City at a Time of Crisis

 

 

Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

11
Apr2014

Unravelling False Choice Urbanism

 by Tom Slater, University of Edinburgh

 

“[I]t was suggested that revitalization was rarely an appropriate term for gentrification, but we can see now that in one sense it is appropriate. Gentrification is part of a larger redevelopment process dedicated to the revitalization of the profit rate. In the process, many downtowns are being converted into bourgeois playgrounds replete with quaint markets, restored townhouses, boutique rows, yachting marinas, and Hyatt Regencies. These very visual alterations to the urban landscape are not at all an accidental side-effect of temporary economic disequilibrium but are as rooted in the structure of capitalist society as was the advent of suburbanization.”

Neil Smith, 1982 [1], p.151-2.

The architect and urban planner Andres Duany is widely seen as the father or guru of ‘New Urbanism’, an American urban-design-can-save-us-all cult that has gone global. New Urbanists are vehemently anti-sprawl and anti-modernist, and typically demonstrate near-evangelical belief in the construction of high density mixed-use, mixed tenure settlements with a neotraditional vernacular, well served by public transport, and ‘pedestrian-friendly’ (integrated by a network of accessible streets, sidewalks, cycle paths and public spaces). All of these features, if you can afford to buy into them, are supposed to nurture a profound ‘sense of community’ that will lead to harmonious, liveable and sustainable ‘urban villages’. There has been a substantial critical backlash, but New Urbanism, now twinned with the fatuous rhetoric of “Smart Growth” (another anti-sprawl movement at which Duany has positioned himself at the centre), shows few signs of dissipating (in Scotland, where I live and work, Duany was central to the formation of the SNP Government’s Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative in 2010, and his dubious methods of ‘consensus building’ among local residents have been widely adopted by aristocratic landowners [2] and design consultants).

In 2001, Duany wrote an essay for American Enterprise Magazine, which is published by the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank. The essay was entitled “Three Cheers for Gentrification”. An obnoxious and declamatory rant directed at “the squawking of old neighborhood bosses who can’t bear the self-reliance of the incoming middle-class, and can’t accept the dilution of their political base”, it contains caricatures, trivialisations and myths that are too numerous to dissect in full here. Yet one passage in particular serves as a useful point of departure for this essay:

“‘Affordable’ housing isn’t always what cities need more of. Some do, but many need just the opposite. For every San Francisco or Manhattan where real estate has become uniformly too expensive, there are many more cities like Detroit, Trenton, Syracuse, Milwaukee, Houston, and Philadelphia that could use all the gentrification they can get. The last thing these places ought to be pursuing is more cheap housing. Gentrification is usually good news, for there is nothing more unhealthy for a city than a monoculture of poverty. ….Gentrification rebalances a concentration of poverty by providing the tax base, rub-off work ethic, and political effectiveness of a middle class, and in the process improves the quality of life for all of a community’s residents. It is the rising tide that lifts all boats.”

If we cast aside the provocative tone of these sentences, and the patronising trickle-down logic, we see a perspective that is actually very common among many observers of gentrification across the political spectrum (whether journalists, policy officials, planners, architects, or less thoughtful social scientists). In a little piece of mischief back in 2006 [3] I called this perspective the false choice between gentrification (a form of reinvestment) and a ‘concentration of poverty’ (disinvestment), drawing on these words in an excellent book by James DeFilippis:

“Since the emergence of gentrification, it has become untenable to argue that reinvestment is a desirable end in-and-of-itself for low-income people and residents of disinvested areas. Instead, rightfully conceived, reinvestment needs to be understood through the lends of questions such as: What kind of investment? For whom? Controlled by whom? These processes have left residents of low-income neighbourhoods in a situation where, since they exert little control over either investment capital or their homes, they are facing the ‘choices’ of either continued disinvestment and decline in the quality of the homes they live in, or reinvestment that results in their displacement. The importance of gentrification, therefore, is that it clearly demonstrates that low-income people, and the neighbourhoods they live in, suffer not from a lack of capital but from a lack of power and control over even the most basic components of life – that is, the places called home.  [4]

