Is Gentrification Inevitable?
June 3, 2014 § 3 Comments
Yesterday, in response to this post, I was accosted on Twitter and accused of many things, most of which were untrue, but most notably of standing by and watching gentrification from the sidelines and not offering any solutions. In and around that accusation, repeated in many different ways, I was also told that ‘gentrification is inevitable.’ Since then, I have been wondering if it is.
Now, I must point out that my critic, who ultimately dismissed me as “just a guy in Boston making false judgements about my hometown,” is also a real estate agent and is of the opinion that her neighbourhood, Verdun, is the next up and coming neighbourhood in Montreal. So she has a vested interest in gentrification and rising property values. Not that I don’t, of course, both when I lived in Montreal and now. And it also doesn’t matter which city I visit, gentrification benefits me. I’m a middle-class white guy. But is gentrification inevitable?
I was in New York City a couple of weeks ago, on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan. We eventually had dinner on Mulberry Street, on the terrasse of an overpriced, but delicious, Italian restaurant. As I looked up the block, I could see the formerly notorious Mulberry Bend. The Mulberry Bend, when the Five Points still existed, was perhaps the worst bit of real estate in the Western world for poverty and crime. It was central to Jacob Riis’ 1896 classic, How the Other Half Lives. Today, however, Mulberry Street is beautiful and on this sunny Sunday the street was blocked off to cars and a street fair was going on. Even twenty years ago, this wasn’t really all that nice a part of town. But today, it’s all smoothed over and gentrified.
But is the kind of gentrification that has occurred on Mulberry Street inevitable?
I think it might be relative, it might be locational. Take, for example, New Haven, CT. New Haven is a smallish city and has been dealing with a variety of social problems, from high crime, to drug use, since deindustrialisation in the 1960s and 70s. It has also experienced ‘white flight’ and the people who ended up being stuck in inner-city New Haven had no hope, no option for a better life. And so, New Haven, despite being the home of Yale University, has struggled. On the train into New York City last weekend, I saw its newest solution, called Re:New Haven. The city is offering people up to $80,000 in incentives to purchase a home and live in New Haven. It seems to be working, at least according to the couple sitting next to us on the terrasse on Mulberry Street, who were from New Haven (as is the friend I was with that night, though he no longer lives in his hometown), who reported a boom in new restaurants and other hangouts. On that front, Re:New Haven sounds like a brilliant idea. But there is always a cost for gentrification. In the case of New Haven, African Americans who already live in these gentrifying neighbourhoods pay the cost.
New Haven has decided that gentrification is inevitable. And it certainly looks that way on the ground in New York City and Montreal. But there’s also a question of neighbourhood, especially in big cities. If you look at New York City, it’s interesting to note that Queen’s and Staten Island are not getting as much love from the gentrifiers. No doubt because they are rather inconveniently located vis-à-vis Manhattan. Similarly, in Montral, gentrification is in neighbourhoods that are conveniently located in relation to the downtown core of the city. Thus, Saint-Henri, Griffintown and Pointe-Saint-Charles make sense in their gentrification. Even Verdun is no more than 15 minutes from downtown on the métro. But, other neighbourhoods, are more or less free of gentrification, or at least have not been overly affected. Take, for example, Hochelaha-Maisonneuve, or HOMA, a chronically depressed neighbourhood in the east end. Despite attempts over the past decade to gentrify, the neighbourhood remains largely immune. Similarly, neighbourhoods north of the Métropolitaine in the north end of the city are also seemingly gentrification-proof.
Collective action against gentrification tends not to work. It happens either way, whether residents welcome or resist it. However, my interlocutor yesterday also had interesting ideas about practical, boots-on-the-ground ways to ameliorate the effects of gentrification for the working classes of Verdun. Pointe-Saint-Charles has long had similar ideas, but, each time I’m back home in Montreal and go through the Pointe, I see fewer and fewer of the old school working classes and the stores and restaurants that served them and more gentrified homes and hipster coffee shops and the like.
But what makes gentrification inevitable? A search for cheap(er) housing? A search for The Next Big Thing? Recently, Richard Florida’s thesis about the Creative Class in cities is getting some static, because in many places it hasn’t worked out how he predicted. And yet gentrification carries on.