John Joe Schlichtman recalls a particularly hypocritical scene at a wine-and-cheese reception, one of those social outings held at the end of a day of conference symposiums. The "leftist" sociologists were gathered in a historic building, designed by a famous architect, inside a major global city. Schlichtman is intentionally vague about the details because he doesn't want to too narrowly indict anyone in the sweeping critique he's about to make about academics who study urbanism.
"This happens all the time, this is normal," he says of the event. "But it could have been for a top-10 law firm. It could have been for a meeting of politicians. But yet we don’t see the irony in this." The same people in that room, he suggests, regularly write and teach about a caricature that looks awfully similar in their own narratives of evil gentrifiers. "If any of these things were mentioned in an article about a gentrifier, we would stick our noses up: their taste for wine, their taste for fine clothes, their taste for high art. 'These are all middle-class values that are driving the poor out.'"
Few groups, Schlichtman contends, are more hypocritical than urbanists discussing gentrification. As he and fellow sociologist Jason Patch write in a rather unusual article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, "many (dare we say most — ‘mainstream’ and critical) urbanists are gentrifiers themselves." They mean this is an academic context, although the charge could reasonably be applied more broadly.
The point is not that these sociologists should stop talking about and researching the process of gentrification, but rather that they could do so with a self-awareness that might lead to a more nuanced understanding of what the word really means. Schlichtman and Patch, themselves, are owning up to the label. (The title of their article: "Gentrifier? Who Me? Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror.")
"There’s a place for a realistic, critical conversation, but it’s not happening," says Schlichtman, now a professor at DePaul University in Chicago. "And so our thinking is so remedial. 'All I ever needed to learn about gentrification I learned in 101.' And yet it’s the most pressing issue as we become an urban world, certainly in terms of housing."
Sociologists have backed themselves into a theoretical corner, he argues, with the caricature of the middle-class, latte-drinking urban pioneer whose inevitable taste for wine bars and boutiques drives up the rent and drives out the poor. If any middle-class presence in a diverse neighborhood is evidence of gentrification, he and Patch write, then it's impossible for a middle-class person not to gentrify. "Is there any room," they wonder, "for an ethical housing choice by the middle class?"
Is it necessarily unethical for a white middle-class family that wants to live in a racially and economically diverse neighborhood to move into one? How should that family reconcile that its presence on the block may signal unwelcome change to neighbors? As we've previously written, the idea of fair housing is as much about opening up high-opportunity neighborhoods to low-income people as it is enabling new investment in traditionally disinvested places, some of which will encourage new families to move in.
But would we consider those families gentrifiers? And if most investment that comes from outside of a neighborhood is considered suspect – a big-box store, a new Starbucks, an art gallery – how do we expect communities defined by the fact that no one has invested in them to thrive on their own?
The stories are always much more complicated, Schlichtman says. Maybe the big-box store offers the only groceries within a few miles. Maybe the Starbucks is the only place that allows the homeless to use the bathroom.
Schlichtman says he's not advocating academic group therapy here. But he thinks if academics examined their own roles within these processes – instead of holding their subject matter at arm's length – the caricature will break down. And he and Patch volunteer to go first: In their article, each offers an almost uncomfortably personal narrative about his own housing decisions.
At one point, Schlichtman, a white man who is married to an African American woman, describes the period he spent living on a block in Brooklyn where four generations of his wife's family had lived in three brownstones for decades. As other white and Asian gentrifiers began to move into the neighborhood, his standing there changed:
I felt the discomfort of being grouped with a new critical mass of the ‘threatening’ ‘white’ ‘influx’. I was joined on the subway station platform by other white people on a regular basis for the first time, white people bearing the marks of gentrifiers: Whole Foods grocery store bags, art supply bags, expensive mountain bikes, anti-capitalist tee shirts, small dogs in bags. The ways that long-term residents made sense of the neighborhood changed. At one time people saw a white man in isolation and assumed ‘he must have a reason for being here’. Now, I felt the stare of ‘it is only a matter of time before they change our neighborhood’. As my position changed in the eyes of other residents, I found myself peering into the looking-glass of gentrification (Cooley, 1902). Who I was changed with the changes in the neighborhood.
Every study of neighborhood dynamics probably doesn't need to begin with a personal narrative of this kind, lest the habit start to seem narcissistic. But Schlichtman argues that the impersonal, clinical approach to sociology should have gone out with the 70s and 80s.
"People need to get vulnerable about this," he says. Or, as sociologists would put it, they need to locate themselves within their own literature. "This has happened in studies of race. This has happened in studies of class. And yet in this area where race and class intersect, Mary Pattillo is really the only one I’ve seen who has exposed her place within gentrification without painting herself as a hero."
Schlichtman's whole argument is not exactly a defense of gentrifiers. And he and Patch don't even begin to propose how to solve the very real problem that middle-class people often do drive the poor out of neighborhoods, even if the idea had been to live alongside them. But they suspect the discussion would be more productive if academics acknowledged that they want for themselves the same good schools and safe neighborhoods and diversity and opportunity they advocate for disinvested communities.
Overwhelmingly, Schlichtman says, he's been hearing since this article came out relief from his colleagues that it might be OK to talk about this "elephant sitting in the academic corner."
"I don’t think I’ve heard yet from the folks that hate it," he says. "Because they’re probably going to answer in the form of an article."
The top image of a pedestrian passing through Harlem: Keith Bedford/Reuters