The Gentrifier's Lament

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So having finally closed on the house, we're living in what is euphemistically known as a "mixed" neighborhood, where poor black residents who have lived there for a generation or more exist somewhat uncomfortably side-by-side with more affluent whites who are drawn to the relatively cheap rents and lovely Victorian housing stock.  The tensions thus built up are played out in many places, notably local politics, where a recent attempt by a local cafe to get a liquor license triggered many of the arguments that we heard after Adrian Fenty's loss in the mayoral race.


Yesterday, I rode the bus for the first time from the stop near my house, and ended up chatting with a lifelong neighborhood resident who has just moved to Arizona, and was back visiting family.  We talked about the vagaries of the city bus system, and then after a pause, he said, "You know, you may have heard us talking about you people, how we don't want you here.  A lot of people are saying you all are taking the city from us.  Way I feel is, you don't own a city."  He paused and looked around the admittedly somewhat seedy street corner.  "Besides, look what we did with it.  We had it for forty years, and look what we did with it!"

I didn't know quite what to say.  It's true that for a variety of historical reasons--most prominently, the 1968 riots that devastated large swathes of historically black DC--our neighborhood has more in the way of abandoned buildings than retail.  And I'm hardly going to endorse the gang violence about which he presently discoursed at length.  But the reason we moved into our neighborhood is that we want to live in a place that's affordable, and economically and racially mixed.  We don't want to take the city from them; we just want to live there too.  Perhaps I should have said that.

Oh, I'm quite sure that there are white people who are impatiently waiting for all the black residents to be forced out (except for the affluent ones), just as a few neighborhood old timers have been known to throw bottles at hipsters.  But at least in my hearing, that has been far from a majority sentiment, on either side.  It seems as if there ought to be some way to make it work.

But then, I am largely in agreement with a perceptive essay by Benjamin Schwartz that appeared in our pages a few months ago, arguing that the neighborhood I want to live in doesn't exist--or at least not for long:


Thanks to the profound influence that The Death and Life of Great American Cities has exerted, the West Village circa 1960 has come to epitomize--really to be the blueprint for--the urban good life. But in its mix of the new and the left over, in its alchemy of authenticity, grit, seedy glamour, and intellectual and cultural sophistication, this was a neighborhood in a transitional and unsustainable, if golden, moment. Which meant that it was about to lose its soul. Two recently published books, Wrestling with Moses, by Anthony Flint, and Manhattan Projects, by Samuel Zipp, detail how the working class was driven out of the West Village, as gentrifiers like Jacobs drove up assessed values and rents. Progressive, reformist city planners, supported by seemingly most of the Village's blue-collar residents, favored a relatively low-impact urban-renewal scheme to build hundreds of below-market-rate homes in the neighborhood--a plan Jacobs and a group of largely affluent residents successfully fought on the grounds that it would destroy the area's character. Whatever the merits of the opposing positions, one of the proponents of renewal was surely prophetic in arguing in 1961, "If the Village area is left alone ... eventually the Village will consist solely of luxury housing This trend is already quite obvious and would itself destroy any semblance of the Village that [Jacobs and her allies] seem so anxious to preserve."

Thanks in no small part to the fact that Jacobs's recipe for livable and vibrant cities--keep the scale small, preserve the physical fabric of neighborhoods--has become, Zipp says, "the lingua franca of planners and city lovers," the physical appearance of Jacobs's old neighborhood (a place where I lived and worked in the mid-1990s) is much as it was. But its character is unrecognizable. The hardware store's building, Zukin reports, now houses the New York branch of a small Chicago chain that describes itself as a purveyor of "hip designer maternity clothes"; in 2008 the ground floor of Jacobs's former home contained City Cricket, which sold "one-of-a kind, hand-made, antique treasures for children."

The same processes created--and, as Sorkin and Zukin would have it, destroyed--contemporary SoHo, Tribeca, and the East Village. In their analyses of each, it's clear that they pine for--and mistake as susceptible to preservation--the same sort of transitional moment Jacobs evokes in Death and Life, when an architecturally interesting enclave holds in ephemeral balance the emerging and the residual. Such neighborhoods still contain a sprinkling of light industry and raffish characters, for urban grit, and a dash of what Zukin calls "people of color," for exotic diversity. Added to the mélange are lots and lots of experimental artists (for that boho frisson) and a generous but not overwhelming portion of right-thinking designers, publishing types, architects, and academics, and the one-of-a kind boutiques and innovative restaurants that will give them places to shop and brunch.

Neither writer seems to apprehend the inherently impermanent nature of this balance, because neither writer comprehends large-scale economic processes. For instance, in railing against the passing of SoHo's exhilarating, creative days--characterized by "the mix of artists, crafts-people, small manufacturers, researchers [!], as well as of commerce oriented to their needs" (a few funky bars for the artists; places like the collectively run restaurant Food)--Sorkin joins in the lamentation for "the rapid decline of the city's industrial economy." He doesn't recognize that the SoHo he yearns for was precisely the product of that rapid industrial decline, which made economically available to artists and their hangers-on all those cool industrial spaces that in more industrially vibrant times would have been used by, well, industry.

Zukin declares that she "resent[s] everything Starbucks represents," which really means that her urban ideal is the cool neighborhood at the moment before the first Starbucks moves in, an ever-more-fleeting moment. Indeed, what has changed since Jacobs's day--and the reason, as these books attest, that gentrification has become so intense an issue--is the speed of the transition of districts from quasi dereliction to artsy to urban shopping mall. This acceleration results from the ways consumption has become the dominant means of self-expression (Zukin is perceptive on this point) and from--relatedly, ultimately--the acceleration of the global economy.

When I say I'm in agreement, I mean empirically, not philosophically.  I watched the process in the mixed-income neighborhood I grew up in, which was liberally dotted with housing projects, old tenements, and lots and lots of stores that served poor people.  Eventually, only the housing projects were left, marooned on little islands amid a tidal wave of affluence that had even swept the residents out of the seventh-floor walk-ups built when Victoria was still on the British throne.  There was virtually nowhere for the residents of the housing projects to shop or eat, as all the markets and restaurants had at least doubled in (real) price and changed their mix of goods to cater to investment bankers, not single mothers making $28,000 a year.  The financial crisis temporarily halted the process, leaving some lower-income retail on Amsterdam Avenue.  But I'm sure that as Wall Street gets its groove back, that too will go.

I have no idea how you could stop this process.  To keep our neighborhoods the way Jacobs and I liked them would involve massive coercion not just of real estate owners, but of merchants, food vendors . . . everyone in the network of service providers that supports a neighborhood.  The more people like me who move into my current neighborhood, the more services the neighborhood will attract--and those, in turn, will bring further waves of gentrifiers who will use their higher incomes to drive up rents, home prices, and the assessed values upon which property taxes are based.  

I want the services, but I don't want this to price out all the people who already live there.  Unfortunately, it's a package deal.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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