Cities are transforming, and it's palpable. The reliable no-frills coffeehouse shut down and two months later, there's an artisan bakery selling baguettes for $6. Your favorite barber tells customers he can no longer afford the rent; meanwhile a chain salon around the corner has an hour wait.
These scenes are all too familiar for the urban dweller, from Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon. On the surface, they're hallmarks of gentrification. That narrative starts with educated middle-income (and typically white) 20- and 30-somethings moving into a predominantly working-class community for bigger bang for their buck. Other yuppies follow suit. Eventually the neighborhood is made amenable to their palettes and preferences. Property values rise, minorities are displaced, and the public promenades that reflect urban diversity begin to look and feel otherwise.
A spate of mainstream articles, books, and policy papers published in the last decade have warned civic leaders about this "new" form of urbanization. However, gentrification isn't new -- it's actually baked into the economic forces that have been driving urban development since the 1950s. If we want to address gentrification's ills, we need to address this force that undergirds it.
After decades of depression and war, newly opulent Americans turned to the economic philosophy of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism allowed Americans to exercise their right to proudly consume beyond their means. Neo-liberalism began flourishing in the 1970s as deindustrialization, globalization, and the regime of international finance restructured to fit these phenomena. In the economic context of cities, neo-liberal ideology encourages free enterprise, open competition, deregulation, and the dismantling of public goods. It relies on the private market for quotidian matters such as education, health care, housing, transportation, and even amusement. Instead of being seen as rights or services, these become commodities for purchase.
Why should cities care and how does it relate to gentrification? In part because neo-liberalism hasn't only changed cities – it's changed city dwellers and their expectations.
When Boston, Chicago, and New York rose to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cities were conceptualized as landscapes of innovation, opportunity, and heterogeneity, where people and government pulled together for the common good. Those popular ideas have remained in the broader public imagination.
But in the last 30 years, everyday needs and resources once viewed as governmental responsibilities have been handed over to "outsider" companies whose scope, grasp, and concern for the on-the-ground life in a city is limited. Entertainment is relegated to shopping malls, chain stores, sports stadiums, and for-profit festivals. Small businesses are forced to compete with Best Buy, Staples, and Target. A cashier at a downtown stadium cannot afford to live close to his job, instead settling for a working-class suburb or in the outer rings of the city.
At the same time, those who can afford to live in a city now expect a personalized, "just for you" urban lifestyle. For-profit companies chase these urbanites with upscale housing and creative marketing campaigns, transforming blighted and blue-collar neighborhoods into "livable" urban nooks.
For some, the city has re-earned its cachet. It is an exciting playground if you have the time and money. For others, the city is increasingly un-democratic; the struggles of the concrete geography are harsher than ever. Consumer-driven solutions to stimulate city economies via shopping, tourism, and luxury condos offer up sexy ideas of urban development. But ultimately, this pattern of neo-liberal problem-solving reinforces gentrification. By not examining neo-liberalism’s central role in gentrification and relatedly, the so-called suburbanization and "Manhattanization" of cities, Americans will continue endorsing this economic order whether or not we are conscious of it.