Few groups, Schlichtman contends, are more hypocritical than urbanists discussing gentrification. As he and fellow sociologist Jason Patch write in a rather unusual article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, “many (dare we say most — ‘mainstream’ and critical) urbanists are gentrifiers themselves.” They mean this is an academic context, although the charge could reasonably be applied more broadly.
The point is not that these sociologists should stop talking about and researching the process of gentrification, but rather that they could do so with a self-awareness that might lead to a more nuanced understanding of what the word really means. Schlichtman and Patch, themselves, are owning up to the label. (The title of their article: “Gentrifier? Who Me? Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror.”)…
Sociologists have backed themselves into a theoretical corner, he argues, with the caricature of the middle-class, latte-drinking urban pioneer whose inevitable taste for wine bars and boutiques drives up the rent and drives out the poor. If any middle-class presence in a diverse neighborhood is evidence of gentrification, he and Patch write, then it’s impossible for a middle-class person not to gentrify. “Is there any room,” they wonder, “for an ethical housing choice by the middle class?”
Is it necessarily unethical for a white middle-class family that wants to live in a racially and economically diverse neighborhood to move into one? How should that family reconcile that its presence on the block may signal unwelcome change to neighbors? As we’ve previously written, the idea of fair housing is as much about opening up high-opportunity neighborhoods to low-income people as it is enabling new investment in traditionally disinvested places, some of which will encourage new families to move in.
This leads me to a few thoughts:
1. I’m not sure there is much publishing space for sociologists to reflect on their own actions or own identities. For example, anthropologists are often open about their own personal backgrounds when writing an ethnography but sociologists are more tight-lipped. Perhaps this has to do with sociology’s more scientific aspirations.
2. I’ve seen how this plays out when talking about McMansions around sociologists. In that case, they are often quick to distance themselves from such homes.
3. What exactly do sociologists think about the middle class? Take the middle class choosing (or being pushed toward by policies and powerful interests) suburbia: this has been criticized by all sorts of academics for decades. What about the values and cultural preferences of the middle class? I remember one sociologist suggesting to a class that if they wanted to interact with regular Americans, they should go to Walmart. But, how many sociologists would want to go to Walmart or shop there themselves?