Combating inner-city decline through grass-roots economies
Discussed by Heide Mertens, Carola Möller, Ulla Peters and Irena Vellay

In the district of Mülheim in Cologne, Heide Mertens conducted detailed empirical research into the phenomenon of unpaid work in an overall context of paid work. She looked at the types of work which are unpaid, how such work is distributed, what kind of network there is, and what value unpaid work is given. The research is part of a district initiative to regenerate a sizeable, run-down industrial site to provide services for a residential area with a high unemployment rate. In the research paper's appendix, a valuable conversation is documented between Heide Mertens (political scientist), Carola Möller (social scientist), Ulla Peters (social scientist) and Irena Vellay (city planner). They compare the experience of Mülheim in Cologne with areas of much greater social decline but which also have self-help initiatives in place, in Detroit (USA), Nottingham (Great Britain), and Wolfen-Nord in Saxony-Anhalt (Germany).
The following excerpts from the conversation present the main differences between the respective work possibilities of those places.

CM: In our respective subjects and projects we've all been researching the possibilities for work and an economy which aren't integrated into the competitive, profit-orientated international marketplace, but aim to provide a good quality of life for everyone in their local environment. Initiatives already exist in all the industrialised countries and also, under other conditions, in so-called Third World countries. In recent months you have each been able to collect new experiences of such initiatives through your respective research in an urban district of Cologne, in Great Britain, and in the USA. What is people's understanding in those places of alternative economies and lifestyles and 'new work'?

Unpaid work in Mülheim, Cologne
HM: In my research I started by looking at unpaid work in private households and asked what the contribution of these households was, if any, to the well-being of the community. One thing became obvious: everything done by these households had, above all else, a material objective; namely, to produce something for the members of the household. But at the same time, other values came into play: the search for an individual lifestyle: jam made to taste exactly how you like it; a home-made coffee-table made according to your own personal style. Among those who took part in the research, it was also important to do things together with the family, neighbours, and friends; in other words, they felt integrated within a social network.

UP: That means, 'work' already inherently involves the concepts of 'for others' and 'with others'.

HM: One very typical example is the jam-making. This has always been communal work. The fruit is collected all together, an aunt probably helped, and the jam is then given as a gift to others. The mother received a jar, and two jars went to friends. Of course cooking jam hasn't the same material value as in former days: today one can probably buy jam more cheaply. But the other value of work is apparent here.

UP: At the same time, you say that there always has to be a material component.

HM: Yes, of course; but there's a different attitude to the material. Some people found this important for their children. They said, 'I want to teach my children different values. I show them that not everything has to be bought, and things shouldn't be just thrown away; an old cupboard can be fixed up.'

CM: Was that only particular households; households where there was an awareness of non-material values?

HM: It was mainly families with a secure income. Households which had the least couldn't afford to get involved in such work, because they had small flats, no gardens, not enough money to buy raw materials, few social contacts, and a very low income.

UP: That means alternative work doesn't function without certain pre-conditions.

CM: It's not enough to just give emotional support; they also need a material foundation.

Towns worn down by deprivation
If you have people over from the USA, the areas where Irina just has been, they always say, 'What's your problem? You have a functioning infrastructure.' The deprivation you find in US towns is hard to imagine over here. But I can see what we need over here to prevent such deprivation from happening, for example in areas with high unemployment such as Wolfen-Nord, which is a Plattenbausiedlung [a cheaply-built, prefab-type housing estate typical of the former GDR] inhabited by former factory workers. As part of my project there, I looked at possibilities for regional sustainable economics. I visited Nottingham to look at communal and community allotments and saw the consequences of years of neglect of certain aspects of social development. Violence moves into districts; the drug scene takes over, imposing its own laws. I lived in a district in Nottingham where you daren't go out at night.

IV: Detroit, which used to be a wealthy industrial town, certainly isn't pleasant either, with its poverty-stricken living conditions. A government initiative called 'Empowerment-Zone Enterprise Communities' aims to regenerate areas which are impoverished, socially unstable and lacking in any kind of industry. In 1990 in the designated 'Empowerment Zones' in Detroit, forty-seven percent of the population lived below the poverty line and the unemployment rate was up at 29%. In the mid-eighties, the drug scene lured mainly male youth within its deadly reaches. The poorer neighbourhoods in big cities were turned into war zones by fighting, territorial gangs. On top of that, black youth are criminalized for even small conflicts with the law. They talk about whole generations with prison experience.

