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The Informal American City

The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor

Vinit Mukhija
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    The Informal American City
    Book Description:

    Every day in American cities street vendors spread out their wares on sidewalks, food trucks serve lunch from the curb, and homeowners hold sales in their front yards -- examples of the wide range of informal activities that take place largely beyond the reach of government regulation. This book examines the "informal revolution" in American urban life, exploring a proliferating phenomenon often associated with developing countries rather than industrialized ones and often dismissed by planners and policy makers as marginal or even criminal. The case studies and analysis inThe Informal Citychallenge this narrow conception of informal urbanism. The chapters look at informal urbanism across the country, empirically and theoretically, in cities that include Los Angeles, Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, Kansas City, Atlantic City, and New York City. They cover activities that range from unpermitted in-law apartments and ad hoc support for homeless citizens to urban agriculture, street vending and day labor. The contributors consider the nature and underlying logic of these activities, argue for a spatial understanding of informality and its varied settings, and discuss regulatory, planning, and community responses.ContributorsJacob Avery, Ginny Browne, Matt Covert, Margaret Crawford, Will Dominie, Renia Ehrenfeucht, Jeffrey Hou, Nabil Kamel, Gregg Kettles, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Kate Mayerson, Alfonso Morales, Vinit Mukhija, Michael Rios, Donald Shoup, Abel Valenzuela Jr. Mark Vallianatos, Peter M. Ward

    eISBN: 978-0-262-32341-3
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)
    Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

    A street vendor pushes a cart with ice popsicles down the sidewalk. Periodically she rings a little bell to make her presence known. At the street corner, some day laborers solicit work by raising “labor for hire” signs each time a motorist drives by. In the next block, passersby gaze at the array of clothing, tools, and toys displayed on the front lawn of a home. Some stop, check them out, talk with the homeowner who has organized the sale, and buy an item. In another block of single-family homes, an extended family has converted their garage into an unpermitted...

  5. Part I Settings

    • 1 The Garage Sale as Informal Economy and Transformative Urbanism
      (pp. 21-38)
      Margaret Crawford

      On any given weekend, somewhere in the United States, someone is preparing for a garage sale. Collecting and sorting used possessions and unwanted household items from their basements, garages, attics, and closets, they evaluate and price them before displaying them on their lawn, driveway, porch, or front steps. Potential buyers stop to look, just passing by or attracted by flyers posted across the neighborhood or notices on Craigslist or in specialized advertising publications such as thePennysaver(figure 1.1). Inspecting and discussing the goods, buyers come and go. Many will bargain over already low prices. By the end of the...

    • 2 Outlaw In-Laws: Informal Second Units and the Stealth Reinvention of Single-Family Housing
      (pp. 39-58)
      Vinit Mukhija

      Informal housing is usually associated with the poor in developing countries. It is often seen as a euphemism for slums and substandard housing, and is likely to remind readers of Dharavi in Mumbai, Kibera in Nairobi, thefavelasof Brazil, and thegecekondularof Turkey. Contrary to public perception, informal housing also exists in the United States. It is, however, surprisingly understudied. Colonias, the infrastructure-poor subdivisions typically associated with the border region of Texas, may be the best-known example of informal housing in the United States, but there is limited scholarly literature about them (Mukhija and Monkkonen 2006; Ward 1999;...

    • 3 The Reproduction of Informality in Low-Income Self-Help Housing Communities
      (pp. 59-78)
      Peter M. Ward

      In this chapter I explore one key area of informality in the United States today: the production and consumption of housing among low-income groups. My focus is on the extensive self-help housing efforts in so-called colonias of the U.S.-Mexico border region and in other similar, but less widely recognized, informal homestead subdivisions (IfHSs) that may be found in the rural hinterland of many U.S. cities. All embrace important elements of informality and are rational responses to the aspirations of home ownership among low- and very low-income populations. The chapter has two main goals: first, to describe that rationality and demonstrate...

