The roots of gentrification & how we can respond
January 19, 2014
The gentrification of a neighborhood often produces conflicting impressions on residents and non-residents. On the one hand, the area seems safer than in the past, houses are increasingly renovated, and new cultural and commercial resources are established. On the other hand, long-standing residents leave and appear to be replaced by higher-income people, usually white.
Edward, a longtime resident of Brooklyn, commented on the changes in his Crown Heights neighborhood in an interview at Narratively:
I’ve lived here 37 years, and now I start to see white people moving in. And I’m telling you the truth now, I start to feel like…’But why are all these people moving in?’ And I think to myself, ‘Ah shit!’ The changes around here—the police start to change; all this other shit, all these bicycle things.
Gentrification is the result of capitalism, a system characterized by the relentless pursuit of profit. In this article, I will examine what appear to be two contradictory outcomes of gentrification: the “improvement” of a neighborhood on the one hand and the displacement of its long-time residents on the other.
My intention is to provide an objective analysis from the perspective of those who make this city run—that is, the working class of New York and of all other cities undergoing gentrification.
First, let’s clear up a few misconceptions. For one, the driving force behind gentrification isn’t the appearance of “hipsters,” as seems to be assumed by many people, such as this blogger at DieHipster.com:
You clueless wannabe urban fucks aren’t fooling any of us real New Yorkers. You’ve accomplished nothing over the last decade, but displaced hardworking families, old-time residents and newly arrived immigrants…Rents have doubled and tripled because of your desire to be some kind of urban pioneer.
This blogger’s resentment toward a group of people who are used to crack open a neighborhood for so-called “urban renewal” is prevalent and understandable. Likewise, geographer David Levy explains gentrification as flowing from the consumer preferences of a new, youthful, white-collar middle class that wishes to change from a suburban to an urban lifestyle.
It seems unlikely, however, that the group’s actions alone can cause such an overwhelming and synchronous transformation of urban communities across the world. Moreover, it seems less likely that we can challenge gentrification by convincing hipsters to move elsewhere.
Levy’s “consumption-side” theory fails to identify the larger economic and political forces that nourish gentrification, and it cannot explain why certain neighborhoods are targeted for gentrification.
The late geographer Neil Smith counterposes Levy’s theory with a class perspective. He writes:
By contrast, the owners of capital intent on gentrifying and developing a neighborhood have a lot more “consumer choice” about which neighborhoods they want to devour, and the kind of housing and other facilities they produce for the rest of us to consume.
Smith’s point helps illustrate that the roots of gentrification lie much deeper than in the lifestyle of hipsters—they arise from the very fact that the economy is profit-driven. The things we consume are produced under the control of, and ultimately in the interests of, a minority of the population—the capitalist class. Any rational considerations, such as human well-being or climate change, aren’t priorities.
Once profit is made, it must be reinvested quickly to make even more profit, and so on. The accumulation of capital is therefore limitless and has no boundaries. Out of this limitless potential for the accumulation of capital arises competition between capitalists, in which the ones who accumulate the least perish from the market. Therefore, anything and everything becomes a commodity and is milked for profit—including land and housing.
In an article he co-authored with Michelle LeFaivre called “A Class Analysis of Gentrification,”, Smith explains after the Second World War, there was a mass movement of capital to the suburbs, where in contrast to the city, land was cheaper, little development existed, and larger sums of profit could be extracted.
Once capital left the city, many urban communities deteriorated. As they deteriorated, the value of properties decreased, and the capital needed to maintain them yielded fewer and fewer returns—and so the urban infrastructure was left for dead.
In the past few decades, however, as the suburbs developed, there was less room to invest small and gain big. Thus, capital made its return to urban life. After decades of consigning them to poverty and despair, capital re-enters starved urban communities only when it has become most profitable to do so.
When there’s a wide enough gap between the current rent in an area and the potential rent that can be made if it were to undergo reinvestment, a project for gentrification is born. This “rent gap” is the mechanism underlying gentrification.