population has stayed fairly consistent at around 10%, with a 2% increase in the “foreign-born” residents.


Shaw Dog Park

In November 2008, the first DC area official off-leash dog park was built. The dog park is a 15,000 square feet fenced enclosure with pea gravel and small stone surface floor where dogs can roam off their leashes. It likely cost the city well over a half a million dollars to construct (estimates based on similar parks). Shaw/U Street’s dog park was the product of an extensive advocacy effort. With political pressures from ANCs and civic associations, the city agreed to build the dog park. The Shaw Middle School (not in use since 2006) playground, where the dog park is located, also contains basketball courts and a soccer field (on top of an old baseball diamond, which has never been used for baseball). At the time of the dog park’s construction, no resources were dedicated to other playground amenities, which were in need of desperate upgrading. The soccer goals were askew and the field was mainly dirt. The basketball courts had not been renovated since at least 1995. While soccer fields and basketball courts, which are often used by Hispanics and African Americans, are neglected, newcomer amenities are developed and upgraded (Hyra 1765).

According to the Shaw Dog Park website (“Park History”), in 2005, the Dog Owners of Greater Shaw Yahoo Group formed to advocate for a permanent, legal dog park in the Shaw and Logan Circle neighborhood. In November of the same year, the D.C. Council passed a law allowing for the creation of dog parks. In May 2008, under the auspices of the MidCity Residents Association (MCRA), a neighborhood non-profit organization, the Shaw Dog Park application was filed, with 400 petitioners supporting the application. In November 2008, the Shaw Dog Park opened with then-Mayor Adrian Fenty cutting the “leash.” In 2011, the Shaw Dog Park Association (SDPA) incorporated in D.C. as a non-profit organization, separating from MCRA. The IRS granted 501(c) 3 tax-exempt status to SDPA, allowing all contributions to the organization to be treated as charitable donations.

The mission statement of the Shaw Dog Park states that it is a “public dog park that was developed and built by the city of Washington, DC.” The Shaw Dog Park Association is made up of “Shaw citizen volunteers that have a committed and vested interest in ensuring that Shaw Dog Park meets its main mission of providing a clean, safe and open environment for responsible dog owners and their dogs to visit.” I am placing the emphasis on responsible so we can unpack this a little bit.

Meet George Kassouf, the park’s Godfather. Quite literally—he is the one man show that built a field of doggie dreams (he built it and they came). George kindly agreed to be interviewed by me. If you are expecting me to characterize him as some sort of Machiavellian Yappie Overlord, I’ll just say George is a far cry from that. I met a man who had lived in the neighborhood for the last 13 years, who simply loves his dogs. While speaking with him, I felt an intense feeling of a “tail/tale of two cities.” George told me he was unaware of a canchita or even less, of people being displaced (in truth, later on, in examining his park proposal, I see that he was aware and did try to find space for them…so perhaps a better statement would be that he was unaware what impact his work would have). He recounted to me seeing games played, yet seemed absolutely baffled that this might have been a space that held such a prominence in the hearts and minds of people. If he did, he masked it really well by repeatedly reassuring me that all the neighborhood ANC and civic organizations supported the dog park. He insisted that the area had been nothing but a crime magnet, a space riddled with drug users and drunks (he even showed me a picture of a needle on the ground), using three trees as cover for their nefarious activities. George pointed me to a letter by a Police Lieutenant attesting to the fact that this area was in dire need of a clean-up (I will address this letter later). In truth, I saw the trees, which were the “original trees,” and was a bit hard-pressed to understand how anyone could hide under the lush canopies of these…shrubs, but as I said before, George appeared genuine enough for me to accept this as fact.

One major take away from the conversation was how business-as-usual politics is done in DC, sadly—apparently, alike in the lower and upper echelons of power. George’s application for the park had been languishing in the dusty bins of the Department of Parks and Recreation. One day, Councilmember Jack Evans gave George notice that Evans would be going on a walk-through with Mayor Fenty—a fairly routine occurrence. George immediately asked to join this walk-through. Surely enough, upon inquiring about the status of the dog park, the Mayor responded with sheer alacrity and a “well, why don’t we do it here” (referring to the current site). The Mayor had not even seen George’s application–talk about this being a true case of “face time,” “who you know,” and all the other clichés of DC politics. Had George not been fortuitously along for the Mayor’s walk-through, the Shaw Dog Park might have never been built.

