CityLab writers and editors share the titles that made an impact on us and our work this year.
Gentrifier by Jason Patch, John Joe Schlichtman, and Marc Lamont Hill
Gentrifying is all the rage; even beavers are doing it. And yet it’s hard to respond to the rage, because the choler behind it comes in so many shapes and sizes. Few people seem to know precisely what gentrification means, but everyone seems to know it when they see it. And yet, not everyone is seeing the same thing when the gentrification flag is thrown. The definitions of the term multiply by the day, and it’s a mess. So two sociologists, DePaul University’s John Joe Schlichtman and Roger Williams University’s Jason Patch, and noted activist-scholar Marc Lamont Hill decided to take a whack at diagramming the gentrification conundrum in hopes of providing some clarity.
In their book Gentrifier, instead of trying to solve the gentrification Rubik’s cube, they decide to pull it apart, block-by-block, naming each part and its role in neighborhood change. The book provides not only a glossary of terms, but also tools and rules of engagement for deploying this thing that—if we can all agree on nothing else—has now become a fully loaded and weaponized word. The function of this breakdown is that by using a more scrupulous lexicon for describing the changes happening to one’s neighborhood or environment, legislators and regulators can be more responsive and accurate in their policy proposals. Without this, the fear is the term will only grow more ambiguous, with more policy proposals missing the mark, and then the next thing you know, the beavers will have completely taken over.
Nomadland by Jessica Bruder
2017 was a big year for “van life.” From The New Yorker to HGTV to Instagram, you couldn’t avoid the story that trendy Millennials everywhere are eschewing real estate, ditching their worldly possessions, and finding liberation by living full-time on the road in a van, trailer, or RV. That story is one of privilege. At the other end of the #vanlife spectrum are people who live this way as a last best resort, or out of outright desperation.
In Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder documents the lives of often older Americans who’ve been forced into life on the road. There’s nothing twee about it. This is how they find work—temporary, seasonal, physically demanding work—tending to campsites in national parks or hunting down all kinds of junk in Amazon’s warehouses. Bruder paints an unforgettable portrait of this “whole band of housing refugees” (they’re houseless, but don’t call them homeless). Most stay upbeat, and as a reader it’s sometimes impossible to understand how. Bruder is less optimistic, seeing this as a result of a social contract gone bad. One of many lines that stuck with me since reading it: “The last free place in America is a parking spot.”
The Poverty of Privacy Rights by Khiara Bridges
It’s increasingly clear that privacy is a luxury. For some, the right to privacy has simply never existed. In her new book, The Poverty of Privacy Rights, Boston University law professor Khiara M. Bridges focuses on the case of women on welfare—particularly mothers.
During her research in the obstetrics clinic of a large public hospital in New York City, Bridges witnessed expecting mothers having to submit to intrusive, embarrassing, and often irrelevant questions in order to get government assistance. How many sexual partners did they have? Who were they? Do they have jobs? When I spoke to her earlier this year, Bridges said she couldn’t “imagine a privately insured woman, with some degree of class privilege, having to sit through this in exchange for her health care.”
Bridges rejects the arguments that women in need trade in their right to privacy for government benefits, because that would mean they have those rights in the first place. In fact, they don’t. If these women reject government aid, they’re declared indigent, and Child Protective Services swoops in. If they do, they’re made to run through the ringer another way. On many occasions, they’re separated from their children anyway for trivial reasons that would not have had the same consequences for better-off parents. In other words, the choice between privacy and government assistance is a false one.
This constant surveillance is predicated on the idea that the poor—particularly a poor person of color—are inherently deficient. And moving that mountain of a belief system is the first step to enfranchising these women.
