Saturday, October 31, 2015

It's time to stop saying "gentrification"

Gentrification is a bad word, because it blames the wrong people. Don't talk about "gentrification" or "gentrifiers." Talk about what the problem actually is: high rents, high prices, displaced residents, displaced businesses, losing old buildings, ugly new buildings, or not enough trains, buses, classrooms or parks.

Everyone knows that gentrification is the biggest problem facing our cities, and that it's the fault of the hipsters and techbros and greedy developers. The rents and prices jump sky-high, displacing poor people and small businesses. Historic structures are torn down and replaced with out-of-scale apartments. This strains the already burdened infrastructure serving the neighborhood, resulting in crowded buses, schools and parks. Everyone knows that, but everyone is wrong.

It is true that the rent is too damn high in some neighborhoods, and prices are pretty high too. Some people are getting priced out of neighborhoods where they've lived. Some good-looking old buildings get torn down, and some ugly new buildings get built. The government isn't always quick to increase transit, school or park capacity to meet demand.

What is not true is that these high rents, high prices, displacements, ugly buildings and strained infrastructure are somehow caused by hipsters (whatever they are), techbros, or greedy developers (or even non-greedy developers). In fact, we know the cause: we've turned our suburbs, small cities and countryside into hellish car-scapes, and severely limited the growth of places where you can get around on foot or by train. People try to move to those places anyway, driving up the rents and prices. Developers respond to that by building where they can.

The solution is to stop subsidizing car-oriented development and legalize more walkable, transit-oriented development. It has nothing to do with developers, hipsters or techbros. They are the symptom that will go away when the disease is cured.

The word "gentrification" automatically places the blame on the "gentrifiers." There is no way to hear the word without assigning the blame to them. If you know that they are not to blame, you have to make your mind do extra work to remove the blame from them each time you use the word. The people who hear you will not always do that work.

That's why I've stopped using the word "gentrification." Maybe you haven't noticed, but it's been absent from my blog and Twitter feed for over a year, except when I'm challenging the concept. But I still hear a lot of my friends and comrades-in-arms using it, even the ones who should know better.

So please, don't say "gentrification" unless you're attacking the concept. Think about what your focus really is - high rents, high prices, displaced residents, displaced businesses, losing old buildings, ugly new buildings, or not enough trains, buses, classrooms or parks. And then say that. And tell your friends!


Dizzy said...

You're not wrong, of course, but you can count on the term not going away anytime soon. To understand why, keep in mind who post 'anti-gentrification activists' are: they are self-described anti-capitalists who do, in fact, see gentrifiers, hipsters, developers, and any other cog in the capitalist machine as being at fault. These activists also, almost by definition, live in urban areas, so they are themselves directly threatened by displacement and the continued workings of supply and demand. The robber barons and real villains of capitalism do not(for the most part) live in dense urban areas, so while they remain at the topic of the enemy list, the proximity and sense of threat is not as immediate.

If you think that housing is an inherent human right and should not be commodified - which pretty much every anti-gentrifican activist I've talked to firmly believes - then you will not accept a market-based analysis of the problem or proposed market-based solutions. Instead, you will get the rejoinder that "the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house."

Capn Transit said...

Good points, Dizzy, but my audience is not so much the hardcore "anti-gentrification activists." It's the mainstream who unwittingly endorse the scapegoating every time they use the word.

As you probably realize, food is a human right and should not be commodified, but that doesn't mean people don't sell food in markets.

itineranturbanist said...

This is very good, Cap'n. I want to build on something Dizzy said above: "If you think that housing is an inherent human right and should not be commodified - which pretty much every anti-gentrifican activist I've talked to firmly believes - then you will not accept a market-based analysis of the problem or proposed market-based solutions."

I think the key to winning over lefty-leaning "anti-gentrification" advocates (I put the term in quotation marks not because I question their intentions, but because I think the policies they advocate often result in more displacement, not less) is to point out that conceptualizing housing as a human right and the belief that it should not be commodified are not, in fact, inherently the same thing. If the absolute goal is to provide everyone with housing--as the framing of it as a human right implies--then we must by definition use *any and all tools* available to produce housing for everyone. When appropriate, that can, indeed must, include market mechanisms. The market won't always be the solution, but I think the case that market mechanisms are a necessary part of the solution right now is pretty damn airtight.

The key is unlocking the good-hearted people who believe in housing as a right from the hardcore dead-ender anti-capitalists who are willing to sacrifice real people living real lives right now to their ideological ends. That's work the Left needs to do.

Capn Transit said...

Right, Sandy! I too believe that housing is a human right, as are food, clothing, education, medical care and access to jobs and services. Just as transportation cannot create a classless society all by itself, neither can food, clothing, education or medical care. Or housing.

