Defining gentrification and gentrifier with moral dimensions

A new academic book on gentrification suggests the term – and the people involved in bringing about the process – may not be so easy to define:

According to Jason Patch, co-author of the book “Gentrifier” and associate professor at Roger Williams University, it is the reinvestment into a devalued neighborhood to create a new residential and commercial infrastructure for middle- and high-income residents…

“The assignment of the term ‘gentrifier’ becomes sticky only when we assign moral weight to the term. And many do so,” writes John Joe Schlichtman, an associate professor in the sociology department at DePaul University, in “Gentrifier.” Schlichtman is a co-author of the book, alongside Patch and Marc Lamont Hill. “Our interpretation of others’ gentrification is inevitably and inextricably tied in some way to our understanding of our own housing choices.”

According to Schlichtman, gentrification need not depend on the misplaced motives of housing consumers. To be a gentrifier is to be a middle-class housing consumer investing in a disinvested area in a period during which a critical mass of others are doing the same. This investment exerts pressure on the neighborhood — in the form of rising rents, or perhaps a shift in the nature of local policing, a change in the rhythms of the neighborhood, and so on.

“Yes, there could be gentrifiers with bad motives out there, but you don’t have to have bad motives to be a gentrifier,” Schlichtman said in an interview. “We need to take the depth of ethical and moral disgust out of the name gentrifier so that we can get people together and say this is something that we are a part of, but it’s also something that is bigger than us. … So how do we move forward?”

 

Some of the context that is important to know for why using the term “gentrifier” matters is explained in my recent post on residential segregation and race. Gentrification is not just about new, wealthier residents moving into a neighborhood; it involves race, class, and the history of housing in the United States.

Additionally, it strikes me that gentrification/gentrifier are words that function similarly to McMansion: in regular conversation, there is little positive implied by any of these words.

Adding a “highway cap” to make highway expansion more palatable

Several recent urban highway expansion projects include a new twist: putting some green space around and over the new highway.

Wheeler didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that adding lanes never helps congestion, thanks to the principle of induced demand. Instead, what he emphasized about the project is its progressive window-dressing: its cap. A few blocks of the highway would be lowered below grade and planted with a bit of Chia fuzz, with a new bike-ped crossing on one of the sides. This is the grid “restoration” of which the mayor speaks—essentially, a minor diminishment of a roaring, stinking concrete channel that will roar and stink all the more with this added capacity.

Highway caps are an ever-more common feature of 21st century urban highway projects, and this project sounds a lot like some others we’ve heard of recently—namely, the Colorado DOT project that promises to triple I-70’s footprint through two of Denver’s last working-class neighborhoods and cover a small section with a park. The project has been mired in controversy for years, with lawsuits and pleas to the governor to halt it on environmental and social justice grounds.

Ironically, the 800 square-foot “cap park” proposed for the Denver boondoggle stemmed from early community advocates who pushed back against CDOT’s original plans to simply widen the existing elevated structure. The introduction of the cap a few years ago was heralded as a victory by some residents of the neighborhoods, which have been passed over for local investments for years. But the I-70 project, with its attractive grassy mask, has since been corralled into a suite of plans to redevelop huge swaths of the affected neighborhoods.

Now, the fear of displacement, underscored by the property-value increases that highway cap parks can bring, has driven many longtime Denverites to bitterly oppose the construction. “I just hope my kids will get to play there,” said one local mom who regretted ever advocating for the project, which a Denver public policy expert compared to “old-fashioned 1950s slum-clearance.”

Parks can only do so much to cover up that highways take up a lot of space, bring noise and traffic, and can either help contribute to disinvestment or gentrification.

This sounds like greenwashing. It can take many forms in trying to beautify or distract from uglier elements of the built environment. Does a few bushes in planters in the parking lot really transform the setting and allow a visitor to escape into nature? This is the subject of part of James Kunstler’s TED talk “The Tragedy of the Suburbs” – with roughly 8:00 minutes remaining – where he dissects such parking lot plantings. Even expanding the size of the nature area, such as park in these examples, may not be enough if the surrounding land use is even more sizable.