Let’s talk about the park. Prior to meeting George, I had visited the park quite a few times at different times in the day, doing some participant observation. The park always struck me as an incredibly sad place—imposing fencing and wire surrounded everything; on the ground, gray gravel; the “trees” sitting in forbidding wooden boxes, with stones piled on top of their soil. As a tree lover, I admired their tenacity in spite of these Spartan conditions. I saw nothing but gray and confinement. I felt pent-in—I suppose an experience dogs are, sadly, all too familiar with. It felt restrictive, constricting, and just plain desolate—a better writer than me would probably describe it as “gritty urban, yappie chique?” By the way, as the diagram below illustrates, gravel is the base of choice in dog parks around the city:

For the life of me, I could not fathom why anyone would go there (and I am not saying this sarcastically, I want to underline). I was simply baffled. Almost every time I went there, I saw people sitting by themselves on the austere metal benches, staring at their phones listlessly while their dogs made equally listless circles. Talk about a microcosm of DC! I did not see the camaraderie, the community, or the fun that this was supposed to be. Below is a picture of the Easter egg hunt the park held for its denizens. I couldn’t help but feel that this was a true example of the commodification of dogs as status symbols—does what you see below seem more fun for the dogs or the owners? It just spoke to me of the “regulation of recreation” concept I brought up in the theory section—that recreation and fun has to be scheduled in a capitalist society, and commodified wherever possible.

 

It wasn’t until I talked to George that I grasped something really important—that the users of this park thought of it as a “socialization” for their dogs. It was more about letting your dog go off-leash and play with other dogs, which would be something unacceptable on a city sidewalk, than walking your dog. My first question to him was why would anyone choose to go to this drab place (doggy jail, as I called it), when one could walk freely on the streets!? This is when it dawned on me that this gentrification we are talking about here is *not* humans vs. dogs. It’s more human insistence on keeping a pet no matter the living arrangement. Most of the new residents in the neighborhood have dogs. Yet, urban living, not created with a dog in mind, necessitates the creation of these artificial “doggie playdate” scenarios.

Ultimately, dog parks are a microcosm of gentrification in the sense that just as dogs act as identity markers for their owners, so are dog parks markers of the regulation of public space. The Shaw Dog Park is maintained by volunteers. Even though every owner is responsible for cleaning up after his/her dog, volunteers still have to spray the gravel with disinfectant every week. No unregistered dogs are permitted inside the park; no non-immunized dogs are either. If you just found a stray on the street and are too poor to take him to the vet or license him with the city, neither he nor you are welcome there. The dog park has set hours. If your dog is aggressive with other dogs and harms any, you are responsible. These might sound like “minor” regulations meant to ensure “responsible” owner use, but, I would argue, they are manifestations of a climate of regulation where even the simple act of letting your dog play with another dog is surveilled and managed.

And the socialization of the dogs? Good question. George pointed to that as one of the greatest benefits of coming to the park. But would this be something of value if the dog were not an identity marker? In other words, does it have any value beyond showing off the obedience of your pet? George extolled the virtues of getting to meet people he would have never met otherwise—and he is right, but he also said, “I might not know their names, but I know their dogs’ names.” Ah! The good ol’ fetishization of dogs rears its head. To harken back to my earlier discussion of theory, this “community,” in a sense, is far less inclusive than we might imagine, though not purposely so. Just picture this—an inner-city youth walks into the park with an unregistered pit bull…would he be as welcomed there as anybody else? I want to believe so, but I can’t speak to that as throughout my entire time doing participant observation in the park, I did not see any Latino or African-American residents using it. When I asked George about that, he pointedly answered, “Well, there is no ‘Whites Only’ sign.” He is, in fact, right.
But I do wonder whether poorer residents avoid the park for fear that if their dog is to “rough up” any other dog, they would not be able to address the costs of this sort of an encounter. One of the reviews of the park on Yelp spoke to this very idea: “People in this park are generally not that friendly. Not mean, but not friendly. My attitude changed, however, when my dog was savagely attacked in this park, and no one there offered to do a thing to help. The owner of the attacking dog did not come forward to claim responsibility either. My friend had a similar experience there. I will not be returning to this park in the future. I’ve been to a number of dog parks across the country and have never experienced such complete apathy.”

