Saturday, August 25, 2012

Gentrification complete?

After investigating the definitions of "suburb," I was thinking about Feargus O'Sullivan's description of "urban" London. There were three simple characteristics: proximity to the center of London, density and noise. All the other "urban" characteristics were either signs of (a) gentrification (coffee bars; vintage stores; sidewalk cafes; hipster bicycle culture; independent designer boutiques; high-rise, open-plan apartments) or (b) poverty (subsidized housing).

Here in New York City, we have the same signs of gentrification, but poor people can and do live in privately owned, usually rent-stabilized, apartments throughout the city. We have many dense, noisy neighborhoods that are not particularly gentrified. O'Sullivan seems to equate "urban" with gentrified, and that makes me wonder whether there are any neighborhoods of London left ungentrified.

In New York you can certainly find hipster coffee bars in most neighborhoods of Manhattan, Brownstone Brooklyn and Western Queens, but there are a lot of dense, transit-accessible neighborhoods that still don't have them. Last I checked that included Crown Heights and Flatbush, as well as Sunset Park and most of Corona in Queens. Most of Jersey City, Elizabeth and Newark are pretty low on the vintage stores, as are western Yonkers and southern Mount Vernon - though of course they have thrift stores. And of course, most of the Bronx between Fieldston and the Bronx River is dense urban development, and I'm not sure there's even a coffee bar in Riverdale. That means that probably half of the urban area of New York is still ungentrified.

I haven't spent that much time in London, and what time I have spent there has been in areas that have not been poor in recent memory. I didn't see any housing projects around Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Parliament, where the homes of the literal gentry have historically been. I did take a stroll through Peckham on my last visit and didn't see any gourmet cafes, but I wasn't looking that hard. So those of you who know London better: are there large gentrifying populations in every dense inner neighborhood? Are there notable exceptions?

If not, I wonder how much of it is due to the way London subsidizes its housing. Is there rent stabilization, or is it all done through "council flats"? Does that create sharper segregation?

I'll have more to say about this in the future.


Feargus O'Sullivan said...

Feargus here - Yes, I do define urban districts according to their density and proximity to the city core. For me (scrub that - for British people) a suburb is a more spaciously laid out, overwhelmingly residential district at some remove from the city centre. I mention noise not because its absence is a key factor, but because my previous address happened to be noisy. Due to our population density and very high land prices, spread-out, very set-back suburban districts like you have in the US are not really feasible – there are a few but they’re not a phenomenon quite like they are for you.

I chose to present a (you believe false) dichotomy between gentrifying inner city districts and the suburbs that lie beyond them because, as it was a first person piece about my own experiences, I was assuming that my reader, like me, is not wealthy. There are many city core districts that are not full of the trappings of recent gentrification (because the process happened long ago or the district has always been wealthy) but these are mostly beyond my means. These two options are basically what’s open to me, hence the either/or presentation here and the use of the word “I” in the headline (which, as it happens, I didn’t write).

I suspect the NYC Urban districts you describe as un-gentrified verge on the edge of what we would describe as suburban. There are a few districts around the edge of London’s dense urban core that have not been fully gentrified, but the process is already underway (there are gourmet cafes in Peckham, they’re just not on the main drag). This is partly because the whole process started so much earlier here – since the Clean Air Act of 1956 got rid of killer coal smoke fogs in central London, wealthier people have been trickling back steadily, with inner city deprivation never reaching the desperate levels of some sections of 1980s NYC. We are definitely about 15-20 years down the line.

As for rent and segregation, I would argue that, geographically speaking, London is far less socially divided that NYC, and public housing is sprinkled throughout the city (there is some within a mile of Buckingham Palace, though it looks like that’s all about to be sold off, alas). My point is that geographical mixing doesn’t necessarily engender social cohesion and communication in itself. We don’t have private rent-controlled flats, but we do have a large rent-controlled public housing sector, albeit one beleaguered by decades of Tory sell-offs.

Steve Stofka said...

