Stephen Lee Naish discusses the perks and perils of gentrification.
Peter Moscowitz, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood (Nation Books, 2017), 272 pp.
I have witnessed firsthand only a very mild form of gentrification. Firstly, in the United Kingdom, where I lived in the Clarendon Park district of Leicester, and in my current home of Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Clarendon Park was a diverse community of students, academics, workers, pensioners, and young families. Within walking distance was a vibrant strip of second-hand bookstores, cafes, bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and charity shops. The primary school around the corner was one of the best to send your kids to. I lived there for three years just before moving to Canada. Clarendon Park was already under gentrification not long before I left, but it went into overdrive soon after. A coffee shop that also doubled as a boutique shoe shop opened in what was once a bank. A retro hairstylist opened up a shop; a craft brewery occupied what was once a tiny corner store. At the same time, the big hitters such as Costa Coffee and Tesco moved in. House prices in the area rose. Clarendon Park became an exclusive and much sought-after area of Leicester for prospective buyers.
In Kingston, Ontario, gentrification is taking a similar form. Within the last year, six new coffee shops opened up in the downtown. The shabby but charming cooperative café that served cheap coffee and provided a soup kitchen to Kingston’s homeless community closed down, and in its place a chain pizza restaurant opened. Boutique stores and art galleries slowly fill the empty storefronts that were occupied by chain stores. In one district, known as the Swamp Ward, a historically working-class area, a tiny coffee shop serving expensive lattes to the ever-growing community of triple A’s (artists, academics, and activists) occupies what was once a laundromat.
In some respects, this change is pleasant. I visit coffee shops, I prefer to support local business, I can appreciate the redevelopment of shoddy building exteriors. Yet, according to journalist and social activist Peter Moscowitz’s book, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, gentrification comes at a price some cannot afford: renovating urban spaces simultaneously transforms city centres into less equal places where minorities, the working classes, and poor people struggle to live and work.
Taking a narrative journey, Moscowitz’s breaks his book down into four city case studies: New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York. Each of these cities has, over the last few decades, faced an event that has allowed a gentrification project to take hold. Most obviously, New Orleans, which in the wake of the 2005 natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina uprooted a predominantly black, predominantly poor populace. Many never returned; those who did saw themselves priced out of their previous occupancy by a campaign to rebuild and redefine New Orleans to attract a younger, hipper, and whiter potential populace.
Though not in the same destructive manner as New Orleans, Detroit too has suffered its own disaster, a slow economic decline that ended in a mass exodus of the city’s population when the jobs dried up, and a declaration of bankruptcy when the public services and bills could no longer be fulfilled. The city lived through a spell as an abandoned, decaying dystopia until an emergency manager took control and instigated a massive, privately funded regeneration of the downtown core. The gentrification of Detroit’s urban centre has proved miraculous, with a flock of young, tech-savvy hipsters moving in with the influx of creative web-based industries opening up offices and making the core a vibrant place to live and work.
What is clear from Moscowitz’s book is that these regeneration projects clearly trample over the living standards of those who already, or once did, occupy these targeted areas. The incursion of the moneyed class into the once poor city districts means that, in the case of New Orleans, those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, or in the case of Detroit, those who had their homes foreclosed, are unable or unwelcome to return to the neighbourhoods that they once called home. This means that the original tenants are jettisoned to the outskirts of the city where services such as schools, public transportation, policing, hospitals, general city maintenance, and even a place to buy groceries are still in a state of decline and will unlikely reopen. The spoils of health, safety, education, transport, and employment, enjoyed by the newcomers are not shared out or trickled down to the rest of city and its original occupants. It is clear from Moscowitz’s journeys to each city and his discussions with residents old and new that gentrification has left a great many behind.
Gentrification might seem necessary in some cases. Every city needs a facelift now and again. A city on the cliff edge of financial collapse would be required to reinvent itself for a younger generation or face the prospect of becoming a permanent economic sacrifice zone, a wasteland of crumbling exteriors, rotting billboards and disused streets. Yet, gentrification has a sinister side. It quite literally papers over poverty or at the very least our perception of poverty. No concerns are given to where the original occupants of these restored buildings have been moved on to, no thoughts for the once thriving industries that supplied good jobs and reasonable pay and places, such as bars and grocery stores to spend that hard-earned dough in. In their place, gleaming offices of tech companies, bike shops that sell $700 hybrids, coffee shops where a latte is $5 and the Wi-Fi is free. The idea of investing in a community that can flourish is dispensed with and replaced by a desire for a populace wired into the pursuit of home ownership, individual wealth, and status.
How to Kill a City clearly, confidently, and with great compassion walks the reader through a grossly unjust state of affairs and cityscapes of American inequality, underlying racism, and classism. Gentrification might be the neoliberal pursuit of breathing life into an old city and blowing the historical cobwebs off, but it also signifies the death of community spirit, the decline of industry and jobs for the disadvantaged, the demise of public services, and the idea that people matter more than profit. In this book, Moscowitz makes a case for allowing cities to develop in a more natural way and allowing communities to define themselves rather than having definitions placed upon them. When disaster strikes in whatever form, the state should empower the residents themselves to rebuild, reorganize, and tighten the community bonds. How to Kill a City is an essential read for anyone in urban development studies, but also anyone who values community engagement and worries about gentrification splintering their city.
Stephen Lee Naish‘s writing explores film, politics, and cultural theory. His writing has appeared, and is forthcoming in numerous journals and periodicals, including Candid Magazine, 3:AM, The Quietus, Film Matters, and Empty Mirror. He is the author of U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zero Books), Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press), and the forthcoming Deconstructing Dirty Dancing (Zero Books, April, 2017). He lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.