How to derail discussions of race/class/gender in two easy steps

Discussing race, class, or gender is yucky. Discussing yourself is awesome! So here’s how it all goes.

1. Somebody mentions that discrimination sucks. (You don’t have to do this part).

2. Pipe up with some personal anecdote about your life because nothing is more interesting than you, and then conclude your life experiences all prove that all the poors and the colors and the girls need to do to succeed is ‘shut up and deal like you did.” You get extra bonus points if your folksy discussion of poverty involves bread sacks or casseroles, or if you throw in a shocker of high-level philosophizing like “life is hard.”

3. When somebody points out that your personal experiences might not actually be evidence of anything other than your willingness to talk about yourself when nobody actually gives a shit and generalize from an n of 1, flounce around about how meaaaaaaaaan and judddggeeeeey errrbody is, and how they are lecturing you, and how you have, since you’ve succeeded, helped out many of them poors/colors/girls, but you can’t talk about that now since everybody has been so mean. Gawwwwwwwd.

Viola! You have just coopted the discussion about race/class/gender and made it about the most important thing ever: you, your little feelers, your identity as a self-made success in life. Chances are, somebody will step in with, golly gosh darn it, stop fighting friends because…can’t we just get along…and then comforts you, with your little hurt feelers, because that–THAT is the real injustice here. Because nothing–nothing–is more important than you.

Perceiving and rejecting ‘the poors’, the inverse of gentrification

I guess I have been inspired to write here recently about gentrification by the new spate of articles explaining that there is nothing to see here but an affordability problem. Which is fine, except that gentrification is one handle on affordability, and I’m not sure sure if y’all have noticed, but climate change has rather brought home to me the understanding that just because an expert says something is real or something is not real does not seem to have the sway it used to. My point over the last few entries, found here and here, is that goodly portion of what people think of as gentrification derives from phenomenology. It’s perception; sights, smells, and experiences in neighborhoods they know. They won’t be easily persuaded by a generic social science model, however good. I’ve argued throughout that attempts to reframe the notion of gentrification boil down to a desire to de-politicize neighborhood changes, and I’m not on board with it.

This is not to say that I don’t think we need analysis. It’s important that good social science wrestle with neighborhood changes so we can try to add evidence to the narrative. One of our very best PhD students at USC, Sarah Mawhorter, is studying such things.

It’s possible, I think, to persuade with social science, but it takes time and patience–not a journo or a pundit citing one social science analysis and then acting like, “welp, the evidence is all in” the way most do. That’s not how social science works, and it way, way not how social science in urban studies works, where the diversity of disciplines and analysis paradigms can take a long time to amass evidence indicating a direction. It usually takes years before we produce enough evidence to persuade reasonable people that, in general, the material we detect across a big group of studies tells us something we should probably use for policy.

No wonder people get mad at us, eh?

Perceptions, I noted, can matter more than reality, if not in policy analysis, then most assuredly in public opinion. As I noted, new development with new amenities are likely to give people the perception that newcomers served are richer than they, themselves are, whether that impression is true or not in the statistical profile of new residents.

The obverse is also true: planners who work in housing have many, many a story to tell about how if you propose to put something in a neighborhood that people associate with ‘the poors,’ the reaction will be very, very similar to complaints and resistance to gentrification. Unlike with complaints about gentrification, which are largely without teeth because there’s no real policy response, resistance to building for or including ‘the poors’ strikes me as generally successful. A subset of Beverly Hills’ residents’ reaction to the looming, terrifying specter of having to have a subway stop–also known as an amenity that other people would kill for–exemplifies this issue. They won’t get out of their Porches and their Bentleys, and so why should they have this open door to their community that might allow rampaging poors to come litter up the place and carry off their daughters? You can suggest subsidized housing units that fully 80 percent of the local population qualify for, and you will get an earful from at least some residents about how they don’t really want ‘those people’ to live in the neighborhood, even though the speakers are, themselves, those people. (You can get around this with good participatory methods, but even then, it’s very likely that later in the process you are going to hear about it from those who weren’t in on early planning efforts.)

These reactions are of a same piece as grumbling about ‘those damn hipsters’ in gentrification, but one variant of the resistance to neighborhood change punches up, largely ineffectually in development politics, and the other punches down, largely effectively.

On property rights and gentrification–a reaction to a comment

Commenter Walden writes in response to an entry from last week on richsplaining gentrification.

I am confused as to what element of our property rights system gives those who have resided in a neighborhood for a period of time the right to infringe upon the rights of other property owners in that same neighborhood because the latter group is changing something in a way that makes the former feel “excluded”.