Part of the issue, Feargus, is that what you describe as "suburban" London is in fact urban to many Americans (particularly given the nature of the suburbs over here). My neighborhood, Philadelphia's Mt. Airy, is more like your "suburban" neighborhood but is still thought-of as in the city (it is) and far more urban than someplace like East Norriton, not too far away.

I suspect that for Americans, "have to drive the car to do anything" = suburban; "don't have to drive the car to do anything" = urban. And by that definition, you just traded a core-urban neighborhood for a general-urban one.

Feargus O'Sullivan said...

Hi Steven,

thanks for the reply. Yes I'm aware of the difference in UK and US terminology, more so now after 40 odd comments on the piece :) My points are: this is what our suburbs look like, this is how they're defined by us, and this is the suburb vs centre debate as outlined from a UK perspective, where suburbs are denser and older and where inner city gentrification has been underway for somewhat longer. I still hope its of interest to a US reader

Benjamin Hemric said...

Some late comments on this very this very interesting discussion:

1) To sum up (and to put in list form) Feargus O'Sullivan defines "urban" and "suburban" (with regard to British, NOT American, usage) as follows:

- relatively high density
- mixed use district (i.e., not overwhelmingly residential)
- close to the city core (presumably this refers particularly to areas that are not themselves mixed use)

SUBURBAN (in the British as opposed to American sense)
- relatively low density
- overwhelmingly residential
- relatively far from urban core

2) The point of his original post and later comments seem to be that "urban" areas (at least greater London's urban areas) no longer necessarily have all the pluses that are usually touted as being the benefits of urbanism, and that British "suburbs" (which seem to be the equivalent to U.S. trolley car / subway suburbs -- or in my terminology "semi-suburbs") now have some of these pluses -- or at least have enough of them to make them nice alternatives to "urban" areas for those people who like "urban" living but are on a budget.

By the way, this is not a new observation at all. In fact, Jane Jacobs has been making this same observation since 1961 -- even before the word "gentrification" came into usage. In her terminology, though, she calls it the "self-destruction of diversity" and devotes a whole chapter of the book to it (and also has other mentions of it throughout the book).

Also, as someone who grew up in NYC's subway suburbs (which, visually speaking, look a lot like the Feargus O'Sullivan's "suburb"), you heard these arguments all the time (more value for the money, almost urban anyway, etc.)

3) I have never been to London, so can't judge for myself, but judging from the article, a) Feargus O'Sullivan seems to me to have made a somewhat weak case for his argument and b) it's unclear what policy recommendation (if any) should come out of his argument.

(By the way, I hope this part of my comment doesn't sound too critical of Feargus O'Sullivan. There's nothing wrong whatsoever in sharing with others something nice you've just discovered. But I'm just trying to be analytical and to figure out the "meaning" his post and his argument has for him and for others.)

With regard to a), he seems to me to be saying that he gets more housing for his money (no surprise) and he can get many of the same stores but, in terms of urban interaction, etc., it's just OK. In addition, a big plus for him, but not necessarily for others, is that he can make a living from mostly working at home. So it sounds like a "just OK" alternative to urban areas for people who like urban living -- great for the price though (but no surprise here).

With regard to b), aside from the increased desirablity for such areas for poeple who can work mostly from home (which indeed may become more important as time goes on), it's hard to discern what policy recommendations if any that Feargus O'Sullivan is implying should come out of his observation.

Should there be less gentrification of "urban" areas?; should there be more gentrification of "suburban" areas; should there be more urbanization of "suburban" areas?; and so on.

4) As an American / New Yorker and Jane Jacobs admirer, the lesson I see here is that the semi-suburbs of a city should be allowed to become more urban -- thus giving them more of a first class urban experience, and also lessening the pressures on the urban areas at the core for the self-destruction of diversity. (Don't say British / Londoners should do the same thing -- that's their business.)

Benjamin Hemric
Mon., 8/27/12, 6:00 pm

Feargus O'Sullivan said...

