Annalee Newitz explains that gentrification isn’t about race or class, and she’s wrong

This piece over at IOS9 makes some good points, particularly about Istanbul, but it really would help me if we could stop acting like gentrification has nothing to do with money, race, or power.

At one point, she proclaims: “Politics can be more important than money.” Since when have politics and money been separate things, or exerted separate effects? Essentially, she reframes the word “immigrant” to mean “person who moves from one place to another.” And, golly, well, those people, rich and poor, need a place to live, and well, typical response: increase the housing supply, make those current residents suck it up. Gee, I wish I’d thought of that.

But:

1) There are no data that show immigrants drive gentrification in the article. She just decides this point is true and argues from there. One of our brilliant PhD students, Sarah Mawhorter, is studying the various mechanisms of neighborhood change, including just these questions, and she’s not doing that because it’s obvious how gentrification works. She’s doing it because there are a lot of possible levers of neighborhood change, including migrants, but not excluding…money, race, (and gender, and age, and nativity). There’s lots of stuff here, but let’s not act like all that stuff is unrelated to power. For an article that sits on a “popular science” website, there are no data to support Newitz’s argument that neighborhood sociodemographic change occurs because of immigration rather than natural increase or migration. There are actual data about differences in native-born versus foreign-born migrants to different urban enclaves and how different groups settle in metropolitan regions (Katrin Anaker, Dowell Myers). I’m sure that immigrants and migrants sort, and I am sure that relatively affluent immigrants do foster neighborhood change, but I doubt it’s the whole phenomenon as Newitz represents it.

2) Claiming that gentrification results from immigration does not defuse the issues at heart of gentrification, which come down to power–time and time again. There is an entire literature on the political economy of growth controls (Logan and Molotch has close to 4K cites for their book). It’s not an accident that supply lags demand in US housing markets, and it’s not an accident that the US is bad at public housing. The housing game is rigged, and while people with H-1 visas working for the tech giants might need a place to live, the fact that they can have it and others can’t is a function of power. Hell, the fact they can have visas and we’re sending refugee children back to death and enslavement on the southern border suggests privilege might be at work here. Sure, tech workers are useful and they help global capital do its thing, and we all get Angry Birds and Grindr and Yelp and whatnot, and no doubt many a tech worker has a lovely bootstrap story to tell us about how hard they have worked (well done, that), but it’s not like global capital flows have nothing to do with selectively offering and rescinding opportunities to select groups and not others. When those wealthy Congoese displace Malibu residents, we can say that everything has come full circle.

3) San Francisco is not really that speshul, even though its market is crazy now. But is it not really that anti-growth. It is exactly the fact that is has been anti-growth on the residential side (like just about every California city postProp 13), and quite pro-growth on the commercial side, that makes it so very very appealing to those with gobs of tech money. They aren’t going to let you throw the lid off zoning any more than prior generations would. But seriously: commercial real estate in SF…those folks get what they want pretty routinely. Growth regimes in cities have variety, too, and while San Francisco has succeeded in making itself in a great big gated community with all that tech money coming in, it’s hardly the only place in California where housing demand lags supply, even though it is the place where privileged immigrants might be very high profile in their housing consumption.

2 thoughts on “Annalee Newitz explains that gentrification isn’t about race or class, and she’s wrong

  1. she is not only wrong all around, she is dead wrong about Istanbul. current “urban redevelopment” in istanbul is by no means “gentrification” ; it is a very different process. so were the prior processes of re-habitation of Tarlabasi in the 1950’s or the informal settlements (gecekondu formations) in Fikirtepe (re: first picture with the one lone house as the last stand during the current redevelopment– btw, it too was demolished last week after the owner finally signed the contract.) if one looks for examples of gentrification in a place like Turkey, the closest cases can be found in coastal towns and villages– and even then, it will be stretching the meaning of the term…

    • Thanks. What struck me as useful about the discussion of Istanbul was simply the idea that neighborhood change and migration are international urban phenomena.

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