These words lead us to the question of how low-income people can gain power and control over their homes, one which DeFilippis addresses via a riveting analysis of collective ownership initiatives such as community land trusts, mutual housing associations and limited-equity housing cooperatives in the United States. Yet since DeFilippis’ book was published a decade ago, the false choice perspective has been tabled time and time again; indeed, I have lost count of the amount of high-profile statements on gentrification in the last few years and months that have succumbed to a tired formula: weigh up the supposed pros and cons of gentrification amidst attempts at levity (“Doesn’t that new cupcake store have a funny name?!”), throw in a few half-baked worries about threats to ‘diversity’ and housing affordability, and conclude that gentrification is actually ‘good’ on balance because it represents investment which stops neighbourhoods from ‘dying’ during a financial crisis. Take, for example, a piece in New York Magazine in February this year entitled (predictably) “Is Gentrification All Bad? [5] After opening up with the ambiguous remark that, “A nice neighborhood should be not a luxury but an urban right” (what makes a neighbourhood ‘nice’, of course, is inherently a class question), the author presents a brief history of the neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, once an emblem of disinvestment and racial segregation but now an arena for outlandish real estate prices, and remarks that “gentrification happens not because a few developers or politicians foist it on an unwilling city but because it’s a medicine most people want to take. The trick is to minimize the harmful side effects.” The piece concludes with the following:

“an ideological split [in the 1960s] divided those who wrote cities off as unlivable relics from those who believed they must be saved. Today a similar gulf separates those who fear an excess of prosperity from those who worry about the return of blight. Economic flows can be reversed with stunning speed: gentrification can nudge a neighborhood up the slope; decline can roll it off a cliff. Somewhere along that trajectory of change is a sweet spot, a mixed and humming street that is not quite settled or sanitized, where Old Guard and new arrivals coexist in equilibrium. The game is to make it last.”

“Mixed and humming” hides what is a desperately fatalistic conclusion, but one very common in writing that reduces gentrification to a moral question (good versus bad) rather than a political question [6]. In sum, the New York Magazine article argues that gentrification is here to stay, we have to live with it, but it just needs some policy fine-tuning to stabilise or ‘manage’ it and soften the blows it inflicts, and the urbanist’s holy grail is the middle ground between “up the slope” and “decline”.

In order to situate gentrification in a more helpful political and analytical register, we must blast open this tenacious and constrictive dualism of “prosperity” (gentrification) or “blight” (disinvestment) by showing how the two are fundamentally intertwined in a wider process of capitalist urbanisation and uneven development that creates profit and class privilege for some whilst stripping many of the human need of shelter. No viable alternatives to class segregation and poverty will be found unless we ask why there are neighbourhoods of astounding affluence and of grinding poverty, why there are “new arrivals” and an “Old Guard”, why there are renovations and evictions; in short, why there is inequality. Despite many attempts to sugarcoat it and celebrate it, gentrification, both as term and process, has always been about class struggle. When we jettison the ludicrous journalistic embrace of “hipsters [7], reject the political purchase of the enormous literature on the gamut of individual preferences and lifestyles of middle-class gentrifiers, and consider instead the agency of developers, bankers and state officials, then questions such as for whom, against whom and who decides come to the forefront - and we can begin to see false choice urbanism as both red herring and preposterous sham. Then, we can start thinking about the agency of activists, and strategies of revolt.

After a visit to inner Detroit, to east Glasgow, to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, or to the so-called ‘shrinking cities’ of eastern Europe, it is easy to understand why purveyors of false choice urbanism are so numerous. But they are left politically stranded when a theory of uneven geographical development is brought to bear on their “gentrification is better than the alternative” discourse. Arguably the greatest legacy to urban studies left by Neil Smith was the “ingenious simplicity” (as David Ley, one of his main interlocutors, once put it [8]) of the rent gap as part of a broader attempt to trace the circulation of interest-bearing capital in urban land markets, and to elaborate the role of the state in lubricating that circulation. But rather than focus on the classic 1979 paper where the rent gap concept first appeared, it is instructive to revisit a less-discussed Neil Smith paper which situated the rent gap within a broader articulation of uneven development at the urban scale, entitled “Gentrification and Uneven Development”, published in 1982 in Economic Geography. There, three aspects of uneven development were articulated by Smith, and gentrification was located within each aspect:

  1. Tendencies toward equalization and differentiation: with the transformation of the earth into a universal means of production via the wage-labour relation, capital drives to overcome all spatial barriers to expansion (equalization), yet a series of differentiating tendencies (division of labour, wage rates, class differences etc) operate in opposition to that equalization. At the urban scale, the contradiction between equalization and differentiation is manifest in the phenomenon of ground rent (simply the charge that landowners can demand, via private property rights, for use of their land), which translates into a geographical differentiation (central city versus suburbs, with higher ground rent in the latter). Recognising this contradiction, it becomes possible to see Homer Hoyt’s famous “land value valley” of the late 1920s in inner Chicago not as representative of some sort of residential “filtering” process, but rather indicative of capital depreciation, creating a “ground rent level quite at variance with the assumptions implied in the earlier neoclassical bid-rent models” (p.146).