You're quite right Benjamin, it's difficult to discern a clear policy suggestion from what I wrote - and your outline of my argument is more or less accurate. It was a conversational first person piece about my own life experience not intended to outline a policy blueprint, and I am honoured, and surprised, that it has had some impact. Placed on a (self-imposed) hotspot, I would say the policy points that I might extrapolate from my piece (that are not contained within it) are these:

geographical integration of different classes means little without powerfully effective social institutions to back them up. In terms of urban interaction I found my old neighborhood just okay as well - the only time my neighbors and I talked was when one of them was shot at (and trust me, he was such an a'hole i was half sorry they missed). In a Britain where the underclasses are swelling, opportunities are lessening and state education and healthcare is getting worse, celebrating socially mixed inner city neighborhoods over less socially mixed suburbs is an illusion when the distances between inner city neighbors are really massive. In the British context, I think this should be redressed by the greater fiscal redistribution of wealth by channeling it into public services, a cornerstone of post wwII british policy that we are losing fast under pressure from an alienated, uncaring elite.

The second point is that my UK-style suburb is perfectly livable because it has medium rather than low density, good transport links, walkability and local shops - this too is what a suburb can be, calling such a district suburban is not oxymoronic, at least it has never been so in the UK. There is no inherent link between the concept of suburbia and terrible planning, and if we adapt existing failing suburbs along these lines (yes, I know that the forces against this are massive) then we will make them both more pleasant places to live and relieve some pressure on the inner city core. It's not an especially complex argument, but seeing as we (you AND us) don't seem to be living by its directives, one worth re-stating.

I do think, however, that too much discussion has focused on my suburb, when in fact my objective was really to express my disenchantment with current pro-inner city rhetoric that I feel presents an inaccurate picture of what gentrifying inner neighborhoods are like. I think we could do with debunking some of this - my intention with the piece.

Anyway, thanks for the prolonged thought and discussion - and an especial thank you to Cap'n Transit for tolerating these very extensive comments

Unknown said...

Uk planning has never had as strict separation of uses as most US cities, Also many UK suburbs have historic cores from which they have been added onto over the years. So many a boring 'housing estate' has been a short walk from an historic high street that now serves as a local retail centre.

Larger estates were often planned by the local council, many such estates have roads which bus routes are expected to be extended, extensive pedestrian and cycle paths. Plus a scattering of 'local' 'district' and 'neighbourhood' centres where clusters of shops and local doctors and schools would be placed.

In the biggest projects such as town extensions or net towns the largest such centres, usually called district centres, might have a local hospital, small shopping centre or local college with some small local business units.

Most British suburban people would think it odd that you could not walk to a local shop for some milk, newspapers, a takeaway and get your hair cut.

It would also be strange not to have at least a half hourly bus (usually better in a lot of suburbs).

As for London, it a vast place. Gentrification has been ongoing since the clean air act of 54. The first places to gentrify were areas to the North and West of the centre near already existing nice neighbourhoods. In recent decades it's the Eastern and Southern Neighborhoods that have felt the forces of change.

It's the old inner suburbs that are facing the forces of gentrification while the suburbs of the 20's and 30's that have seen greater poverty.

In reference to the article on London, Forest Hill is in Lewisham. It's been a suburb of London since the coming of the railway in 1839. it was a well to do area for a long time. It declined slightly in the post war period and has since become more fashionable recently with people priced out of more expensive neighbourhoods that attract foreign buyers, but it has not seen the turn around that Notting Hill or Islington witnessed. Now they were real slums.

As denotes it's age, Lewisham belongs to councils that considered inner London. Inner London councils used to be part of the original London County Council formed in the late 19th century. It was only local government reorganisation in 1964 that saw the Greater London Council created through the absorbtion of many suburban districts. This divide still pervades the city. Most people would not consider Forest Hill as deep in the suburbs, for a lot of people it would just be a residential neighbourhood on the edge of the inner city.

But it is a reflection of the divide in the city that once existed. It has taken many decades for the people in the suburbs to give up their attachment to their former counties and feel they were part of London. Inner Londoners can get sniffy about living outside Zone 2.

But with Londons transport system some suburbs near major rail junctions have faster journey times into the centre than some inner neighbourhoods. Some of the suburban centres have been significant towns in their own right for hundreds of years. it skews what you think of as suburban.

T.S.Drown said...

Crown Heights is, in fact, rapidly gentrifying: