Gentrification as an End Game, and the Rise of “Sub-Urbanity”


“It took a bit of wind out of my sails, watching what happened in this neighborhood, watching how it happened…I don’t know how to beat this [gentrification]. I don’t know how anyone can beat this machine.”—From the article The Ins and Outs

The Generalization of Gentrification

The forces of gentrification are taking hold in America’s alpha cities. You can check the numbers or see the maps, but to get a good idea of its unprecedented rapidity, I’d suggest the blog Vanishing New York. There, you will see nearly each day the announcement of yet another old-school establishment losing the rent battle: Lenox Lounge in Harlem, Suzies Chinese Restaurant on Bleeker St., the Central Iron and Metal scrap yard below the High Line. And with the small-business soul of the city goes the regulars that gave places like New York City its identity before its global city branding.

For instance, speaking about the closing of the Big Apple meat market in Hell’s Kitchen, writer Jeremiah Moss vents on the city’s whitewashing:

The [Big Apple] exterior is wonderfully dreary, covered in graffiti and pigeon shit. Standing here, you could dream yourself into a lost New York. But not for long. It’s all coming down for more glass, more chain stores.

A couple of years ago, the Times did a piece on Big Apple. The article includes a wonderful slideshow of photos, featuring the sort of person who shops at Big Apple, the sort of person that is also vanishing from New York, replaced by the svelte and distracted, the hollow men and women, tapping away at iPhones in sterilized Whole Foods aisles.

Courtesy of The New York Times

This is not a localized thing, as cities everywhere are grappling with the abruptness and consequences of such change. And while gentrification has been occurring here and there for decades, with community capital unwound on a street-by-street basis for higher returns and bigger tax receipts, the sheer push from above, like meat through a grinder, is now so systematic—and no longer personified by the Robert Moses’s of the world but by a kind of faceless force blowing a current of yield and tidiness in—that it has just become what is, with the late scholar Neil Smith referring to this latest iteration as the “generalization of gentrification”.

In his article “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy”, Smith examines how gentrification has morphed from an unfortunate effect to an outright aim. One explanation for this relates to the ever-morphing private-public partnership in cities in which elected officials have forgone governing for investing, with policy no longer aspiring to guide economic growth but rather being crafted to “fit in the grooves” of market forces, particularly in the realm of real estate.

Why real estate?

Part of the reason is that economic leaders now primarily see Americans as consumers as opposed to producers, and so cities—particularly alpha dog global cities—have shifted their focus from payrolls to price per square feet, making real estate an increasingly important productive engine of cities as opposed to the productive capacity of the citizen. Enter, then, the volitional push of attracting as many creative class gentry as possible into the confines of a place, with real estate gimmicks—such as Mayor Bloomberg’s recent microapartment push—aimed at further squeezing blood from areas with far more density than available space.

Does such wealth-packing inject capital into a given space? Yes. Is it a viable economic growth model? Wrote Aaron Renn in a recent New Geography piece:

Indeed, all too much urbanism amounts to a sort of trickle down economics of the left, in which a “favored quarter” of artists, high end businesses, and the intelligentsia are plied with favors and subsidies while precious little ever makes it to those at the bottom rungs of society.

This is not to disown the fact that global cities are economic engines in their own right. They are. It is only to state that their long-term economic growth prospects are being sold down the river at an exorbitant price. After all, people develop, not places.

Gentrification of the Mind

Allocating supply is one thing, but stoking the psychogeography of the creative class to want and squeeze into high-priced real estate is another. Historically, the common desire to move to an alpha dog city is to be where the action is. Moreover, NYC, Chicago and the like can graduate you. They can defang your limits while toiling the mind to the experiencing of new people and ideas. Said John Lennon:

I regret profoundly that I was not an American and not born in Greenwich Village. It might be dying, and there might be a lot of dirt in the air you breathe, but this is where it’s happening.

Yet this “if you can make it here you can make it anywhere” pull is arguably not what’s driving the generalization of gentrification. Rather, it is the idea of big city suburbanization, or more exactly: the hybridization of city “vitality” with the comforts of suburbanization, creating for a kind of third place called “sub-urbanity”.