The Shaw Dog Park is the largest off-leash dog park in Washington, DC with its 15,000 square foot area. In an interview with Borderstan (“George Kassouf”), George Kassouf explained the impetus behind the park’s creation: “Frankly, I just got tired of getting kicked off of fields for letting my dog off-leash. I learned that there were other dog owners around the District organizing for legal dog parks, and I joined forces with them. As far as Shaw Dog Park goes, it really was a team effort of dog owners and non-dog-owners alike, the police, community groups, ANCs [Advisory Neighborhood Commissions], and at least one PTA, believe it or not. Perhaps, I was just the most dogged — I wouldn’t accept no as an answer. But it definitely wouldn’t have happened without the intervention of ANC 2C Commissioner Alex Padro, Councilmember Jack Evans [D-Ward 2] and then-Mayor Adrian Fenty.”

Kassouf characterizes the park as a communal space, while deploying the “doggie parents” argument brought up in theory section of this paper. “The dog park is our own front porch, where we can gather after work to relax and spend time with our best friends and perhaps some new friends. And for those who might criticize spending money on dog parks, I’d argue, we spend gobs of money building soccer fields not for soccer balls but for soccer players; we construct tennis courts for tennis players, not tennis balls. The same applies to dog parks; it’s for the dog owners.”

Below is a post by Jack Evans on the Renew Shaw blog. The comments below it exemplify the concerns over gentrification and dogs vs. people. I have purposely left all posts in their original, unedited format. “I am pleased to announce construction has began on the new dog park near Shaw Jr. High School site – and at my request the project has been expanded to 15,000 square feet. On a walk-thru the community in September, Mayor Adrian Fenty promised the Shaw/Logan neighborhoods this much needed urban amenity, which was originally slated to be 10,000 square feet. Working with the Department of Parks and Recreation, after numerous requests from constituents in these Ward 2 neighborhoods, I asked for and secured the larger area. The dog park which will be located on the soccer fields near 11th and R is eagerly awaited. The park will open in the near future–stay tuned for the ribbon-cutting date and time! – Jack Evans” (Rez).

Becca said…

what about all the people who used to play soccer there?
October 17, 2008

Drew said…

Yeah, it’s like Robin Hood, but strike that, and reverse it… rob from the poor and give to the rich.
October 18, 2008

In response to questions about why the Latino community was displaced by the park’s construction, ANC Commissioner Alex Padro, at least admits to the presence of a soccer field there, yet promptly dispatches any concerns by positing the new site as an improvement on the crime. Noteworthy is his assertion that the users of the soccer field were not local residents—a fact clearly non-verifiable, but one that affirms that the dog park, unlike the soccer field, is clearly intended for local residents only. So much for inclusivity.
“As a Latino myself, I take offense to the suggestion that the motivation for the location of the Shaw Dog Park was to displace a resource for the Hispanic community. The truth is that the siting of the park was made easier by the fact that the soccer enclosure had been the source of innumerable complaints about public drunkenness and unruly and anti-social behavior, uncontrolled trash, public urination and defecation, etc. MPD has had been routinely sending bicycle officers to the site at night, even deep into the AM hours, to address the complaints and illegal activity, and making arrests when the offenders have not scattered as soon as an officer appeared, as was generally the case. Further, the vast majority of the individuals who were using the soccer enclosure and generating the complaints drove vehicles with Maryland tags. MPD Lt. Michael Smith concurred with the recommendation that a dog park should replace the soccer enclosure, which is not to be reestablished at the Shaw Recreation Center site. I suggested to DPR that they move it to a rec center that was able to properly secure the site after hours in order to prevent the illegal activities that made the Shaw location such a blight.”

Alexander M. Padro
Commissioner, ANC 2C01

October 18, 2008

Anonymous said…

Alex makes some good points but I think this is a pretty clear example of gentrification. I tend to think of Shaw as being a little better about sensitivity to older residents than some other neighborhoods, but not really in this case.

EdTheRed said…

What’s next? Converting the Shaw basketball courts to squash courts? How about a Caribou Coffee where the skate park is now?

October 28, 2008

Canchita said…

Yeah, wonderful addition, plenty of room for everyone, so why the f**k did they tear down the soccer court? Why not put it right on top the useless baseball diamond?! Or the skate park, which sucks for skating anyway.

