A couple weeks back, my Twitter feed lit up with a heated exchange over an article titled "20 Ways Not To Be a Gentrifier," and I was reminded of a book club meeting I held not long ago.
The book in question was a scathing indictment of gentrification as a colonial project, and whose thesis we took turns more or less affirming. Every person in the room was white. Every person had graduated from a relatively prestigious four-year college. And every person was currently living in a neighborhood at some stage of what we typically refer to today as gentrification.
What to call the tension between our conversation and our lives? Hypocrisy? Delusion? Something much worse?
Mine is a cohort – the youngish, college-educated, left-leaning set – that places a great deal of moral significance on geography. (Probably everyone does, but I can only speak to our particular code.) Most of us believe in a moral imperative to reject the suburbs: to disavow environmentally-destructive sprawl and alleged ethnic homogeneity and cultural sterility.
We know, too, that well-to-do urban neighborhoods that hoard scarce resources aren't much better. And if you move to a poor or working-class neighborhood with your college degree, earning potential, and cultural power, the rising rents that ripple outward from you and your friends can be just as damning.
And sometimes we come up with lists of reasons why we're not implicated in the whole dirty business.
But "20 Ways Not To Be a Gentrifier" doesn't come close to providing anything like what it promises. Its advice – which includes “say hi to your neighbors” and “recognize your home's unique culture” - is sound, but nothing in it will slow the pace of displacement. The same is true for most of the more radical contributions to the genre, in which, say, prominent filmmakers try to save their old neighborhoods by haranguing audiences about where they should and should not live.
That's because there's no way out, if you happen to have above-average economic power or the kind of cultural capital that attracts people with above-average economic power. Whether or not you say "hi" to your neighbors, your presence in a relatively low-income or blue-collar community will, in fact, make it easier for other college graduates to move in; to open businesses that cater to you; to induce landlords to renovate or redevelop their properties to attract other new, wealthier residents who want access to those businesses. If your city restricts housing supply (it does) and doesn't have smart rent control policies (it almost certainly doesn't), you've ultimately helped create an economically segregated neighborhood.
But it's worse than that: it doesn't even matter where you live.
Moving to a higher-income neighborhood – one where market and regulatory forces have already pushed out the low-income – means you're helping to sustain the high cost of living there, and therefore helping to keep the area segregated. You're also forcing lower-income college graduates to move to more economically marginal areas, where they in turn will push out people with even less purchasing power. You can't escape the role you play in displacement any more than a white person can escape their whiteness, because those are both subject to systemic processes that have created your relevant status and assigned its consequences. Among the classes, there is no division between "gentrifiers" and "non-gentrifiers." If you live in a city, you don't get to opt out.
The upshot here is not that we should all descend into nihilistic real estate hedonism. But we need to recognize what's really going on: that what we call "gentrification" these days is only one facet of the much larger issue of economic segregation. That people get priced out of the places they already live in is only half of the problem. The other half, which affects an order of magnitude more people, is that people can't move to the neighborhoods to which they'd like to move, and are stuck in places with worse schools, more crime, and inferior access to jobs and amenities like grocery stores. That problem is easier to ignore for a variety of reasons, but it's no less of a disaster.
And all this, in turn, is the result of a curiously dysfunctional housing system – one that's set up to allow market forces to push up prices without regard for people who might be excluded, and to prevent market forces from building more homes and mitigating that exclusion.
It's that combination, with an assist from generations of rotten and racist urban policies, that makes economic segregation so widespread and pernicious. It also explains why it's growing so quickly – faster, even, than economic inequality.
And it's why none of your personal decisions about where or how to live will have any effect on gentrification. Being considerate to your neighbors might make you a good person, but I'd like to suggest that you have another kind of responsibility: to be aware of these underlying systemic processes and use what social and political power you have to change them. The exact solutions can be debated, but I would start by lobbying your local government for housing subsidies for the low-income, protections against eviction due to rising rents, and an end to exclusionary caps on housing construction that keep prices artificially high.