Forests, McMansions, and using land

The construction of new McMansions can threaten forests and the logging industry:

But the terrain for logging is fast disappearing, and with it the jobs. The number of loggers has shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years, making Gale one of fewer than a dozen working in the area of the Rensselaer Plateau now, he said. The milling companies that once owned huge swaths of forest across the Northeast are gone, leaving the wooded tracts largely in the hands of investor groups and private-equity funds. The local economy embraced tourism, and well-heeled visitors from the city ― attracted to the bucolic charm ― wanted what Gale called “their own little slice of heaven.” Eager to turn a profit, the investors have been divvying up the land and selling it to developers building massive summer homes in the middle of what was once dense forest.

The transformation may seem invisible from the farm-lined state roads that slither out from Albany. But you can see it from above. Clearings pockmark the lush, green canopy, making way for McMansions. On a helicopter flight last month, HuffPost counted nearly a dozen new houses under construction.

One nonprofit is trying to halt the process by preserving forests that form the backbone of rural economies and play a critical role in combatting climate change. On Tuesday, the Conservation Fund, a national environmental and economic development advocate based in northern Virginia, closed a roughly $25 million deal to buy 23,053 acres of forest straddling the borders of New York, Massachusetts and Vermont…

In rural, wooded areas, the gentrification process can be economically devastating. That’s why privately owned forests like the ones the Conservation Fund buys welcome sustainable forestry, which helps clear out dead wood and make the forests less dense. Forestry-related industries currently provide 2.7 million American jobs and contribute $112 billion to the U.S. economy each year, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a conservation group.

Sprawl, often marked by the construction of suburban type housing (which can include McMansions), changes the use of land. Common concerns about this include the loss of farmland and habitats as well as changed water systems. Development also affects trees and forests as house builders often just clear sites completely. Trees can be replaced but it is much more difficult to recreate forests.

One aspect of this story that is different from some analyses of sprawl’s effect on nature is that it emphasizes the loss of rural economic opportunities. The idea here is that sprawling McMansions don’t just chew up land; they threaten long-standing local industries. Yet, the choice is sometimes presented this way: either suburban sprawl or untamed, untouched natural land. Is any land truly untouched by human activity? A lot of even protected spaces have been altered over the years for human purposes. This article takes a more realistic approach: the consequences of sprawl aren’t just lost land but the shifting of the land from one economic use (sustainable forestry) to another (the buying and selling of real estate).

On the failure of the High Line

Even as cities around the world attempt to emulate New York City’s High Line (earlier posts here and here), the creator discusses why he thinks the original failed:

But by one critical metric, it is not. Locals aren’t the ones overloading the park, nor are locals all benefiting from its economic windfall. The High Line is bookended by two large public housing projects; nearly one third of residents in its neighborhood, Chelsea, are people of color. Yet anyone who’s ever strolled among the High Line’s native plants and cold-brew vendors knows its foot traffic is, as a recent City University of New York study found, “overwhelmingly white.” And most visitors are tourists, not locals.

“We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” says Hammond, who is now the executive director of Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit that funds, maintains, programs, and built the space (New York City owns it, and the parks department helps manage it). “Ultimately, we failed.”…

“Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?’” says Hammond. “Because people have bigger problems than design.”

His organization finally did launch a series of “listening sessions” with public housing tenants in 2011. What people really needed were jobs, Hammond says, and a more affordable cost of living. Residents also said they staying away from the High Line for three main reasons: They didn’t feel it was built for them; they didn’t see people who looked like them using it; and they didn’t like the park’s mulch-heavy programming.

While it is easy to link such conversations to gentrification, I think this gets at a deeper issue regarding development in urban areas: who ultimately benefits? The short answer is that it is not typically the lower-income resident. Urban sociologists have made this point for decades; for example, the concept of growth machines suggests development decisions are typically made by political and business leaders who are looking to profit. In other words, developments are judged by how much money can be made (whether through the sale of property or buildings as well as through increased tax revenues) rather than by how many members of the local population experience a better quality of life. Or, see the the sociological study Crisis Cities that shows how money to redevelop lower Manhattan after 9/11 or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina generally went to wealthier actors and made life difficult for the average resident.

