A Return From The Suburbs?

In Philadelphia and elsewhere an “urban renaissance” of sorts may well have begun in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was not fueled by any significant return of the middle class from the suburbs. Even at the height of the 1980s gentrification, suburban expansion proceeded apace. This would seem to cast doubt on the traditional cultural and economic explanations of gentrification as the result of altered consumer choices amid economic constraints.

If a dimension of consumer choice certainly remains, consumer sovereignty is more difficult to defend as a definitive explanation for gentrification. The problem is that gentrification is not simply a North American phenomenon but also emerged in the 1950s and 1960s in Europe and Australia, where the extent and experience of prior middle-class (an indeed working-class) suburbanization and the relation between suburb and inner city are substantially different.

If cultural choice and consumer preference really explain gentrification, this amounts either to the hypothesis that individual preferences change in unison not only nationally but internationally — a bleak view of human nature and cultural individuality — or that the overriding constraints are strong enough to obliterate the individuality implied in consumer preference. If the latter is the case, the concept of consumer preference is at best contradictory: a process first conceived in terms of individual consumption preference has now to be explained as resulting from cultural unidimensionality in the middle class — still rather bleak.

[T]he gentrifier as consumer is only one of many actors participating in the process. To explain gentrification according to the gentrifier’s preferences alone, while ignoring the role of builders, developers, landlords, mortgage lenders, government agencies, real estate agents — gentrifiers as producers — is excessively narrow. A broader theory of gentrification must take the role of the producers as well as the consumers into account, and when this is done it appears that the needs of production — in particular the need to earn profit — are a more decisive initiative behind gentrification than consumer preference. … [T]he relationship between production and consumption is symbiotic, but it is a symbiosis in which the movement of capital in search of profit predominates.

Consumer sovereignty explanations have taken for granted the availability of areas ripe for gentrification when this was precisely what had to be explained.

Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier (London/New York: Routledge, 1996) 55-57.

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