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.