The Discourse of Gentrification

Gentrification is a controversial and confused subject; controversial, because its effects are associated in the popular mind with both forced displacement and the activist left, and confused, because no one seems to know how to talk about it. This weekend Wilfredo and I will post our theories on gentrification. For now, I will take a look at what others have written.

In an article in the Platypus Review one year ago, Laura Schmidt found fault with the politics of anti-gentrification. She argued that gentrification is often inappropriately racialized, so that it appears as a struggle between white yuppies and poor blacks and Hispanics; that anti-gentrificationists often fetishize the supposedly anti-capitalist identity of their low-income allies; and that “the discourse of anti-gentrification…seeks to keep those who are poor in their place, and those who are rich in theirs”—a cutting criticism, but in my view a fair one. In this month’s issue, Mark Hopwood wrote a response defending the politics of anti-gentrification and attempting to answer the question, “When we fight gentrification, what are we fighting for?”

Hopwood argues that Schmidt’s view of gentrification, like several others he can think of, is fundamentally abstract. He then tries to build a case for fighting gentrification in the name of self-interest. It is unhealthy, he believes, for people like him (University of Chicago students) to live in a homogenous enclave patrolled by the largest private police force in the country, surrounded by areas where they fear to tread. Therefore, he and his fellow students should support low-income people living next door out of self-interest. Now, I have two problems with this. First of all, I can entirely understand not wanting to live in such a situation, and I would approve of any attempt to change or escape it. But “unhealthy” is a word that implies some kind of objective diagnosis. What actual harm befalls students from being protected by the largest private police force in the country? Does he actually think Hyde Park—the third-most diverse neighborhood in the diverse city of Chicago—is “culturally homogenous”? Do all his fellow students really live in fear of setting foot outside Hyde Park? If so, apparently living next to low-income residents doesn’t help dispel that fear, because they already do that. Or perhaps Hopwood is arguing that, out of self-interest, students should join in the anti-gentrification effort in order to expose themselves to people from other demographics. If that is the reason, it seems like setting up a social hour or perhaps a barbecue in the park would be a much easier way to meet people.

This brings me to the second problem with Hopwood’s argument. At the end of his piece, he seems to say that his efforts to help Dessie, a friend of his and resident of an endangered low-income housing complex near campus, are motivated by personal friendship. This alone is not hard to believe; if my friend was in danger of losing his or her home, I too would feel strongly motivated to help out.  But this is also far from an argument or a justification for fighting gentrification outside of this one specific case. We can only be friends with so many people.

Let me be perfectly clear: I agree that it is good for me too when people nearby—or not nearby—are not forced out of their homes. However, self-interest alone is simply not enough to motivate any kind of serious political effort against gentrification. I might benefit from living near poor folks, but when deciding how to use an hour or two of my time, I would probably be acting more in my self-interest if I choose to read a book than if I choose to campaign for Grove Parc. Likewise, friendship may motivate me to help a poor individual I know, but it will not motivate me to help thousands of poor people I’ve never met. I believe Hopwood’s rejection of abstraction fails here, because he cannot provide a convincing reason in the domain of the personal to fight against gentrification.

Tune in next time, when Wilfredo and I examine gentrification, displacement, and demographic shift.

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4 Responses to “The Discourse of Gentrification”

  1. Farabundo Martí Says:

    It merely exposes Platypus’ intellectual bankruptcy when they can’t cough up a better rebuttal to Schmidt. Even if we could define yuppie in some objective way, why exactly don’t they, or any other group of citizens, have the right to live where they can afford to? Take a counterargument like “When group Y moves into neighborhood X, they destroy its cherished social fabric and we locals W have to move out.” The (il)logic works the same whether Y is contemporary SAIC students or blacks in the ’50s.

  2. First of all, I think Farabundo is going a bit far here. I do not think Mark Hopwood is even a member of Platypus; I think this was more of a letter-to-the-editor deal. Regardless, I hardly think it’s incumbent upon Platypus to come up with a rebuttal to a piece they published in the first place.

    Second, while you have an interesting point there, your use of the phrase “have to” obscures some important differences between white flight in the ’50s and gentrification today. Back then, whites were encouraged to leave by their own racism as well as possible economic losses from declining real estate values. Today, the argument goes, the gentrified are literally forced to leave, in the sense that they can no longer afford rent or property taxes on their homes.

    Third of all, after discussing this with Wilfredo, I would like to point to Farabundo’s use of the word “right” here—”the right to live where they can afford to.” It is precisely this kind of abstraction that Hopwood tries and fails to do without. Whether or not we agree with Farabundo that this “right to live where they can afford to” exists and justifies gentrification, we must admit that Hopwood’s attempt to justify anti-gentrification politics without recourse to rights has failed,

  3. I think I agree, more or less, with Farabundo. As to white flight in the 50s, the effect of declining property values on a homeowner with a mortgage is precisely that the homeowner can’t afford to stay — the homeowner may easily face a risk of impoverishment. As to gentrification today, at least some of the poorer people certainly benefit — those who own homes and have the chance to sell their homes if they want. And in many cities, renters have some kind of rent-control-type protections, the soundness of which can be endlessly debated among economists. In the end, however, beyond those rent-control-type protections, renting is different from owning, in that the rent can go up, and the tenant may have to move. That seem to be just the consequence of privately owned housing, though of course you could argue about whether that is a good or bad thing itself.

    And in the end, what is the alternative to gentrification? Permanently setting aside certain neighborhoods for poor people, working-class people, or perhaps particular ethnic or racial groups? Would that actually be a good idea? Is the problem with gentrification that particular poorer people have to move (a problem that thoughtful rent-control laws could solve, insofar as the city wants to solve it) or that the social, economic, or ethnic character of a neighborhood may change over time, as the people moving in are different from the people leaving?

  4. […] An article by Laura Schmidt (which I mentioned in my last post) in the November 2007 issue of the Platypus Review: “Gentrification is the reconstitution of […]

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