I think very few of these people believe that everyone should be forced to eat at the Glorious People's Communal Kitchen, or wear identical Mao jackets. I don't think they believe that everyone should take the same trains or bicycles, or live in government housing. I think they're just not thinking it through, and the word "gentrification" taps into that.

revphil said...

def reforming how we use language has an effect on how our minds think.

ill try to stop using it tho i don't know what terms to replace it with. none seem to quite fit the bill.

Cycledumb said...

this post assumes that what we call gentrification is a purely market driven process. in many urban areas, this is not the case.

The Amateur Transporter said...

@itinerantubanist said: "the hardcore dead-ender anti-capitalists"

lol. In the suburbs of NY, you don't find too many of these. Opposition to new housing around existing transit (LIRR, MetroNorth, the buses) comes from homeowners wanting to maintain their free, 24/7 on-street parking and complain of "traffic". This starts with the older, middle-class families, who are the core of the volunteer fire department and are related to a lot of the municipal employees (cops, public works, etc.). They may have allies who are hipsters who moved from Brooklyn who love the "charm", but more likely allies are other middle-class families who moved here from closer-in suburbs (Yonkers, Inwood LI, Elmont) for the "better" schools and, again, the on-street parking.

eric said...

In my city, the ant-gentrification activists are not a real force to be reckoned with and can basically be ignored. The folks who matter are the middle aged upper middle class homeowner types who are against almost all development because it will supposedly make traffic and parking worse. They often rail against building what they characterize as "luxury" apartment buildings (ie market-rate housing), but they mostly don't use the term "gentrification."

Raffi said...

Since we're talking about "the left", Jacobin magazine had a very interesting article last year about the Karl Marx houses in Vienna. I can't find it now but basically the idea is like a co-op with the starting capital raised by the government and the residents responsible for ongoing costs. It seems like the kind of thing we should be doing- public housing that's self-sustaining, with the tenants having a real stake in what happens to the building and its finances.

It seems to me that the imminent problem with rent stabilization—as in "next year" and not "over the next twenty years from now"— is that it is no longer doing its one job, which is stabilization, because the time of stability is being squandered. It should be used to create breathing room for massive housing construction to reduce rent pressures. Bloomberg had the foresight to see that New York's population was going to increase by a lot but he did not care about making anything affordable. De Blasio lacks the resources to pull off what needs to be done and in any case does not seem to have a clear vision of any specific end goal. The status quo is an inadequate amount of public housing being constructed, an unkillable stock of rent regulated buildings gumming up the works, and moving goalposts of 80/20 "affordable" units accelerating to infinity as multiple thousands per month for a studio falls under the class of "affordable".

Jeffrey Jakucyk said...

On the other end of the spectrum the resistance to Section 8 housing faces a similar confusion between cause and effect (or correlation versus causation). The people who cry about Section 8 housing ruining the neighborhood think it's the cause of their neighborhood's decline rather than a symptom. Now I won't pretend that it helps the situation, but landlords won't accept Section 8 vouchers if they can get market rate tenants. It might be something of an inflection or tipping point kind of situation, where once Section 8 tenants reach a certain critical mass things do take a plunge, but the neighborhood was already on that trajectory in the first place, so like with gentrification the blame is misplaced.

Raffi said...

Jeffrey, I find Jeff Wood's voice and podcast generally kind of grating but there was a good episode in September: concerning exactly what you're talking about except the inverse. The guest contends that a study of the Bay Area reveals that the process of gentrification begins invisibly and proceeds for years in a way that can only be seen with a systematic study.

Unknown said...

I'm confused as to how transit is supposed to be the cure for these issues. Does making a place more convenient to live not stimulate the very market forces we are talking about?

In nyc the bargain neighborhoods are the car neighborhoods.

Capn Transit said...

Unknown, I wouldn't say the car neighborhoods are "bargain neighborhoods," because owning and maintaining a car is expensive. There are still some "bargain neighborhoods" in the Bronx that have good transit.

And Raffi, don't you go bashing Jeff on this blog. He's been a phenomenal supporter and ally since almost day one, and he's got a sharp mind. And yes, that was a good episode.

Capn Transit said...

Cycledumb, I did not assume "gentrification," whatever you mean by it, is a purely market driven process. In fact, the entire post was basically an argument against that. But thanks for playing!

neroden@gmail said...

You're extremely right. What's supposed to be the problem with "gentrification"? Almost everyone wants their standard of living to rise enough to be the lifestyle of the gentry, and wants their neighborhood wealth to rise that much too. *Even the Marxists* -- their utopia is a utopia of everyone having a decently wealthy lifestyle. Not a utopia of grinding poverty, because that's stupid.

If people are worried about something specific they should be specific.