Friday, February 15, 2013

Gentrification is a dirty word...as it should be

The title of this piece is borrowed from Neil Smith's The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City where he tracks the spread of gentrification across New York, particularly the Lower East Side from the late 80s to the early 90s. He talks about the political, cultural, and economic aspects that drive gentrification and gives a strong critique of the forces that wipe the working class and poor from our cities.

Smith interrogates the policies of New York, from anti-homeless campaigns designed to sanitize certain neighborhoods for developers seeking "safe" neighborhoods for investment, to the subsidization of major luxury developments against the wishes of community groups and activists. He even draws upon the way development interests use art, from galleries and artist housing, as development beachheads, preparing target neighborhoods for further development by creating new edgy, trendy arts districts in former no-go zones for the well off.

The central lesson of this and other more radical critiques of gentrification is that none of this is accidental or "natural". Cities put policies in place to encourage development while ignoring the needs of existing residents. Developers systematically target neighborhoods and engage in a variety of tactics to encourage landlords to sell and to remove residents from target buildings. These are explicit strategies that are geared towards one thing- profit maximization.

This is why articles like this from The New Republic are incredibly problematic. The author laments the kind of social cleansing that is part and parcel of the gentrification process but then throws up her hands and simply walks away confused but not troubled by the apparent irony of the situation. Never does she ask the question as to why city redevelopment must inevitably lead to gentrification. In fact, the author conflates the two. It is truly sad that many of our urban commentators, from professors to practitioners, assume that gentrification is the only way to redevelop our cities. Such sentiment is best encapsulated by the false binary choice that many commentators offer where they posit that the only alternative to gentrification was the continued disinvestment and crime that characterized these neighborhoods before redevelopment. Never is the question of redevelopment without displacement ever seriously addressed. The reason for this, as these commentators know but hate to admit, is that these projects are rarely, if ever, actually about helping poorer residents escape poverty as opposed to filling up city coffers with fresh tax expenditures and encouraging more consumption by new residents. We can debate over whether this is a legitimate goal of cities, but before we can debate it we have to at least be honest about how cities have approached the questions of redevelopment and revitalization.

Unfortunately, the current mainstream commentary and even academic discourse around gentrification has largely moved away from the trenchant, unapologetic critiques embodied by Smith's work in the 90s. In a 2006 piece,  "The Eviction of Critical Perspectives from Gentrification Research" (hat tip to my man RJ for this piece) , Tom Slater tracked the abandonment of more radical critiques of gentrification and the rise of gentrification research pieces that rejected materialist critiques gentrification and instead pushed an "emancipatory discourse" of gentrification. This discourse focused on the return of middle classes to the city as a rejection of suburban drudgery and monotony. This, of course, is the dominant discourse around the boosterish nature of urban development commentary today as lead by established scholar/consultants like Richard Florida of "creative class" fame and relative newcomers like Mike Lydon and his "tactical urbanism". Both commentators represent the kind of thinking that many mainstream urban commentators engage in that celebrate the "return to cities" by young, creative professionals and ignore the lived experience of poorer and working class folks.

Why does this matter? It matters because our cities, like the rest of the country, have become increasingly unequal. Income inequality has increased, poverty remains stubbornly high as well as heavily racialized and gendered (the rates of poverty among single mothers of ALL races is a national tragedy) and these factors are further compounded due to their spatial organization. It is not that people are poorer but that the poor are increasingly concentrated in smaller areas of our cities and in some cases pushed out. If we truly care about addressing profound social inequity as part of a greater call for a more inclusive, humane, and sustainable society, then we must forcefully reject the assumptions that dominate our popular understanding of urban redevelopment and gentrification. We cannot blindly celebrate the "return to the city" and the role of young urban, creatives in this urban renaissance without questioning who wins and who loses in this new equation. Recent articles, like this piece from Susie Cagle in Grist, are a great way for those of us who care about a holistic conception of sustainability to challenge the inequitable, and ultimately sustainable, development of our cities.


