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.