    • 4 Making and Supporting Community Gardens as Informal Urban Landscapes
      (pp. 79-96)
      Jeffrey Hou

      Community gardening is enjoying a resurgence of interest in the United States as issues of health and urban food systems attract growing attention. In cities from coast to coast, a host of new initiatives also reflects interest in and awareness of community gardening’s multiple benefits in food security, job training, community building, neighborhood revitalization, and activation of urban spaces. In New Orleans’s City Park, for example, youth organizers and Tulane University’s Tulane City Center created the Grow Dat Youth Farm to provide healthy food for local residents and develop youth leadership. In Oakland, California, urban food advocates are working in...

    • 5 “This Is My Front Yard!” Claims and Informal Property Rights on Sidewalks
      (pp. 97-118)
      Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Renia Ehrenfeucht

      On February 26, 2012, neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman spotted hooded teenager Trayvon Martin walking on the sidewalk of his gated neighborhood in Sanford, Florida. Details of their confrontation are muddy, but its outcome was tragic for Martin, who a short while later lay lifeless on the pavement. In the controversy and national soul-searching that followed, a number of claims and counterclaims were aired about racism, racial profiling, and the right of self-defense. What is relevant for this chapter is another claim: Zimmerman’s claim on the public sidewalk of his neighborhood as a territory where he belonged and Martin did...

    • 6 Learning from the Margin: Placemaking Tactics
      (pp. 119-136)
      Nabil Kamel

      Metropolitan Phoenix, like many other regions of the United States’ Sunbelt, has experienced rapid growth in the postwar years and epitomizes a particular geography of urbanization (Gober 1984). This pattern of development presents two prominent characteristics: (1) the mass production of the built environment with large planned developments dominating the urban landscape; (2) leapfrogging outward expansion of real estate investments and simultaneous disinvestment in older suburbs.

      This dislocated and uneven pattern of urbanization produces generic spaces that are devoid of a sense of place and undermines existing place-making efforts. As new developments offer larger units with newer amenities, the more...

    • 7 Surviving in American’s Playground: Informal Sustenance Strategies among the Chronically Unhoused
      (pp. 137-152)
      Jacob Avery

      Before it became an international entertainment destination, the land Atlantic City now occupies was a small windswept island off New Jersey’s southern shore. Beginning in the early 1800s, entrepreneurial individuals believed that the island could be more: a seaside location where people could be offered experiences that differed dramatically from their daily lives. Though the city’s founders could never have imagined what this place would become, Atlantic City is no longer a barren island. But while most people associate Atlantic City with gambling and well-to-do tourists, the unique entertainment landscape also provides opportunities for resource-poor people—the chronically unhoused—to...

  6. Part II Responses

    • 8 The Irreconcilable Tension between Dwelling in Public and the Regulatory State
      (pp. 155-172)
      Renia Ehrenfeucht and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

      In 2012, a keyword search for “homelessness” in the newspaper database America’s News resulted in over 74,000 articles written during the past five years. The articles told stories about the causes of homelessness and the impact of the recession, about shelter provision, the one-night (or point-in-time) counts, and the 10-year plans to end homelessness. Fewer articles referred to informal settlements such as colonias in Texas or the countless ways that people dwell in public under bridges and freeway overpasses or in other marginal urban spaces. The most notable articles for the purpose of this chapter discussed the frequency with which...

    • 9 Learning from Informal Practices: Implications for Urban Design
      (pp. 173-192)
      Michael Rios

      Many low-income communities present a conception of urban space that does not fit easily into regulatory frameworks and municipal ordinances. Some of its manifestations in the built environment include the appropriation of public and private land for a range of purposes and informal activities that defy land use norms, zoning requirements, and the law. These same places are often targeted by a planning agenda that views them as sites of gentrification and test beds for the latest sustainability idea. Consequently, punitive policies and practices are used to criminalize informal activities as a strategy of “urban cleansing.” These range from fines...

    • 10 Formalizing City Farms: Conflict and Conciliation
      (pp. 193-208)
      Matt Covert and Alfonso Morales

      Food has always entwined politics and economics (Murray 2007). Today, urban agriculture (UA), the growing and processing of food within or at the developing fringes of urban areas,¹ draws both conflict and cooperation. Some UA practices take place outside the official regulatory system, and as such they are deemed informal or even illegal. Nevertheless, metropolitan areas in the United States account for a significant amount of the food produced in the country (Jackson-Smith and Sharp 2008). UA’s recent resurgence in the United States owes much to changing public attitudes regarding the social, economic, and environmental consequences of the industrial food...