  2. The valorization and devalorization of built environment capital: valorization of capital in cities (its investment in search of surplus value or profit) is necessarily matched by its devalorization (as the investor receives returns on the investment only by piecemeal when capital is ‘fixed’ in the landscape). However, new development must proceed if accumulation is to occur – so the steady devalorization of capital creates longer term possibilities for a new phase of valorization. Here we are talking about speculative landed developer interests that David Harvey has since identified as “a singular principle power that has yet to be accorded its proper place in our understanding of not only the historical geography of capitalism but also the general evolution of capitalist class power. [9] Why do rentier capitalists buy up – or grab - parcels of central city land and real estate and ‘sit’ on them for years, doing nothing? The answer is simple: devalorization of capital invested in the central city leads to a situation where the ground rent capitalized under current land uses is substantially lower than the ground rent that could potentially be capitalized if the land uses were to change. This is a rent gap in the circulatory patterns of capital in urban space. When redevelopment and rehabilitation become profitable prospects, capital begins to flow back into the central city – and then substantial fortunes can be made.

  3. Reinvestment and the rhythm of unevenness: under capitalism there is a strong tendency for societies to undergo periodic but relatively rapid and systematic shifts in the location and quantity of capital invested in cities. These geographical and/or locational ‘switches’ are closely correlated with the timing of crises in the broader economy (i.e. when the ‘growth’ much beloved of mainstream economists and politicians does not occur). Crises occur when the capitalist necessity to accumulate leads to a falling rate of profit and an overproduction of commodities (in recent years, these commodities are the various financial products that have emerged vis-à-vis the buying and selling of debt). The logic of uneven development is that the development of one area creates barriers to further development, thus leading to underdevelopment, and that the underdevelopment of that area creates opportunities for a new phase of development. In spatial terms, Smith called this a “locational seesaw”, or “the successive development, underdevelopment, and redevelopment of given areas as capital jumps from one place to another, then back again, both creating and destroying its own opportunities for development.” (p.151).

Smith’s work was of course subjected to considerable critique over the years, sometimes usefully (for example, the work of Damaris Rose on the “uneven development of Marxist urban theory [10]), other times obstructively (most absurd was the argument that the rent gap should be abandoned as it is hard to verify empirically, closely followed by the daft bourgeois cry that the rent gap doesn’t tell us anything about the gentrifiers, when it was never designed to). In relation to false choice urbanism, the critically important point to grasp via an analytic absorption of these three aspects of uneven development is that investment and disinvestment do not represent some sort of moral conundrum, with the former somehow, on balance, ‘better’ than the latter. Nor does investment represent some sort of magical remedy for those who have lived through and endured decades of disinvestment. Gentrification and ‘decline’; embourgoisement and ‘concentrated poverty’; regeneration and decay - these are not opposites, alternatives or choices, but rather tensions and contradictions in the overall system of capital circulation, amplified and aggravated by the current crisis. Rent gaps do not just appear out of nowhere [11] – they represent certain social (class) interests, where the quest for profit takes precedence over the quest for shelter. Rent gaps are actively produced (and they are certainly being produced now under a crisis that has set capitalised ground rent on a downward spiral) through the actions of specific social actors ranging from landlords to bankers to urban property speculators, and the role of the state in regards to these actors is far from laissez-faire but rather one of active facilitator both politically and economically (it is notable that Smith’s undergraduate dissertation [12], the empirical study that led to the rent gap concept, carried the subtitle, “State Involvement in Society Hill, Philadelphia”).

This leads to the question of political action and social movements. In light of the current conditions of crisis and disinvestment, I was asked, “What advice, if any, could be useful for the people of Exarcheia from anti-gentrification struggles elsewhere?” This is a demanding question and it would take several days to summarise the varied struggles that have taken place in the past ten years from Edinburgh to Gothenburg to Toronto to Mexico City to Melbourne, and to dissect the links between those struggles, the lessons learned, the gains made. When I was writing the final chapter of Gentrification [13], I was struck by how little scholarship there was on resistance to gentrification. Whilst the Right to the City movement has since drawn considerable attention, it still saddens me that, at least in the UK, research funding has gone (and continues to go) to people who want to study the motives and desires of the middle-classes, or to those uncritically embracing the language of regeneration. So my immediate response, when I read the question asked of me, was “What can academics learn from the anti-gentrification struggles in Exarcheia and elsewhere?!”