Michael, Portland Afoot said...

Important topic; thoughtful exploration; valuable links and analysis.

But what's our desired outcome here? I'm not clear on what you want.

For example: "the poor are increasingly concentrated in smaller areas of our cities and in some cases pushed out." What does a "smaller area of a city" even mean? That a given poor person doesn't have to walk as far to reach the nearest rich person, or vice versa? If so, that's on my list of good things, not my list of bad ones.

It seems to me that gentrification (both the literal replacement of tenants with homeowning gentry and the displacement of poor people of color in favor of better-off white people) is clearly and unambiguously bad in two ways:

1) Gentrification hurts social capital by forcing relocation, especially among poor people.

2) In its current urbanist incarnation, gentrification pushes poor people into parts of the city that require cars for reliable transportation.

3) In some cases, gentrification may lead to more geographic segregation between rich and poor. (This seems to be the complaint of the TNR piece, though it doesn't seem to offer any evidence.)

What problems am I missing that are directly caused by gentrification, as opposed to inequality?

When we talk about the problems of gentrification, I often feel that we're talking about inequality. And we should! Inequality is bad! But inequality is a different problem with different solutions.

Michael, Portland Afoot said...

Hmm, should have typed "three ways" above, obviously.

Anonymous said...

Michael, with all respect, you gotta go read those valuable links Mr. Surly put up with his analysis. Try to think about your questions without checking off the items on your list. Not all things are explained by a walkability or transportation framework, although they are valid factors. Go a little deeper, again, Surly supplies the background that explains the relationship between gentrification and it's manifestations, particularly inequality. -cph

erranttraveler said...

Glad to see this piece, which helps to re-articulate the issues we were discussing when you were in DC last.

Here's an interesting case study that you might not have heard about:

Arch Development Corporation

They are based in Anacostia and seek to create "a home for the creative economy, artists, arts and cultural organizations to fulfill our mission of revitalization and sustainable economic development in historic Anacostia."


From the eighties until recently they had a rather large jobs training center centrally-located in Anacostia, but that recently has been shuttered in favor of their other initiatives which focus on the hipper new idea of shared professional office space (The HIVE) and the traditional herald of gentrification: art galleries.


Someone needs to do a piece on the shift from job training to solely focusing on creating spaces for the 'creative class'. I want to hear why they made that choice, and where they think Anacostia is headed.

Check it out if you hadn't already heard of it, and let me know what you think.

Jim said...

I find it strange that your critique of the TNR piece is focused on the machinations of developers, since what the article shows (to me, anyway) is that displacement and gentrification can happen with little or no redevelopment, and in fact may be accelerated by attempts to preserve the built fabric of a neighbourhood in the face of social and economic change.

And I find it a bit of cop-out to suggest that state and capitalist interests are always the driving forces, since if rich people want to move to a poor area then they can do so by themselves without anyone else's intervention. 'Resisting' any and all redevelopment will just increase the rate at which rich in-comers replace the existing population, and if you really want to slow it down then you should be talking about how to increase the housing supply to accommodate rising demand.

Surly Urbanist said...

@Michael- a point I should have made more explicit is that gentrification is the process by which urban inequality is made manifest. Whether pushing the poor to areas that require automobile use or pushing them into increasingly disinvested areas with insufficient infrastructure, gentrification is the driving force behind that. Inequality is bad. Gentrification is one of the processes through which inequality works. Does that clarify at all?

Surly Urbanist said...

@Jim- Rich folks can indeed move wherever they'd like to, but we also can't pretend that demand is not induced by advertising and policies by city governments looking to "revitalize" flagging neighborhoods that take an explicit gentrification approach.

Affordable housing supply is absolutely vital. My critique, and I should state it more clearly next time, is that we aren't even seriously addressing the question. These projects and neighborhood transitions are rarely, if ever, concerned about increasing affordable housing for folks already here but in attracting the new gentry. The best example of this is the continued shrinkage we see of affordable housing supply in these redeveloping cities. There is no replacement, affordable provisions are rare enforced or weak etc...I'm all for increasing the affordable housing supply. Let's talk about that.

