14 September 2009

Gentrify, Gentrify

The right to the city

“Gentrification”: the term evokes the political and mental life of two generations of city-dwellers. On one interpretation, it was the forced displacement of the urban working class by mobile, college-educated professionals. On another, it was the restoration of city life in the imagination of a West that had supposedly given it up for suburban sprawl. An entire understanding of what cities were for and where they were going was bound up in the ambiguous word. All the energies of urban thought went into debating its meaning.

The “landed gentry” alluded to in “gentrification” emerged as a new class in England in the late eighteenth century—a group of petit bourgeois possessed of country estates, but lacking the economic clout of the true aristocracy. Ricardo despised the gentry: they acquired land and sat on it, lazily and unproductively. But the gentry did have aspirations. Think of the Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice: lacking any obvious form of advancement besides marriage, they might also have considered revolution as a way of improving their lot. And to the English aristocracy, the gentry did represent a threat of the uprising that had engulfed their brothers in France. But not to worry. “To be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” the gentry concluded instead; the image of Fitzwilliam Darcy—or marrying up—symbolizes the alternative, individualistic means of social advancement. Likewise, the gentry of the late twentieth century: they were always uncertain whether their true interests lay with the people below or above them.

“Gentrification began in 1963 … “ the poem might go. But an entire aesthetic order in architecture had first to be overturned. Against the modernist International style which dominated postwar development, rickety, dilapidated working-class homes suddenly revealed their charms. Georgian row houses in London, brownstones in New York, and Victorians in San Francisco acquired new value in the eyes of gentrifying visionaries, who prized smallness and simplicity in the face of a world tending toward gigantism and anonymity. Middle-class couples, affluent in the postwar boom, took over the upkeep of old housing stock after the poor, without much choice in the matter, had let pilings, stoops, and columns decay. In the heroic age of gentrification, the property buyers looked like pioneers and integrators. Banks had “redlined” largely black neighborhoods like Park Slope, Brooklyn, which meant that the gentrifiers couldn’t acquire the easy credit that banks would one day lavish on their children. The gentrifiers went in anyway. In an age when millions of whites were abandoning Chicago for Naperville, Cleveland for Shaker Heights, plucky men and women adopted neighborhoods that were not only “mixed use” (a term of urbanist approbation) but mixed race.

Government gave up on the urban poor just as the newly wealthy were starting to displace them. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Senator from New York and trailblazing neoconservative, proposed a policy of “benign neglect” for urban neighborhoods. Moynihan’s plan followed several years of rebellions in black neighborhoods all over the country—Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark, Rochester, Washington DC. Thomas Sugrue’s 1998 book The Origins of the Urban Crisis revealed how much of the unrest was due to pervasive institutional racism within cities. At the time, it was more widely felt that the poor had nobody to blame but themselves: equipped with sparkling new civil rights legislation, didn’t blacks have perfect freedom to pursue their self-interest, which they neglected due to a cultural unwillingness to succeed? “I’m growing tired of hearing about Negroes and their rights,” said even Norman Mailer, a candidate for mayor of New York in 1969, and the note of weariness rang through the halls of Congress, too.

The bible of gentrification was a book that would come to be assigned in every urban history course in the country: Jane Jacobs’s brilliant The Death and Life of American Cities. But in the new urban context, it seemed lost on everyone that Jacobs was writing about the lingeringly industrial, racially mixed (if not exactly integrated) city of 1961, before the crisis. She had not imagined white collars replacing blue ones, and white people driving out black neighbors. But over the next generations, as liberal policy abandoned poverty reduction and the poor were pressed to the frayed edges of city centers, Jacobs’s vision of self-regulating communities and small neighborhoods gave ideological cover to a version of city life she had explicitly rejected: white-collar, service-economy cities oriented almost entirely toward consumption. In place of Jacobs’s supersubtle network of human contacts, we would get demographically homogenized cities that celebrated absolute simplicity as hominess. (Witness the proliferation of restaurants with single, “folksy” names: Egg, Can, The Farm, Home, Spoon, and—of course—Simple.)

In the age of neoliberalism, it was the gentrifiers who enjoyed political representation in lieu of the poor they had expelled. City governments sanctioned the painstaking, violent process of gentrification through intensified policing. Magazines like City Journal popularized James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory of crime, and its success is measured in the millions who now say, nonchalantly and ritually, “Say what you will about Rudy Giuliani, but he really cleaned up the city.” (Large-scale demographic and economic trends deserved the real credit for falling crime rates.) The early stages of gentrification were followed by a process of “super-gentrification,” reaching its height in the credit frenzy of the Bush years, in which policymakers and real estate agencies collaborated in an effort to replicate the earlier achievements of the heroic gentrifiers. Adjacent to garishly painted Victorians in San Francisco, now selling for millions of dollars, glitzy condominium towers sprung up, occupied by the financial wizards who had taken the place of the old industrial workers. (As if to symbolize the capacity to harvest money from thin air, the new condos often had ATMs on the ground floor.) Everywhere, skilled manual work had vanished, and the old factories and warehouses were turned into yet more condos. But now the “back to the city” movement buckled under a terrible irony: the children of the pioneer gentrifiers could not afford to live in the neighborhoods their parents had “cleaned up.” It fell to hollowed-out cities like St. Louis and Detroit to call in “gentrification” experts to glaze their neighborhoods with consumerism; perhaps expensive bakeries and affordable real estate would draw the young professionals away from the overpriced coasts?

