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.

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The suburban sterility myth and smartgrowth elitist enclaves.

What is missing from this discussion, is the way that SUBURBS evolve to provide the desirability that most people seek. I have lived all my life in "suburbs", and I have never been any more than 7 minutes WALK away from a Post Office, a Library, a Cafe, a Supermarket, a Chemist, a Medical Centre, a school, and whatever else. I have never been more than 7 minutes drive away from specialist stuff like lawyers, travel agents, optometrists, golf courses, sports grounds, movie theatres, bowling clubs, gyms, health shops, and engineering supply shops.

Furthermore, as Robert Fishman pointed out years ago in "Megalopolis Unbound", the residents of the modern dispersed city form their own "networks a la carte". The alleged "sterility" of suburban life is a big fat MYTH. Humanity has never HAD such widespread opportunity of so many of us having it so GOOD.

See my comment above about how "smart growth" in the UK (even if it has not been called that) has resulted in massively undemocratic outcomes in the enjoyment of the attributes of housing - including "location". The so called "urban lifestyle" forced by "planning", merely ends up creating elite enclaves of sneering rich people who can look down their noses in condemnation at the grubby proles who cannot afford the locations that would allow them to live the same way; and the proles are taxed to death on their sinful car use as well as gouged by the rentier class for their housing costs.