Processes of self-determination
I'll start with what was important among the American projects: I don't mean the projects of the official 'Third Sector', but grass-roots projects; the self-help projects which aim at subsistence and whose agendas are, in part, political. Self-help projects are not integrated, or barely so, within any formal structures, and are not promoted by the 'Third Sector'.
It's noticeable that the activists don't talk so much about work as about the processes involved. Bergman's concept [of 'new work'] doesn't apply to them. What's important to them is direct person-to-person exchange. Here, trading is always conducted in the context of social relationships, the key to which is 'trust', meaning, mutual trust. This is very important. There is no cash involved in the exchange process, because in this environment there is hardly any money around, except among those people who have a good salary and are involved in the scene out of ideological motives. On top of that, having a connection to the locality is important: the neighbourhood, the community. Production should cater to the needs of this context, and distribution should be organised within it. Community allotments are a part of this local subsistence. A network of relationships across regions is maintained.

UP: So these are not small allotments like we have here, but are ones that are worked in together: each person working on one section, but everyone doing it together. And accessibility is an important factor. The allotments should be accessible to all.

IV: As a rule there are no fences, which is surprising because in Detroit there are a lot of hungry people, they simply don't have enough to eat. You'd expect it to get raided. But this doesn't happen. Communal property is respected. Issues are discussed, and anyone who needs anything can take it. But the maintenance of the allotments is a problem. There are examples where it works well, and others where it doesn't.

UP: And they don't have any professional support?

IV: There are very different allotment projects, and very different groups involved. Generally, they do the work themselves. Sometimes there is some professional support, for example through the Hunger-Action Coalition. One member there came from a farm and knew how to drive a tractor. But that type of thing is all very informal. The murals continue to play an important role. The models are the famous murals created in the thirties by Diego Riviera exhibited in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Young people use his style to paint their own murals. They organise it themselves, and all the walls will get painted at some building somewhere. Often church congregations or community-based organisations commission them. The youngsters want to give a positive message to the public by this means.
They also tried to set up recycling projects in Detroit. Some of them work; some don't. It's always difficult to say what stage a project is at. For example there's an enterprise, the Avalon Bakery, an organic bakery that is running very well because it is well established in the area and with all the groups there. People do their shopping there. Then there's the Cass Corridor Food Co-op, which has been around for thirty years, with a floor space of about 160m2. The Co-op has 14,000 members, including some from outside Detroit, proving that networking can work even beyond a city's borders. At the moment, they're trying to establish a co-operative based around skilled craftspeople and manual trades.
'Community Gardens' secure a part of the USA's food supply. Food security is essential to people, and is a topic of discussion. They are trying to establish them as the secure food source of an urban district, which is very different from over here, where allotments are, rather, an extra, additional source.

HM: In Mülheim the allotment has a qualitative value. Of course, you can buy everything in Mülheim, and quite cheaply. But allotments were still an important issue for those questioned. Most wished to have an allotment, partly in order to grow vegetables, but also to have a piece of green space, to make it nice and provide a place for children to play outside.
IV: One important objective of Detroit's allotment projects is healthy food. In the USA, money - if you have it - buys you everything, including the healthiest food. The poorest have to be content with the worst; with highly chemically processed food.

CM: Do you remember Chernobyl? The rich were able to buy clean food very soon, while the poor still have to eat radioactive lettuce.

UP: Health is also an objective among independent activists in England. Healthcare over here is still alright, compared to England.

IV: It's even worse in the USA. People with a low income don't have any health insurance whatsoever. If they get ill, they are scuppered. That means if one of your children gets ill, it has to be an emergency before you call the doctor out. Imagine the stress for parents!

'New work' - new values
What can we learn from everything we've seen, about the quality of 'new work', and what can we learn about people's priorities?

IV: In Detroit one of the main objectives was to create social relationships through working towards something for everyone.

UP: Maybe because they knew it would be impossible otherwise.

IV: Because the collapse of social relationships is so apparent, whether the cause has been drugs or the enormous stresses of competition. People there are often unable to relate to one another anymore; they can't talk, or plan anything together. One activist told me that she tried to set up a neighbourhood meeting. Some of the people invited didn't come because they knew as soon they left their homes the neighbours would break in. In my opinion, individuals have to begin by trying to re-establish social relationships.