In city after city, companies like IKEA and Wal-Mart eyed the last abandoned docks and warehouses, promising jobs to the remaining poor still trapped next door in un-rehabbable modernist housing projects. The gentrifiers made a principled but extremely dissonant stance against the big-box stores. “This neighborhood would be destroyed!” they cried. “Those jobs are meaningless!” But the mailrooms of the white-collar cities could employ only so many recent college graduates; and not even the metropolis dreamed of by the most Panglossian of gentrifiers could consist exclusively of bike-riding, cupcake-eating financial analysts. Gentrification had no jobs to offer—only Jane Jacobs—style “neighborhoods.” The new IKEA-hoods that the corporations and their celebrity architects proposed were dystopias, to be sure; but the gentrifiers had no serious counter-vision to offer.


It wasn’t novels or movies but television—which, like gentrification, came of age in the postwar era—that gave us the most powerful visions of the new form of city life: Sex and the City, which ran from 1998 to 2004 (with a belated and untimely film in 2008), and The Wire, 2002-08.

Sex and the City, the greatest paean to credit card debt ever produced, gave us four professional, “third-wave” women who consumed men and products with equal abandon. It should have been a surprise—though for most it wasn’t—that all the “urban” women were white, along with nearly the entire supporting cast. The camera dwelt approvingly on the busy sexual lives of these women in gentrified New York, never mind that the neoconservatives of a generation before had pointed to the supposed sexual indiscipline of blacks as the source of their economic failure: they could not postpone gratification (or children). And yet for all its frivolousness, Sex and the City was marked by the terrible acedia of a diminished world. It constantly reminded you, without meaning to, that the expense of spirit in a waste of shopping does not prevent aging and death. And the viewer had the constant feeling that someone somewhere was always about to pull the carpet out from under the women’s feet, as when Carrie Bradshaw’s rent-controlled Upper East Side apartment (not intended for people like her) went co-op (because of people like her with slightly more money, or better credit), and she discovered that her total assets came to $1,700.

The Wire saw city life from the other side. Set in Baltimore—a post-industrial hulk of a city, which could barely aspire to gentrification—it used the genre of the police procedural to examine the declining state of institutions (schools, courts, city hall, the docks) under what creator David Simon called “raw, unfettered capitalism.” As devoted to the city’s black residents as Sex and the City was studiously oblivious, The Wire showed gentrifying urbanites (the show’s primary audience) their bleak dialectical opposite number: a population devastated by greed and racism. To optimists, it offered no future. The only resistance anyone could put up was individual, and doomed: Officer Howard “Bunny” Colvin undertook a failed drug legalization campaign; journalist Augustus “Gus” Haynes made a quixotic attempt to save the Baltimore Sun. No collective effort existed in Simon’s imagination (or, to be fair, in the observable world) to combat capitalism. This was the most cynical vision of cities that television, that sunny medium, had ever produced.


Now, in 2009, the city of Sex and the City is gone. Darkly silhouetted condominium towers—nobody home—haunt the skylines. The designer shoe stores are shuttered. Rents have plummeted. Gentrification, seemingly inexorable, has suffered an enormous setback. Not that this is exactly a cause for celebration: city coffers have been emptied by the economic crisis, and the decimation of social services ensures that, as always, the poor and lower middle class suffer most.

And yet: the gentrifiers might now glimpse an escape from the deadly political game in which neoliberalism had trapped them, or us. So many of the early gentrifiers saw the city as a place for emancipation—from the suburban policing of sexuality; the asphyxiating homogeneity of class and race in the country; what Marx called the “idiocy of rural life.” From the need to wash the car and mow the lawn! But public spaces were ruthlessly privatized; working-class people were evicted from their apartments and homes; the homeless were chased away from the parks and squares. In the absence of an egalitarian political program (renewed rent control, expanded public housing, living wage legislation, uniform funding of public schools, re-industrialization), the culture—modest, diverse, interactive—of our sacred “communities” tended relentlessly toward homogenization along the lines of price per square foot. Gentrifiers became guilty accomplices of inequality. They thanked the poor for their poverty—which allowed them to buy into the real estate market—and the rich for their riches—which later on ensured rising property values.

With the arrival of the crisis—a crisis of gentrification among other things—there is an opening for the development of a coherent, positive vision of city life. In intellectual and activist circles, this vision has already begun to crystallize around a slogan borrowed from Henri Lefebvre: le droit de la ville, or the right to the city. For if our civilization has a future, it lies in the city—the only form of habitation that can sustain a global population that would otherwise overrun the land—and it is a future to which everyone must have a right. This is also the right to produce the city: to be the equal of every urban citizen, equally responsible for and capable of making and sharing urban space. Students at Berkeley once claimed People’s Park in the name of this right; today, organizers halt evictions, help squatters to claim foreclosed homes, and lobby for expanded public housing. And yet, truth be told, the right to the city remains a somewhat vague slogan, whose more precise meaning we will also have to build. For the moment, its signal utility is to reclaim urban life for politics, when gentrification had always seemed like either a question of aesthetics (corresponding to an experience of personal taste) or economics (corresponding to an experience of social inevitability). The gentrifiers now have the opportunity to recognize themselves as what they are—the dominated members of a dominant class—with the power to ally with the displaced.

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