Ungovernable Neighborhoods and Community Development

In this short piece, I want to discuss the importance of neighborhoods and their role in building infrastructure for autonomous social movements and rebellions. With evictions increasing across the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is pertinent that we rethink what fighting displacement looks like. I would like to start with what city planners negatively call “problem neighborhoods” or what I will refer to positively as ungovernable neighborhoods. Ungovernable neighborhoods are districts that have resisted gentrification; where block parties go on at all hours, street economies proliferate to create subsistence, and the police are not welcome by anyone. In other words, where a non-codifiable freedom exists, neighborhoods where the consumptive habits of the wealthy have not been economically deployed. These are areas of “perceived crime” because ungovernable neighborhoods exist on the margins of the economy and especially Black forms-of-life have been deemed illegal by the state. Such neighborhoods are targets of revitalization projects and the displacement (and replacement) of former residents with middle class inhabitants.

The question I want to explore is not the obvious trend in gentrification (i.e., tech workers or Amazon), but the more insidious work of Community Development Corporations (CDCs; sometimes rebranded as Community Development Organizations, or CDOs) and how they depoliticize relationships in ungovernable neighborhoods, especially in smaller cities. What are CDCs and why do they form to speak for existing communities? Historically, CDCs go back to the Civil Rights Era in the United States as a means of battling redlining in cities. However, that legacy seems to have been left behind for the pursuit of raising both property and aesthetic values in lower-income communities. Now they act as governing bodies to manage ungovernable neighborhoods, existing as conduits between the city planners and residents. CDCs carry out the stabilization and advancement of gentrification by engineering a community and deploying policing operations across a neighborhood. In other words, they create a governing body for a silent community that rejects participation. As writers on the topic of gentrification have already explained, the contradictions between forces of use-value and exchange value are what lead to the constant displacement of poor residents (Peter Moskowitz explains this very clearly in How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood). The problem sometimes gets funneled into questions of employment and economic opportunity. But focusing on increasing workforce opportunity will not resolve these contradictions. Instead, networks of mutual-aid, community defense, and infrastructure for social movements must be built to bring neighborhoods together. Platforms that advocate for affordable housing must simultaneously emerge with tenant power and autonomous social movements; otherwise, they just become empty promises.

Community Work and Policing

For these reasons, CDCs must be identified as obstacles to building any kind of collective power. CDCs require feedback and legitimacy on various platforms. Social media campaigns have become increasingly influential in projecting images of community engagement, while art exhibits and “coffee with a cop” outreach events physically attempt to bring a community into dialogue with those who seek to displace them. The catch is that it is not the quantity of voices that matters, but rather the projection of representative voices and a specific inclusion of only select community members as the face of more “progressive” CDCs. The deployment of beautification projects alongside “community boards” or online forms are what give gentrification the consensus it requires to appear as progressive redevelopment or “democratic.” Otherwise, CDCs risk creating the conditions for the social movements that will spark resistance against the systemic violence that these organizations themselves aim to conceal. Put differently, CDCs must perform an activist identity but not actually create an environment for mass mobilization.