    • 11 A More Delicious City: How to Legalize Street Food
      (pp. 209-226)
      Mark Vallianatos

      Over the past several years, Los Angeles has been praised for its informal food scene. According to food writers and urbanists, the city and region seems to be constantly spinning off not just innovative cuisines but also different ways and places to sell and enjoy food. In 2010,Food & Winemagazine named Roy Choi one of its ten best new chefs (Brion 2010). Choi is the chef of the Kogi BBQ Truck, a popular taco truck that sells Korean-Latin fusion food. Choi, along with Kogi cofounders Alice Shin and Mark Manguera, helped launch the national and now international trend...

    • 12 Crystals, Mud, and Space: Street Vending Informality
      (pp. 227-242)
      Gregg Kettles

      Informality is enjoying renewed attention now, particularly within the United States, as the economic downturn has forced many to make ends meet outside the traditional, formal economy. Some rent out a room in their home illegally. Others scavenge and run perpetual garage sales on their front lawn. Still others turn to selling things on the street. Street vending is generally assumed to be one of the most visible of these examples of informality (Epstein 1994: 2164; Priest 1994: 2269; Venkatesh 2006: 156, 187). This is so even though there is no single definition of informality or understanding of what constitutes...

    • 13 “Keep Your Wheels On”: Mediating Informality in the Food Cart Industry
      (pp. 243-260)
      Ginny Browne, Will Dominie and Kate Mayerson

      While the image of the street vendor in the United States has changed many times over the last century, the occupation remains a staple in the popular imagination of urban life. From the pickle peddlers of New York’s Lower East Side to thepaleteros¹ of Los Angeles’s MacArthur Park, the endurance of street vending in major U.S. cities at the turn of the twenty-first century underscores its vital importance as a source of economic opportunity for low-income and immigrant communities. For people traditionally excluded from access to capital and decent-paying work in the mainstream economy, self-employment through informal vending has...

    • 14 Regulating Day Labor: Worker Centers and Organizing in the Informal Economy
      (pp. 261-276)
      Abel Valenzuela Jr.

      Throughout the United States and elsewhere, men by the thousands and their employers gather daily, usually in public spaces during the early morning, to negotiate an exchange of cash wages for a job. If you were to drive or walk by one of these hiring sites, you would notice small groups of mostly men, dressed in scruffy, unkempt attire well suited for construction work or the other manual, difficult and dirty work that is often undertaken by day laborers. You might ask whether this economic exchange is legal, whether the financial transaction is in cash, and what if any regulations...

    • 15 Informal Parking Markets: Turning Problems into Solutions
      (pp. 277-294)
      Donald Shoup

      Cities regulate every aspect of parking, using everything from time limits for on-street parking to zoning requirements for off-street parking. Cities also employ legions of parking enforcement officers to ensure that drivers obey these regulations, and tickets for parking violations are a major revenue source. Los Angeles, for example, earned $134 million from parking tickets in 2011 (City of Los Angeles 2012: 307). If so much parking is formal, regulated, and policed, what then is informal parking? And what can we learn from the informal parking market that might improve public policies for the formal parking market?

      Informal parking markets...

  7. Conclusion: Deepening the Understanding of Informal Urbanism
    (pp. 295-304)
    Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and Vinit Mukhija

    We started this book with the objective of better comprehending informality and its settings in U.S. cities. Our interest was piqued by the belief that the early twenty-first-century city cannot be fully understood without documenting and comprehending the landscapes of informality. As Nabil Kamel explains in his chapter, these come about from “opportunistic, calculated, and autonomous actions by local actors to redefine and renegotiate space outside of the realm of legal use of the built environment.” In the twenty-first century, the landscapes of informality are omnipresent in our cities. They often occur in defiance of rules, ordinances, and regulations, out...

  8. Contributors
    (pp. 305-310)
  9. Index
    (pp. 311-326)