UP: Back to the community allotments again. We need to look at what's going on there; what values are being put into practice, and in what kind of environment. For example, in the house where I lived in Nottingham in the house I lived, the front garden was soiled every morning because prostitutes used it either as a toilet or for their business. The landlord was totally frustrated because every morning he had to pick up the condoms. So how can well-motivated people succeed in creating a space which isn't going to be misused?

HM: In Mülheim when syringes were find in children's sandpits, parents asked for fences. There were playgrounds for which only certain parents had keys. Alternatively they could form a committee to take responsibility; people who would have the courage to say something if a young person lit a fire under the swings.

UP: In England they say something has to be fixed immediately if one or two things get broken, otherwise the damage gets worse.

Activists in grass-roots community economies
In Detroit many of the people involved had normal employment, for example at the university, as car factory workers or people who worked for community-based organisations. They said: I want to put something back into this district; I feel a duty to do that.

CM: Other research shows that unemployment causes a strong sense of insecurity among those out-of-work, so that they feel unable to cope with anything that would add to this insecurity - which these forms of economy would do.

HM: But I believe that you really can recruit those people who absolutely need these kinds of projects; it's just that they won't be the ones in on the start of the project.

IV: Allotments get looked after by so-called 'gardening angels', an informal network of retired women. They've created about three hundred gardens: their own, and also some communal allotments on Detroit's East Side. Their shared goal is to regenerate the broken-down social interraction of neighbourhoods through community gardens. In co-operation with others, such as 'Detroit Summer', a youth project, vegetables and fruit are grown and are shared with their own families, the neighbours in the district, the sick, and others who are in need, or they give a share to soup kitchens. Community gardens are also run by other groups. It's like a social movement, and it's not only in Detroit.

UP: So there are people who keep the project going, and other people who work with them, even though you're talking about independent set-ups. It's not just five people coming together and saying, lets start an allotment.

IV: The gardening angels did originally organise themselves independently. They've been around for twenty years now. Their motto is: the regeneration of devastated nature. Seeing Detroit, you would understand it. This deprived city, with 40,000 derelict pieces of land, is a totally different ballgame from a nice, cosy country town.
Incidentally, in Detroit I spoke almost solely with women. In this whole arena, men are mostly absent. They are unemployed and drop out of families; they have no role whatsoever any more. Also, you will find mainly women working in the community-based organisations. There were some men amongst the independent activists, but the majority were women.

Some ambivalences
I'd like to bring in the term 'poverty economics' again. One reproach heard from the Left is that everything to do with alternative economics serves only to shun poverty out of the way and therefore serves the existing system. Businesses happily go on making money, while the people who are superfluous to requirements, the losers, are pacified with the minimum.

IV: Of course it's always in the interest of the rulers to give people at the bottom just enough to survive on to keep them quiet. But in the USA that isn't working anymore, which is also certainly related on some level to the drug scene. The bottom rung of the system is self-destructing, with loads of psychologically disturbed people. Nobody cares about them; they are literally lying in the streets and starving. Grass-roots community economies are developing in the space left empty by the dominant economy, for the moment at least. These are niches. All who are able to work can participate, because access to the projects doesn't involve money.

Pre-conditions for an alternative economy and alternative work
As scientists we have to take seriously what we have observed in the field. Empirical research into alternative economies shows how many pre-conditions are tied to these grass-roots community economies, work-concepts, and lifestyles. Community self-help and taking responsibility have pre-conditions, the building of new social relationships being the first. Fritjof Bergmann, for example, does not discuss such pre-conditions in relation to his concept of 'new work'. He only says: 'Do what you want to do.' But it isn't quite so simple to transfer theories developed on paper into practice. Self-help should mean a comprehensive security for those involved.

CM: For me, other important characteristics of an alternative economy are 'self-determination' and 'gender justice'. Women have written extensively on this.

HM: Another important term is 'sustainability'. The production and transportation of goods is ecologically totally absurd, even though a lot of money is being made out of it. 'Social justice' is another characteristic. Only a total restructuring will improve things. The way that the 'Third Sector' is functioning today will only increase the gap between high-earners and those who - even if by choice - don't earn much and are, at best, just managing to repair the material and psychological damage wrought by the economy of the profit-makers.

1.  Heide Mertens; Stiftung Fraueninitiative Koln (eds): Das Ganze der Arbeit. Lokale Ansatze zur Neugestaltung von Arbeit (AG SPAK Bucher, Neu Ulm, 2001). 208 pages, ISBN 3-930-830-24-8

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