New York Times, January 23, 2018: When gentrification isn’t about housing
The poor are still gentrification’s victims, but in this new meaning, the harm is not rent increases and displacement — it’s something psychic, a theft of pride. Unlike housing, poverty is a potentially endless resource: Jeff Bezos could Hoover up all the wealth that exists in the world, then do nothing but drink rainwater collected from the roof of his ’79 Vanagon, and it wouldn’t stop the other seven billion of us from being poor. What this metaphorical gentrification points to instead is dishonesty, carelessness and cluelessness on the part of the privileged when they clomp into unfamiliar territory. When they actually profit from their “discovery” and repackaging of other people’s lifestyles, it’s a dispiriting re-enactment of long-running inequalities.
It’s not surprising that “gentrification” has become a more capacious idea lately: The phenomena it describes seem inescapable. But there’s something in this new usage that obfuscates as much as it reveals, lending cover to the much larger forces that shape our lives. Minority communities are being dismantled as macroeconomic winds transform urban America. Researchers are now concerned that the high cost of housing is a drag on our whole economy, with young people either trapped spending too much on rent or fleeing overheated urban markets altogether for places with worse jobs but cheaper housing.
If the logic of conscious consumerism has come to infect what we mean by “gentrification,” perhaps it’s because the process always begins with people who are expected to know better: the “creative class.” In a 1979 book called “Neighborhood Renewal,” the urban theorist Phillip L. Clay outlined four stages of gentrification: In the first, “pioneers” — often bohemians and artists — move to dilapidated or abandoned areas in search of cheaper rents; in the second, the middle classes follow; in the third, their numbers displace the original population; and in the final stage, the neighborhood is fully turned over to banks, developers and the wealthy. By this point, the artists are being priced out to another subway stop or another city — where they will be greeted as though they’ve come seeking adventure.
But the journalist Peter Moskowitz, in the 2017 book “How to Kill a City,” suggests a fifth stage should be added to Clay’s list, so we can accommodate arrangements like those in Midtown Manhattan, where multimillion-dollar condominiums are built and sold to shell corporations, presumably owned by foreign billionaires, and often left vacant. “The fifth and last phase of gentrification,” he writes, “is when neighborhoods aren’t just more friendly to capital than to people but cease being places to live a normal life.” New York’s skyline is erupting with buildings like these — stacks of cash-stuffed mattresses teetering in the wind. And The Times reported last year that the West Village’s Bleecker Street had fallen victim to “high-rent blight,” with commercial space becoming so expensive ($45,000 a month) that even Marc Jacobs couldn’t keep his stores open; shops that once catered to the wealthy now sit empty, waiting for a tenant who can foot the bill. When the heist is done and it’s time to split the loot, capital snuffs out culture.