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Gentrifier heal thyself?

There are limits to living our political convictions. How can we navigate them?

Cheshire St, London. Credit: Flickr/Ms Sara Kelly, CC BY 2.0.

 When Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was pushed to define ‘obscenity’ in 1964, he famously responded: “I know it when I see it.” The much-contested and slippery term ‘gentrification’ is often understood in the same instinctive way.

When the sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term, she described it as a process of—among  other things—“working class quarters” being “invaded by the middle classes,” and the conversion of “shabby, modest mews and cottages” into “elegant, expensive residences.” Today, this process is symbolised by everything from over-priced craft beer and scruffy beards to skinny jeans, organic food and artisan bakeries.

Whatever gentrification actually is, we seem to know, on some level, that it’s bad—associated  with words like ‘displacement’, ‘removal’, and even ‘social cleansing.’ If you live in a big city like London or New York, it’s not uncommon for someone to recommend a neighbourhood because ‘it’s not too gentrified’—meaning  you can still (maybe) buy a drink for less than your hourly wage—or to hear someone bemoan the fact that an area has ‘lost its character,’ been taken over by ‘yuppies,’ or ruined by ugly new luxury apartments.

Curiously, many of the people who make these comments about gentrification are gentrifiers themselves, railing against the displacement of the working class at their house-warming parties on up-and-coming blocks where working class people used to live.

I’ve been through this routine numerous times myself: marching to ‘save social housing’ in London by day before returning to my ex-council flat at night; opposing more luxury apartments in the inner-west of Sydney while living in a far from shabby building in the exact same area; and now, criticising the insanity of New York’s housing market from my newly renovated apartment in Harlem, a neighbourhood once described by Bobby Womack as “the capital of every ghetto town”.  

Faced by gentrification in places like these, we can blame shifty landlords, stingy city governments and predatory property developers, but at least to some extent, we are left lamenting something that our own life choices are reinforcing. For those who try hard to live their political convictions—from buying fair trade bananas and carbon offsets to boycotting union-busting corporations—this creates some serious personal discomfort. ‘If we’re so worried about gentrification,’ we should ask ourselves, ‘why do we keep buying into it?’

That’s a difficult question to answer, because it speaks to a common gap between what progressives say and what they do. Such concerns aren’t new of course. George Orwell suggested that the genius of the “jingo imperialist” poet Rudyard Kipling lay in his understanding of the fact that “a humanitarian is always a hypocrite.” Orwell, with some exaggeration, wrote that “all left-wing parties in the highly-industrialised countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy.”

Despite having “internationalist aims” he continued, they “struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue.”

Maybe the left-wing case against gentrification is the same—a worthy concern, but one for which we would personally sacrifice very little. That may sound harsh, but we can’t ignore such critiques. Not only do many of us participate in gentrification—we actually enjoy it: earnestly deploring the Trump Presidency in Che Guevara-themed cafés; celebrating the diversity of city life in a live music bar with a $10 cover charge; or buying produce at farmers’ markets instead of greasy delis.

The Saturday Night Live sketch “The Bubble”, mocks this secret love of gentrification perfectly, depicting “a planned community of like-minded free-thinkers” where “life continues for progressive Americans as if the election never happened,” complete with “hybrid cars,” “second-hand bookstores,” and Bernie Sanders’s face on every Dollar Bill.

On a personal level, many of us are living these contradictions by reaping the benefits of something we’re not supposed to like. There’s no harm in admitting this, but what should we do about it?

Such contradictions don’t justify political silence or passivity—quite the opposite: they should form the basis of a wider and deeper discussion which explores how everyone can be properly housed, without making  young people, fresh out of university and desperate to pay down their snowballing debts, compete with the urban poor for the scraps of somewhere to live. Why is there so much profit in the business of displacing people from their communities? Why is it so hard to make daily choices that reflect or realise our moral goals? And are there forms of ‘gentrification’ that could support those moral goals?

Far from feeling muzzled when we are complicit in gentrification, we should be asking serious questions about its causes, consequences and many faces. This includes trying to understand the complex and diverse reactions that it provokes: sometimes anger at rising living costs and the commodification of local culture, and sometimes cautious acceptance of the benefits it can bring.   

The idea of gentrifiers as a pioneering “creative class” of tech start-ups and quirky businesses has been largely discredited, but in my experience the residents of poorer neighbourhoods don’t always see the arrival of people with additional energy and resources as inherently bad. They might bemoan the destruction of public housing in favour of ‘shared workspaces’ and roof-top bars, without opposing the basic idea of outside investment.

Beyond these perceptions, another change is developing: the prospect of life in an all-white suburb—complete with SUVs, 30-year mortgages and star-spangled banners on the front lawn—is losing its  post-war appeal. Baby-boomer parents are confused  by their children’s insistence on moving to inner-city streets that they actively avoided in the 1970s and 1980s. Although the cities of the United States remain heavily segregated economically and racially, the growing attraction of urban life is leading to a degree of social mixing unseen in previous generations.

In this context, there is a real opportunity to build a new vision for our cities. The temptation for incoming college-educated urbanites like me is to assume leadership by promoting the equitable housing policies they learned about at university and using the political and organisational skills we refined in the Students’ Union. Yet this temptation must be resisted: urban communities are held together by social bonds and shared histories that no newcomer can fully grasp.

Powerful political leadership has always emerged from these neighbourhoods. A prominent example is New York’s Al Smith, a second-generation Irish immigrant born above a barber shop in the slums under the Brooklyn Bridge, who left school at the age of twelve to work in the Fulton Fish Market and reportedly read just one book in his entire life. Smith went on to be elected governor of New York State four times in the 1920s, overseeing the radical social reforms that eventually inspired the New Deal: maximum working-hours legislation, public works projects, minimum housing standards, and revolutionary workplace safety laws.

More recent figures include Jesse Gray, who worked as a tailor before leading Harlem’s rent strikes in the 1960s; and California Congresswoman Barbara Lee from Oakland, who has repeatedly fought for affordable housing as a human right in the House of Representatives. There is no shortage of talent, spirit and determination in communities under threat from economic and political exploitation.

Nonetheless, in the fight for more just and inclusive cities, gentrifiers can lend valuable support. Though not to the same extent, they can see and feel the damage done by profit-centred housing markets. They can sense the unwillingness of politicians to respond, and they can help imagine and develop solutions to the crisis. When people have some shared experience—even if it’s scraping together enough money for a broker’s fee, or dealing with a negligent landlord, or complaining about inexplicable power cuts in their building, they begin to see more common interests with their neighbours—and to recognize the need to fight alongside them for improvements.

Of course, the underlying tensions are still there: your presence as an incomer is a physical symbol of an often-damaging social transformation. But if we acknowledge their strength and try to understand the remarkable history of the communities that have sometimes begrudgingly welcomed us, we can play a part in the collective struggle for a better city. 

About the author

Harry Blain is a Graduate Center Fellow pursuing a PhD in Political Science at the City University of New York. He has previously lived and worked in Sydney, Edinburgh and London. Follow him on Twitter @Hblain.

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