Immediate strategies, ones that are making gains in cities like Madrid, include squatting that goes beyond the standard occupation of empty buildings (usually a strategy of highlighting the problems of housing commodification) to make a squat a collective provider of welfare and neighbourhood services (e.g. daycare, healthcare, adult education) that are being denied to people under the violence of austerity. Community land buy-outs are gaining traction in the UK now, especially in Scotland, but the barriers are immense, not least because of deeply ingrained landownership structures that will take a generation to dislodge. In 2001 I spent some time with an organization in Brooklyn that declared an entire neighbourhood where widespread displacement was occurring a “displacement free zone”, and this involved a ‘pro-community’ awareness campaign, whereby the absolute necessity of informal support networks to vulnerable local people struggling to make rent was highlighted in every possible forum, in conjunction with organised pickets and protests outside landlords’ homes, and the public naming and shaming of any landlord who slapped a rent increase on a tenant. Evictions dropped by 40% in a 3 year period.

I am very suspicious of the view that gains can be made at the level of “informing policy”, as many British academics proudly trumpet. Under relentless urban growth machine pressures, the leap of perspective required for a policy elite to see the world as displaced person is significant. Insofar as states adopt gentrification as a housing policy – which they have done all over the world – they have little interest in research evidence on the extent and experience of displacement; such evidence would be tantamount to exposing the failure of these policies. Given that all major political parties in so many nations dance to the same neoliberal anthem on housing, it is naïve to expect, or perhaps even to lobby for, a policy programme of mass social housing construction or rent controls (indeed, the Coalition government in the UK appears actively committed to making people homeless via its infamous ‘bedroom tax’). Far more effective in contexts where gentrification is occurring has been campaigns for policy action beyond the scale of the urban, such as living wage campaigns. The scandalously high cost of housing in so many nations is consigning the poor to financial ruin, so the work of living wage activists is absolutely crucial to the right to housing. Policy interventions and even some social movements are too often “area-based”, when the differences that could be made at the level of the welfare state and labour market are substantial. Unfortunately, attacks on welfare states are happening all over Europe because these remnants of a Keynesian-Fordist political economy are viewed by the political class (and by the oligarchs they serve) as dangerous “impediments to the advancement of financialisation [14]. To continue the relentless pace of expanding global accumulation, it is necessary to monitor and monetize more and more of those human needs that have not been commodified in previous rounds of financialization. Pensions, healthcare, education, and especially housing have been more aggressively appropriated, colonized and financialised. Anti-gentrification struggles should be -- and usually are -- unified with broader struggles to protect the legacies of the welfare state against the predatory attacks by this generation’s vulture capitalists.

To the extent that we are dealing with a systemic, structural problem, it would seem to be a critically important challenge for social movements to identify precisely where developers, capital investors, and policy elites are stalking potential ground rent [15]; to expose the ways in which profitable returns are justified among those constituents and to the wider public; to highlight the circumstances and fate of those not seen to be putting urban land to its ‘highest and best use’; to point to the darkly troubling downsides of reinvestment in the name of ‘economic growth’ and ‘job creation’; to reinstate the use values (actual or potential) of the land, streets, buildings, homes, parks and centres that constitute an urban community. Another crucial tactic is to expose planning hypocrisy at any opportunity: when planners speak of their desires to create “mixed-income communities” in poor areas (almost always cover for a gentrification strategy), there is much to be learned from a coalition of public housing tenants in New Orleans that marched through the most affluent part of that city in 2006 holding a huge banner that said “Make THIS Neighbourhood Mixed-Income!”. Another area of concern is to think carefully about how to challenge stigmatisation of people and places. Whilst such stigmatisation is central to the creation of rent gaps, it is also central to their closure, for discourses of disgust and social abjection can pave the way for a revanchist class transformation of space (e.g. “We need to clean that area up, it’s full of scumbags,” etc.). Unfortunately, even grassroots efforts to advance a different narrative of a place can end up backfiring, as an artificial edginess becomes appealing to real estate professionals and their “urban pioneer” clients suffering from what Spike Lee recently called “motherfucking Christopher Columbus syndrome [16] The Columbian encounter was uneven development by genocide and false treaty: accumulation by colonial dispossession. Today it’s the world urban system of cities competing for investors and creative-class gentry on the new urban frontier. It has always been in the “border areas that a killing could be made, so to speak, with so little risk of simultaneously being scalped. [17]

