By John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill
Foreword by Peter Marcuse
University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division © 2017
If you are reading this review, there is a good chance that you may be a gentrifier. Hopefully it also means that you are curious about your role in the process of gentrification and open to picking apart what exactly is meant when gentrification is used by academics, activists, and policy makers to describe particular types of urban development. If not you will have a bad time. There is much in this book that will be controversial, flying in the face of conventional wisdom and slogans about gentrification, demanding that those of us with some skin in the game depart from the well-worn paths of description and condemnation to demand something bigger: a transformative approach to housing and community development policy (199).
Gentrifier’s critiques and prescriptions are presented within an auto-ethnography of each of the author’s relationships to housing in gentrifying urban neighborhoods from Fort Greene, Brooklyn to Chicago, San Diego, and Providence, as their lives change from that of single grad students, to coupled renters, to middleclass professionals with families. These narratives offer critical insight into the housing decisions people make, even as they grapple with the ethics of particular choices and place differential values on particular variables over time. While this approach is humanizing in a discursive landscape that often treats gentrifiers as a homogenous group of bourgeois capitalists, its main purpose is to allow the authors to ask the type of complicated questions left unanswered by anti-gentrification purists: What makes our lives contented; what unsettles our households or families? How does the current form of capitalism actually effect lives? How do the politics of race shape our navigation of these processes? How do we unpack the anger, guilt, shallowness, and other emotions related to gentrification? (8). What makes these vignettes so controversial is that the middleclass urban transplant reader will recognize herself in many of them, whether she is an “anti-gentrification gentrifier” or a small business owner, and that reflection is an uncomfortable one to stare at. But stare we must, if we are to engage with the author’s contention that “understanding the motivations of gentrifiers (especially us) could be a way to affect the process of gentrification today outside the revolutionary structural changes that would bring ‘social ownership of housing…social control of land, the resident control of neighborhoods’ and other just allocations” (24).
To understand not just gentrifier motivations but those of anyone seeking housing, the authors introduce an analytical “multi-tool” to examine the complex interplay of structure and agency in these choices, the multi-tool implying an ability to “take apart, rework, and adjust their views on a complex, ever-changing process” (26). This multi-tool contains seven types of considerations that go into an individual’s housing choice: monetary, practical, aesthetic, amenity, community, cultural authenticity, and flexibility (28). The authors then proceed to examine their own “residential biographies” using this multi-tool, developing a blueprint of middleclass urban housing choices characterized by mobility and an unfolding of different life events over time. I found the choices the authors made related to neighborhood and schooling particularly interesting as I reflected on times in the past when I had asserted an overly simplistic view of the issue, taking a rigid “send kids to their local public school no matter what” stance informed more by ideology than a thoughtful exploration of the issue. Not that myself or the authors became boosters of charter or private schools by the end of the chapter, but the nuance of their stories helped shed light on both the internal struggles faced by parents as well as the disproportionate opportunities available to middleclass parents in gentrifying neighborhoods. This of course makes things even more contradictory and complex, but one can see hints of cross-class solidarity as a possibility given the broadly similar hopes and desires parents have for their children’s education.
Chapter three reviews the structural forces that have created, shaped, and abetted gentrification and the theorists and interlocutors who have had the greatest impact on the conversation. Those familiar with the gentrification literature will recognize Ruth Glass, Neil Smith, and Richard Florida among others. The authors engage these theorists at various spatial and economic scales, framing these intersecting and contradictory historical processes as the “De-“s and “Re-“s – that is, the negative ones implying a removal or denial of resources and power (deconcentration, devaluation, delinking, etc.) and the positive ones implying a new beginning or an engendering of some kind of growth (rebuild, revitalization, renaming, etc.). For those not familiar with the housing or gentrification literature, this chapter crucially reaches back past the first wave of gentrification (typically seen to be in the 1970s) to explore the tangled roots of contemporary gentrification in racial segregation, redlining, suburbanization, deindustrialization, HUD’s brief foray into public housing, poverty deconcentration and various urban revitalization regimes.
The authors then go on to tackle what is arguably the most contentious attribute of gentrification: displacement. Even more than changes to the cultural fabric of a neighborhood, displacement of both residents and local businesses are frequently cited as the defining negative attribute of gentrification (what Patch calls the “displacement thesis”). Yet again, the authors complicate the matter, this time in a bid to rescue the narrative from the displacement thesis and its geographic determinism (that demands that gentrifiers just “stop gentrifying”) to make room for “cross-class alliances” (119). Looking at both theoretical and empirical evidence, the authors find strong evidence that there isn’t a 1-to-1 relationship between increased property values and displacement and that there are actually many reasons why low income people may move that have more to do with changes in the global economy than gentrification. Instead, they engage a model that posits that “capitalism causes both gentrification and displacement and these two phenomena have interactive effects,” acknowledging that “capitalism rewards many growth strategies” (119). This matters because a doctrinaire focus on residential displacement obscures a much more critical issue facing low-income urban residents: a lack of affordable housing development in a market driven by the all-consuming housing demands of middleclass and rich urban transplants. I’m not sure this argument will convince someone whose rent is going up and who can’t find suitable housing in their neighborhood that gentrification isn’t causing their displacement; in the absence of a broad social movement that demands housing as a right for all, the default position becomes the absurd demand that gentrifiers just go home.
