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PostPosted: Mon Dec 19, 2016 11:46 am 

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The New Meaning Of ‘Hope’: PJ Harvey And The US Government's Displacement Of Black Families

By Joseph Earp on

In 1963, author and political commentator James Baldwin was interviewed on television by noted talking head Kenneth Clark.

The conversation was incendiary, touching on everything from Cuba to communism and murder, with the ever-eloquent Baldwin blasting whatever subject he turned his mind to. But it was after six solid minutes that he began recounting a story that would stick in the minds of viewers for years afterwards.

“A boy last week, he was 16, in San Francisco … said [to me], ‘I've got no country. I've got no flag,’” Baldwin began, his eyes flashing. “They were tearing down his house, because San Francisco is engaging – as most Northern cities now are engaged – in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out. It means Negro removal. That is what it means.”

The air in the room changed. Though many had already subtly linked the destruction of public housing with a direct war waged on the poor and people of colour, Baldwin was one the first to do so blatantly, on television. For him, it was simply a question of calling a spade a spade: of outlining a program he saw as nothing less than a racially motivated attack on an entire community. But to many watching, what he was saying was tantamount to treason.

And yet over the intervening years, time has only added weight to Baldwin’s words. Complex systems designed to shift entire communities are now given prettified, genteel names, labelled with great slabs of doublespeak, and policies that have led to the mass movement of entire classes have been protected by umbrella terms like ‘New Urbanism’.

We still displace communities. We still destroy lives and uproot families and alter the shape of cities to fit with a gentrified vision of the future that respects the needs of the wealthy but not the needs of the poor. We still do these things. We’ve just changed the language we use to justify it.


Buried in PJ Harvey’s 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project is a Baldwin moment. ‘The Community Of Hope’, the opening track and an adaptation of a poem she wrote named ‘Sight-Seeing, South Of The Border’ and published in her book The Hollow Of The Hand, tackles the concept of ‘urban renewal’ in unashamed terms.

“They’re gonna put a Walmart here,” Harvey repeats, her voice thick, over a pounding chorus – instrumentation that sounds like the slow, methodical rattling of chains. Similar to many of the tunes Harvey writes these days, the song is a snapshot; a hunk of political, sonic reportage. It has a setting, Washington, D.C., and it has its targets: namely, the politicians and planners responsible for decimating the city’s lower class.

Even its title is spring-loaded with irony. The hope of which Harvey speaks has nothing to do with hope as we understand it. ‘Hope’ in Harvey’s mouth is a political buzzword, a reference to the HOPE VI plan initiated by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, and one of the most significant threats facing America’s lower class today.

“The HOPE VI program was launched to address the most troubled portion of the public housing stock, the small percentage of public housing sites that were ‘severely distressed’,” explains a 2002 report titled, portentously, False Hope. “While it was intended to be a solution to severely distressed public housing, HOPE VI has been the source of new problems as serious as those it was created to address.”

Harvey's fascination with HOPE was born directly out of her work on The Hollow Of The Hand. The aim of that book of verse and photography was to link three seperate places - D.C., Kosovo and Afghanistan - in a kind of triangulation of trauma, drawing connections between the quality of life experienced by the lower classes in each, as well as the gross mismanagement of those in power and overarching bureaucratic incompetence.

That said, though it was through general research and extensive travels that Harvey's interest in HOPE was piqued, it was truly solidified a little later when she took a tour of DC led by political writer Paul Schwartzman. Many of Schwartzman's comments made it directly into ‘The Community Of Hope’, as he drove through the areas of the city most affected by HOPE while calmly and methodically pointing out the devastation. "Now this is just drug town, just zombies," is a Schwartzman line; so too is the song's brutal, darkly ironic and Walmart-referencing chorus.

Indeed, thanks to the years he has spent studying HOPE, Schwartzman understands on a practical level exactly how the program has ended up becoming such a radical force for racial injustice. As Schwartzman – and so many others like him – tell it, though the initial purpose of the project was to rejuvenate areas ravaged by crime, vandalism and unsafe housing, in actuality, it has merely turned into a complicated process of what Baldwin termed ‘Negro removal’.