In many respects, this is not surprising, as the most recent “return-to-city” movement is largely fueled by younger suburbanites who are tired of missing out on big city action. Not the action per se of Charles Bukowski’s L.A. or Patti Smith’s New York, but the action of, well, Chandler, Kramer, and Carrie. Said Alan Ehrenhalt, author of The Great Inversion and the Future of American Cities:

This is the generation, don’t forget, that watched Seinfeld and Sex and the City and Friends – usually from sofas safe in the confines of the suburbs. I think they find suburban life less exciting than urban life. While they are in a single or childless situation, they’re particularly eager to try it.

And try it they should: varied experiences make varied lives make more richly contextualized societies. But the rub here is that the mentality sewn from “the confines of the suburbs” is not being sacrificed for the beautifully unnerving experience that is “the real” of city life, but rather that creative class enclaves are increasingly being appropriated into the domesticated lifestyle embodied by traditional suburbia.

Of course John Lennon’s Greenwich Village this is not. And this bodes ill for alpha dog cities in that vanilla-ing a people and a place is a death knell to collective urgency, if only because comfort puts to sleep the burn that has traditionally sparked the next generation of ideas. Writes Sarah Schulman, author of The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination:

Gentrification is a replacement process. So it is where diversity is replaced by homogeneity, and this, I believe, undermines urbanity and changes the way we think because we have much less access to a wide variety of points of view. We are diminished by it. So literally, the range of our mind’s reach is much more limited because of gentrification.

But again: lest we think this is all a mistake, or simply the byproducts of shifting demographics or economic and cultural change. Rather, it is the point. It is today’s path toward urban renaissance. And it’s a path creating for a “sub-urbanity” that is emerging when the generalization of gentrification meets the gentrification of the mind.

So, what does this mean for the future of urban development? My guess is that there will be a growing unhappiness with sub-urbanity that’s going to create for a lot of people left wanting, be they young suburbanites longing for urban authenticity or indigenous urbanites who are tired of the schtick. As such, cities would do well to prepare for the “return-of-the-city movement”, which means prioritizing urban integrity and community capital against the temptations of the gentrifying machine.

Richey Piiparinen is a writer and policy researcher based in Cleveland. He is co-editor of Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. Read more from him at his blog and at Rust Belt Chic.

Lead photo by Liz Ferla, flickr user lism.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Gentrification? Or just plain old ethnic cleansing?

Have been seeing this in the Bay Area for some time. This is just the forced relocation of some minorities in favor of others. On the outs right now? Surprisingly African-Americans have less influence in California than ever before. San Francisco is ordering Chinese to go. And Column B does not include Black people. Other cities in the NorthWest promote their radicalism but are simple templates for "gentrification with a human face". Cops patrol Oakland like a war zone, San Francisco prices for rent push out "those" people and the elites get to sanctimoniously cast their bread upon the Bay waters. And Antioch gets the spillover.

It is an End Game.

I think Anthony Bourdain sort of touches upon this

Those busyheads at city-hall are so entrenched in value-creation over job-creation, much of their audacity is reserved for the art of attracting venture capital, from public and private sources alike. It isn't their job to create jobs(rather to promote in full force the best environment that allows for private sector job creation), but they are very often using such guise to give handouts to the intellectual class who give them validity.

Many often enter the city as a serf, and only leave when they no longer choose to remain one. And of course, a large sum live off of their parents, which was especially the case when I lived off of Market And Church in SF and now here in the Portland area where a high number of youth are living a fantasy. And I understand the critique of middle-class aspiring BOBO's. As David Brooks illustrates articulately in his book, "Bobo's in Paradise: The New Upper Class And How They Got There," many young people who are the children of BOBO's are looking for something more rustic, more honest, more organic, more warm and personal, and a traditional cookie-cutter chain-store, restaurant, or housing cannot provide that, let alone cares for those values.

