Experiments in socialist urbanism: From Red Vienna to Red Bologna

The socialists probably didn't do all of this: Bologna. Image: Charlie Clemoes and Jake Soule.

The wide open public squares in the Italian city of Bologna convey a long history of public participation. Linked by a complex web of narrow, portico-lined streets, their smooth marble paving stones mark centuries of civic activity.

Vienna, Austria’s capital, has a very different feel. It’s a city with obvious imperial pretensions, drawing immediate comparisons with Paris in its wide boulevards and extravagant baroque palaces – a far cry from Bologna’s condensed and intricate lay-out.


The visual contrast between these two cities conceals a vital shared history of socialist municipal control. The Austrian Social Democrats (SPÖ) rose to power in Vienna’s first free elections in 1919, controlling Viennese urban policy until the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. In Bologna the Italian Communist Party (PCI) held the mayoralty of the city from 1945 until the dissolution of the party in 1993. The legacies of both periods of radical municipal government have earned these cities the nickname “red”.

The approaches of both the SPÖ and the PCI constituted a challenge to the narrow and short-term focus of the free market. In Vienna a more equitable city was fostered through the building of grand, integrated social housing complexes; while in Bologna a dwindling public realm was revived through democratisation of urban policy. At a time when cities worldwide are beholden to market forces – with the associated decline in democratic accountability, and grossly widening disparities between the richest and poorest – there is much to learn from these histories.

"Rotes Wien"

Winarsky-Hof.

Only recently industrialised, Vienna after the First World War was a city of extreme inequality. In the late 19th century, Czech peasants from neighbouring Bohemia came to the city in their thousands in pursuit of work in the era’s massive reconstruction projects. By the time of the Social Democrat’s election victory in 1919, a handful of landlords had grown rich off the back of housing these new arrivals in the city’s expanding slums.

The first priority of the newly-elected mayor, Jakob Reumann, was to break these landlords’ grip over rents by providing housing directly, through a system of progressive taxation. But the housing complexes built under the SPÖ were more than just homes: they were social worlds, replete with kindergartens, shops, health care, libraries, laundries, lecture halls, theatres and parks. These provisions represented an ambitious attempt to empower the citizenry by offering them both material security and opportunities for self improvement.

Jutta Schwarz, who grew up in a social house in the outskirts of Vienna in the 1950s, was herself the granddaughter of Czech migrants. When her grandparents first arrived, she says, they lived in a cramped apartment shared between five people, without electricity. They faced such poverty that her grandparents had to rent out their bed during the day for a night-worker to sleep in. Herwegh-Hof, the housing complex on the so-called Proletarian Ringroad which her grandparents moved into in the 1920s, transformed her family’s existence for generations.

Herwegh-Hof. 

She recalls her grandmother’s regular reminders of how much their material situation had improved. “Every month my grandmother used to say, like a kind of mantra, ‘What an enormous amount of freedom we have gained’.” It says something of how quickly things changed that Jutta admitted finding it harder to appreciate these gains.

By this time, Vienna’s revolutionary moment of working class empowerment through material security had passed, with the post-war period bringing new problems of community participation and democratic accountability across Europe. In another context, Red Bologna emerged as a response to these changing conditions.

“Bologna la Rossa”

In 1968 Bologna’s Communist government took executive action to protect the city’s central square, the Piazza Maggiore, after it had gradually begun to be used as an informal car park.

Piazza Maggiore in 1968.

This decision encapsulates how socialism’s role had shifted in the fifty years since Vienna’s “Red” moment. Postwar redevelopment of industrialised cities advanced the interests of individual consumption at the increasing expense of public space. Progressives now shifted their concerns towards a creeping social alienation, epitomised in the atomising effects of the automobile.

The revival of a once bustling city square, through the introduction of fare-free buses in the city’s centre, is only one of countless interventions that put public involvement in political decision making at the centre of the PCI’s postwar project in Bologna.

Reflecting a conscious shift in the PCI away from the centralised model of its Soviet counterpart, and indeed that of Red Vienna, the process of “decentramento” in Bologna involved extending power to neighbourhood councils. These councils had the power to make demands of the legislature in such areas as education, health care, traffic policy, culture and the built environment (with particular concern for conservation of the city's ancient architectural heritage).

Piazza Maggiore today.

Stefano Bonaga, a political philosophy professor at the University of Bologna, summed up the spirit of the time with a play on the famous slogan of the American Revolution: “In Bologna, our demand was no representation without participation.” Prominently involved in Bolognese politics since his youth, Stefano reflected that the main aim of Red Bologna was empowerment: “It’s the responsibility of politics to give political dignity to the citizens.”

This sentiment neatly sums up the thread that runs through both periods. Socialist municipal control was called upon at different times to alleviate different problems. Yet both calls constituted a demand for collective empowerment against the dehumanising effects of a city life driven solely by the free market. It’s a demand which resonates to this day.

Charlie Clemoes has an in urban studies from UCL and is on the editorial staff of Failed Architecture.

Jake Soule is studying for a PhD at Duke University

All images courtesy of the authors.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.