Michael, Portland Afoot said...

@cph, you're right to criticise me for overemphasizing transportation in yesterday's comment--it's actually just one of many "service levels" that is lower outside the central city. But I did follow the links above. So with equal respect, I'd appreciate a more specific response to my argument than just "you must not have read the post." I certainly tried.

Surly Urbanist, that does clarify! Thank you. I tend to agree that inequality is the main driver of gentrification. One problem I have with discussions of gentrification, then, is that they sometimes seem to imply that fixing gentrification (for example, by stopping the flow of wealth into city centers) would fix inequality.

In practice, I think it's just the opposite. As Jim says, we're not equipped to interfere with rich people's ability to move wherever they want. (Nor would I want us to be, personally.) So it seems to me that we need to find ways to direct the wealth that is flowing into city centers to create things that mitigate urban inequality. One of them: a larger housing supply. By all means, let's agree with Yglesias that the rent is too damn high and talk about ways to change that.

But is that all we're talking about? I'm having this debate a lot with people who don't see gentrification merely as (inequality + limited housing supply) and I'm hungry for a better understanding of where they're coming from.

Michael, Portland Afoot said...

To address the "people are only building homes for rich people" problem: the core question here is whether it's reasonable to expect us to build new homes for poor people.

I want everybody to have nice stuff. But poor people don't get to have as much nice stuff as rich people do; that's the capitalistic deal. In my opinion, housing is a human right, and nice housing isn't. Do we disagree there?

If not, can we also agree that increasing the supply of nice homes puts downward pressure on housing prices in a given housing market, making it easier for poor people to live in shittier homes -- or to face less difficult trade-offs between a fairly nice home and other ways to spend their limited resources?

I'm dubious of the country's whole affordable-housing system, which seems to me like a lottery designed to reward and occasionally entrap a relatively few rule-following poor people in below-market housing, which by definition will always fail to meet demand. I want to better see the upside, or I want a better solution.

Unknown said...

Gentrification happens deliberately, as do all negative effects of capitalism.

Anonymous said...

Cheers Michael, and pardon me. Surly addressed what I was trying to say much more succintly than I managed... fluish regards, cph

Rex Burkholder said...

Like many "dirty" words, gentrification is too often used as a blanket term to attack change of any kind, whether positive or negative. Having been a person who moved into a neighborhood that had been red lined, urban renewed and and partially demolished by a freeway, my sweat equity, commitment to raising a family and my volunteerism was part of a grassroots reclamation movement. Sure, the neighborhood has changed: no more gang shootings, no more being afraid to walk at night, attention from the powers that be. Yet, I've been called a gentrifier by newcomers who didn't live through 4 economic recessions or had been shot at or found a dead body in the park.
I'm GLAD the neighborhood is better. The real issue is America's lack of housing policy that recognizes that a good chunk of us will always be renters or are renters a good part of our lives. I would add to the mix of dangerouss actors, the misguided preservationists who think saving a rotting 100 year old 2 bedroom house is more important than creating more affordable housing units by better use of land and eliminating wasteful requirements like off-street parking.

BeAShowstopper said...

I'm obviously way behind in commenting but comment I will anyway.

@Rex - your statement concerning your sweat equity and commitment to raising your family makes it sound like the current residents didn't have the same commitment.

And while yes, from your post, there were gang shootings etc, that does not mean the residents didn't have your same commitment.

I will say that Rex, exemplifies a point I hadn't intended to make - before gentrification occurs, the gentrifiers often adopt a belief system to rationalize what they're doing --

1. What I, the gentrifier, is providing is better than what is existing, thus 'they' should be happy.
2. I can afford to get in so great. Stuff happens all of the time, I'm not moving anyone out.
3. The current residents are sub human so I don't care what happens to them, I will sooth my soul with the (often false) beliefs that all they did was awful and thus they deserve to be out.

Let's deal with truth.