The problem however, and this article gets to the heart of the issue, is that "real-life," and even the authenticity that my generation seeks, comes in many forms beyond the fantasy we chase. Well, to be honest, it may be more intellectually correct to say that it is more so "running-away" from something, then it is chasing something, as the inherent "vulgarities" of the monotonous, middle-class living are made apparent to them in college our new culture. And many turn on this middle-class raising to protest it, not realizing the exception they are both in human history, in the world today, and even in the US. Not everyone lives as well as we do, or has ever had the chance to escape the trappings of authentic poverty.

And many of these neighborhoods in SE Portland and NE Portland used to see a greater slice of society, and a greater, yet less refined, variety of folk of all demographics. it has now largely been supplanted with an idea, and the creative class who evangelize it. You see less people who work at swan island or the port of portland living in many of these areas, as NE Portland homes have skyrocketed, and many of those who rent have moved off to the suburbs East and SE of the city, in Gresham, and Oregon City. Those who can afford it, move to the West to up and coming burbs such as tualatin, wilsonville, and sherwood, because Beaverton, where I live, is too pricey. The 90's ethos that sheltered the city from the consumer-pop-culture of the 2000's largely lives on in spirit only. In it's place is a temple to the left-wing God of New-urbanism.

Urbanism is an end game. It is an end, in and of itself, and thus, a religion as well. It has its dogma, it promotes faith in the unseen/unproven, it has it's priestly class of interpreters, it has its rituals, its crusaders & evangelizers, and the only way to battle a religion is to question their motives, premises, and cast doubt on the whole endeavor. It is not enough to simply say they are wrong, and back it up with data. That has never worked in any exchange between theists and atheists, it certainly won't work with urbanists, as it'll only sure up their faith as the replace our intellect with the motives of the devil: Greedy, on a corporation's payroll, knows better but simply lowers one's self as a sell-out for selfish reasons.

I think you left something out

Vancouver, Washington. It is the Anti-Portland. It's a "kotkin-esc" dream. No defined urban growth boundary, food carts are illegal, they build freeways, to sell suburban homes that haven't been built. They roll out the red carpet for Walmart, and downtown has largely been abandoned. It is the suburban ideal. However, just about any form of employment, is virtually impossible. Oh, sure there's five walmarts, but can you buy a suburban house while working there? Vancouver, is a classic example of how the market compensates for government intervention. Portland has a rather well determined urban growth boundary. Vancouver is the "low income exception" to that boundary. Poor folks, that are "priced out" of the core urban area can still get a place in Vancouver for cheap, and just endure hour-long commutes into Portland, where the only real employment is.

There is a hitch though. There is only two ways across the river. one is an aging six lane bridge, with a lift span, and one is a larger, newer bridge that is farther from the core. Property developers aren't able to sell more developments exurban from Vancouver for that reason. The housing market in Vancouver has been HAMMERED in the last five years, and that's a major reason. Now there is a proposal to replace the aging interstate five draw span, with a new, 12 lane bridge, to open up more land out through LaCenter. Only one problem though. The market is changing. More people are rethinking being REQUIRED to drive an automobile. Enough people are pondering rolling that 8,000 dollars per year average vehicle ownership cost, toward a place to live closer to their work, and closer to amenities. Vancouver has no amenities. It has very limited services, and no civic existence at all. It's where people go at night to sleep, or to lock themselves away and watch reality television. It's an "automobile slum" in the making. Joel should consider retiring here, I think it fits in remarkably well.

Many on this site complain about "smart growth". What no one is mentioning, is many aspects of smart growth, are actually DEREGULATION. I'd think that real libertarians would love that! Most of suburbia was founded on government mandate, zoning requirements, minimum lot sizes and parking minimums. By freeing up the urban core from the punishing requirements, it allows more creativity to better capture value.