I would like to posit the notion that CDCs should be recognized as a policing operation—an abstraction of the collaboration between urban development, policing, and what Cedric J. Robinson has termed “racial capitalism.” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri refer to these operations as “moral interventions” which wage an ideologically just war over a particular territory. While Hardt and Negri are clearly referring to global wars of Empire, I argue that these grassroots level moral interventions prepare neighborhoods for more policing and displacement. It is not enough to sit someone down to read the language of redevelopment plans; instead, one must recognize that an absence of a collective power leaves a vacuum for CDCs to create a simulacrum of community. A self-policing community. Yet, the product of this abstraction is an increase in low-level arrests (which leads to more future arrests) and an identification and sense of familiarity with the occupying army in neighborhoods—the police. The state, market, and social interests that drive gentrification are protected by the deployment of policing logistics. The invisible work being done here is taking place in the social body—the work of “the community” itself. Beautification projects, neighborhood watch groups, and community gardens are just a few examples of what I am referring to as “community work.” The more self-policing a neighborhood does, the safer it is for economic development and for middle class interests to take over. This work is essentially driven by the desire to cultivate the aesthetics of community but as Jacques Camatte would posit, the only community offered is fundamentally constructed and mediated by capital. My analysis differs from most discussions about gentrification here. If policing is the deployment of logistics that creates the illusion of constant surveillance (an impossibility, as Benjamin Heisenberg reminds us in his “Birds Clone Stamp” piece with the “labor of looking.”) then the foremost target of anti-gentrification movements must be police and more importantly the operations of policing because it is possible to exhaust these limits. As Petero Kalulé and AM Kanngieser have argued in their audio essay recently contributed to Silent Works “AI is tasked to apprehend and master the unknowable. This is a police function; AI becomes an operation of the force of the law, perpetuated intentionally, yet imperceptibly.” On a local level the unknowable is the ungovernable neighborhood and revitalization is a way of engineering a neighborhood that is predictable and quiet—this process is inherently linked to anti-Black violence. If policing can function with no disruptions, then displacement becomes inevitable. However, if a neighborhood opposes police collectively through protest, filming police, or knowing their rights when it comes to interacting with police then an entirely different culture is created around policing.

Normalizing “community safety” apps such as Ring doorbells or Nextdoor engineer a self-policing community that makes transparent the opacity that the formation of social movements requires. CDCs are what strip away the soil and lay the seeds in a neighborhood for there to be an entry for tech work and open the door for AI capitalist technologies to intensify operations of policing. The prevalence of ring doorbells appearing in lower-income neighborhoods gives policing a new direction to project its operations. Community work reveals itself under the surface to be police work or what Micol Seigel refers to as “violence work.” Policing and social media collide in a way that obscures the violence that “community work” perpetuates by targeting areas of ungovernability and illegalizing marginalized communities. However, this does not have to be the only form a neighborhood can take. A disruption of communication channels by residents could certainly shatter the fake image of consensus and expose the project to be the operation of displacement that furthers gentrification.

Against Community and Violence Work

Since the omnipresence of the state and economy are not all encompassing, there must be ways to exhaust these limitations and inspire social movements that allow neighborhoods to remain ungovernable. In the aftermath of the 2020 George Floyd Rebellion in the United States, police abolition has become popular in discourse. The popular slogan “strong communities make police obsolete” rings true and the fight against displacement must emerge from autonomous social movements that put neighborhoods in touch with their power. Non-profits and local politics can be used as tools for achieving limited “community” power, but they do not (and cannot) take the place of direct action and social movements. The mediation of CDCs must not only be resisted but fought to allow mutual aid and neighborhood defense projects to proliferate in the space CDCs take up in communities. The rejection of community policing is crucial, and neighborhoods must actively disrupt all forms of policing operating daily, creating a culture of abolition in praxis. Finally, the labor of policing must be recognized for what it is: violence and community work.


Brenden, B. 2020. “Policing Gentrification: Stops and Low–Level Arrests during Demographic Change and Real Estate Reinvestment.” City & Community, vol. 19, no. 1, Mar. 2020, pp. 245–272.

Camatte, J. 1988. Capital and Community

Hardt, M. and Negri, A. Empire.

Heisenberg, B. 2020. “Birds Clone Stamp.” SILENT WORKS. https://vimeo.com/479456176

Kalulé, P., and Kanngieser, A.M. 2020. https://soundcloud.com/berliner-gazette/ai-kanngieser-kalule

Moskowitz, P. 2017. How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood

Seigel, M. 2018. Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police

Joseph Turner is a graduate student in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. His research focuses on demonstrating how contemporary literary representations of crowds and revolt fail to stimulate new political imaginings and ways of envisioning life in common. He looks to understand how the novel functions as a disciplinary apparatus and seeks to inspire new literary examples that inspire ungovernable imaginations outside of the law and economy.

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