Gentrifier v. Gentrification

Erin and I were in San Francisco yesterday. Well, technically we just walked through it for a bit on our way from Oakland to the airport.

San Francisco which is ground zero for gentrification. San Francisco with its highest square footage costs in the country. San Francisco with its astronomical rents.

You can see and feel in San Francisco’s gentrification what I suppose many in Minneapolis are afraid will happen to our own city.

But more than the demographic change that we know has occurred in San Francisco, you can also sense this high level of a consumer/consumption culture. Everywhere you looked there was something to consume. I don’t spend a lot of time in the parts of Minneapolis that already have lots of cool bars and restaurants and condos, so maybe we have some of that here. Or maybe my senses were just heightened on our walk and so I was overly sensitive. Who knows.

But here is what I will say.

If you learn about gentrification just by reading newspaper articles you might think that gentrification is the end result of thousands of people’s taste for mustaches, breweries and cool bars and restaurants.  But let’s be clear, those are the effects of gentrification, they are not the causes.

There is a difference between the gentrifier and gentrification.

The gentrifier is there to consume a city that has been produced for them.

To focus on the gentrifier is to narrowly focus on the individual, rather than the systemic.

We make the same mistake when talking about racism by only focusing on the interpersonal and not the institutional. This myopic view of gentrification (and race) fits well with our overall obsession with the ‘individual’. It’s easier to focus on the gentrifier, rather than the political, economic and social forces producing gentrification in the first place.

Empty buildings become occupied, new bike lanes are created, an art gallery opens, then a new coffee shop, a craft brewery and “all of a sudden” all these new people are showing up to consume what has been carefully curated for their tastes. Hidden from the public eye is all that proceeds the street level changes we see and experience. We never see or hear about conversations between real estate developers and planners or business leaders and elected officials. By the time you see the hipsters, the political and economic forces have already paved the way for this transformation.

Jason Hackworth a professor of planning and geography at the University of Toronto, writes, “Gentrification is much more than the physical renovation of residential and commercial spaces. It marks the replacement of the publicly regulated Keynesian inner city – replete with physical and institutional remnants of a system designed to ameliorate the inequality of capitalism – with the privately regulated neo-liberalized spaces of exclusion.”

Or as Peter Moskowitz says in a much simpler way in his book How to Kill a City,

“…gentrification is the urban form of a new kind of capitalism.”

This, I would argue, becomes an important starting point for our conversations about gentrification, community development and neighborhood revitalization. Capital always goes where it can make the most profit. If that used to be in the suburbs, fine. If that is in the central city, great (of course, don’t forget that in order for the central city to be a place where capital can maximize profit, it first had to be disinvested in!).

Moskowitz acknowledges that while consumption drives some aspects of gentrification, after all inner cities are attractive cultural spaces, gentrification may also represent a “much more sinister kind of individual expression: that of colonial power. In the same way that Europeans colonized the Americas, some see gentrifiers as seeing the inner city as a place lacking control and in need of white civilizing forces. An urban wilderness waiting to be tamed.”

Gentrification is more than just consumption. Gentrification is more than any individual gentrifier. It is part of a system that prioritizes capital over community and profits over people.

It’s a way of being that is grounded in the DNA of our country. We founded our country on principles of cultural imperialism, violence and displacement, and gentrification simply becomes a new form of the same process.

If we want to advance more equitable neighborhood change and development in our city, we’ll need to talk about much more than just buildings, breweries and hipsters. Instead, we’ll need to talk directly about what Moskowitz notes as the same age-old, racist process of subsidizing and privileging the lives and preferred locals of the wealthy and white over those of poor people of color.” 


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