Reno, in the Displacement Block, June 2016
The dilapidated homes are boarded up haphazardly, sidewalks are cracked more than ever, residents are nowhere in sight — but UNR student, “public anthropologist” and activist Aria Overli remains upbeat and clear-minded. She has come along for a few pictures a few days before the landlord's June 30th deadline of turning this entire downtown block into a demolition zone to give way for high end student housing.
Before we leave, mumbling workers spit words in our direction. An agitated woman follows us in her car photographing us.
Many Questions In Search of Better Answers
How did this overall situation come to be? How could Reno be a better university town? What is public anthropology? What was the reaction to Aria's recent Reno Gazette-Journal op-ed titled: “City Council Should Have Prioritized Residents Over Sidewalks”? (Not much actually). Where does Aria's courage to speak out come from? Our Town Reno wanted to find out.
Rattling Business as Usual in Reno and UNR
Aria, a fast-talking, full of ideas native of Carson City, with a Bachelor’s from UCLA, says she got angry when the Iraq War started back when she was a teenager. She hasn’t looked back since on being a progressive. Aria became involved in the homeless issue in Reno when a group got kicked out from under the Wells Avenue bridge last year.
She also gets angry when elected student leaders and university officials say they speak on behalf of the entire student body. She says Reno and UNR don’t have much of an organizing culture but she wants to help change that and throttle the powers that be to put pressure so there can be more affordable housing and wider access to education.
Here are excerpts of a recent Q and A from the safer confines of the off-campus Bibo coffee shop.
What is a public anthropologist?
It’s about going out into the community and effecting change. It’s not just publishing in journals and hoping ideas trickle down to the masses. It’s about trying to be a positive force and providing solutions. (Aria is currently in UNR’s cultural anthropology master’s program). We take people’s words and people’s lives and we try to contextualize these realities within larger systems such as neo-liberalism or capitalism. I work side by side with research participants. They serve as co-authors.
The current displacement on the downtown block has been presented as one part of expanding Reno into a so-called “university town”. What are your current thoughts about this situation?
I don’t oppose the idea of a university town but I see community development as being most productive when all people are included, rather than trying to force people out. This is also a student welfare issue because with rising prices of rent, with a lack of access to high paying jobs, with high amounts of student debt, many students who are graduating are going to be pushed out of living in Reno because they just can’t afford it.
How can we make it a better university town then?
I think it’s expanding the idea of education to the community as a whole. We say that education is the key and it is, but when so many people are pushed out of education, then it’s only a key to maintaining the system that exists for the most wealthy and for the most privileged at the moment. When you have a university town, I think it should mean providing university to everyone, regardless of your income, and not just pushing it out so only people who currently have access continue to have access to it, and don’t have to see the people who don’t have access to it, which is basically the tack they are taking now. There should be programs and resources available to the entire community if we are going to make it a university town.
How crucial is the issue of affordable housing, including for UNR students?
Students have just as much trouble finding affordable housing. They’ve largely been ignored too. They say this new housing on this block we are talking about will be for students, but at $800 a unit a month, that’s not feasible for most students. The graduate student housing on campus is $1,000 a month usually and so most graduate students can’t afford that when we are being paid $700 a month to teach classes. We need affordable housing downtown.
What about Reno’s fight on blight?
The city of Reno never saw improving this neighborhood, these sidewalks, these roads as necessary or important for the disabled, the elderly, the low-income students now living here and walking to school until all of a sudden the idea that wealthy students were going to be living here and then all of a sudden it became a priority for them.
We’re concerned with the idea the city only became interested in improving areas when there are going to be wealthy individuals living there and not caring for the communities that need the support. We’re not opposed to the idea of improving communities. We need to be doing this equitably and for all communities and not just for ones we see as bringing in the most wealth into the community.
Is it difficult to be an effective activist in Reno?
Reno is so used to not be challenged on things. There is a lack of an organizing culture here. If we can bring things to the table, people can be thrown off. If we show up at a council meeting, if we can keep this momentum, we can push things at least in a better direction than they’re going.
Interview and pictures for Our Town Reno in June 2016.