 

Users on Twitter expressed similar sentiments:

 

The Shaw Dog Park was constructed in less than three weeks and “replaced a concrete fútbol rápido field” (Mathis). The fast pace of construction is telling when considered in the context of how long it takes to build other, arguably, much more needed city amenities. This also explains why the previous occupants of this area had no time to respond to their displacement. It is hard not to view this as something planned and used as a tactic to quell dissenting voices.

George was extremely forthcoming and helpfully shared with me the original application with the Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as all supporting documents. The application shows an awareness of the use of the field for pick-up soccer games (he refers to canchita as mini arena, to clarify) and proposes the moving of the canchita to the baseball diamond area next to the dog park: “Beyond the northern boundaries of the baseball outfield is an enclosed, paved soccer/hockey mini-arena, which measures approximately 4,000 square feet.   To the north of this paved area is a row of shade trees which, because of the cover and concealment they provide, is a magnet for daytime and nighttime drunkenness, drug distribution, gambling and fights. Officers patrolling the area have commented about this persistent problem.

DOGS proposes that the mini-arena be moved to one of the un-designated parcels east or southeast of the athletic field and that a dog park be established in its place. The proposed dog park would sit beyond the boundaries of the athletic field, and full use of the athletic field and relocated mini-arena would thus continue. Finally, placing the mini-arena in a more observable area will deter criminal activity. PSA 307 Commander Lt. Michael Smith endorses this plan.”

In justifying the need for a dog park, George cites over 500 signatures of supporters and dog owners on the petition. He also rightly points to the heavy regulation of space that is the hallmark of city living: “because of the dense nature of the neighborhoods, very little undesignated green space exists for dog owners to play with their unleashed pets. School playgrounds, athletic fields and federal parkland remain off-limits. Logan Circle itself, a recognized haven and meeting place for many dog-owners, is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which has a policy of prohibiting dog parks on federal land.” George characterizes the relocation of the “mini arena” as a “response to specific, changing user needs.”

Below is a statement from a local Police Lieutenant, PSA 307 Commander Michael Smith, dated May 5, 2008:

“As a resident of Shaw and a dog owner combined with the responsibility of enforcement, I see all sides.   A dog parks is enjoyed by more than just dog owners. The last time I visited one with my dog in Arlington (where the city’s existing dog park is located), I saw families, couples and bicyclist enjoy visiting with and watching dogs frolic.

Where else can you find free entertainment in this city, fresh air and creatures that provide unlimited, unprejudiced friendliness?

Dogs cannot be expected to live their lives never leaving their yard, or in most cases here, their condo – it is against their nature. You would go crazy, too, if you were kept in solitary confinement.

A dog park gives a place to exercise your dogs without offending the neighbors. It is likely that there are fewer dogs turned in to shelters because people who frequent dog parks share information and helpful behavioral advice, not to mention that a tired dog is a good dog.

As for the financial aspect, unused land serves no interest for the taxpayers. That is really a small amount in the grand scheme of things in this city, the Nation’s Capitol.

In Shaw, that are several location publicly own that I never see anyone use. Yes they are nearby by playgrounds, but these are the same playgrounds that I see homeless drinking, drugs sales and usage. It would be only a good to have an adult dog owners playing with their dogs in sight of these locations. That in itself is a crime deterrent and an extension of my law enforcement capabilities.

I just hope that people use the dog park responsibly and follow the rules so that everyone can enjoy it for a long time to come.”

The ambiguous language used in this letter is tremendous fodder for discourse analysis, so I examine it from that perspective. He first characterizes the land as “public and unused.” Confusingly, he then admits that, yes, it is next to playgrounds, immediately relying on a “protect the children” narrative, which is absolutely irrelevant in this instance as this area had not been a “playground” since 2006, when Shaw Middle School stopped operating, and was certainly never frequented by children. The term “homeless drinking” is also incredibly alarming—are we to assume that is one and the same thing!? That homeless people should be banned from all parks and that they, inevitably, always drink!? In other words, via their presence alone, they pose a threat!?

Lt. Smith’s suggestion that dog parks are “not just for dog owners” is also plainly ludicrous—“free entertainment” for non-dog-owners!? Sure, as long as you don’t have Maryland license plates and take up local parking spots! That would definitely be unacceptable. Noteworthy is also his assertion that a dog would go crazy if he/she is kept in solitary confinement, i.e. a condo. Clearly, the onus and responsibility of a dog’s lifestyle lies with its owner—to suggest that dog owners are oblivious to the issues of keeping a dog in a tiny space, without proper exercise, is patronizing to those owners. Finally, keeping a dog in a condo is “against their nature.” Tissot wrote about the rhetoric of differentiation from their suburban counterparts that urban dog owners use, explaining that they live in the city for the “vibrant, diverse community.” I am sure she would note this all to be a prime example of wanting to have the social advantages of city living, yet refusing to recognize the constraints of space that also come along with them.