“The New Urban Blight Is Rich People”

Here is a popular magazine treatment of the debate between New Urbanism and Richard Florida against opponents and Joel Kotkin:

Many cities, in consequence, have become “Floridian,” with “loft districts” rising from industrial ashes in Cleveland and Raleigh, hipster enclaves in Chattanooga, a gayborhood in Philadelphia, reclaimed waterfronts in Baltimore and Minneapolis. Much of this work preceded Florida—but there was socialism before Lenin, too. Florida gave the New Urbanists the vision they wanted of themselves, as saviors of the American city emptied by suburban sprawl, champions of creativity and ingenuity who were going to make Indianapolis the Paris of the 22nd century.

But any intellectual movement must encounter a backlash, and the one to the New Urbanism is only growing, in part because it’s now mature enough for us to see its effects. On the face of it, the New Urbanism is very pretty: Court Street in Brooklyn looks splendid, as does San Francisco’s Valencia Street. The aforementioned travel section of The New York Times has a column, called “Surfacing,” that frequently resorts to profiling some forlorn, blighted neighborhood suddenly graced by taxidermy shops that double as yoga studios. I am, as a matter of fact, writing this from a Whole Foods in West Berkeley, California, a formerly industrial district that was recently “Surfaced” in the Times. The coffee I am drinking was roasted about 20 feet away from my Apple laptop. How’s that for local?

Problem is, surfacing is usually whitening: Gentrification by any other name would taste as hoppy, with the same notes of citrus peel. There is really only one strike against the New Urbanism, but it’s a strike thrown by Nolan Ryan: It turns cities into playgrounds for moneyed, childless whites while pushing out the poor, the working-class, immigrants, seniors and anyone else not plugged into “the knowledge economy.” Right around the time that Michael Bloomberg was remaking Manhattan as a hive for stateless billionaires, I saw a slogan that captured perfectly the new glimmer of the city: “New York: If you can make it here, you probably have a trust fund.”

You could accuse me of writing a faux-populist diatribe, but the numbers are on my side this time around. Jed Kolko, a Harvard-trained economist who was, until recently, the chief of analytics for Trulia, has found that from 2000 to 2014, more Americans moved out of urban centers than into them. Using data from the U.S. Census, he concluded, in a recent post on his blog: “While well-educated, higher-income young adults have become much more likely to live in dense urban neighborhoods, most demographic groups have been left out of the urban revival.” The people who continue to move to cities, he concludes, are “increasingly young, rich, childless, and white.” These are the creatives, the hipsters, the pioneers, who fled the countryside for the big city, where cultures would clash and ideas foment. But all they did is turn Bedford-Stuyvesant into Minnetonka.

So what? I posed this question to Joel Kotkin, an urbanist and demographer based in that decidedly suburban setting of Orange County, California. Author of the forthcoming The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, Kotkin defends the suburbs, which is nearly as radical as an evolutionary biologist defending creationism. Kotkin argues that suburbs are where middle-class families want to live, and middle-class families are, as he told me in a recent phone conversation, “the bedrock of the Republic.” A city hostile to the middle class is, in Kotkin’s view, a sea hostile to fish.

What is the answer to this debate, which like many others, have become politicized (Republican visions of small towns and suburbs and Democratic visions of thriving cities)? Could both sides have some merit to their arguments – New Urbanists regarding aesthetics and community life and Kotkin et al. with American’s continued interest in suburbia? One possible solution is to introduce more New Urbanist developments and communities in suburbs. This would allow people to have their suburban life but at higher densities and with planning that might encourage more street life.

At the same time, neither New Urbanists or Kotkin really address issues of race and ethnicity in the United States. Both do so indirectly, suggesting that their models offer better options for non-whites. But, what if the larger issue was really residential segregation, which can occur in New Urbanist communities as well as in suburbs?

Additionally, I cannot imagine too many city or suburban leaders would turn down or discourage wealthy residents moving to their community.

