Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to be a neighbor during a time of rapid community change.
Reading about gentrification, it’s often not difficult to sense the distance between the subject and the author when the scribe is an academic, a politician, or even a journalist. The writer might easily be part of the gentrification problem, unwittingly or not, and hence reticent to have real talk about the situation.
The authors of the new book Gentrifier deal with those deficits upfront while tackling the topic that tends to rile up housing activists, mystify mayors, and delight CityLab readers. Gentrifier’s authors—John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill—are all professors at major universities, earning middle-income salaries and choosing to live in cities and neighborhoods in which they were not born and raised. Schlichtman and Patch are both white and are living or have lived in neighborhoods that were predominantly non-white at some period in time. Hill once elected to live in a mostly low-income community suffering from disinvestment in hopes of improving it. That is to say, they all have gentrified or are currently helping gentrify a neighborhood.
However, their respective “gentrifying” impacts have not all been the same, for reasons beyond race and income. That’s because there is no real universal definition or function of gentrification. In Gentrifier, the authors spend roughly 200 pages drilling down to what exactly this word means in various places and circumstances. The book demands that the reader come to terms with where they stand in the discussion, and then it supplies them with a glossary of terms to use for pinpointing the real afflictions that get attributed broadly to gentrification. For one thing, the authors write, “gentrification” is too abstract a term, and so more concrete language is needed for describing the many individual forces and factors that lead to problems like displacement, cultural disruption, price inflation, and over-policing.
By telling their own stories about the various places they have chosen to live, why they ended up there, and what forced them to move, the authors offer instructional narratives on what it means to be a neighbor amid neighborhood change. CityLab spoke with Schlichtman and Patch about what “neighborliness” means as spatial and residential patterns shift.
Looking at all of the dynamics that frack up neighborhoods, especially black and Latino neighborhoods—gerrymandering, militarized policing, mass incarceration, the eviction crisis, the expansion of Airbnb-type living arrangements—has gentrification ended the neighborhood as we know it?
Jason Patch: No, I don't think so, but everything you just mentioned are challenges, have been challenges, and will continue to be challenges. There are going to be neighborhoods that are better off because they’re not as heavily policed, or they have better jobs, or create better access to jobs. However, it’s within all those other detailed points you list where the actual problem is.
The problem isn't gentrification: It's that my neighbors are getting locked up, or they are being over-policed, or there aren't any schools, or there’s lead poisoning in the neighborhood, or there aren’t any long-term rentals anymore. I think what becomes important is identifying those problems specifically and not sweeping it under, “Well, it’s all gentrification.” [Instead], saying, “Look here’s a problem that’s tangible. We can label it, we can identify it. And we can organize around it—find people in the neighborhood who want to organize around this, make alliances across class, across race.
John Joe Schlichtman: Evictions can happen due to disinvestment in a neighborhood, and [they can also] happen because of over-investment. Eviction happens because of disconnection from the rest of the city and a neighborhood’s reconnection to the rest of the city. Militarized policing can happen due to the containment and isolation of a disinvested neighborhood, or it can happen because a neighborhood is being reinvested in and the police say, “Let’s protect the gentrifiers—let’s protect these investments and key cultural anchors.” There is no magic bullet or magic potion, no panacea for stopping it.
So what is the duty of the new neighbor in the current gentrification context?
Patch: One of the things we talk about in the book is how there’s this misconception that you either have community or you have this atomized, gentrified space. Any time there’s neighborhood change, it takes a while for community to build—but it will build. The question becomes: What are your obligations to someone you live next to, versus someone you are more intentionally connected to?
For a long time, we thought about neighborhoods from that physical proximity. But in the time period we live in now, with social media and the way we think about relationships and [building] social movements, it may be that regardless of gentrification, our sense of who and what we are obligated to in neighborhoods is changing also.
Schlichtman: I think there are multiple types of orientations to a neighborhoods, especially among newcomers. There are newcomers who want a relationship with the longtime residents of a neighborhood, and, as we say in the book, there are newcomers who only want a relationship with [fellow newcomers]. And there are the gentrifiers who are the curators, who only want a relationship with old neighbors because they want to be the last ones [moving into the neighborhood]. Each one of these has their own strengths and weaknesses.