Canchita

The “canchita”—as it was referred to by those who played there—originates from the Spanish word cancha or “court/field” Shaw’s canchita is a small soccer enclosure with steel walls that are used in the play. The pitch measures approximately 80 ft in length and 40 ft in width, and is optimal for four-on-four player games.

The canchita game is fast-paced. Similar in speed and strategy to futsal, players engage in quick passing and calculated touches on the ball. The rules of play are simple. Teams consist of four players—three field players and a goalie. Once a full side is assembled, a member of the team yells: “Equipo Nuevo!” or “New Team!” This enters the team into the queue to play. A team remains on the canchita until it loses.

The players at the canchita were an eclectic bunch. Most were first or second-generation immigrants, of Honduran, Venezuelan, El Salvadorian, Mexican, and Guatemalan descent, but there were players from many other ethnicities as well, including plenty of Americans. Canchita had many regulars. During the warmer months (March to October), there were on average 40-45 players during the late afternoon and early evening daily. Because the players rotated into play so frequently (games are, on average, 6 minutes long), everyone got a chance to play.

I conducted interviews with five canchita players from very diverse backgrounds (see Interview Addendum). They all described a very communal and meaningful experience that far eclipsed what one would imagine for an athletic meet. Tim Djawotho recounts: “Met up with friends and strangers and played Monday through Friday 5:30pm until sun down. Sometimes longer. Met players I still play with today. People brought families and children there.  Very unfortunate it was turned into a dog park.” Joe Schoenbauer: “There was a great expectation to show up to canchita every day after work as soon as possible to try to get as many games in as possible. There was a good group of players that would show up most every day that would play and have fun for hours. Mostly young adults in their 20-30s, but some teenagers and kids and older guys as well. The field itself was special as well. It reminded me of what you see in other countries where soccer is such a major part of the culture – free pickup soccer in a small court with goals that encourages quick, skillful type games.” Another respondent recounts what was unique about the set-up of canchita and the game itself: “I moved to the neighborhood, and one day I saw a bunch of people playing at Canchita. The court was a unique set-up, because there were seats built into the frame, so people who weren’t playing at the time, could sit and watch the action. One day I sat down and started watching, and then I joined a team and started playing. For a time, during the summer I used to play about 3-4 times a week after work. I liked that anyone could play, and I liked the atmosphere and style of play. It was quick and team work was needed. There wasn’t anything that I didn’t like. I came to be friends with a lot of people who played there. It was a fun atmosphere.”

Every one of the interviewees expressed having no awareness whatsoever that a dog park was being planned on the site of the pick-up soccer field. “Not until one day when I biked by and it had been mostly torn down already and bulldozers were present.” “My reaction was surprise and disappointment. It happened all of a sudden, without warning. There was no announcement, no warning, no meeting. The canchita was a semi-permanent structure that was used every day. I thought that there could’ve been room for both, if they wanted to add a dog park. But with canchita, it was typical of what people who may be against gentrification are saying. Rich residents with dogs, are more important than prior residents.”

The view all of the interviewees had of gentrification was of priorities shifting towards the interests of newcomers, instead of the long-time residents of the neighborhood. They didn’t always speak in term of poor vs. rich but rather in terms of old vs. new residents. “The thing about the dog park was that it seemed as if they were prioritizing dogs, over people. The canchita court was being used every day. And it brought together people from the neighborhood. I still see people from Canchita in the city every so often and we know each other. People that I probably wouldn’t have interacted with otherwise.”

“Everyone in the whole community was coming to play,” said Sálvador Martínez Arias, 47. Once in a while, he said, people would call the police if someone was suspected of drinking alcohol. “It didn’t bother us if people made calls, though, because we didn’t want them there, either” (Ricard). “No one even stayed to say, ‘Hey, do you guys like playing here?’ “said Eli Sipos. “We just showed up one day, and it was gone” (Ricard).