Where to begin? First, there is nothing in property rights thinking that is useful in explaining neighborhood change other than that, when markets function, things change, and…well, the rest of the comment is hard to respond to because there really is no evidence that anybody in the gentrification discussion is *really* preventing anybody else from using their property rights. Have I missed a growth in anti-gentrification laws that have passed recently? The police evicting the fancy cheese store owner from her business so that a crackhouse can move in? The way rent control laws have spread like wildfire all over American cities? Because none of those things have happened as far as I know.

The only policy response that has had any traction has been community land trusts. And that’s a property approach.

Urban spaces always, inevitably, mix economic/property goals and use values/democratic preferences in one place. You can pretend that the economic and property parts of the city don’t exist in your arguments, or you can pretend the social and democratic use values don’t exist–and doing so makes for very clean theory. It’s practically an academic industry to pick a perspective–either the bare-knuckles property rights or the touchy-feely community rights one will do–and then bang on that drum your whole career.

But that won’t wash when dealing with everyday life and practice. No, unfortunately, we have both property rights and all those messy feels and attachments, and well, I prefer to live in a world where all those things get thought about. YMMV.

Since there’s no real policy change in place to thwart gentrification, what actually has people’s feathers ruffed on the “gentrification isn’t so bad” side is simply–and talk about frustrated entitlement–the fact that they want uninterrupted praise for “bringing back the city” and “bringing back the neighborhood.”

Gentrification complaints interrupt the triumphantalist narrative about saving the environment, serving social justice, etc etc that urban infill is, supposedly, all about. Gentrification complaints bring the dialogue back to uncomfortable discussions about winners and losers. One can wrap all this up in utilitarian arguments about how “we’re all better off” with less sprawl, urban redevelopment, etc etc but one won’t find a uniformly credulous and accepting audience for assertions of the social good in contemporary, pluralist cities.

The “gentrification doesn’t matter” chorus exemplifies a common approach in winner-loser development politics with mass audiences: try to convince the losers that they aren’t losing, and try to convince the spectators that the losers aren’t losing by shouting louder than the losers about how swell it all is. This generally works pretty well because losers lose because they aren’t economically and politically powerful to begin with.

IOW, the problem with gentrification lamenters’  myths is that they threaten the urbanists’ own myths. Yeah, I wasn’t going to go into this, but I also had a problem with the way that the original article used “myth” so dismissively. We’re still reading Homer and Hesiod 2000 years later. Narrative and symbol are often way more important than reality, particularly in politics.

“Gentrification” cannot be so flagrantly conflated with development. Nostalgia for the past is wonderful but the current strategy of lamenting change in neighborhoods is not going to get anywhere. The problem of why certain individuals or races or communities can afford the new market price as dictated over others, now that is the issue at hand and for our society. And as it so happens what we can do about that now is push for affordable housing that can mitigate this trend in the short term while we strive for true equality elsewhere.

No, “Gentrification” can’t be equated with development, but if we have learned anything, it’s that perceptions of gentrification are very, very likely with infill. So you can tell me not to conflate the two, but in a world where greenfield development is discouraged, gentrification and infill do run together once there is no more slack in the local market, and pretending they don’t track closely when housing is undersupplied strikes me as not terribly realistic. Remember that my original argument was the gentrification was simply a manifestation of affordability problems, inseparable from them, so trying to slice them into neat, distinct little packages where one is problem and the other isn’t won’t hold. Either they are both a thing and we have an affordability problem, or neither is a thing.

I tend not to like the term gentrification because I prefer “neighborhood change.” It’s a more general term.

As to the comment that ” Nostalgia for the past is wonderful but the current strategy of lamenting change in neighborhoods is not going to get anywhere.”

Lamenting is not a strategy. People who lament do not necessarily plan on “getting anywhere.” Just like cities mix up business/econ and home/family/love/attachment, it’s also possible for a person to grieve for loss without necessarily being on-board with broader policy agendas that prescribe one thing or another.

Lamenting is a thing that people do when they experience a loss. The western, modernist tendency to say either “GET OVER IT; SUCK UP AND DEAL” or “Don’t whine/fight for change” are dysfunctional to the degree that people who feel things feel those things whether you approve of them or not, or whether those feelings translate into a progressive notion of change or not. Sometimes people feel bad about things, and they want to talk about it. Is that really so wrong?

It’s even entirely possible to feel bad about a change you know has to happen.

As to exhorting the losers here to organize, by all means. But the winners could be a lot more believable as champions of affordability if they were lobbying for up-zoning on their own historic blocks, too.

Finally, people buy and sell and appropriate nostalgia all the time. Emotion and identity reside at the center of consumer preference. Nostalgia isn’t some useless thing that old people indulge in. It’s got value, and that value gets gobbled up in the land development machine right speedily. The memories and images that get made by one group of residents readily gets bought and sold among new and old residents alike. Brownstones aren’t objectively wonderful. They have a social meaning right along with their accessibility value, and that social meaning comes from their retro/vintage value.