Vancouver is not a lost cause

The Big Picture
Exile, You have to start accepting the suburbs as part of the larger picture, since, in 2013, no one really only looks for the performance of isolated suburbs or large urban cities, but rather, the metropolitan at large. You can't view Vancouver or Portland in isolation, especially when the health of either is crucial to the other's success. They are an integral part of the Portland/Beaverton market and therefore are a part of a 1.1 million job market, & providing jobs and housing for Oregonians. I'll visit my therapist who practices in Vancouver, stop by the Beaverton Library to return some books, head off to an evening class at the PCC Sylvania campus in Portland, and maybe eat dinner in Tigard on the way home to Beaverton. Amplify this routine by several tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people also doing the same thing, and you can really see the pointlessness of borders in assessing the health of a city. This inter-connected web of relationships then comes to the forefront in importance, and so you have to stop dividing urban and suburban into two isolated bodies who can function independently of each other.

And no, it is not a longer commute to Portland then the stand-still traffic on 26 connecting Beaverton, Tigard, Hillsboro, and Forest Grove to the urban core. I would argue that it's probably faster anyways, and with Trimet connecting to Vancouver, you will soon see many of them commuting to Portland via rail. That is the problem with the ways they planned our metro, and it's not METRO's fault necessarily since no one could foresee the population's we are now sustaining today, but it is very annoying now to deal with all these new people moving into the area, and with no one in leadership standing up with a transportation expansion that could keep us competitive while meeting the needs of all the new people who have relocated here over this past decade.

Prioritizing Concerns
Your concerns about vancouver are valid. Those are issues to consider, but they are not issues for the majority of people who have relocated there to avoid Oregon's taxes, and for the many families who are priced out of the West-side's inflated housing market, but don't want to settle for the East-side's unappealing and unrefined aesthetics, crime, and poverty. And even if they are issues, they pale in comparison to more important things.

There's hope for Vancouver yet...
Also, you are also speaking as if Vancouver can't adjust. It's issue with traffic to Portland will be taken cared of by the new bridge. The max light rail will now connect Vancouver residents to the greater Portland area. And no, our transit market in Portland, even adjusted for peak travel times like when most people are going to, or leaving from work, has not greatly increased with the advent of more and more max lines. People are as dependent on their cars as they ever were, and the transit market has remained largely the same for the last decade. So, Vancouver is in a position to change, and that change is not limited by its share of the car-driving public; Sherwood, Hillsboro, Wilsonville, are exception to your point. And if Oregon continues on too progressive a route and causes Nike and other businesses to leave, then you will see a shift to Vancouver. Smart growth has its limitations, there are downsides to it, and Vancouver is in a position to capitalize on this.

"Drive to Qualify" is YOUR fault, pal.

The single best insight in the famous "Costs of Sprawl 2000" report, was that the higher the median price of a home is pushed up, the FURTHER people have an incentive to commute to get a home they can afford. "Drive to qualify" is real. Anthony Downs discusses this phenomenon very helpfully in his 2004 book, "Still Stuck in Traffic". Downs was one of the contributors to the "Costs of Sprawl 2000" paper. There is a chapter entitled:

"The Effect of Lower-Cost, Outlying Land on Housing Costs":

Page 448 onwards of the following PDF is highly relevant:

Dr Kara Kockelman of the University of Texas, some of whose research is referenced in the “Costs of Sprawl” study, has done further research since with the same outcomes.

There are studies which purport to prove otherwise. These studies all suffer from the fatal flaw that they compare the actual current “housing” cost of incumbent households – including people whose mortgages are already paid off, or nearly so, and whose “housing” costs are next to nothing. This misses the point that a new buyer of the same often quite high-value homes would certainly achieve much lower “housing plus transport” costs by buying further away. In fact, even the incumbents with mortgages paid off, would improve their financial position by cashing up their high value property and moving further away.

A basic understanding of the underlying logic of urban economics would immediately make us suspicious of the flawed claims referred to above. If a situation ever does exist in an urban economy, where real-life comparable “housing plus transport costs” got lower the closer one gets to the city's most significant concentration of jobs and amenities, the workings of free markets would ensure that enough people would very soon relocate more efficiently, that this situation would reverse. Markets do not find their equilibrium at a price where supply is in excess of demand.

