Hyper-Gentrification Revisited

In Hyper-Gentrification, I wrote about a blogger called Jeremiah Moss. Specifically, about something he wrote called On Spike Lee & Hyper-Gentrification.

Since that time, he was invited to rewrite that piece for the New York Times, as part of their overview of gentrification. So his position, distilled, is:

    The old-school gentrification of the 20th century, while harmful, wasn’t all bad. It made streets safer, created jobs and brought fresh vegetables to the corner store. … Unlike gentrification, in which the agents of change were middle-class settlers moving into working-class and poor neighborhoods…

    …hyper-gentrification in New York was implemented via strategically planned mass rezonings, eminent domain and billions in tax breaks to corporations…

    So before gentrification became “hyper”, it wasn’t all bad, according to Moss. When the process of removing the working class from their neighborhood was happening, using all of the tools at the disposal of both real estate developers and the city, from illegal evictions, to arson, to filling vacant apartments with drug dealers to drive out tenants, to turning over in rem buildings to “developers” for pennies on the dollar, to programs like AHOP, this wasn’t all bad. The same private/public interests (themselves, bourgeois legalisms) were at play as today, at the then-existing level of development.

Moss sees gentrification starting when people and small businesses start to move into an area where they weren’t before. He fails to understand the processes that led to that, despite his many references to Neil Smith. He doesn’t see the “flipping” of buildings (buildings bought and then sold at a profit, sometimes without any renovations being made) as part of the process, or even the transition from a healthy building stock to a decrepit one. For him, as for so many like him, it starts when the outward signs become noticeable.

So what is his solution?

    Let’s drastically reduce tax breaks to corporations and redirect that money to mom-and-pops. Protect the city’s oldest small businesses by providing selective retail rent control, and implement the Small Business Survival Act to create fair rent negotiations. Pass a citywide ordinance to control the spread of chain stores. … Shop local and protest the corporate invasion of neighborhoods.

Increase taxes on corporations? OK. Direct the money to small businesses? To what end? If the Small Business Survival Act creates fair rent negotiations (Moss’s contention), small business rents will be lower. So what will they do with the money? Raise their employees’ wages? Ha! Pocket the money? Probably. Use the money to expand? Probably. So the small businesses will become big businesses, in time. Maybe even chains. Regarding shopping locally, I’ve already addresses that.

Moss’s changes will only benefit small business owners. That is his starting and ending point.

    This … is the transformation of society in a democratic way, but a transformation within the bounds of the petty bourgeoisie. … [I]t believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within whose frame alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided.*

=-=-=-=-=

* The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, accessed April 27, 2014.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. joe
    Apr 27, 2014 @ 13:31:25

    Neil Smith argues gentrification accelerated sometime in the late 80s rather than being a 21st century phenomenon as Jeremiah Moss suggests. Like Moss, Smith acknowledged a change in the character of gentrification. So what changed? In an interview by Moss, Smith argues that “gentrification in the 1960s into the 1980s was quite exceptional… [it] happened in one house here, a street there, perhaps a whole neighborhood, BUT IT WAS THE EXCEPTION TO THE LARGER FORCES SHAPING URBAN CHANGE [emphasis added].” After that period gentrification comes to describe a very different project. “By the 1990s and 2000s it was the disneyfication of Times Square, the condominium frenzy on the Bowery, and a corporate fill-in of the previously low-rent spaces feeding out from Manhattan–Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, etc., and now the superfunded Gowanus.” According to Smith, “What began as a seemingly quaint rediscovery of the drama and edginess of the new urban “frontier” became in the 1990s broad-based market driven policy.” In other words gentrification had gone from being exceptional to being one of the “larger forces shaping urban change.”* Timing aside, where Moss and Smith differ is whether the change in gentrification requires a new word to describe it. Smith said no. Moss finds some utility in ‘hyper-gentrification.’

    It might be worth bringing the debate down to earth by thinking about the issues by relating them to personal biography. How have I experienced these changes? When I first moved to Brooklyn in the mid 1980s my building included a small Italian fish market where everyone spoke Italian, a single mom, and two twenty-somethings (including myself) from outside the neighborhood in the other two units. There was a rent gap between myself and the single mom but the gap was not huge. The force that was driving gentrification in Carroll Gardens in the 1980s was that property values had been reassessed upwards resulting in a rise in property taxes. Landlords were turning their brownstones into multiple units. My own landlord, who owned the Brownstone he lived in a block away, sold his place and moved to Staten Island shortly after I moved in. Compare that gentrification process to the current redevelopment of Willets Point. Almost overnight an entire district of small businesses is being razed to make way for corporate re-development of that space. It is easy to see why a new word might be reached for when trying to describe such increases in the rate and scale of change. Hyper-gentrification seems attractive. It’s tempting to take a page from Edward Luttwak and call it Turbo-gentrification.

    On Moss’ point on mom and pop stores. I understand why Moss wants to redirect monetary flows to mom and pop stores. Like Jane Jacobs Moss sees small business as playing an important role in a healthy, diverse urban life. True enough. But the 800 pound gorilla here is the shift in the city’s economic base. The mom and pop stores of the days of yore were sustained by the city’s manufacturing sector. Mom and pops are not themselves going to provide a sustainable base for future development. Small businesses that employ more than mom and pop will have to be encouraged. Projects like the redevelopment of the Brooklyn Navy Yard offer some promise.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking blog entry!

    +++

    * The Neil Smith interview was lined in Jeremiah Moss’ NY Times piece.
    http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com/2011/08/smith-on-gentrification.html

    Reply

    • Quilas
      Apr 30, 2014 @ 13:12:21

      Joe,

      I read Moss’s interview with Smith before writing my piece. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t misattributing anything to Moss, or not crediting him where I should. So what I wrote was already informed by Moss’s writing on Smith. Interviews can make good reading, but unless Smith recants his positions, they’re not what I would refer to on this topic.

      Much of “hyper-gentrification” mirrors Marx’s description of increased capitalization of industry under expanded reproduction. Industries become highly capitalized, barriers to entry are greater. His description of rent in Volume 3 is all about increasing capitalization of land. These things are definitely happening, but when the people being affected are no longer the working class, then terms that describe the anti-working class nature of the action should no longer be used. The result is, as I wrote, that gentrification becomes synonymous with change.

      I don’t think a new word is needed to describe what’s happening at Willet’s Point. An area zoned for one type of commercial use is being rezoned for another type of commercial use. As cool as Willet’s Point is to photograph, it’s a toxic waste site.

      Regarding “mom and pop” stores, I understand too why Moss wants to redirect monetary flows to them. It was part of my piece.

      Reply

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