How might property ownership be a form of civic activism?
I met Terra Dakota Stein on a lively Thursday in October 2022. Young people and old ambled across Kreuzberg and Neukölln and other streets of what has become "alternative" south Berlin. I, a young person, took to a barstool inside of Ada Bar, because all of the couches and loveseats and schoolhouse desks were already occupied at a quarter past eight. The sign on the door read, "Take Back the City!" The furniture faced the back of the dimly-lit space, where five speakers—from Brittany, Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona, and Zagreb—sat in foldout chairs atop a simple wooden stage. The Commons Network and the European Municipalist Council had invited them to speak on a panel titled "Perspectives on City Activism and Politics."
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The activist from Amsterdam, Stein, advised the room, “We need to take up space with our activism.” Her organization, Verdedig Noord [Defend the North], is a corporation founded by members of the transitioning Amsterdam Noord neighborhood who believe in ownership and the reclamation of community space.
After the panel, I introduced myself to her. I had been researching vacancy prevention and community reclamation of space in my home of St. Louis over the past two years and was interested in her perspective on the subject. My interest stems from my love for St. Louis: a culturally rich city steeped in art, music, and a diverse food scene, held together by genuinely good people. I could tell Stein had the same passion for her city.
Over a 15-minute conversation, Stein and I swapped stories from our homes and met at one question: How can people cross barriers and internal biases to organize together?
St. Louis is one of the most economically and racially segregated cities in the United States. People grow up in the same city, but lived experiences rarely match from one neighborhood to another, particularly across the infamous Delmar Divide.
Today, north St. Louis is home to the majority of vacant properties in the city, many of which are in the hands of Limited Liability Companies [LLCs] or developers. Many owners lie dormant until talk of blight designation and eminent domain circulates. As the city chooses to designate areas as blighted in order to develop via eminent domain, these speculative owners secure checks for their property that is otherwise valued way under market price.
Ultimately, however, majority ownership of vacant property falls into the hands of St. Louis’s city land bank. Their neighbors are majority Black St. Louisans who have been strategically barred from property-ownership and subsequent generational wealth for decades through urban renewal policies, limited access to home mortgages, and defunding of Black institutions. The city has discussed reparations, but the issues are ongoing.