Advocates who insist that this disequilibrium exists, are blinded by a mythology that people really do have an irrational “love affair with their car” and actually enjoy their daily traffic congestion so much that they will not even rationally act to improve both this situation (which nobody actually regards as anything other than frustrating and a waste of time) and their financial situation.

Of course there might be lower “housing plus transport costs” in the case of a very much smaller “home” near a city's CBD, but urban real estate markets will find their own level, and the simple reason that households are not flocking to smaller and smaller homes in more and more efficient locations, is that these homes simply do not meet their requirements for other attributes in a home, particularly space.

So Portland's planners are guilty of forcing up the cost of the options for transport simultaneously with the options for cost of housing. "T.O.D." under these conditions only ever turns out as boutique lifestyle choice communities for the well off or young singles. Rail public transport riders mostly have above average incomes, while it is the poor who are forced into the locations they can "afford", where there is no transit.

It is ironic that you talk about the "deregulation" aspects of smart growth, when ALL benefit of these aspects is negated by the insistence on growth boundaries in the plan. Leave out the growth boundary and I am all for the deregulatory provisions. But there are plenty of cities with all the so called "exclusionary", so-called "house price inflating" policies that smart growth "deregulates", but these cities still have median multiples of around 3 due to the absence of a growth containment boundary.

There is interesting evidence that "T.O.D." actually works better in Houston and Atlanta than in Portland. There is certainly evidence that fragmented land is infilled more rapidly in Houston than in Portland, probably due to its far lower cost in Houston. Something that marks the distorted urban land markets of growth-contained cities, is empty sites and sites needing renewal, with the owners of them "holding out" for prices several times as high as the level at which the market clears in Houston. Portland is a disgrace for the amount of public subsidies that have ended up being thrown at some of these "hold-out" site owners.

Strictly numbers

The cost of transport/house price determining model is flat. It fails to address what is driving re-occupation of urban areas, and the failings of suburban life. Even if I save $X.XX by increasing my per-foot purchasing power by relocating an hour outside of town, what's my compensation for the two hours a day that I'm trapped in my car? What about amenities, such as public markets, shopping districts, a farmers market, etc? those are now an hour away as well. The comparison doesn't fall down to dollars and cents. There are more than monetary reasons for such a massive demographic change. Many people are quite happy with half the house, if they can lose the commute. This is especially the case, for empty-nest folks, retirees, and people that do not, as yet have children.

Yes, the urban growth boundary increases pricing on property. It does something else as well. It makes it so that someone residing in the city, has ready access to the countryside. It preserves farmland, and preserves family farms. It allows farmers themselves ready access to amenities inside of cities as well. It makes for a more efficient transit system, higher levels of mobility for all users, and more resilience against fuel shocks. You may try to point to places like Portland as a problem, but you clearly haven't spent much time there.

So many fallacies, so little time.......

Have you not heard of the dispersion of employment and amenities? Where is the data that shows that commuting time increases in proportion to the physical dispersion of a city? There is no data that shows any such correlation. The most compact cities in the western world, in the UK, have the LONGEST average commute-to-work times as well as the most unaffordable housing. This is because traffic congestion and the "pricing out" effect (on households), swamp the "reduced city size" effect.

It is possible to have city amenities and access to the countryside, in "edge cities", as well as short trip times and highly democratised "location" attributes to housing. "Monocentric" regional planning policies are just as wrong and harmful as fringe containment.

There is no rational reason to "preserve farmland" when sizeable surpluses of farming produce are exported at a net loss when the cost of subsidies to that sector are taken into account - including subsidies to transport infrastructure, which are far greater than the "subsidies" to transport infrastructure in cities, which is where all the growth in real incomes in the global economy has taken place for 6 decades. In any case, there is so much more farmland than urban land, that even if all new fringe growth was 1 acre lots, it would use up less than 0.1% of the rural land supply per decade. And this process would reach saturation at some point long before food prices began to rise due to pressures on the supply of land.

You need to read "Superstar Cities" by Gyourko, Mayer and Sinai. Yes, places like Portland are very nice. But they are de facto gated communities against the great majority of people who cannot afford to live there in the way that they would prefer. It is ironic that anti sprawl activists hate "exclusionary" suburbs yet they love exclusionary whole cities.