It is cogent that the same argument used by the dog park creators (“this park allows me to interact with people I would not otherwise be able to meet”) is used by the canchita players as well—that the park was a drawing point for people even outside the neighborhood, from various walks of life, to interact in a truly communal sense. Perhaps relevant here is that, unlike the canchita players, the Shaw Dog Park users felt some apprehension about “outsiders” (meaning people from other neighborhoods) encroaching on their hard-kept turf, both literally in using up parking spaces and facilities but also metaphorically in relying on the political work of the creators of the park instead of creating dog parks in their own neighborhoods.

Canchita is significant in that it also represents a model of sports participation that is threatened by the regulation-centric ethos of D.C. Parks and Recreation. Players and activists argue that gentrification and permit requirements for field usage create an environment of field shortage. The players, many of whom are undocumented Latino immigrants, are fearful of authorities, as a result, and less able to advocate for their rights due to language and access barriers. Unable to afford the fees required to join organized soccer leagues ($70 and upwards), they are reliant on pickup soccer games (Ricard). Tom, one of the former canchita players said, “the sports leagues are cool too, unless they are displacing people that have been using these ‘public’ spaces for years…I would think that at least several pick-up spots have been taken over by leagues that pay to use fields. I have seen a kickball league take over a field that Latinos have been playing on for years. Guess they got a permit or something.”

 

 

In conclusion, we would be remiss to characterize the dog park residents as the villainous gentrifiers who uprooted a community that was less vocal and politically active than them. The structural forces of neighborhood change are inexorable and the euphemistic misnomer of “development” can’t whitewash the razing of culture and the spaces that are so linked to it. Government control of public space is more than physical. Under the auspices of “safety,” regulation, regimentation, confinement, and boundary-making become the tactics of choice for controlling the memories and experiences of the city’s residents. Those unable to navigate the byzantine channels of bureaucracy or gain access to the ear of those that would listen are left out. Their voices are never heard in the din of bulldozers that quickly erase any trace of what might have been. I tried to give these voices a forum.

Yet, the biggest takeaway from this project is that hope, like grass, does spring eternal—George Kassouf kindly extended an invitation to join forces and lobby the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation to rebuild Canchita, as he had initially requested that they not destroy it but rather move it. I remain hopeful that this will happen. “Nuevo Equipo!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Anguelovski, Isabelle. Neighborhood as Refuge: Community Reconstruction, Place Remaking, and Environmental Justice in the City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014. Print. Urban and Industrial Environments.

Davis, Mike. (1990) “Fortress L.A.” City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles.

Excerpt from The City Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007. 178-183.

“George Kassouf: The Force Behind Shaw Dog Park | Borderstan.” N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Nov. 2015. < https://www.borderstan.com/2012/01/23/george-kassouf-a-talk-with-the-the-man-behind-shaw-dog-park/>

Hyra, Derek. “The Back-to-the-City Movement: Neighbourhood Redevelopment and Processes of Political and Cultural Displacement.” Urban Studies (Sage Publications, Ltd.) 52.10 (2015): 1753–1773. EBSCOhost. Web.

Mathis, Sommer. “Shaw Recreation Field Dog Park Finished.” DCist. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2015. < http://dcist.com/2008/11/shaw_recreation_field_dog_park_fini.php>

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Immcarceration: Examining America’s Immigration Detention System (A Three Part Series)

Published here.

While America’s problems with excessive incarceration have received increased attention, until recently, immigration detention has been conspicuously absent from this discussion. In the wake of each year, about 400,000 people are placed in immigration detention. On any given day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) keeps at least 34,000 immigrants incarcerated while they await a hearing with an immigration judge. This arbitrary (and incredibly high) number is mainly attributable to the so-called “detention-bed mandate,” an arbitrary quota set by Congress that ICE needs to meet. The quota is written into the federal law that appropriates funding for ICE. Congress requires the agency to “maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds” at any given time. The quota, first enacted in 2007, is an oppressive aberration—no other federal agency is required to detain a certain number of people.

This is the first of a three part series by Antoaneta Tileva examining immigration detention in these United States.

Unlike detention in the criminal-justice context, immigration custody does not have a punitive function, but is designed to ensure that immigrants appear at their hearings and/or can be successfully deported after a final order of removal. The government’s justification for family detention has also hinged on its importance as a deterrent to illegal immigration. Despite its supposedly non-punitive function, nearly all of the over 350 detention facilities are built and run on a corrections model. Billion-dollar companies like the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group run almost 62% of these immigration jails. The quota is costing taxpayers in excess of $2 billion each year when alternative community-based programs have a strong track record of success, at a much lower cost.

