What a City is For: Remaking the Politics of Displacement

October 21, 2016

Matt Hern, Sobhi Al-Zobaidi, Josiane Anthony, Lisa Bates, & Glen Coulthard

Friday, October 21, 7:00PM–9:00PM, Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre, SFU Woodward's, 149 W. Hastings St.

Co-presented by SFU's Institute for the Humanities, Vancity Office of Community Engagement, SFU's Urban Studies, UBC's School of Community and Regional Planning, and MIT Press

This event is FREE and open to the public. Registration currently SOLD OUT but WAILIST is still available. Click HERE for live streaming.

This event will launch Matt Hern’s new book What a City is For: Remaking the Politics of Displacement (MIT Press, 2016)

Portland, Oregon, is one of the most beautiful, livable cities in the United States. It has walkable neighbourhoods, bike lanes, low-density housing, public transportation, and significant green space—not to mention craft-beer bars and locavore food trucks. But liberal Portland is also the whitest city in the country. This is not circumstance; the city has a long history of officially sanctioned racialized displacement that continues today.
Over the last two and half decades, Albina—the one major Black neighbourhood in Portland—has been systematically uprooted by market-driven gentrification and city-renewal policies. African Americans in Portland were first pushed into Albina and then contained there through exclusionary zoning, predatory lending, and racist real estate practices. Since the 1990s, they’ve been aggressively displaced—by rising housing costs, developers eager to get rid of low-income residents, and overt city policies of gentrification.

Displacement and dispossessions are convulsing cities across the globe, becoming the dominant urban narratives of our time. In What a City Is For, Matt Hern uses the case of Albina, as well as similar instances in New Orleans and Vancouver, to investigate gentrification in the twenty-first century. In an engaging narrative, effortlessly mixing anecdote and theory, Hern questions the notions of development, private property, and ownership. Arguing that home ownership drives inequality, he wants us to disown ownership. How can we reimagine the city as a post-ownership, post-sovereign space? Drawing on solidarity economics, cooperative movements, community land trusts, indigenous conceptions of alternative sovereignty, the global commons movement, and much else, Hern suggests repudiating development in favour of an incrementalist, non-market-driven unfolding of the city.


“Matt Hern’s What a City Is For not only offers a brilliant analysis of the violence of urban dispossession and displacement in settler-colonial contexts, but envisions a radically alternative view of the city grounded in a decolonized conception of land and sovereignty.” —Glen Sean Coulthard, author of Red Skin, White Masks

“This book is a timely and critical study of the devastating consequences of unbridled speculative real estate forces and their disproportionate impact on the lives and livelihoods of the African American community in Portland, Oregon. It offers a shocking portrayal of the deliberate process of displacement and subsequent impoverishment of the black communities. What a City Is For is an eloquent cry for the de-commodification of housing and land as perhaps the only way to truly build cities where all the residents have equal rights to everything that cities have to offer." —Miloon Kothari, Former Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, United Nations Human Rights Council

“Hern has an entirely unique voice and approach to writing that seamlessly braids incisive intervention with sharp analysis and a phenomenal capacity to tell stories that makes him one of my favorite subversive intellectuals. With a beautiful commitment to the politics of embodied and critical action, What a City Is For takes us through a rethinking of the politics of cities by carefully dismantling the root—capitalism, settler colonialism, and anti-Blackness. This book is a raw, honest, and brilliant analysis delivered with the fire of someone who cares very deeply about the world we share. His words fly off the page and into my life as he invites me to envision a different way of living in a different world, and in doing so, he makes me feel less alone.” —Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, author of Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back

About the Author:

Matt Hern has lived and worked in East Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories for the past two and a half decades with his partner and daughters. He has founded and directed the Purple Thistle CentreCar-Free Vancouver Day, Groundswell: Grassroots Economic Alternatives and 2+10 Industries among many other community projects.  He holds a doctorate in Urban Studies and his books have been published on all six continents and translated into twelve languages. He currently teaches in CBU’s MBA program and SFU's Urban Studies department, is an Adjunct Professor in UBC’s SCARP program and continues to lecture globally.


Sobhi Al-Zobaidi is a restauranteur, novelist, poet, and independent filmmaker currently working on his doctorate at Simon Fraser University. Mr. al-Zobaidi was born in Jerusalem, raised in Jalazon refugee camp (near Ramallah), and educated at Birzeit University in Palestine and New York University in the U.S. His films address the realities and complexities of contemporary Palestinian life: the disruptions and humiliations of everyday existence lived under Israeli occupation, in refugee camps, and in the troubled enclaves of the West Bank and Gaza; and the internal fragmentation and divisions that afflict Palestinian society.

Josiane Anthony is currently studying law and sociology with an interest in refugee and immigration issues. She is a program coordinator leading refugee youth programs for Immigrant Services Society and the Vancouver Foundation's Youth Advisory Team. She has served as National Youth Arts Coordinator for the Michaelle Jean Foundation and as creator and evaluator of BC Youth Toolkit for the Ministry of Children and Family Development. She is also the co-founder of the Black Before February arts collective and event, and co-editor of From the Root zine.

Lisa Bates is associate professor at the Toulan School of Urban Studies & Planning of Portland State University.  She does research related to housing policy and planning. Her work is particularly focused on social justice issues, including understanding how inequitable outcomes may arise from institutionalized racism in policy design and implementation. Her research also describes how people of color and low-income households make decisions about housing and neighborhoods, given their perceived choices and constraints. As a planner she has conducted research in diverse settings, including Chicago, post-Katrina New Orleans, and Portland, served as the co-lead for the Technical Advisory Group on Equity and Civic Engagement for the Portland Plan and on the Creation Committee for the Office of Equity and Human Rights. She was also a co-lead for the Housing and Communities committee of the Greater Portland Pulse, a regional indicators project. Dr. Bates sits on the board of directors of the Portland Housing Center, which is one of the nation’s top homeownership education and counseling organizations.

Glen Coulthard is a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and an associate professor in the First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program and the Department of Political Science. Glen has written and published numerous articles and chapters in the areas of Indigenous thought and politics, contemporary political theory, and radical social and political thought. He lives in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. Glen’s book, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition(University of Minnesota Press), was released in August 2014 to critical acclaim. His co-edited book, Recognition versus Self-Determination: Dilemmas of Emancipatory Politics, was released in spring 2014 by UBC Press. He and Dr. Dory Nason were also featured contributors to the groundbreaking anthology, The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement (ARP Books), which was released to great acclaim in March 2014.


Am Johal is the director of SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement in the SFU Woodward’s Cultural Unit.