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.