About two months ago, I convened a meeting of an urban book club at my apartment in Logan Square. The book in question was a scathing indictment of gentrification as a colonial project whose thesis we took turns more or less affirming. Every person in the room was white. Every person had graduated from a relatively prestigious four-year college. And every person was currently living in a neighborhood at some stage of gentrification.
What to call the tension between our conversation and our lives? Hypocrisy? Delusion? Something much worse?
Mine is a cohort – the youngish, college-educated, left-leaning set – that places a great deal of moral significance on geography. (Probably everyone does; I can only speak to our particular code.) Most of us believe in a moral imperative to reject the suburbs: to disavow environmentally-destructive sprawl, ethnic homogeneity, cultural sterility. In the city, well-to-do neighborhoods aren’t much better: you become a hoarder of privilege, sharing a home with the oppressive classes. And if you move to a poor or working-class neighborhood with your college degree, earning potential, and cultural power, the rents that rise in a ripple outward from you and your friends are just as damning.
As a result, we tend to carry a lot of guilt about our living arrangements. We have a lot of conversations about whether or not it’s acceptable to live in our current neighborhood, or the one we’d like to live in. Sometimes we reassure ourselves by discussing the obviously graver transgressions of the people who live in some other neighborhood. Sometimes we find solace in some part of the continuum of gentrification that we’re comfortable with: the very beginning, when you can kid yourself that your presence isn’t changing anything; or when the tipping point has tipped, and the damage has already been done.
And sometimes we pass around articles like this one, entitled “20 Ways Not To Be a Gentrifier in Oakland.” To be clear, I think most of the suggestions in the article are good ones, and without that title, I would endorse it wholeheartedly. But then they would be “20 Ways To Be a Considerate Neighbor,” or “20 Ways To Be a Decent Person.” It’s the title’s promise – learn how NOT to be a gentrifier! – that I think is misguided and dangerous.
That’s because – as the moral geography two paragraphs up indicates – there’s no way out of being a gentrifier, if you happen to have the social or economic capital that causes gentrification. Regardless of whether you say hi to people on the street or forge cross-cultural social ties, your presence in a non-white, non-affluent community will, in fact, make it easier for other liberal arts graduates to move in; to open businesses that cater to you, and not the previously existing residents; to induce landlords to renovate or redevelop their properties to attract other new, wealthier residents who want access to those businesses; and, if your city restricts housing supply (it does) and doesn’t have rent control (it probably doesn’t), to ultimately create an economically segregated neighborhood of the privileged.
Similarly, living in a neighborhood where market and regulatory forces have already pushed out the low-income means you are helping sustain the high cost of living there, and therefore helping to keep the area exclusive. You can’t escape the role you play in displacement any more than a white person can escape white privilege, because those are both systemic processes that have created your relevant status and assigned its consequences. Among the relevant classes, there is no division between “gentrifiers” and “non-gentrifiers.” You don’t get to opt out.
It’s still worth it, of course, to follow all the advice about respecting the people around you and all that. My point, though, is that you can’t stop there. Being considerate in your day-to-day interactions is a good start, but if you spend a lot of time fretting about your contributions to gentrification, I’d like to suggest that you have another kind of responsibility: to be aware of the underlying systemic processes and use what social and political power you have to change them.
In the case of gentrification, I think that means moving beyond the narrow issue of displacement – which I suspect dominates the conversation partly because it fits the narratives of personal guilt we find so fascinating – and to the more fundamental problem of economic segregation. That is, the fact that people get priced out of homes they already live in is only half the problem: the other half, which affects an order of magnitude more people, is that folks can’t move to neighborhoods they’d like to move to, and are stuck in neighborhoods with worse schools, more crime, and less access to jobs and amenities. That problem is easier to ignore for a variety of reasons, but it’s no less of a disaster.
What to do about all this, obviously, is up for debate, although I can’t imagine a solution that doesn’t involve 1) some kind of protections for people about to be evicted because of rising rents, 2) subsidies for the very low-income, and 3) an end to exclusionary caps on housing construction that keep prices artificially high. But I think it’s necessary to shift the debate away from how to achieve personal salvation for the sin of being a gentrifier – both on the part of ourselves or our peers, and on the part of developers and landlords who act according to the rules and incentives of the current system – to how we ought to change those rules and incentives. In other words, Mark Fishman is not why Logan Square is gentrifying. Neither are you, at least not in the ways you might think. But you can do something about it.