Struggles of the Farmer Neighborhood in Tempe, AZ

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For years I have been writing about subjectivity, long-term goals, cultural struggles, radical ghettos, liberating space, and resisting domination. Yet, I have failed in communication with comrades and friends alike to articulate the importance and originality of the Farmer neighborhood struggle; how it exemplifies an approach to rebellion that has won my approval, and the extent to which its transgressions betray a casual and dismissive perspective from afar. I will  begin my story of the Farmer neighborhood with some background context as to who I am, what I’ve seen and been through, and what the Farmer neighborhood is not.

I was born in Scottsdale, AZ where I lived until around 1992 before moving to Gilbert, AZ. Historically, Gilbert is a place that began in the early 1900‘s with a strong Mormon community. They had fled from the Mormon colonies in Mexico as a result of Pancho Villa’s forces and 1915, they began holding church meetings at the Gilbert Elementary School. In 1918, they were organized into the Gilbert Ward. Incorporated in July 1920, Gilbert was primarily a farming community fueled by the rail line and construction of the Roosevelt Dam and the Eastern and Consolidated Canals. It remained an agricultural town for many years and was known as the “Hay Capital of the World” from 1911 until the late 1920s. Fast forward to 1992 and the town was currently busy covering up a backlash against development from it’s white, often Mormon residents. In 1992, Gilbert was in the midst of intense transformation. It was the fastest growing school district in the state, and the town’s 245% growth rate over 10 years was staggering. Gilbert’s population went gone from 29,000 in 1990 to about 100,000 in the year 2000, much of it because of job growth in the Phoenix area. Part of this resulting backlash was the development of a gang called the Devil Dogs, who were organized out of my high school’s football team and had terrorized minorities in the area until its leadership was busted for their monopolization of ecstasy drug trafficking… shortly before I moved.

To summarize humbly, it was an extremely repressive town to live in on every level. Fortunately, I found cultural acceptance in the local hardcore and punk scenes. Then, my life there ended around 2001 when I dropped out of school and moved with my mother to Phoenix’s college town, Tempe, AZ. Outside of Gilbert there was Mesa, Chandler, Tempe, and other suburbs of Phoenix that were mostly going through similar boom periods. Of them all, Tempe and Phoenix were just about the only two places where someone could move in the Valley that had given a home to counter-cultural and creative types. It was already a place that I had been going to for its music venues and the lively bar-lined strip, Mill Ave. Although I wasn’t in the Farmer neighborhood (don’t worry I’m getting there), I was close enough to easily get there…

Now, the Farmer neighborhood is a place that is closely connected with the more general context of Phoenix and its repressive suburbs, ASU and its party school notoriety, and local counter-culture. It’s one of those Phoenix neighborhoods that is still full of foliage and architecture dating back to the early 1900‘s and it is where regular house parties, house shows, couch surfing, and other such things would happen most often. If you wanted to have a 24/7 party lifestyle and be around weirdos and freaks all the time, it’s one of the main places you’d move, crash, or beg for spare change. It’s where you would go to buy underground records and CD’s, get tattoos, find the best comic books, and meet people you liked who were all fed up and resistant to the conservative nature of Phoenix. Not that Tempe didn’t have its own sordid history with the KKK and segregation, but it had become what I had just described above.

As of a few years ago, Tempe (like many other places similar to it) has embarked on massive redevelopment projects meant to rebrand the city –and specificially the neighborhoods surrounding Mill Ave.– as an environment for sophisticated liberal consumption: gastro pubs, sleek imagery, luxury condos and apartments, attempts at an astroturfed arts district, attempts to change its colloquial name to “the DT” (downtown or downtown Tempe), and other bullshit much to the dismay of locals. While this is a national trend in many ways, what is unique about the situation in the Farmer neighborhood is that it inherited as a part of its hedonistic residents a number of anarchists and other more radical types whom also found a place there to call home. What will become apparent as I continue to discuss this anarchist/radical presence is the extent to which anarchist/radical action can take a form that is different from punk shows, from Occupy!, from workplace organizing, from street protest, from collective projects, and from subcultural insulation.