The human suffering caused by the policy of incarceration is a trenchant commentary on the real toll hidden behind its euphemistic, glib characterization of “detention.” Family separation and the resultant care and economic insecurity deeply scars individuals and communities; detainee abuse such as denial of water, medical treatment, adequate nutrition, or physical safety is far too rampant and, even worse, ignored.

While noncitizens in removal proceedings have the right to be represented by counsel at their own expense, many detention facilities are located in remote areas making it difficult for detainees to seek an attorney. On average, 84% of detained immigrants go through proceedings without legal representation. The detention bed quota contributes to the number of people who must go through removal proceedings unrepresented.

In many respects, immigrant detainees are treated less favorably than criminal defendants. U.S. mandatory detention laws cover broad categories of non-citizens, including lawful permanent residents (LPRs), asylum-seekers, petty offenders, and persons with U.S. families and other strong and longstanding ties to the United States. Sixty percent of the unauthorized have resided in the United States for 10 years or more and 17 percent for at least 20 years (Migration and Refugee Services/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Center for Migration Studies). Most criminal defendants receive custody hearings by judicial officers shortly after their apprehension and they can be released subject to conditions that will reasonably ensure their court appearance and protect the public—this is not the case with immigrant detainees.       

The US immigrant detention system grew more than fivefold between 1994 and 2013. The number of persons detained annually increased from roughly 85,000 persons in 1995 to 440,557 in 2013 (Migration and Refugee Services/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Center for Migration Studies). Since the beginning of the Obama administration’s detention reform initiative in 2009, annual detention numbers have reached record levels. More persons pass through the U.S. immigrant detention system each year than through federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facilities. In 2012, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detained a record 477,523 adult noncitizens. Since the Obama Administration announced its detention reform initiative in 2009, the number of noncitizens DHS detains yearly has increased by nearly 25 percent.  Since passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIIRIRA) in 1996, it has expanded over fivefold. The chart below, by the Center for Migration Studies, illustrates the precipitous increase in both detentions and removals.

The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 required ICE to increase, in each fiscal year from 2006 to 2010, the number of immigration detention beds available by 8,000 above the preceding fiscal year’s number. ICE was under the pressure to not only increase the requirement but use it. In February 2006, then Assistant Secretary of ICE Julie Myers Wood met with then Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security Harold Rogers (R-KY) and Representatives Louis Gohmert (R-TX), John Culberson (R-TX), and Judge John Carter (R-TX). In that meeting, Representatives Culberson and Carter highlighted that “detention facilities in Laredo are only one-third full,” and that there are “hundreds of empty beds.” Chairman Rogers noted that as one of his “key issues,” he wanted “no empty beds.”

The use of arbitrary numerical goals escalated in 2009 when Congress began formally including the national bed quota in annual appropriations bills. Since then, the detention bed quota has been written into the DHS Appropriations Act, which states, “funding made available under this heading shall maintain a level of not less than 34,000 detention beds.” In addition to requiring that ICE maintain the physical capacity to detain at least 34,000 people at any time, many members of Congress have urged ICE to interpret this language to require that all detention beds be in use at all times—that is, that a minimum of 34,000 beds not only be funded, but also filled, every day.

Over time, congressional frustration over empty beds has grown. In April 2015, after a heated exchange with ICE Director Sarah Saldaña, Representative John Culberson (R-TX) suggested that the current quota language be altered to replace the word “maintain” with “fill.” Congressional staff have also repeatedly, if incorrectly, told ICE that keeping an average of at least 34,000 detained per day is a statutory requirement (“Banking on Detention” 2). Former ICE Director John Sandweg expressed this frustration in a September 2013 interview with Bloomberg, saying that “having a mandate out there that says you have to detain a certain number – regardless of how many folks are a public safety threat or threaten the integrity of the system – doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. You need the numbers to drive the detention needs, not set an arbitrary number that then drives your operation.”

