Provoked by mass evictions and the onset of gentrification in the 1970s, tenants in Washington, D.C. began forming cooperative organizations to collectively purchase and manage their apartment buildings. These tenants were creating a commons, taking a resource—housing—that had been used to extract profit from them, and reshaping it as a resource that was collectively owned and governed by them. In Carving Out the Commons, Amanda Huron theorizes the practice of urban commoning through a close investigation of the city’s limited-equity housing cooperatives. Drawing on feminist and anticapitalist perspectives, Huron asks whether a commons can work in a city where land and other resources are scarce, and how strangers who may not share a past or future come together to create and maintain commonly-held spaces in the midst of capitalism. Arguing against the romanticization of the commons, she instead positions the urban commons as a pragmatic practice. Through the practice of commoning, she contends, we can learn to build communities to challenge capitalism’s totalizing claims over life.
Amanda Huron is an associate professor of interdisciplinary social sciences at the University of the District of Columbia, in Washington, D.C. She is an urban geographer with a particular interest in housing, gentrification, the decommodification of land, and the history of Washington, D.C. Amanda serves on the board of Empower D.C., a citywide community organizing group that works to empower low- and moderate-income District residents, with a particular focus on anti-displacement work. She is a native of Washington, D.C.’s Ward One.
Readers, I am truly shocked and heart-broken to hear of this closing. Reminds me of what happened to Sisterspace on U St. a few years back in D.C. Hue-man’s closing brought forth a bitter reminder of many really good bookstores that have disappeared in the last decade. I wish I could say I was optimistic about accessibility and that with the incursion of technology, Black authors would be playing on an even playing field.
Instead, I find myself concerned that with the gradual death of the physical bookstore (and physical books themselves) will come the death of a certain kind of community, where people come together into one space for that one purpose–to find, to browse, and perhaps to purchase. Bookstores are the one place where you can indeed loiter and languish for hours at a time without spending your entire paycheck. On the other hand, you may find yourself spending hundreds of dollars on books over the course of months, as well as driving your spouse or partner insane with the ever-growing pile of books that need a proper bookcase and more likely than not, a room bigger than a walk-in closet. Bookstores beckon like-minded people to gather within brick walls in order to meet and talk, perhaps even to agree to meet there again just to commiserate over a favorite author or genre.
I realize the owner sees this closing as being much more complex in its reasons beyond gentrification, but I do not believe for one second that it did not play a role in it. Whether Hue-Man’s closing was and is a part of a much larger gentrification engine or whether it was and is fueled by the increasing demands of competing with that monstrosity of a bookstore Amazon, the unfortunate reality of economic imbalance delivered the expected results that we now witness with much sorrow and gnashing of teeth. Is this our future? Is this what we really want or need?