When Spike Lee’s anti-gentrification rant went viral a few weeks ago, I decided it was unlikely I would add anything productive to the debate, and so I made a conscious decision not to write anything about it.
The folks at In My Backyard DC felt differently:
Spike Lee’s concerns are very real under the District’s current rules. Economic theory and our experience in D.C. suggest that restrictive land-use rules should be a major concern for those worried about displaced renters. As more people from around the world choose to make Washington their home, we’re faced with a clear choice. We can accommodate new residents by allowing for greater density through relaxed land-use rules, or we can expect more people to get priced out.
Basically, black people are getting paid more money than they’ve ever seen in their lives for their houses, and a once sketchy neighborhood is now quiet and pleasant. And this is a bad thing… why?…
[L]et’s face it: The reason there were black communities like that was because of segregation. If there still were black communities like that, no matter how beautiful they would look when shot lovingly in films like Lee’s, it would signify racial barriers.
No two of these three descriptions of gentrification are totally compatible – even though IMBY DC claims Lee’s side, I’m more than a little skeptical he would agree that what Brooklyn needs is more development – and obviously McWhorter and Lee are almost totally opposed. And yet they all, at first blush, seem correct to me.
The problem is that gentrification is a many-headed thing, and Lee, IMBY, and McWhorter are all thinking primarily about different heads. We need a better vocabulary: a taxonomy. I think it should go something like this:
1. Gentrification as intrusion. This seems to be what Lee is talking about, mostly: These neighborhoods are communities, in a thick, human-network sense, and as communities they belong to the people in the network. In many cases, those communities are especially valuable because the people who live there don’t necessarily feel safe – or at ease – elsewhere, for all sorts of very rational historical and contemporary reasons. So when people without roots in the neighborhood move in, they’re doing something akin to crashing an intimate party: both assuming obnoxiously that they’re welcome in a place they weren’t invited, and – maybe worse – breaking the kind of safe space environment that was so valuable to begin with.
2. Gentrification as homogenization/commercialization/hipsterfication/etc. Often a corollary to #1 is that in addition to being party crashers, gentrifiers are culturally obnoxious generally. They’re pretentious, or overly materialistic, or cliquish, or too similar to every other resident of a “hip” American neighborhood. This is also in Lee’s rant.
3. Gentrification as displacement. In addition to cultural problems, the arrival of the roving mass affluent class means people who are willing and able to pay housing prices that the previous residents couldn’t. And that means the previous residents will have to move. This is Lee’s second major argument, it seems.
4. Gentrification as exclusion. IMBY tries to agree with Lee on #3, but really they’re talking about something else. Lee’s argument, which is the more standard way of understanding the issue, is all about appropriate levels of demand – and, more specifically, who can appropriately demand to live in a neighborhood – while IMBY is much more concerned about appropriate levels of supply. This is actually a huge distinction, even though it seems academic: The first suggests that the solution to gentrification is to prevent gentrifiers from moving in – which is, in fact, exactly what Lee wants – while the second suggests that we ought to try to make enough room for everyone. The first imagines gentrification as a process in which one group of people displaces another; the second imagines gentrification as a process in which the government acts to exclude certain groups by artificially raising prices.
5. Gentrification as integration. McWhorter sneers at all of that and describes gentrification as a natural – and triumphant – process of desegregation at the end of a century of enforced segregation. If a community only came into existence because its residents were forced by physical and legal violence to live together – as, in fact, is the case with nearly every black neighborhood in the country – then it should begin to fall apart when that violence disappears. That’s not something to mourn; it’s something to celebrate – it’s a step closer to the world civil rights activists have been fighting for for literally hundreds of years.
Like I said, I’m compelled by parts of all of this. That said, they don’t all stand up equally well to scrutiny. In particular, numbers 2 and 3 seem off. I guess I’m too much of a cultural relativist to get much behind the idea that I should hate a group of people because I don’t like their style. Skepticism about the displacement argument sort of follows from that: if I don’t think we ought to be judging which law-abiding people are and are not desirable residents of a given neighborhood, then it’s pretty hard to endorse a solution that calls for doing exactly that.
Number 5 is a couple steps further in the right direction, but it’s also got a major flaw. It’s absolutely true that racial integration is something to celebrate, and the fact that racially homogeneous neighborhoods only exist as a result of violence isn’t appreciated enough in most conversations about gentrification. That said, the communities that are left after gentrification has run its course are hardly the kind of promised land that utopians and activists dreamed about. Basically they exchange racial integration for economic segregation. The door is still closed, in other words; we’ve just shuffled around who’s on the outside. And, of course, the outsiders are still disproportionately black and Latino.
Which leaves 1 and 4. Unfortunately, they’re not totally compatible, either. Which, I guess, is the point: a world in which people are free to choose what neighborhood they want to live in – which is a world far superior to the current one, in which they can’t – is a world in which it’s going to be really difficult for the kind of tight-knit communities Spike Lee has in mind to exist. Or rather, the communities will still exist; they’ll just have to share space with lots of other communities in the same neighborhood. That’s not a small thing: given that millions of people have spent most of their lives in segregated neighborhoods, and have reasonably come to feel that those neighborhoods are their homes, their disappearance is a huge blow to people who have done nothing to deserve it.
But just because a grievance is legitimate doesn’t mean it can be satisfied. The bottom line for me is this: not only there is no way to prevent a given group of people from moving to an area if they can afford to do so, but any attempt to put up those kinds of barriers is bound to be unconstitutional. And that’s as it should be. This country has a shameful history of urban violence and segregation, and many people have fought very hard for a long time to overcome that. Even if I recognize that moving towards integration is, in fact, a mixed blessing, I’m not comfortable with any vision of the future that includes actively blocking it. The overriding goal of housing policy ought to be to allow people to live where they want to live; the best way to do that is some combination of allowing supply to meet demand, along with some protections against displacement and subsidies to those who truly need them. What, exactly, would Spike Lee have us do instead?