Aaron Bartley: Crossroads: Land Liberation and the Future of the Postindustrial City

man with brown hair, short beard and blue eyes wearing a light blue button down shirt

photo / Lindsey France, University Relations, Cornell University

Aaron Bartley is the cofounder of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo and served as its executive director for 12 years. PUSH mobilizes residents to create sustainable neighborhoods with quality affordable housing, green jobs, and next-generation infrastructure. PUSH's Green Development Zone, which combines green housing, job training, stormwater management, and urban agriculture in a district on Buffalo's West Side, was named the winner of the global Sustainable Housing competition sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Brazilian Ministry of Cities, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Bartley grew up in Buffalo and attended Buffalo Public Schools. He is a graduate of Swarthmore College and Harvard Law School, where he cofounded the Harvard Living Wage Campaign, which resulted in $10 million in annual wage and benefit increases for the low-income campus workers it represented.

Bartley writes columns on cities and community organizing at Huffington Post and has commented on community and labor issues in a wide variety of media outlets, including the New York Times, CNN, and the Wall Street Journal. He serves currently as a visiting scholar at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.


For the past 14 years, Bartley worked with colleagues at PUSH Buffalo to build a model of community-controlled development in his hometown, a postindustrial city devastated by classism and racism and the hyperextractive process of deindustrialization. The organizers rooted their organization in the values and analysis of the Just Transition and Development Without Displacement movements. From the get-go, when finance capital was just beginning to scout the city, they knew that control of land was essential to realizing their dreams, and they began asserting ownership and control through every means available to them, from direct action at bank-owned vacant homes, to negotiation with the city for the purchase of vacant lots, to direct purchase from slum-lords disinvesting from the neighborhood.

Bartley intends this lecture to serve as both an exploration of the praxis and strategy underlying the battle for land and power in the gentrifying city, and as an airing of the contradictions and tensions within the movement. He will show as a proof of concept that, when organizers build unity, leadership, and organization in oppressed communities, they will rise to offer new and original solutions to climate change, financial extraction, police occupation, and cultural appropriation, solutions born out of struggle and lived experience that leverage collective power and networks to build cutting-edge systems like community-shared solar systems, agricultural commons, and cohousing that are largely unachievable in wealthier cities. Bartley will also attempt to problematize the constraints of the nonprofit industrial complex; the limits of the Community Development Corporation as both a real estate developer and a change agent; and the shortcomings and enduring value of Alinksy-influenced organizing practice in oppressed communities, with its often itinerant, middle-class, organizers, its lagging social analysis and keen sense of power and leverage, and the promise and limitations of emergent Gramsci and somatic-influenced organizing practice with forays into electoral politics, focus on culture-building, economic power, and attention to healing practice as a radical tool for social solidarity and personal transcendence.

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