Vanishing New York by Jeremiah Moss
No one delves into New York City’s changing landscape—the reasons behind its “hyper-gentrification” of chain stores and ludicrous housing prices—with the acidity and prose of Jeremiah Moss. In his book Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, Moss balances sentimental reflections of the city’s past with a hard look at the policies that have shaped modern day New York. He writes of the casualties of the cultural and economic shift of the last few decades: the restaurants, the affordable housing, the ethos of entire neighborhoods. Moss’s work is a rich, detailed, and scathing look at the way politics and capitalism have changed the city. And while his tome largely mourns what has been destroyed—and how—Moss ends on a rallying cry that there is still much left to fight for.
Ambivalent Embrace by Rachel Kranson
Like many other immigrant groups at the time, the massive wave of Eastern European Jews that came to the United States in the early 20th century settled primarily in inner cities. After World War II, many rapidly ascended into the middle class and sought the greener pastures of the suburbs. But this transition was hardly a perfect realization of the American dream. Ambivalent Embrace, by Rachel Kranson, tells the story of the many attendant anxieties that came with the American Jewry’s upward mobility and suburbanization in the middle of the 20th century.
As members of a group that had experienced persecution for millennia, many Jews felt suburbanization made them complicit in systems of oppression that had been leveraged against them just a generation earlier. White flight and the de facto racial segregation of the suburbs were particularly uncomfortable issues, invoking the ghettos and shtetlach of the old country.
Others described the perceived materialism of the suburbs as contrary to Jewish values. Progressive rabbis would hold up instances of generosity among the dirt-poor Jews of the Lower East Side as an example for suburban congregants. Economic prosperity and cultural assimilation are widely held virtues, but they often come with a psychological, or perhaps even spiritual price. Ambivalent Embrace helps contextualize the striving for history, community, and authenticity in America’s now affluent inner cities.
Kids These Days by Malcom Harris
No book did more to redefine the conversation about Millennials this year than Kids These Days, by journalist Malcolm Harris. For too long, the term dripped with condescension, invoking a generation that was lazy, entitled, and obnoxious. Harris provides a necessary linguistic correction, describing how so many of the negative ideas associated with Millennials are a product of macro-economic conditions.
Millennials are caught in a double bind: A more competitive job market requires ever higher levels of education, but getting educated is more expensive and arduous than ever. And while worker productivity is at historic levels, the benefits haven’t trickled down to the workers. In fact, average wages have stagnated, while cost of living—in the form of education, as well as healthcare and housing—has skyrocketed.
As Harris tells it, these economic conditions are the reason that Millennials tend to live with their parents, have higher rates of anxiety and depression, and exhibit so many other traits that have seemed so worthy of ridicule. Kids These Days has set a new tone for talking about Millennials. It may still be whiny, but not without cause.
Bed-Stuy Is Burning by Brian Platzer
With his debut novel, Brian Platzer decided to set his sights high. A story about gentrification—a subject that might take a Tolstoy to tackle—it follows a white couple, Aaron and Amelia, who move into a home in Brooklyn’s historically black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Not content with unpacking the fraught realities of gentrification, Platzer tacked on race and criminal justice as a second theme, centered around the police shooting of a 12-year-old black child.
It’s not a knock to say that Bed-Stuy Is Burning is neither War and Peace nor Do the Right Thing. These are enormous themes, but Platzer sets himself up for failure by starting at the wrong end of the story, focusing on the gentrifiers rather than the gentrified. Aaron, a former rabbi turned investment banker with a gambling problem, and Amelia, a journalist who profiles the likes of Jonah Hill, are familiar characters in Brooklyn’s gentrifier circles. They aren’t delivered up in satire, or as tools for understanding a deeper truth about displacement. That happens along the way, but as the result of deep characterization of these ultimately fortunate characters.
The better book, and the harder task, would have involved devoting as much time and care to any of the black residents of Platzer's fictional Bed-Stuy—especially the figures, mostly nameless, who turn to violence in their rage and frustration. While Platzer tenders their motivations with sympathy, he approaches them only through the white lenses of his protagonists (namely Aaron), which is to say that he hasn’t done them, or his subject, any favors. Ultimately, the book succeeds at illustrating the complexities of any anecdotal story about gentrification—just not the way the author probably meant.