Saturday, April 7th, 2007
The Boston Globe had an interesting essay this week talking about gentrification. I’m not sure what this was. I’m assuming some sort of op-ed since it doesn’t read like a normal article. The point the author is trying to make is that gentrification is more complex than it first appears, and there are winners/losers of various races. It is not just a monolithic rich whites displace poor blacks.
My position on gentrification is very clear. It is the principle enshrined in landmark civil rights legislation and the Fair Housing Act. Namely that people have a right to live where ever they want to and can afford to. There is more than a whiff of retrograde ideas in the anti-gentrification push. Activists talk about the “character of the neighborhood” and “displacement” of existing residents. What they forget is just a few short decades ago those same words were nothing more than racial code words for keeping neighborhoods white. It can’t be “fair housing” for thee and “gentrification” for me. Trying to maintain neighborhoods as the private preserve of an exclusive group of people is discrimination plain and simple.
However, there is more to the story. If change is driven by the free market, by people choosing where to live and developers choosing where to build, that’s ok. But too often gentrification is active public policy. The city declares a neighborhood blighted and starts using eminent domain to acquire properties to turn over to connected (i.e., campaign contributing) developers. TIF and other subsidy funds are handed out. PUD or other zoning favors are given for developers who are putting in “high class” development.
There is a certain tension here. As I’ve noted elsewhere, any improvement in a neighborhood increases property values and thus affects the poor negatively. So just something like replacing sidewalks and adding street lights can start driving the poor out. I’m not going to suggest we should leave urban neighborhoods to decay in the interest of allowing the poor a place to live.
But too often city officials, and just plain citizens, drive around and see these old neighborhoods full of charm and character, though a bit run down, and see only the potential of the buildings, of the built environment. The people in the neighborhood barely register, except possibly as a negative. I’ve seen many comments from the well-meaning on urban discussion forums talking about how certain neighborhoods have great potential for lofts, condos, coffee shops, and swank restaurants. I think it is pretty obvious who they imagine might live in those condos and eat in those establishments. All this while exclaiming over the architecture. I call this “love the neighborhood, hate the neighbors”.
There seems to be only one model of urban rejuvenation that city planners and all too many others understand: converting older neighborhoods into yuppie playgrounds. Everything else is viewed as blight even if in a certain sense it might be thriving. I think of the many immigrant neighborhoods, which are often full of profitable small businesses, yet still are viewed as distressed because these businesses don’t look like the shiny, new, high design concept the upscale expect.
I know many cities are desperate to get anyone with money to move there. And that’s a worthwhile goal. When all you’ve got is poor people, that’s not a recipe for civic success. Still, by focusing on a pretty narrow slice: yuppies with no kids (or pre-school aged children), empty nesters, tourists, etc. can a city thrive? Can you have a successful city without a broad middle class? Time will tell. I think it is worth noting, however, that even a place like Chicago, which has seen perhaps the biggest urban condo building boom of any city in the US thanks to pro-development policies and land availability, is actually losing population. The influx of the upscale can’t make up for the departures of everyone else. I ultimately believe that to be truly successful, a city needs to have a broad middle class that chooses to live there. Obviously this is no easy feat given the state of urban schools, but this is the core problem that needs to be solved.
In the meantime, I’d challenge cities to step up and think of redevelopment ideas that don’t involve lots of condos and Starbucks. Take into account the people who actually live in these neighborhoods, not just the built environment. Think about the businesses who’ve toughed it out there, not just about the big national chains or swank local shops you hope to attract. And recognize that urban success doesn’t always look the same, and a little grit and lack of a fancy interior designers, etc. doesn’t make a neighborhood run down or blighted.