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Gentrification Is a Dirty Word...As It Should Be

urban apartmentsThe 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.
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.