When a neighborhood doesn’t want a budget version of Whole Foods

Whole Foods has selected a LA neighborhood for its first Whole Foods 365 and residents are not happy:

Let’s take a quick trip to Los Angeles’ bourgeois-hip Silver Lake neighborhood, where more than a few residents are up in arms over Whole Foods’ recent decision to not go through with a planned full-service Whole Foods but rather to build the first store in the chain’s new line of budget outlets aimed at millennials, 365 by Whole Foods Market. “Whole Foods! We want the REAL thing,” reads a Care2 petition recently posted by neighborhood resident and music executive Dawn White. “People in this neighborhood are desperate for a local high end market with the best quality foods, which are often not the 365 brand,” White wrote. Online, commenters began to call the proposed store “Half Foods.”

What is behind this reaction?

Silver Lake is not the first nor likely the last enclave where residents are literally begging for a Whole Foods. Online petitions asking for stores frequently read like crosses between market research reports, sales pitches, and letters from spurned would-be lovers. “Between the families, the young professionals, long-time residents and university students in the neighborhood, we have more than enough demand to satisfy Whole Foods,” went one 2013 plea out of Washington, D.C. As for White, her missive told the organic superstore that it was “wholly wrong” about who lived in the neighborhood. “Residents of this neighborhood can afford this,” she added.

In a world where all too many people define themselves by what they can afford to purchase and do actually buy, Whole Foods gives the sort of person David Brooks so memorably labeled bobos, short for bourgeois bohemians, validation, not to mention a bit of convenience in a busy life. It endorses that decision to drop more than $800,000 on a tiny two-bedroom Spanish or craftsman bungalow with a Viking stove or a Brooklyn brownstone that’s located near a Superfund site. A local Whole Foods is a stamp of approval from the United States’ greater corporate culture, but one that at the same time allows the people who crave it to still believe they remain just a bit outside the mainstream.

Up and coming or hip or gentrifying neighborhoods are interesting places. On one hand, they want to live on the edge with lots of cultural opportunities and relatively cheap housing. They don’t want to be conventional, typically associated with higher incomes and less nightlife. They want to be authentic, gritty, and real. On the other hand, they often want to have some markers of their success as well as amenities. This could come in the form of Starbucks, rising housing values, or even grocery stores. The presence of these upscale places or items hints at the wealth in the neighborhood and suggests it is a place worth investing in.

But, these two competing forces are difficult to reconcile. Is having a Whole Foods hip? What kind of people shop there as opposed to those who shop at budget grocery stores? Do national retail chains hint at rising land values, eventually putting pressure on lower-income residents to move? There are likely more neighborhood discussions to come as residents try to exert their influence in the direction they would like their community to go.

Gentrification as violating UN Human Rights

Some opponents of gentrification argue the process is a human rights violation:

It is the resulting displacement of people who can’t afford increased rents that, in the eyes of these activists, amounts to a human-rights violation. (Homeowners, at least economically, stand to gain from the changes, since their property values often rise as a result.) Drawing on Le droit à la ville, a 1968 work by the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre whose title translates to “The Right to the City,” the organization argues that all people, including the disenfranchised, have the right to remain in their apartments and homes and shape the political and cultural landscapes of their communities. The UN Declaration of Human Rights already asserts that everyone has the right to be protected against “interference with his… home.” Lenina Nadal, the communications director for Right to the City, says the group hopes to build on this idea. “It is an ideal time to  expand the idea that inhabitants not only have a right to their home, a decent, sustainable home,” she said, “but also to the community they created in their city.”

This is an interesting argument that suggests people are being moved from their homes and communities against their will. Americans generally don’t like the idea of others dictating where they can live; see the emphasis on local control, property rights, and opposition to eminent domain. Yet, social factors push and pull people to leave their homes and communities all the time as well as limit people from leaving their communities.

How exactly would this work out in a court of law or as an argument at the United Nations? I suspect there could be a lot of argument about what exactly the right to a home and community is. Could a suburbanite who doesn’t like that a big box store is being built nearby make a similar argument? What about residents who are moved through eminent domain or urban renewal?