HOPE VI Mixed-Income Housing Projects Displace Poor People, an essay by James Tracy, puts it well. “The irony of federal housing policy ‘reform’ is that it uses a progressive critique to accomplish completely conservative aims,” writes Tracy.

Much of the achievement of those conservative aims can be blamed on the convoluted, destructive means by which HOPE is enacted on a practical level: the kind of incompetence and ensuing devastation that Schwartzman showed Harvey the firsthand impacts of. The phrase ‘severely distressed’, used in HOPE's initial outline to designate which sects of public housing were to be demolished, is a kind of catchall, one never properly defined. As a result, the wiggle room provided by the term continues to allow companies and governmental agencies to misplace and disrupt communities in whatever manner they choose. “[Under HOPE] there has been approved the demolition of tens of thousands more units of public housing than ever have been estimated to be ‘severely distressed’,” reads False Hope.

Add to this the fact that HOPE – like so many other government-funded grants – works by playing to the strengths of the market-based economy. The project is fundamentally competitive, then, and the money is ultimately rewarded to whichever company can prove it has the means to undertake the job swiftly, and under budget.

But, as many involved in the project in the early ’90s quickly realised, stretching out the multimillion-dollar grants in order to do best by the residents was an impossibility. “The housing authority didn’t know what to do with [the grant] because $50 million wasn’t enough to do a significant rehab given the size and distress of the property,” explained Sandra Henriquez, then the administrator of the Boston Housing Authority (BHA). “It became clear, in relatively short order, that it was cheaper to demolish and rebuild than to renovate.”

This is what Harvey is talking about when she describes “life in the community of hope”. This is why she makes mention of schools that “look like shit hole[s]”. HOPE guts communities, ripping out infrastructure that is never adequately replaced.

Demolition, no matter how lofty the sentiment driving it, is always demolition. Since it was first enacted, HOPE has uprooted families on an unimaginable scale, with huge sections of pre-existing state housing reduced to rubble and rubbish. Worse still, the program accounts for more destruction that in it does rejuvenation. As Tracy notes, “a 2004 study by the Urban Institute found that only 21,000 units had been built to replace the 49,828 demolished units. In other words, roughly 42 per cent of the demolished public housing had been replaced.”

HOPE represents the flattening of communities; the restructuring of cities so that governmentally determined ‘undesirables’ might be pushed out. HOPE represents curated, carefully controlled poverty, designed to keep an entire collective of Americans from ever accessing the full range of benefits supposedly provided by their own government. And HOPE represents hope’s very antithesis: a bleak, seemingly unassailable wall, constructed from so many good intentions.


Unlike many other songs on The Hope Six Demolition Project, ‘The Community Of Hope’ simply fades out. The chorus loops, again, then again, then again – and then silence. It’s a far cry from the apocalyptic, shattering conclusion of ‘The Ministry Of Defence’, or the careering finale of ‘The Orange Monkey’.

But such understatement is important. There are no signs that HOPE VI is due to be reformed or altered, and indeed Harvey’s sonic criticism of the project was largely dismissed by politicians. “PJ Harvey is to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news,” responded one. “I will not dignify this inane composition with a response,” said another.

So yes, there’s a reason Harvey neuters her ending: she’s telling a story without a finale. She is not pulling apart some narrative from the past, or digging up an ancient tale. She is reporting on the now. And the account she has chosen to tell ends not with a bang, or a cry for change, or the shattering of glass ceilings, but with the only just audible noise that huge systems make as they tirelessly go about the business of punishing a race and a class. With the gentle hum of eradication.

PJ Harvey plays the ICC Sydney Theatre on Sunday January 22 as part of Sydney Festival 2017. The Hope Six Demolition Project is out now through Island/Universal.

Wiggins is so superbly unassuming, he looks like he's about to say 'Pop the gold medal in the post, I'm nipping out for some biscuits'

Mark Steel

PostPosted: Wed Dec 21, 2016 3:40 am 
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Joined: Mon Aug 10, 2009 3:25 pm
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Location: Long Beach, CA
I wonder - in light of the U.S. current political climate (see: Cheeto Prez) if PJ will say anything during the upcoming shows, or continue to stay silent.

"He intentado ahogar mis penas, pero el hijo de puta aprendió a nadar."

FaceplaceEl Jay

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