Gentrification Is Not Neutral

There’s a documentary called “Gut Renovation” that released last year, that I read about on another blog, that tells the story of the film-maker, Su Friedrich, who moved into a loft space in Williamsburg many years ago, fixed it up, and then became incensed when the zoning laws were changed in 2005 to allow towering condos to be built, which eventually drove her out of the neighborhood. Her anger is understandable: she and others had created a living-space, and helped repurpose a neighborhood, that appealed to them (I don’t know if it appealed to those who were living there before she arrived). Her wrath is directed at that the new developers and residents: the gentrifiers.

But Su Friedrich was a gentrifier. Owner/occupiers are gentrifiers, the same as any others, qua gentrifiers. They’re oftentimes the first, and most persistent, since they’re able to either work within existing zoning laws, or more easily evade them.

So this, added to all of my reading and writing on gentrification lately, had me wondering: is it possible that gentrification is neutral? All buildings have a lifespan. All buildings will require significant renovations, or even razing, at some point. Most buildings in a neighborhood ripe for gentrification are of approximately the same age, which means that they will have deteriorated at about the same pace, and require renovation at about the same time. Even if the cheapest materials are used, the result will be a building with a higher-capitalized ground rent than what preceded it. Is it even possible to renovate the buildings in an area without making it unaffordable for those already living there? That is, without gentrifying it?

I was puzzling this while walking to work one day when it finally came to me, or came back to me rather, as I had already stated the problem in a response to a comment on Follow the Money. These options — ungentrified, devalorized neighborhood vs. gentrified, unaffordable neighborhood; quaint, gentrified block vs. over-built, gentrified block — are what we’re limited to when the root of the problem, capitalism, remains outside of the discussion. When housing is an exchange-value instead of a use-value, it’s clear that gentrification is not neutral.

Acting within this straightjacket, a strategy has arisen to prevent the proliferation of luxury towers and franchise stores by restricting what can be razed, or be permitted to open, within an area. This is really the crux: this action will not halt the advance of gentrification, only the direction it takes. One’s preference matters only to this degree. High-rises, or single-family townhouses? Starbucks, or Bluebird Coffee Shop?

When one group of gentrifiers does battle with another group, why take sides? Our gut reaction might be to oppose the large real estate developers, but that doesn’t mean we should side with those actively involved in the same process. Fossilized neighborhoods are no more appealing than glass and concrete neighborhoods. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum should not be the entire Lower East Side.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. joe
    Apr 11, 2013 @ 10:05:01

    Thanks for another insightful and provocative post.

    I agree that there is something of a strait jacket at work here. We operate within the constraints of a particular period, one in which processes of gentrification are re-making the city. There are battles over the direction gentrification is taking in particular neighborhoods. They are important battles because their outcome opens or closes off certain possibilities. I don’t think it would have been worth it to dismiss as inconsequential Jane Jacobs’ fight to save Soho from the highway building schemes of Robert Moses just because she didn’t bring capitalism into the conversation. Nor would it have made much sense too oppose efforts to save Adam Purple’s gardens on the grounds that they were as much a force for gentrification as the development schemes of private capital and City Hall. New York City without the period when Soho flourished as a haven for artists would be a very different city. The Lower East Side without Adam Purple’s creations is a very different community. Whatever the final outcome, the current organizing around corporatization or over development (putting in hi-rise condos in every available lot) of the East Village is perhaps another such moment. If corporatization and overdevelopment continue, it will leave behind a very different EV. If it is stopped, the future of the EV will include a different set of possibilities. To not take sides in this situation is, well, to take sides.

    My second thought is about the Su Friedrichs, Adam Purples, and Soho artist loft dwellers as gentrifiers. Not every act of making something or fixing something up is an act of gentrification. It seems to me that gentrification is a larger context (or process at work) that suddenly valorizes such projects in some spaces (and not others) at certain moments (and not others). Essentially these individuals become gentrifiers after the fact — once the things they were doing attracted the attention of others who then turned those projects into a lifestyle to be consumed by people with considerably more money than existed in the area beforehand.


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