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.