The Gentrification Paradox

[Whitewashing 5pointz; this just happened.]
Last month, I got the chance to go to the Creative Time Summit in New York with a group of colleagues from the Twin Cities art world. Not only was it fun to be back in a city that I love, but the conference -- Art, Place, and Dislocation in the 21st Century City -- focused on questions I've often found interesting.

In New York City, approximately one-third of all conversations are about gentrification: how the neighborhood is changing, the new development going up, the old [diner, deli, dive bar, place that sells actual useful things not just artisanal candleholders] is closing up. Particualrly after three terms of Bloomberg, the topic is omnipresent. Gentrification lingers over people's heads like a fart in an elevator.

These conversations often lead people to odd and paradoxical places. I caught one long-time Brooklyn woman describing how upset she got when the city began improving her neighborhood park, because it meant she'd be priced out of her home. My old friends from Brooklyn told me they were "hoping for a crime wave during the new mayor's term, so that people would stop moving here and rents would go down." They were only half joking.

[A Saint Paul bookstore protesting the impending LRT.]
The way that cities change can sometimes lead us into these odd paradoxical moments where things I consider to be improvements -- a new transit project, a streetcape investment, replacing a parking lot with an apartment building -- are greeted with frustration or anger. It's what I call the gentrification paradox. The paradox exists because our cities are so deeply intertwined with complex social histories of race, class, and neighborhood. It's impossible to separate these issues, and they often lead us into tangled logics...

The Spatial Expression of Inequality

During the conference, one of the speakers had made a documentary called My Brooklyn that attempted to pose questions about race and gentrification around the Fulton Street mall, a recent epicenter of development in downtown Brooklyn. She showed a clip that juxtaposed two interviews with people on the mall. The first was a young white man describing (in somewhat problematic terms) how he'd never seen Scarface blankets for sale, and how the area was "ghetto" (or something). The second was an older Asian woman who'd run a wig shop on the mall for many years, talking about how she'd have to sell her business. The contrast was striking, meant to highlight different and problematic conceptions of race and place.

[The clip in question is about 3:00 into the talk.]

But there was an odd moment. The owner of the wig shop continued, describing how hard she worked because her two children were in college. But then my jaw dropped, because she said "one is attending the London School of Economics, and the other is at Williams College." Now, I don't know the exact circumstances of her situation, and don't want to assume anything about it. But the irony of the situation struck me. Those are two of the best and most expensive schools in the entire world (combined tuition is $70,000 per year), and both are well known for having strong ties to Wall Street, the City of London, and international finance industries, the very forces that fuel New York City's intense gentrification pressures in the first place. (Full disclosure: I went to Williams College. For some reason, I didn't become an investment banker.)

[Gentrification protests in the Lower East Side in the 80s.]
My point is that gentrification debates often focus on surface identity while ignoring deeper issues of economic inequality. (Though I am only speculating, this is a good example, where the "gentrifier" might very well have far fewer economic resources than the "gentrified.") To me, gentrification debates will go nowhere as long as they ignore capitalism. If you're home is getting bulldozed by a wealthy developer, do you care whether he is black or white or Middle-eastern? No, the problem we're talking about when we talk about gentrification is economic and social inequality. Simply put, gentrification is our word for how money controls our cities.

I don't want to ignore race. In fact, the history of cities is crucial to understanding the connection between race and inequality in the first place. (A short list includes redlining, restrictive covenants, the connection between racism and "neighborhood" identity, perpetuated real estate wealth, police profiling, and the spatial inequality of our schools.) These issues are massively important, but to me they're important precisely as much as our solutions begin to address deeper issues of economic inequality.

I have two sets of questions, neither of which have easy answers:

#1) Who gets to speak for our city?

In other words, should homeowners have more influence over city decisions than others? Should long-time residents have more influence over city decisions than newcomers? For me, the answer has to be "no" for both of these questions. But how do we respect local histories without reifying identities that often exclude others?

#2) Who benefits from city plans?

In other words, what questions must cities ask when they "foster economic development?" How can cities make investments and improvements without deepening inequalities? How can planners and politicians begin to make decisions that are meaningfully democratic?

As I said, these questions don't have easy answers. But if we don't take the time to ask them, we're doing ourselves and each other a large disservice. We all have a right to the city.

[A new light rail line in Saint Paul, with the State Capitol on the horizon.]


Anonymous said...

Should homeowners have more influence? You bet. They've got a lot of skin in the game--how about you?
Should long-timers have more influence? They will. Certainly they would have more informed and considered views(backed by all the facts). Newbies would do well to keep up with the discussion.
This was easy, not hard at all.
"Reifying identities", do you understand what you said?

carlosthedwarf said...

Tom, I'm a renter in a DC neighborhood. Unless DC builds more affordable housing in my neighborhood, I will likely be priced out of my neighborhood in the next couple years. The people blocking those projects are the homeowners and long-time residents, who complain about traffic and parking, in a dense neighborhood well-served by transit. Why shouldn't I get to complain? Why should their cars matter more than me and my fellow tenants?

Anonymous said...

The other thing I find kind of strange about the gentrification argument as it surrounds things like transit and bike lanes is that those are transportation methods that are cheaper to implement than highways. If you put a highway next to someone's neighborhood, it makes the property worth a lot less, because it's a form of blight. But bike lanes and transit make people's land worth more.

What I think people ignore is that if we save money on our transportation infrastructure, and it has the result of making land more expensive in an area, we still have a lot of budgeted money left over from the savings that we can use to mitigate that gentrification. A bike lane costs several orders of magnitude less than a highway. You can put that money into good public schools, or rent subsidies for the working poor, or a public healthcare system. The attitude I see a lot is that we should keep our crappy, blighted places crappy instead of trying to make them good and then doing our best to make sure that people can actually live in them.

I do think sometimes transit projects are gentrifying in an objectively bad way. In my city there's talk of putting a streetcar in, which in general I think is a good idea, except for the fact that the plans don't seem to do much about making the service itself better. It's all about the flash of having rail over buses, rather than improving mobility. And the streetcar is going to ignore the neighborhoods that are poorest and already use transit. So to me, it seems like the project is about the economic development that's assumed to accompany a streetcar, and the resultant gentrification and real estate speculation, rather than actual improved transit. That's an important distinction.

Anonymous said...

Gentrification would hardly be a problem at all if we didn't live in such a steeply unequal society. With median wages flat for forty years and the rich getting ever richer, gentrification becomes a major issue. Let's fix thte inequality problem!

Anonymous said...

Why do we never hear about this idea: laws placing an absolute, inflexible, finite ceiling on what a piece of property can sell for?
It should not be considered a legitimate or respectable way to earn money to manipulate real estate in such a way as people get priced out of housing--this is a process of economic violence that should be a prison-worthy crime.

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