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?

Mulberry Bend, by Jacob Riis

Mulberry Bend, by Jacob Riis

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.

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The Upside to Gentrification?

January 22, 2014 § 7 Comments

I read an interesting article on NPR.org this morning, about gentrification.  Based on recent research from Columbia University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, gentrification may not entirely suck for low-income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods.  The Columbia study looked at displacement in Harlem and across the US, calculating how many low income people moved out of their neighbourhoods when gentrification occurred.  Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank looked at the credit scores of low income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods.  In the first case, researchers found that people didn’t necessarily move out, in fact, low income earners were no more likely to move out of a gentrifying neighbourhood than a non-gentrifying one.  In the case of the Federal Reserve Bank, the credit scores of low income earners actually improved with gentrification of their neighbourhoods.

Not surprisingly, I find these kinds of studies slightly disarming.  Lance Freeman, Director of the Urban Planning programme at Columbia, expected to find that displacement was a common occurrence.  But he is still cautious to note that gentrification can and does indeed lead to displacement.

Most studies, at least most I have read from a wide variety of disciplines, lay out the reasons for displacement with gentrification: higher housing costs, higher food costs, higher taxes (if they own), amongst others.  In my experience of living in gentrifying neighbourhoods, the cost of gentrification is obvious on the street, as the original residents get marginalised as cafés, hipster clothing stores, and yuppy restaurants open.  There is no place for them to go, and the coffee shops and bodegas they used to frequent close down.  However, it is also obvious that people stay.  In part, they are helped by things such as rent control, or dedicated low income housing.  And, at least from my own anecdotal evidence, mixed-residential neighbourhoods are certainly friendlier, more community-based, and generally nicer to live in.

Last weekend, there was a story in the Boston Globe about a Southie woman, Maureen Dahill, who ran for State Senate, but lost gloriously, in large part because she supported the right of LGBT groups to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Dahill ran for office in order to attempt to bridge the gulf between “new” and “old” Southie, between the yuppies, artists, and hipsters, and the old Irish.  Dahill, a native of South Boston, works in the fashion industry, her husband is a firefighter. In other words, she was the ideal candidate for the role.

What I find interesting, aside from the fact she was trounced in the election, was the discussion in this article about the gulf that exists between the old and the new in Southie.  And this is something that is overlooked by quantified research studies such as the Columbia and Federal Reserve Bank ones.  However, what they add to the discussion is that there are those who remain, who refuse to leave for a variety of reasons.  The job now is to, if not attempt to emulate Dahill’s failed campaign (the Globe notes that from the get go “there were many who didn’t want any part of her bridge-building.”  The article doesn’t identify which side of the gulf this resistance came from.

At any rate, it is refreshing to see researchers attempt to explore the myths of gentrification, but I would also caution that we do not need a neo-liberal backlash that leads us to conclude that gentrification is good, it’s the best thing that can happen to us.  We must still discuss the human costs of gentrification, we must still fret over the plight of low income earners in neighbourhoods where rents go from $500 to $3,000 a month in short order.

 

The Value of Death and the Value of Passion

December 14, 2013 § 4 Comments

I am reading what is turning out to be one of the best books I’ve read in years, Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination.  Schulman is a survivor of the AIDS Plague in New York City in the 80s and early 90s.  She is deeply implicated in queer culture in New York, in the fight for the rights of those inflicted with AIDS during that era and the fight to commemorate and remember those who died.  81,542 people died of AIDS in New York City from 1981 to 2008.  2008 is 12 years after the Plague ended, according to Schulman.

The Gentrification of the Mind is a blistering indictment of gentrification in the East Village of Manhattan, an area of the city I knew as Alphabet City, and the area around St. Mark’s Place.  It’s the same terrain of Manhattan that Eleanor Henderson’s fantastic novel, Ten Thousand Saints, takes place in (I wrote about that here).  This is one of the things I love about cities: the simultaneous and layered existences of people in neighbourhoods, their lives spatially entwined, but culturally separate.

Schulman’s fury drips off the page of The Gentrification of the Mind, which is largely her own memoir of living through that era, in that neighbourhood where she still lives.  In the same flat she lived in in 1982.  She makes an interesting juxtaposition of the value of death, arguing that the 81,542 were of no value to our society, that their deaths were marginalised and, ultimately, forgotten.  Whereas the 2,752 people who died in New York on 9/11 have experienced the exact opposite in death: their lives have been valued, re-assessed and immortalised.  Her point is not to take away from those who died in 9/11, but to interestingly juxtapose those who died due to the neglect of their government and culture and those who died due to external forces.

I just finished reading Amy Waldman’s The Submission, a fictionalised account of the process leading to the creation of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero.  Waldman reminds us that the lives of those killed on 9/11 were not valued equally, something that should be intrinsic to us all.  The lives of the people who worked in the food courts, the restaurants, cafés and those who manned the parking lots, the custodial staff did not mater, in the end, as much as the first responders, the office workers, the people on the planes.

And this is an interesting argument.  Schulman’s response is much more visceral than mine, but she was there in the 80s and 90s.  I wasn’t.  She was also there on 9/11, I wasn’t.  But I am an historian, she is not.  Death is never equal, just as life isn’t.  It has been this way since forever.  In The Iliad and The Odyssey, set in Ancient Greece, the lives of the foot soldiers and the sailors under Odysseus’ command are worth nothing, whereas the lives of Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus are valued.  The deaths of the first two cause mourning and grief for Odysseus, both at Marathon and on his epic journey home.