All such cities that thrive, do so because of lucky historical accident re the kind of employment that their local economy is based on. If it is finance, accounting, law, bureaucracy, media, and high tech; it becomes a de facto gated community for the elites who work in those sectors. Nor can more land-intensive sources of employment afford to locate there. If the creation of these exclusionary cities is justified, then it is perfectly justified to have a balance of cities where land-intensive sources of employment, and their workforces, can afford to locate. Like Houston.

As I have already tried to explain to you, the outcomes in the UK show what happens when you apply urban growth containment to all cities without the slightest understanding of the different requirements for land on the part of once-important sectors, and the requirement for low cost housing on the part of their employees. The UK economy is now London plus a few dozen rust belt cities.

Even in Oregon, the UGB policy is killing the economy of an inland, non "Superstar" city like Bend. UGB policies applied all over the USA would turn Houston and Atlanta and Dallas into Sheffield and Liverpool and Newcastle. It would also ensure that Detroit and Cleveland and Buffalo would NEVER rebound economically. It would drive industry to China even faster, and turn the USA into a "mostly rust belt" economy like the UK. Manhattan, like London, would do OK.

The "planning" advocates who love London and NYC and Vancouver and Portland, are guilty of the "physical determinism" fallacy. They assume that the density and mass transit are what makes those cities what they are. This is like assuming anyone can be George Clooney or Claudia Schiffer if they use the same make-up, clothes and diet. It is similar in its ignorance, to the "cargo cult" New Guinean jungle tribes who saw amazing white men build an airstrip in the jungle, following which some magic flying monsters descended and unloaded cargoes of useful goodies. So the tribesmen proceeded to build facsimiles of airstrips in the jungle, because obviously that is what the "gods" saw, and hopefully would send more of the magic flying monsters down.

A transit system is a MEANS, not an end in itself. Making it an end in itself when it is long since obsolete as a means, has in most cities now worsened the outcomes in the TRUE "ends" rather than improved them. Transit energy efficiency is LOWER than the AVERAGE for cars in many cities, and MANY TIMES LOWER than the energy efficiency of the most efficient cars, or of cars with 2 or more people on board. Virtually every "van" service in existence today is orders of magnitude more efficient than mass transit.

The "Democratic" housing market versus "Smart growth"

You just said something very important.

".....And many turn on this middle-class raising to protest it, not realizing the exception they are both in human history, in the world today, and even in the US. Not everyone lives as well as we do, or has ever had the chance to escape the trappings of authentic poverty....."

In US cities with a house price median multiple of 3, I would wager that something like 90% of the population gets to enjoy the "attributes of housing" that only the top 5% get in a high density, growth constrained, planned city in the UK, which is the most extreme example of the opposite kind of city.

I mean, the size of home, the size of lot, the age and condition of home, and the access to desirable amenities. Congestion is such a powerful negater of alleged "compact city" advantages that it takes the English on average far longer to get to work, to get to shops, and to get their kids to school, than it does for the residents of a typical affordable, low density US city. AND for many households, they are "priced out" of efficient locations anyway, and suffer LONG travel distances in dire congestion....!

Their houses are far smaller on average and far older on average. The lot size is exponentially smaller.

Because all the attributes of housing are rationed by price, the end result in the UK is that only the top 5% of the population actually get to enjoy the sort of conditions that as much as 90% of people in an affordable US city takes for granted. Only among the top 5%, is there a genuine choice between a nice "walkable", transit friendly urban area close to the CBD; or a decent suburban family home with views of the Green Belt. Everyone else gets the worst of all worlds: less space, lower quality housing, greater distance from jobs, greater distance from green space and public amenities.

Why is the experience of middle class white people any less

authentic? You're just rolling out old tropes and stereotypes. It's intellectually lazy.


It's not just gentrification, but the "europeanification" of Northeastern and Great Lakes cities. Where the urban core becomes the most desirable place to live while the suburbs/exurbs stagnate.