Benjamin Schwartz, The Atlantic Monthly’s polymath book editor, recently critiqued two books on gentrification in New York’s Greenwich Village for their romanticism and perhaps for bits of hypocrisy.
Many of the writerly class (guilty as charged) pine for a neighborhood that has just the right “authentic” working-class flavor: mom-and-pop grocery stores (but organic veggies, please); cheap apartments (no roaches, thank you); old-timers gossiping on front stoops (but no thuggish teens), and so on. It should also have just enough amenities – say, good coffee, a book store, a few art galleries, and a couple of clubs – to make it fun. Richard Lloyd, who studied gentrification in Chicago, notes the attraction to “grit as glamor.”
Schwartz suggests that this balance of working-class grit and a cleaned-up bohemia was attained only in a few places – the Village most famously – and for just a brief moment before the neighborhoods tipped over into “inauthentic” yuppiedom. (In the Village, that moment came around 1960, just about when Bob Dylan showed up.) Schwartz is impatient with those who, in slamming gentrification, imagine that those thrilling moments could be preserved in “amber.”
The question of what ought to be preserved in amber — that is, what memories define the “authentic” moment of a neighborhood — is central to struggles over the future of many neighborhoods in major American cities.
The gentrification label has been applied to different sorts of neighborhood change. One kind has rightly drawn severe criticism: grand urban renewal projects that displaced, dispersed, and failed to relocate thousands of low-income people. Classic examples include Robert Moses’s New York highway projects lambasted in Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, and Boston’s West End renovation, the human costs of which were described by Herbert Gans and Marc Fried.
However, most “gentrification” – the word emerged from arrival of middle-class “gentry” in low-income London neighborhoods about 50 years ago – is one part of the normal, slow, granular changeover most city neighborhoods experience. As housing ages, economic activities in the city change, transportation routes develop, newer housing is constructed, and new sorts of people come to city, neighborhood residents turn over. Most often, middle-class residents leave an aging neighborhood and less affluent people replace them. The departures partly result from the pull of newer, better housing elsewhere and partly from the push of the newcomers.
In some places, however, inner-city land values drop far enough to attract developers or individuals who find proximity to the city center attractive. In these neighborhoods, richer residents replace poorer ones. Nationally, such neighborhoods are the exceptions – a handful of districts in reviving cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston; middle-class departures to outer areas remain the the rule.
Where “gentrifying” happens, the first up-scale newcomers are young, childless, and adventurous (with a taste or at least a tolerance for “grit”), such as artists, students, and gay couples. Later, when the neighborhoods become safer, easier to live in, and less gritty, middle-class families arrive.
Tension between newcomers and old-timers is common, but it is usually not as severe as often imagined. Frequently, no one is displaced; newcomers replace old-timers who have died or moved away. Old-timers who own their homes get more than they expected when they sell; local businesses find new, higher-spending customers; and the residents, new and old, benefit from increased police protection, cleaner streets, and better schools.
Still, conflicts do sometimes break out. In cities with tight housing markets, like San Francisco and New York, the new arrivals spur an increase in rent and in property taxes which in turn push low-income people out, often quite far away from their jobs and relatives. Developers buy buildings and press tenants out in order to rehab the units for middle-class customers. Services change, as when night clubs and chic restaurants replace bodegas and hair parlors. And old-timers simply resent having “our” neighborhood being taken over by “them.”
The Struggle Over History
In some changing neighborhoods, organized resistance develops. The main examples were white residents’ sometimes violent efforts to prevent blacks from entering “white” neighborhoods. In cases of gentrifying neighborhoods, resistance has occasionally escalated into street demonstrations, sit-ins, and vandalism. (I have shown the film “Boom” to classes; it describes such a struggle in San Francisco.) Ironically, often it is not the long-term residents of the neighborhoods who lead the charge, but the first wave of the gentrification itself – the students and artists – who organize the resistance against the next wave, the middle-class newcomers. The protesters are, or are joined by, “social preservationists,” people who value a specific kind of gritty “authenticity.” (See, e.g., the work of Japonica Brown-Saracino on preservationists here and here.)
Struggles over gentrification, even if rooted in matters like rents and loft space, also entail ideological battle. Spokespersons for the current residents invoke local color ; they seek to preserve this moment by investing it with historical authenticity; we, they say, are the traditional people if the neighborhood. (One generation’s “traditional” residents are, of course, usually an earlier generation’s outside “invaders.”) The developers, merchants, and middle-class newcomers may be bringing change, but they also often invoke history, a history that looks back before the current residents. One tactic is to use Historical Preservation, to protect the original architecture of a neighborhood, that is the styles that preceded the current residents, for example, the single-family Victorian gingerbread houses. not the stuccoed-over Victorians divided into three flats for immigrant families.
A Neighborhood Grows in Brooklyn
Sociologist Philip Kasnitz has told the story of one exemplary case, a neighborhood that in the 20th century had gone from a mixed European immigrant population to heavily Puerto Rican. By the early 1960s, it was “shabby” and crime-ridden; much of it was targeted for demolition. A small number of middle class people, notably writers and journalists, “discovered” the neighborhood’s brownstones to be attractive and affordable. To draw more people such as themselves into the neighborhood (and to avoid “urban renewal”), they “historicized” the area.
They gave it a new name, “Boerum Hill.” They uncovered a pedigree going back to the neighborhood’s development in the 19th century as an up-scale suburb for Manhattan commuters and in 1973 got it declared an historic district. Kasnitz quotes a Puerto Rican activist: “They manufactured themselves a history; an Anglo-Saxon history – and in Brooklyn you have to go pretty far back to do that!”
Starting the resistance to “Boerum Hill” were some young whites who lived in a neighborhood commune. They were later joined by Puerto Rican activists as developers began major conversions of larger buildings. One tactic the opposition used was to describe the neighborhood as an authentically Puerto Rican enclave, using festivals to underline the claim. This is the history, they argued, that deserved the city’s preservation — freezing in amber — not the 19th-century version.
The battle for Boerum Hill involved economics and politics, as well as history. What happened? A 2005 story in the Village Voice (irony alert) notes its “renowned restaurant and bar scenes . . . row of restored brownstones . . . lovingly tended gardens, and . . . nearly a mile of antiques, cafes.” The alignment of power worked for gentrification. So did the ideology. And perhaps more importantly, so did the fact that the neighborhood is about 15 minutes’ public transit commute from Wall Street.
On top of the geographical, political, and economic realities of urban development is a layer of “collective memory” (see this earlier post). Interested parties have different takes on memory and try to make it THE collective memory. (I detect in Berkeley politics many residents’ desire to freeze Berkeley at the moment that they arrived in town; that was the “authentic” Berkeley.) We fight over defining that memory because it can have – as in historical preservation – some weight in the struggles over land.
A little skepticism about the amber romanticism used for and against gentrification is warranted.