Friday, February 15, 2013

Gentrification is a dirty word...as it should be

The title of this piece is borrowed from Neil Smith's The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City where he tracks the spread of gentrification across New York, particularly the Lower East Side from the late 80s to the early 90s. He talks about the political, cultural, and economic aspects that drive gentrification and gives a strong critique of the forces that wipe the working class and poor from our cities.

Smith interrogates the policies of New York, from anti-homeless campaigns designed to sanitize certain neighborhoods for developers seeking "safe" neighborhoods for investment, to the subsidization of major luxury developments against the wishes of community groups and activists. He even draws upon the way development interests use art, from galleries and artist housing, as development beachheads, preparing target neighborhoods for further development by creating new edgy, trendy arts districts in former no-go zones for the well off.

The central lesson of this and other more radical critiques of gentrification is that none of this is accidental or "natural". Cities put policies in place to encourage development while ignoring the needs of existing residents. Developers systematically target neighborhoods and engage in a variety of tactics to encourage landlords to sell and to remove residents from target buildings. These are explicit strategies that are geared towards one thing- profit maximization.

This is why articles like this from The New Republic are incredibly problematic. The author laments the kind of social cleansing that is part and parcel of the gentrification process but then throws up her hands and simply walks away confused but not troubled by the apparent irony of the situation. Never does she ask the question as to why city redevelopment must inevitably lead to gentrification. In fact, the author conflates the two. It is truly sad that many of our urban commentators, from professors to practitioners, assume that gentrification is the only way to redevelop our cities. Such sentiment is best encapsulated by the false binary choice that many commentators offer where they posit that the only alternative to gentrification was the continued disinvestment and crime that characterized these neighborhoods before redevelopment. Never is the question of redevelopment without displacement ever seriously addressed. The reason for this, as these commentators know but hate to admit, is that these projects are rarely, if ever, actually about helping poorer residents escape poverty as opposed to filling up city coffers with fresh tax expenditures and encouraging more consumption by new residents. We can debate over whether this is a legitimate goal of cities, but before we can debate it we have to at least be honest about how cities have approached the questions of redevelopment and revitalization.

Unfortunately, the current mainstream commentary and even academic discourse around gentrification has largely moved away from the trenchant, unapologetic critiques embodied by Smith's work in the 90s. In a 2006 piece,  "The Eviction of Critical Perspectives from Gentrification Research" (hat tip to my man RJ for this piece) , Tom Slater tracked the abandonment of more radical critiques of gentrification and the rise of gentrification research pieces that rejected materialist critiques gentrification and instead pushed an "emancipatory discourse" of gentrification. This discourse focused on the return of middle classes to the city as a rejection of suburban drudgery and monotony. This, of course, is the dominant discourse around the boosterish nature of urban development commentary today as lead by established scholar/consultants like Richard Florida of "creative class" fame and relative newcomers like Mike Lydon and his "tactical urbanism". Both commentators represent the kind of thinking that many mainstream urban commentators engage in that celebrate the "return to cities" by young, creative professionals and ignore the lived experience of poorer and working class folks.

Why does this matter? It matters because our cities, like the rest of the country, have become increasingly unequal. Income inequality has increased, poverty remains stubbornly high as well as heavily racialized and gendered (the rates of poverty among single mothers of ALL races is a national tragedy) and these factors are further compounded due to their spatial organization. It is not that people are poorer but that the poor are increasingly concentrated in smaller areas of our cities and in some cases pushed out. If we truly care about addressing profound social inequity as part of a greater call for a more inclusive, humane, and sustainable society, then we must forcefully reject the assumptions that dominate our popular understanding of urban redevelopment and gentrification. We cannot blindly celebrate the "return to the city" and the role of young urban, creatives in this urban renaissance without questioning who wins and who loses in this new equation. Recent articles, like this piece from Susie Cagle in Grist, are a great way for those of us who care about a holistic conception of sustainability to challenge the inequitable, and ultimately sustainable, development of our cities.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Permanence of Geography

I ran into an interesting article on the magic twitter machine from the Sustainable Cities Collective entitled "The End of Geography". Russel's thesis is that geography, specifically economic geography, no longer matters because,"People develop, not place." His evidence for this is the rise of developing countries, including Turkey and the BRIC nations, and the seeming reverse of their relations with traditional, dominant developed countries like Spain, Germany, or even the US. The reversed flows of people and remittances from the core to the periphery heralds the end of geography and speaks to the dominance of global talent.

This argument selectively picks from a wide range of urban geographical and planning theories, most notably from the global cities work of Saskia Sassen that speaks to the transformed nature of global economic relations from being primarily dominated and directed by nation-states to a collection of powerful city-regions that go into the organization and control of a global economy around the interests of global corporate actors. Within the global city framework we also come to the question of international "talent".  This human capital focus is largely influenced by the likes of scholars like Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida that preach the importance of attracting and retaining such talent. This class of professionals are the technically skilled workforce that man the corporate towers of the regional control centers of capital. They are managers, research scientists, human resource specialists, accountants, legal specialists etc that all are focused on better managing the increasing complexity of the global economic system and to manage incredibly complex, deep supply chains that span the globe. This group is different from the vaunted "young creatives" that American urbanism is so enamored with but the two groups are not entirely distinct. The only difference between the global city manager and the "creative professional" is that the "creative professional" couldn't land that big job at Goldman Sachs out of school.

Where Russel moves away from Sassen and from most geographers and planning theorists is in claiming that the reversal of economic fortunes between the developed and developing world signals the end of geography-- the death of space and place. On this I could not more vehemently disagree. We can again turn to Sassen here. While she notes the similarity of many global cities in how they are organized, look, and the social relations that seem to predominate she is adamant in the position that this serves as a "re-territorialization" of global economic relations, not the obliteration of the importance of such territories. The nation-state may play a less central role (the degree to which this is the case, if at all, is still a lively area of debate) in these relations but that does not negate the importance of space or place.

Moving a little beyond Sassen a bit, the thesis that geography no longer matters in light of global talent migration entirely ignores the reason for this global talent demand--the management of a globalized production system that takes advantage of cost and political differences of different places. The existence of global supply chains speaks to the centrality of geography in corporate decision making and strategy. The massive global manufacturing complexes in developing countries until very recently were producing a variety of goods, both finished and intermediate, designed for developed nations' consumption. For example, the dominance of southeast Asian textile production was not simply due to cost differential but the conscious decisions of firms from Western countries to re-locate their production facilities in an attempt to capture cost-reductions and to better control local political conditions in light of labor intransigence and falling profits back home. This shift was only helped by the increased sophistication of transportation and communications technology.

So, while this shift may have signalled the ever-diminishing importance of distance (and with increasing carbon emission concern we may see distance become a more key variable) it actually increased the importance, or better illustrated the yawning difference, between different places. Thus we see the kind of increasing uneven development that is evident between rich and poor countries that is reflected in our own city regions by increases ethnic and income inequality and segregation.

The current rise or durability of the economies of the Global South do not signal that economic geography does not matter, but that current investment has simply shifted. This reversal of fortunes speaks to the incredible opportunism and adaptability of capitalism in light of ongoing crisis. In fact, the observation that there is a difference in economic outcomes that is largely spatially defined speaks to the inherent absurdity of declaring an "end to geography".