Saturday, October 24, 2015
Urbanism: Is Gentrification Really So Bad?
I can understand parts of the complaints, yes, rising rents hurt and some people get squeezed out. But this problem isn`t new and not limited to fashionable places like New York City. Recently I watched the Italian film "Umberto D", a classic from 1952 (wikipedia). The movie tells the story of a man who lives from a small pension and cannot afford the rent for his tiny room anymore. Greedy landlords are global and have been around for a while. New York City, where I live now, alleviates the problem with regulations. Many flats in the metropolis are "rent controlled" or "rent regulated". Tenants, who have the luck to rent one of these flats, pay rents below the market rates and their rents rise slower.
I think a large part of the critique is overdone and often ideological. Take for instance the rant "Hyper Gentrification, the Monster that ate new York" (vanishing). Is gentrification really a "monster"? Jeremiah Moss, the author of the rant and the owner of the popular blog "Jeremiah´s Vanishing New York", claims gentrification is "racism and classism" and whines that the streets are crowded with " “normals,” young, white, traditional heterosexuals in button-down shirts and pleated pants". Holy cow, what is wrong with being "normal, young, white, traditional heterosexual"? Moss` critique sounds intolerant and arrogant!
Moss isn´t alone. David Byrne, a rock star from the 1980s, laments that in New York City a "culture of arrogance, hubris and winner-take-all was established" (theguardian). And the late urbanist Neil Smith declares that "gentrification is a product of globalization and neoliberal urban policies, a return to the 18th-century brand of laissez-faire liberalism that assumed the free and democratic exercise of individual self-interest led to the optimal collective social good and that the market knows best" (smith). It seems that these critics have problems with the market economy in general, but socialist countries - like the defunct Soviet Union - aren´t known for better living conditions.
The black filmmaker Spike Lee laments that "black neighborhoods" are getting invaded by affluent whites (nymag). He complains that "many white people moved in to neighborhoods that had been predominantly black for decades and more". What´s wrong with that? There are no traditional "black neighborhoods" in New York City. Manhattan was originally owned by native Americans, the nation of Lenape (wikipedia). They might complain, but they aren´t around anymore.
The American author James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851 ) described in his novels already the radical changes in the 18th century, even that he might not have known the term "gentrification". Already in the 18th century things have been changing and people got confronted by new life conditions. In the beginning New York was a Dutch city, then it became English, parts were for some times German and changed then into Chinese and Italian neighborhoods. Spike Lee´s blacks came late to the party and they had replaced others who had lived there before them.
Long time New Yorkers tell me that around 30 years ago Manhattan´s Lower East Sid was filthy and crime infected. I was told that you couldn´t get milk there, but at each block somebody offered you drugs. Gentrification turned NewYork`s slums - like the Lower East Side - into cool & friendly neighborhoods. Yes, I miss some of the places which had disappeared in the recent years - like Pink Pony on Ludlow (driveby) or WD 50 on Clinton (driveby) - but these places had replaced other less classy places which had existed before them. Today, I really enjoy the mixture of well sorted shops, art galleries, restaurants, bars and the crowd on the streets (nymag bloomberg slate theatlantic).
Change is the only constant, writes the historian Greg Woolf. I think that gentrification is just a part of it. It is a tradition to replace old things with new ones. Even the old Romans repalced old mansions, temples and bathhouses with new and more majestic constructions. And gentrification is speeding up because the whole society - and technology and culture - are accelerating. We know this phenomena from Moore´s law, but - as the scientist Ray Kurzweil described - everything is accelerating (kurzweil). Technology, society and culture are changing with a growing speed - and so does a city like New York. And it is not surprising this metropolis is attracting people & capital from all over the world. Rome did it in her heydays and Babylon more than 2000 years ago. The world is changing - relax and enjoy!