False choice urbanism, more than anything else, is a pure exemplar of what Paul Gilroy has called the “poverty of the imagination [18]. It thrives on the idea that more and more economic growth (represented by the mirage of ‘reinvestment’) is the answer to a crisis created by such greed, and thus it deflects attention away from the systemic failures and policy blunders that create, widen and reinforce urban inequalities. A mindless commitment to reinvestment and growth is the kind of ‘thinking’ that produced the largest global credit bubble ever seen, and then crashed in what even Ben Bernanke, the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve bank, called the most severe financial crisis in the history of capitalism. Disinvestment and reinvestment are both at the heart of today’s unequal urbanization of capital. Reinvestment represents a second-order derivative of the first round of the appropriation of monopoly rents. In the 20th anniversary edition of Urban Fortunes, John Logan and Harvey Molotch offer some refreshing insights that might help arrest this poverty of the imagination:

 “For people in whatever type of place, even those at the lowest level of the earth’s place hierarchy, the appropriate stance should be critical. Alas, there is least choice for those at the bottom levels, and sometimes resistance risks violent reprisal from authorities. But where it is humanly feasible, ‘no growth’ is a good political strategy. The status quo should always be treated as possibly better than the growth alternative. (“Don’t just do something, stand there,” is a slogan we have heard.) [19]

Whilst the status quo is of course unacceptable, “stand there” not only calls into question growth-is-great arguments, but strikes a chord with highly effective anti-gentrification slogans of the past, such as “We Won’t Move!” from Yerba Buena, San Francisco, in the 1970s [20]. Moreover, these words offer useful guidance for ‘right to stay put’ movements that seek to unravel false choice urbanism and expose gentrification not as Andres Duany’s “rising tide that lifts all boats”, but as a tsunami that wrecks most ships. As important as it is to explain the dirty process of gentrification, supported by accounts of destroyed lives, evictions, homelessness, loss of jobs, loss of community, loss of place, and so on, it’s just as important to understand and fight the system that makes gentrification possible [21].

 

 Endnotes

1 “Gentrification and uneven development”, Economic Geography 58 (2): 139-155.

2 See Gordon MacLeod (2013) “New urbanism/smart growth in the Scottish Highlands: mobile policies and post-politics in local development planning”, Urban Studies 50 (11): 2196-2221.

3 Tom Slater (2006) “The eviction of critical perspectives from gentrification research”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 30 (4): 737-757.

4 James DeFilippis (2004) Unmaking Goliath: Community Control in the Face of Global Capital (New York: Routledge). Quotation from p.89

5 Justin Davidson (2014) “Is Gentrification All Bad?” New York Magazine, 2nd February: http://nymag.com/news/features/gentrification-2014-2/

6 Thank you to Mathieu van Criekingen for this excellent point.

7 Neil Smith nailed this: “A predictably populist symbolism underlies the hoopla and boosterism with which gentrification is marketed. It focuses on ‘making cities liveable,’ meaning liveable for the middle class. In fact, of necessity, they have always been ‘liveable’ for the working class. The so-called renaissance is advertised and sold as bringing benefits to everyone regardless of class, but available evidence suggests otherwise.” (Smith, 1982, p.152).

8 David Ley (1996) The New Middle Class and the Remaking of the Central City (Oxford: OUP). Quotation from p.42

9 David Harvey (2010 The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism (London: Profile Books) Quotation from p.180.

10 Damaris Rose (1984) “Rethinking gentrification: beyond the uneven development of Marxist urban theory”, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2: 47-74.

11 Thanks to Stuart Hodkinson for these words.

13 Loretta Lees, Tom Slater & Elvin Wyly (2008) Gentrification (New York: Routledge).

14 For a brilliant analysis, see Observatorio Metropolitano (2013) Crisis and Revolution in Europe: People of Europe, Rise Up! (Madrid: Traficantes de Suenos). Quotation from p.20.

15 For a remarkable recent study of the structural violence visited upon the working poor via the creation of rent gaps, see Melissa Wright (2014) “Gentrification, assassination and forgetting in Mexico: a feminist Marxist tale” Gender, Place and Culture 21 (1): 1-16.

17 Neil Smith (1996) The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (New York: Routledge) Quotation from p.209.

19 John R. Logan and Harvey Molotch (2007) Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place (20th Anniversary Edition) (Berkeley: University of California Press). Quotation from p.xxii.

20 Chester Hartman (1974) Yerba Buena: Land Grab and Community Resistance in San Francisco (San Francisco, Glide Publications).

21 My sincere thanks to Elvin Wyly for helping me to sharpen these closing paragraphs.

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City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...