Guaranteed minimums predate the national quota’s inception and have existed at least since 2003. Their establishment can be best explained in the context of the private prison industry’s past instability and its voracious pursuit of guaranteed profit. In 1984, CCA built the first private prison in the U.S., the Houston Processing Center, an immigration detention center in Houston, TX. Although the private prison system has grown considerably since then, in the late 1990s, the industry lost steam as CCA almost went bankrupt and the stock of Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (now GEO) fell significantly. After being bailed out by the now-defunct hedge fund Lehman Brothers, the private prison industry saw the government’s post-9/11 interest in expanding immigration detention as a potential cash cow and began vying for more federal contracts to incarcerate immigrants.

Revitalized after the period of crisis, the private prison industry moved to secure its future by pursuing the incorporation of guaranteed minimums into contracts. CCA’s 2003 contract for the Houston Processing Center was one of the first to include a guaranteed minimum, this one for 375 persons. Since then, an increasing number of contracts between ICE and private contractors for detention or detention-related services have included guaranteed minimums. These guarantees act as taxpayer-funded insurance for private companies against any changes in immigration enforcement policy or prioritization, because the companies are paid regardless of how many individuals ICE detains. Guaranteed minimums have now spread to every type of immigration detention facility.

Even DHS recognized the injustice and absurdity behind this system. In testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security’s hearing on the President’s FY 2014 budget, DHS then-Secretary Janet Napolitano called the bed quota “artificial” and stated that, “We ought to be managing the actual detention population to risk, not an arbitrary number.” In May 2015, Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton criticized the bed quota by saying that “People go out and round up people in order to get paid on a per-bed basis. That just makes no sense at all to me. That’s not the way we should be running any detention facility”. On June 17, 2015, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) introduced the Protecting Taxpayers and Communities from Local Detention Quotas Act (H.R. 2808). The bill seeks to end the practice of including guaranteed bed minimums in immigration detention contracts.

Despite public outrage at the quota, The House Committee on Appropriations passed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Appropriations Act for 2016. The accompanying Committee report increased the bed quota to 34,040 average daily detention beds: 31,280 for adults at an estimated cost of $123.54 per bed and 2,760 family detention beds at an estimated daily cost of $342.73.

Who benefits from this quota is at the crux of this issue. For-profit private prisons, which get compensated per bed, hold more than half of all immigration detainees. Even a small reduction in the quota would impact their profits. Immigrant detention has become a huge business. It costs a staggering $2 billion a year to incarcerate enough people to satisfy the quota—a figure that represents approximately 40 percent of ICE’s $5.3 billion budget for fiscal year 2014. Put another way, the cost of the quota is equal to the entire annual budget of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Sixty-two percent of all ICE beds are now run by private prison contractors, meaning for-profit prison companies operate nine of the ten largest immigrant detention centers in the country — eight of those ten are run by CCA or GEO Group. As their share of the immigrant-detention market has grown in recent years so have the companies’ profits CCA’s profits went from $133 million in 2007 to $195 million in 2014, while the GEO Group’s profits made a staggering 244 percent jump during that time period from $41.8 million to $143.8 million.

A 2014 investors presentation from CCA illustrates the incentive to push for every single ICE bed to be filled: “filling vacant beds would add ≈ $1.00 to [Earnings Per Share] & [Adjusted Funds From Operations] per share,” the company wrote. In a recent company filing, GEO wrote that efforts to reform the immigration system, which could put thousands of undocumented immigrants on the path to legalization, may harm the company’s bottom line: “Immigration reform laws which are currently a focus for legislators and politicians at the federal, state and local level also could materially adversely impact us.” Both companies have expanded to build centers for detaining asylum-seeking immigrant families in Texas. In 2014, GEO opened the Karnes County Residential Center southeast of San Antonio, where 600 women and children, most of whom have fled violence in Central America, are being held (GEO plans to expand capacity to 1,200 detainees). Two hunger strikes have erupted in the facility due to reprehensible treatment of the detainees.

Not surprisingly, the industry is an avid lobbyist. One private-prison company, for instance, spent more than $13 million between 2005 and 2013 on lobbying. With combined annual revenues in the billions, Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation can afford it. In 2014 alone, they spent nearly $2 million lobbying Congress, and individuals from these companies gave well over $500,000 to congressional candidates as well. Federal political giving from the three largest companies favors Republicans in most cycles. For MTC in 2014, 61 percent of the $46,500 it gave to federal candidates went to Republicans; for GEO, it was 72 percent of the $230,111 it contributed. CCA showed the starkest preference, giving 85 percent of its $267,464 in donations to Republican candidates.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.