The people who live in these areas live there because at the time they bought or rented, many were ushered / directed into the area because the banks would not lend to them when they were wanting to buy housing in better neighborhoods. They aren't all miscreants. The areas look rundown because the tax base is reduced and the city commits less and less to fixing things like potholes, traffic lights, etc. Insurance rates go up, realtors do NOT direct folks they've determined to be good, to live in the area and they disproportionately direct the worst of the worst TO that area.

Now that the wealthy have targeted their area for gentrification - by collusion or by happenstance the SAME actions occur to get them out.

Banks, realtors, insurance companies and the state (with increased harassment of the undesirables) all conspire with dollar signs in their eyes to make living in the gentrified area impossible / uncomfortable for even the undesirables who DESIRE and COULD afford to stay.

Yes poor people don't get to live in the great housing that rich people do. Absolutely not. It is horrible to be poor and there will always be poor. But they aren't less than human. And THIS is where I take a left turn on promoting gentrification.

If you want to move in and gentrify an area, I support your move but I don't want you to be blind to what is occurring for you to live there. Don't gloss over what is happening because it DOES NOT, have to be that way.

Guidelines are made for everything and if city fathers who anoint the millions and billions that are granted in tax abatements said --
--We want you to live here, but we are not going to create a long term problem for the city because of it - here is our plan for relocating / creating housing for the displaced. The city could create a partnership with banks / insurance agencies who would provide loans / coverage at NON predatory rates for the displaced.

But the real issue is NO ONE wants to give up even one dollar sign from their balance sheet in the name of civility / humanity. Not the developer, the realtor, the gentrifier, and so on.

And THAT behavior/ outlook / philosophy, irrespective of the color or class of the undesirables is damaging to all.

b.s.s. said...

I don't necessarily see that a "conspiracy" or a collusive atmosphere between governments, developers, RE agents, etc., is really a necessary condition for gentrification (although it might be a *sufficient* condition.) If a city is growing significantly, but the supply of housing and employment space in the city is not expanding at a comparable rate, prices for the existing space - on average - are going to rise. This is pretty obvious.

How rising prices play out on a local level depends on the characteristics of the housing/retail building stock, and on zoning and development possibilities. If the stock of buildings are allowed to expand to match demand from the increasing population/increasing demand for space, then there does not need to be much "up-grading" of older, more affordable housing. If there are very few places where the supply of buildings can be expanded, then investment will inevitably have to move out to "under-maintained" buildings. Most cities in North America and Europe are covered with highly restrictive development, zoning and construction bylaws, which make it difficult to build large amounts of new space, especially where there is local resistance. Where does resistance tend to be the loudest and most effective? In the wealthiest neighbourhoods, where incumbent homeowners attempt to defend their high property values, and shut out new entrants to their desirable neighbourhoods. So, the wealthy and middle classes start looking elsewhere. Where specifically they start looking may indeed depend on the efforts of local governments, real estate agents, and so forth - but suppressed demand in one place will end up in another.

I don't defend localized tax abatements for particular developments, nor subsidies to businesses, nor "slum clearance" - these approaches are all likely to result in corruption, and yes, theft of land and public dollars. But if we indeed want to re-inject a 'radical critique' - getting at the root of the problem - it has to consider the supply of housing and employment space as the biggest challenge. (And this doesn't always have to mean 'affordable housing' as constructed or administered or cost-controlled by government - which has often ended in tears and failure - it means just plain more housing.)

So here's some ideas:
1. Allow sublets and rooming-house conversions in all neighbourhoods, even single family home areas.
2. Abolish parking minimums on new development. (Parking can sometimes be up to 20% of the cost of a new 1-bedroom apt.)
3. Remove existing height and density limits on new development. Replace with limits only on local transit and road capacity, which will be a standard amount across the city. (Subway within 500ft = x density, subway within 1000ft = 0.75x density, etc.)
4. Eliminate zoning, so underused industrial or vacant lands can be rebuilt with more needed kinds of space.

How's that for radical.