Chapter four lays out a typology of six different types of gentrifiers, which might seem like an academic version of The Hipster Handbook (for those of us who were gentrifiers in the mid-aughts) were it not for their explicit focus on understanding why and how gentrifiers change the cultural fabric of a neighborhood. And in all fairness they aren’t really trying to prove that every middleclass transplant to a gentrifying neighborhood is easily fits into one of these categories, so much as to find some common and contrasting threads among the varying motivations, political orientations, and economic positions gentrifiers carry with them into their new neighborhoods. Reading through these six different types, I immediately saw glimpses of myself, most of my city-dwelling friends, and many of the market-oriented urban planners found on message boards and at meet-ups. The description of The Curator hit closest to home because it describes the types of people most likely to be most interested in joining (or helping to organize) a social movement that makes the transformative – and indeed radical – demands for housing as a universal right. But The Curator is most often caught up in “displacement theory” and doesn’t actually see himself as a gentrifier due to his good intentions and desire to keep the neighborhood the way it is. Underlying this type is an overwhelming focus on authenticity – who has it, who doesn’t, how to best perform it in public – that casts the original “authentic” residents of the neighborhood as oppressed, which can result in a certain kind of white saviorism whereby these “non-gentrifier” gentrifiers participate in anti-gentrification activism on behalf of their neighbors and ignore the “complex and sophisticated street-level networks” that exist all around (169). Bringing The Curator into conversation with the five other types, the authors demonstrate that they – we – all have in common the simple fact that we all serve as “disruptive forces in the economic, social, and cultural makeup of the neighborhood”, which means that there is no good-intentioning your way out of such disruption. Where the good intentions and progressive politics do matter, however, is when it comes to advocating for transformative housing policy, which is the subject of the final chapter.
This last chapter won’t disappoint with the controversial content, especially if you try to bounce some of the ideas therein off of your local anti-gentrification radicals. Before getting into the small handful of suggestions the authors characterize as having a transformative approach to housing and community development policy, the authors deconstruct several gentrification-related arguments that are typically put forward by anti-gentrification activists and academics, taking them to their logical end. If one is ideologically committed to any of these arguments, they will be hard to read and will likely elicit defensiveness. One of the great qualities of this book is that it gently but persistently calls on the reader to question her assumptions and reflect on her experiences throughout. In rejecting economic and geographic determinism, the authors problematize the “reform vs. revolution” binary and open up space for the reader to imagine different futures. The work of organizers and activists in Jackson, Mississippi with Cooperation Jackson, the alternative economy theoretical work of J.K. Gibson-Graham, and the radical municipalism of Barcelona en Comú come to mind as examples of people already operating within this framework but there are certainly many more. If the authors are successful, the reader will feel comfortable enough to walk towards this less-certain – yet prolific of possibility – place where we might begin to tackle the messy problem of affordable housing in the United States instead of just talking about it.
While the authors end on a positive note, pointing uncertainly towards the work that lies ahead, I want to circle back to the beginning of the book. It is significant that the authors chose noted critical urban planner Peter Marcuse to pen the forward to Gentrifier, building a bridge to Marcuse’s 2016 book with David Madden, In Defense of Housing (Verso). In Defense of Housing is a manifesto of sorts, digging into the roots of the global housing crisis and opening space for the radical possibility and demand for the defense of housing as a place to live instead of a real estate investment. “The way forward” according to Marcuse and Madden, “is to acknowledge the limits of formal rights to housing under the current legal and political system while at the same time pressing for a sufficiently broad, activist conception of those rights” (194). This definition of a right to housing moves beyond demands for legal protections or simply an increase in the number of affordable units built, and insists on democracy, decommodification, and dis-alienation. I was moved by these arguments but had a hard time seeing a way forward, as my own experience with urban housing movements and much of the current academic literature is that they are often defensively focused on “fighting” gentrification or eviction, with few generative housing demands. Gentrifier gives the reader some invaluable tools to unpack and defetishize gentrification and gentrifiers, enabling the reader – if she is open to it – to move from a defensive anti-gentrification stance towards an offensive stance that demands a democratic, transformative, and participatory approach to housing and community development.