All throughout history, people’s lives have been valued differently.  What Schulman sees relative to the victims of the AIDS Plague and 9/11 shouldn’t be surprising.  It doesn’t make it right, it doesn’t make it okay.  But, fact of the matter, it’s the same as it ever was.  And, after researching, writing, and teaching history for much of the past two decades, I can’t even get all that upset about the devaluation of the marginalised in society anymore.  I don’t think it’s any more right in 2013 than I did as an angry young man 20 years ago, but I have become so jaded as to not even register surprise or anger anymore.

So in reading Schulman’s book, I am surprised by her anger and her passion, and I am also intrigued by it, and I’m a little sad that being an historian is making me increasingly resigned to bad things happening in the world.  It might be time to get my Howard Zinn, E.P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm out, and remember that those men, even after a lifetime of studying, writing, and teaching history, maintained a righteous anger at injustice.

The Urban Cacophony

June 28, 2013 § 31 Comments

I’m currently reading Peter Ackroyd’s epic London: The Biography. This is the third non-fiction book I’ve read in the past year on the history and culture of London (the others were Peter White’s London in the 20th Centuryand Iain Sinclair’s luminous London Orbital). I’m not entirely sure why I’m reading so much of London, a city I don’t have any connection to; nor is it a city I feel any attraction to.  But, here I am, no doubt attracted to these books because I find the city to be so fascinating (that’s the city in generic, not London particularly).  And London is the most written-about city in the English language.  Anyway.

One of Ackroyd’s chapters is about the sounds of London in the early modern era.  I find acoustic history to be fascinating.  Historians are increasingly interested in the sounds of the past (including my good friend, S.D. Jowett, whose blog is here), and this shouldn’t be surprising.  Given the innovative uses we historians have made of our sources, it’s really no surprise that now we’re beginning to ponder the smells and sounds of the past.  And cities, of course, are prime locations for such explorations.  One of my favourite Montréal websites is the Montréal Sound Map, which documents the soundscapes of the city.

Ackroyd has done interesting work in excavating the audio history of London, including references to the combined sound of the city in the early modern era, like a cacophony or like the roaring of the ocean.  These noises, of course, were and are entirely human created, the noise of people living in close quarters in a big city.  Even the sounds of nature in cities are mediated through human intervention, such as the rushing streams and rivers of early modern London, or the mediated parks of the modern city, such as Mont-Royal in Montréal or Central Park in New York, both of which were created and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted.  It came as a shock to me when I learned that most of the flora and fauna on Mont-Royal were not, in fact, native species, but were brought in by Olmsted and planted there for aesthetic reasons.

When I think of the roar of the city, I tend to think of Manhattan.  For my money, there is no urban space on this planet as loud as mid-town.  The endless roar of traffic, the honking of horns, the sounds of people on the streets talking, sirens wailing, fights breaking out, the sound of planes flying overhead, people hawking things along the sidewalks.  I had never really thought all that much about the noise of the city, it was just part of the background noise.  But a few years ago, I realised that I like white noise machines.  They were, I though, supposed to be evocative of the ocean (near which I grew up), but that’s not what the sounds evoked in me.  They evoked the sounds of the city, the constant hum of human activity.  The only other place I’ve been that challenges Manhattan for the capital of noise is my hometown.  Montréal is downright noisy, as all cities are, but Montréal hurts my ears.  Hence my love for Parc Mont-Royal.  Once you get amongst the trees on the side of the mountain, the sounds of the city become a distant roar.  The same is true for Central Park.

Where I sit right now, I hear the sounds of the city, over the sound of the loud music blasting out of my speakers.  But I can hear people walking by my house, I can hear the traffic on the busy street at the end of my block, and sirens.

It’s not surprising that academics as a whole are starting to turn to the sounds that surround us, given how much of an impact our environment has upon us.  This is just as true of rural areas (in which case, the silence can tend to frighten city folk).  In the late 19th century, the anti-modernists took hold of a part of North American culture.  They were turned off by the city, by the noise, by the hustle & bustle, by the fast pace of life.  People began to develop neurasthenia, wherein the patient began to feel frazzled, burned out, and depressed due to a frazzling of the nerves.  It was particularly common in American cities, and for awhile was also known as “Americanitis.”  So the anti-modernists, who preached a basic ‘back to the land’ message.  Canada’s most famous artistic sons, the Group of Seven, were predicated on this kind of anti-modernism, they championed the mid-Canadian north as a tonic against the aggravation of living in the city.

But what I find most interesting about the kind of acoustic history that Ackroyd introduces us to is the way in which he is so successful at recreating the past, I can almost put myself in the streets of London in the 17th century.  Perhaps this is not surprising.  I read something once that said that sounds, more than sights, triggered our other senses, as well as our imagination and memory (think of this next time you hear a song that has meaning for you, you will be transported back to that meaning).  But, for historians, acoustic histories (as well as histories of smells, the other incredibly evocative sense) really do work at making history come alive, so to speak.  Plus, it’s also just kind of cool to imagine what a city sounded like 200 years ago.

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