I think both the person who is overly obsessed with fitting into the old neighborhood and the person who could care less about that both can have severe dysfunctions in the way they are oriented to the neighborhood. The only alternative is for people to stay in their place—but what does that mean for everyone to stay in their place? Let's articulate what we mean by that.
How do housing polices, even progressive ones, complicate notions of how to be a neighbor?
Patch: If middle-class people are moving where there’s cheaper housing, that lets you know that there’s not enough middle-class housing in your city in the first place. It doesn’t hurt to build middle-class condos or upscale apartments while you’re also building low-income affordable housing. Too much of the time, the argument becomes, Well, what type of housing is it going to be? As long as you're not building another Trump Tower, you're probably making a positive contribution to the housing needs of the city.
Schlichtman: I think this gets to the whole “in lieu of fees” 1 policy. You have inclusionary zoning where some developers say, “Well, I don't want the 10 percent affordable 2 to be placed in the high-end neighborhoods. I want them to be in the low-end neighborhoods.” So which is justice—when affordable housing is built in the low-income black neighborhood, as community organizations are
fighting for? Or [is it] when that 10 percent of inclusionary housing is being built in the middle-class neighborhood that other activists are fighting for because they want to see a racially and class-integrated city? Well, it depends upon the conversation going on in that place. People are usually totally against “in lieu of fees” or they’re totally for all inclusionary zoning. But the reality is, if what you’re saying is you’re concerned about the breaking up of historically black neighborhoods, than in lieu of fees are going to be the ticket to maintaining a lot of that infrastructure, by giving it to nonprofits in that neighborhood.
Looking at Jane Jacobs’s “eyes on the street” theory, how do the new neighbors of a gentrifying neighborhood disrupt, complicate, or uphold what Jacobs was talking about?
Patch: Some research I did talks about how when you have the emergence of new commercial enterprises—new clothing stores, places to eat—they are the new eyes on the street. They are new public characters that draw out gentrifiers and new residents and build relationships with them just as earlier businesses supported the people who were living there before. One of the questions about displacement in a neighborhood is whether new businesses and new relationships that are built around them are pushing out existing businesses and relationships that were there, and whether there are opportunities to find spaces where everyone can come together.
Schlichtman: I’ve got equally critical and positive things to say about Jane Jacobs, but what you can say is that she learned the cards that were being played in urban renewal. At first, when the assessor is walking the neighborhood, you don’t know who that person is. When the civil engineer is walking through the neighborhood, plotting the highway, you don’t know who that person is. But Jacobs learned the cards that were being played, and it took until the mid-1970s [for people to understand that] two or three decades of damage had already been done.
We’re in that point right now of determining how many decades of damage are going to be done by global investment wanting to get into gentrifying neighborhoods, and by mayors wanting to build as many condos to attract as many tech companies as they can. We have to learn all of these cards right now so we can decide what we want in a neighborhood.
That’s not going to be a national-level conversation; it’s going to be a community-by-community conversation. The problem right now is that people don’t know all the cards that are being played, so it’s all become just a set of caricatures. The person who disagrees with me is a caricature. The person who believes in inclusionary zoning is a caricature. The person who likes coffee is a caricature. The person who wants to live by a park is a caricature. The person who wants to hold on to their home that they lived in for 50 years is a caricature. And part of getting past this caricature is learning all of the cards being played, so we can have a proper conversation.
- “In lieu of” fees are financial instruments used in inclusionary zoning policies to help fund the development of affordable housing. Under such policies, when a housing developer is building a multifamily project, such as an apartment building, they are required to make a certain percentage of the housing units in that project available at below-market rates (usually if taxpayer subsidies are involved). However, in some inclusionary zoning polices, a developer can opt out of that requirement by instead paying a fee in lieu of building affordable units. That fee is often made available to the city or to local nonprofit housing developers to build affordable housing units. Read more about it here: ↩
- In this inclusionary zoning example, this would be a developer rejecting a policy requiring him to make ten percent of the units in their multi-family development available below market rates. ↩