For a moment, I’d like to comment on the relevant context for anarchists in the United States. In overview, anarchists have gone through some marked phases of visibility and activity: from the anti or alter-globalization movement, to animal and earth liberation, to the anti-war movement, to fighting border militarization (especially in AZ), to the Occupy! movement, to surveillance and anti-Police fights around the country. Noted, I’ve spared a shit load of what anarchist have and continue to do; but, only because of the situation I’m about to mention. Anarchists today seem to have become pessimistic and defeated. Somewhat from latching onto past notions of what anarchists ought to do with themselves, somewhat from the ways in which past interactions with the Left have turned sour (how couldn’t they?), and somewhat from ineffectual lifestyle-as-activism becoming more difficult and more problematized. What continues to come in conversations discussing this situation is confusion about what can be done at this point, what other forms of activity may look like, and what it even means to be an anarchist anymore.

Comparing this anarchist/radical slump with the Farmer neighborhood struggle will be the focus from hereon. To expand on the repression of the Farmer neighborhood; in addition to the rebranding and development projects driving up rent, the food taxes, police capacity to issue noise complaints themselves, the shitty frat houses being moved off campus into the neighborhoods, and the failure of longtime businesses valued by counter-cultural types, the City of Tempe has spent a fortune at the beginning of each school year for the past couple of years, rallying together 10+ separate police departments to entirely lock down Mill Ave. and the neighborhoods that surround it. More details as to the extent of this repression can be found elsewhere; however it is these actions collectively by the City of Tempe in a metropolis that offers hardly anywhere else for ‘us types’ to go which has given birth to a real, everyday struggle. The police repression and anarchist/radical swift to act against it, as well as the long-term residency of anarchist/radicals in the neighborhood and the neighborhood’s general rowdyism have all boiled over into an open atmosphere of hostility to police, anarchists/radicals and locals crashing city meetings, a comforting pride in counter-cultural lifestyle, and a generalized attitude of resistance towards anything which might throw a wet towel on the neighborhood fires.

At a time when anarchists where I live now are disappointed with a lack of direction, anarchists in Tempe are busy with an ongoing project to invigorate and defend the historically anarchic neighborhood(s) they live in. The aspects of this struggle which stand out and against what anarchists seem to be up to in the rest of the country is that these anarchists are not something separate from the neighborhood(s) they live in. This is not a participation in Left-dominated reform movements. They are not isolating themselves or merely practicing a lifestyle of their choice. It is a struggle that is open to at least a couple-thousand people invited both to partake in the fighting and in the enjoyment of new and/or longtime pleasures. If only in the imagination of Farmer neighborhood residents, this is now a place where the police are not welcome, where everyone is free to come and eat and drink and fuck in the streets and do whatever, where people take responsibility for themselves and their neighbor/friends about the town, where the landlords should be thrown into the gutters, where the character of the neighborhoods is already and should continue to be the character chosen by its residents. And why not beyond the imagination?

It’s not perfect, it’s not an insurrection, the police still repress, there’s still a lot of bullshit… but, it’s also not the Left, ideological, lifestyle-as-activism, insular, estranged, and another anarchist social space full of interpersonal drama. To the extent that this is something reproducible elsewhere, I am uncertain. The context is very specific, yet not dissimilar from contexts elsewhere in the US and beyond. The characters were positioned naturally to act in their own interests from the social history of Phoenix and the obvious, limited choices of living there in any satisfying way. I see it as a legitimate beginning and hope for the resistance there to sustain.

As a final note, something that I’m attempting to do with this writing is take a lesson from the events I have been to recently: to look at specific (historical) contexts, outside of the activity of anarchists, yet in a round-about way laying out paths of least resistance that become opportunities for anarchist activity. There’s historical reasons why shit in Phoenix proper is different from shit in Tempe …and I imagine that in every major city (with its suburbs, college towns, leftover ghettos from segregation, etc.) there are details there that point towards the greater determinants of cultural life …at least greater limits on it.

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