A personal note:

I miss the old Pete’s in DTLA. Pete’s was of the first restaurants to go back to downtown LA. You could get good stuff, like burgers and waffles. It had lovely comfy seats. And dinner for two could cost around $50, even if one of you had a drink. It was a good, local joint. It even had the dreaded ‘brunch.’ We ate there 3 times a week when we lived downtown, and Andy and I used to go back once a week or so when we moved to West Adams.

Last year, the owners I believe decided to sell it to a guy who, indeed, transformed it into a variant of the rest of the “Ever-So-Clever-Name” places that he has developed, like a whole bunch of foodie places that have descended upon downtown LA and seem to be flourishing with their hard chairs embedded with rail spikes to make sure you don’t sit for a nanosecond longer than it takes you to eat the $35-a-plate plate of imported pigeon foam garnished with pork belly thought up by fame-seeking chefs.

It is now called Ledlow Swan. Ledlow Swan. (I’m sorry, but it sounds like a brand of bath salts my gran would like.)

I understand why the owners did so. It was their business, and running a restaurant is hard. They have other things to do than worry about me and what I want. I genuinely wish all of them well, even the guy who thinks it’s ok to charge $14 for brussels sprouts with an egg. Hey. I was trained by Chicago school economists. Land rents, you know, and WTP rule the world.

But I seldom go downtown anymore, and neither do my dollars. Because all that? It’s not for me. It’s for other people. And I miss what was. I’m sure plenty of people think the whole thing has improved; their dollars will keep it all going just fine without me, no doubt. I’m not keeping Mr.Superchef and all his adoring fans on Yelp from anything with my lament.

But I do miss it. That’s reality. And I don’t owe anybody any apologies for my memories or feelings about place. They matter. What is there now may be wonderful–I’m obviously not sold–but it may for all I know. But what was there was special, too; it was a part of me.

That’s how place works. The only way to avoid that feeling when things change is to never attach. And that is not what we want with places or cities, regardless of whether you own something or not.

On teaching Heidegger after the Black Notebooks

So yesterday in the Urban Context, we went through Heidegger, Thucydides, and bell hooks, all for the theme of place attachment, love, and nurturing, and how those relate to political unity–or not. In particular, we read a selection from Building, Dwelling, Thinking from Heidegger, a selection from bell hooks’ Homeplace, and, of course, the Pericles’ funeral oration, the epitome of city boosterism as a call to political unity.

It’s very hard to know what to do, really, with Heidegger. I’ve always been one of those people who could separate people from their ideas or their art. It’ befuddles me that Israeli orchestras will play Strauss, whom I believe lived and composed in relative comfort during the National Socialist regime, but not Wagner, who died in 1883, about a half century before the most evil manifestation of German nationalism manifested. The romantic and pastoral aspects of Wagner’s compositions and the emotional and intellectual connections to nationalism are clear enough, so I do understand and empathize with that decision. What I don’t understand is exempting Strauss.

That said, you give up some very nice music, some incredible art, and loads of other splendid ideas if you start eliminating artists who aren’t also good men and women.

Heidegger presents us with a very similar problem: he’s not easily ignored in philosophy, and he’s really not easy to ignore when one wants to think about architecture and urban theory. Nonetheless, Andrew Whittemore did a fine job of developing a phenomenological basis for planning theory in this very nice contribution here:

Whittemore, A. 2014. “Phenomenology and City Planning.”
Journal of Planning Education and Research, September 2014; vol. 34, 3: pp. 301-308.
(Behind a paywall, unfortunately, but if you’d like, Andrew would likely send you a copy.)

without using Heidegger at all. He instead relies on the modern phenomenologists, Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. Imminently workable.

And yet I have trouble doing so myself; the exploratory work Heidegger does in Building, Dwelling, Thinking strikes me as so important in its influence on those later phenomenologists and, particularly, on architecture theorists like Christopher Alexander.

So I teach Heidegger, with due diligence in pointing what a ghastly man he was, hoping that students see the point in poking around with the concept and etymological roots of words. Yesterday class went fine, except for the full-blown hateful glares I inevitably get from the real estate students.

$8 mayo and richsplaining gentrification

Yet another essay in the “gentrification is all in your imagination, dears” appeared in Slate last week when this essay from Justin Buntin made the rounds. Now I actually very much like Buntin’s writings about the city in general, and this essay is not terrible, but I am getting rather feed up with urban punditry and their mission to “debunk” gentrification as a concept, with the message that it’s not important, etc etc. One of the things this essay gets right is that affordability is the issue. His conclusion is that gentrification rarely occurs and is, thus, a ‘myth’ and the tagline: “It’s not as bad for the poor as you think.”

