Moskowitz tells of how gentrification has swept through some of America’s biggest cities, writing case studies of Detroit, San Francisco, New York, and post-Katrina New Orleans. In each city, there are specific problems and circumstances that helped the process along, but it’s striking how similar the choices made by politicians, business leaders, and developers and their effect on poor really are across the country. Gentrification, in each of these cities, dismantles and displaces existing neighborhoods and communities in order to make way for new residents who are mostly whiter, and always richer, than those who predate them. And the same choices seem to be made again and again.
While Moskowitz includes the important stories of those who called a neighborhood home long before coffee shops and luxury condos appeared, it’s his outline of the systemic process of displacement that is the most devastating. He convincingly shows how the choices that a city and its government make in the name of a booming economy assign value to some residents and not others: From choices on where and how to fund affordable housing, to invest in public schools, to support new local businesses, but not old ones, the process that goes by the name “revitalization” is often something more pernicious.
In How to Kill a City’s section on New Orleans, Moskowitz highlights the uneven treatment of poor neighborhoods and rich ones in the post-Katrina period, noting that some who saw a need for economic revitalization have said that the storm cleared out some of the less desirable neighborhoods, leaving room for them to be rebuilt without as much concentrated poverty and blight. But they were also being rebuilt more slowly and in a way that ultimately left their previous residents adrift. On top of that, Moskowitz writes, changes to the city’s basic services, particularly its school system, disadvantaged poorer families, who were burdened by undue amounts of paperwork. The city also dismantled the teacher’s union, which had helped build part of New Orleans’s black middle class.
In his chronicle of Detroit, Moskowitz shows how gentrification differs in a city that is steadily emptying out because of economic hardship rather than a natural disaster. He notes that in a 2010 attempt to recast the city as an urban center on the rise, rather than one facing a staggering financial failure, the city’s mayor, Dave Bing, proposed shrinking the boundaries of Detroit in order to focus on the downtown area while cutting out the struggling outer ring. The idea, though it was shot down, has had long-lasting implications for how people conceptualize the city, Moskowitz argues, with developers, city planners, and corporations focusing most of their energy and money on a relatively small section of it. “The new Detroit is now a nearly closed loop,” he writes, “It is possible to live in this new Detroit and essentially never set foot in the old one.” And after filing for bankruptcy, the city’s government has had less power to plot out the city’s future, leaving it in the hands of developers and nonprofits, who may still have a somewhat limited view of what qualifies as Detroit.