Well, since it’s “not as bad” for the poor, then, why should we worry? These are only soft punches downward, in a world that seems to have nothing but punches for the poor.

We can’t have it that affordability problems are real but gentrification is not. It just won’t stand to logic. If places are becoming less affordable, they are by definition excluding lower income residents or taking a greater portion of their incomes, and to the degree that income and race are connected, price increases and displacement or impoverishment go together. These problems are the very heart of gentrification discussions. I agree that affordability is the real issue, but pretending that neighborhood changes towards more affluence and more whiteness–gentrification–do not happen as a function of price increase is counter to what we know about urban land markets and how they function.

Secondly, just about every group-level or neighborhood-level change in US metropolitan regions is hard to measure, hard to detect, and likely rare in a statistical sense. Unlike housing trades or other micro phenomenon, there are only so many spatial units of aggregation, and all of us who do this kind of social science use them with fear and trembling because we know that what we have for measurement are not really aligned with “community” or “neighborhood.” It’s thus really difficult to capture in models what people perceive when the local dive bar becomes tapas/brunch place. That doesn’t mean their perceptions are wrong because your social science model doesn’t capture it, and it doesn’t mean that the new tapas bar is evil. Change happens for all sorts of reasons, but it is almost always difficult.

When I listen to people worried about gentrication, I hear a lot of things that strike me as very difficult to measure. We could envision a lot of ways that increased land prices make renters worse off without necessarily moving them: a) rents go up, and in order to stay in a place they love, people have to sacrifice progressively greater shares of their income to housing; b) neighborhood services change, and while they might improve, they are also likely more expensive (since land prices are higher) and targeted to a demographic different than you; combined with (a), (b) means you are sacrificing more in income to stay in place and then (c) where local employers change and you have to go farther for work. No moving yet, but lots of pressures on those with lower incomes.

What people talk about when they talk about gentrification = loss: something is changing, and it is changing in way that makes them feel like they are excluded from it. Gentrification is, at its heart, a conversation about race and class inequality in cities, and the dominance of particular interests in urban development. So on the one hand, we have a triumphant conversation about how Giuliani “cleaned up” New York and a parallel conversation about “gentrification” doesn’t happen.” But Times Square used to be, back in the day, a spot for queers and dirty movies and hookups. Now it’s a tourist location. Gentrification? It depends on what you think the label should be, and whether you prefer your downtowns corporate or your downtowns funky.

And I’ve said before: just because ALS is “rare” doesn’t mean it’s not devastating when it happens to you. If you are always what needs “cleaned up and out” in the city, then yeah, however rare it is, it still hurts.

Urban pundits like Buntin and the others I’ve posted about I suspect are good white liberals who think they are striking a blow for realism in urban analysis when they publish these things. And that’s the message at the heart of Buntin’s essay: let’s not be distracted by gentrification. Let’s deal with affordability.

But by refusing to talk about discrimination as well as affordability or the changes and worries preoccupying those in the debate, articles like Buntin simply squelch dissent. These essays de-politicize and de-racialize our discussions about who and what gets to be in control of urban space. The “gentrification isn’t a problem/affordabilty is a problem” narrative is supremely reassuring to the mostly white audiences reading about urbanism who need market apologists to shout down those who note the political and cultural outcomes that markets reinforce.

Why is it so difficult to believe people when they say “I’m bothered by this; I’m worried about this” or even “I’m suffering loss, listen to me.” Nope. Instead the response is: nothing to see here, except an affordability problem (not, by the way, a housing discrimination problem, as it’s not about race, no, never).

And where there’s an affordability (not a discrimination) problem, there’s also the titillating reassurance for the winners–those who own urban land–that their little piece of the rock is making them wealthier while all these unfortunate affordability problems occur.

Saturday Night Live brilliantly sent up gentrification, featuring cute dogs and artisanal mayo, which sounds kind of good, but not for $8.

Martin Luther King and virtues

Today I am thinking about Dr. King and the inevitable spate of essays scolding us not to make him into a plaster saint. These essays are fine as far as they contain a fundamental message that the dream can’t die by becoming cant or rote.

But these essays strike me as being very cynical in a way, too. People need individuals to admire and look up to. Treating him like a hero doesn’t mean you that you don’t understand how unbelievably hard his work was, or that his work is unfinished, or that he wasn’t necessarily a faithful husband, or a million other factors of the messy, wounded, fucked-up reality that governs all of us. It just means you recognize the many, many transcendent things about King; his magnificent writing, his magisterial capacity for political speech, his commitment to justice, his ability to point relentlessly to America’s failings and to the ways it can and must remedy, and his willingness to go forward knowing full well his own personal destruction was likely. Those are not small things; they are not everyday things. And those things are worth honoring.