Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Art of Gentrification (II)

Social scientists are concerned about gentrification because it usually means displacement of lower-income residents. When displaced, the now former residents do not get to experience the potential benefits of gentrification. A while back, the City Paper published "A Guide for the Responsible D.C. Gentrifier." The main takeaways were that one should be friendly and respectful of one's neighbors and one shouldn't worry about being a gentrifier because gentrification is inevitable. Yes, it is usually a good idea to be friendly and respectful to neighbors, but the inevitable is usually a problem for sociologists. We are always creating the world in which we live, so nothing is inevitable. Usually, what seems to be inevitable in society is in fact the not-at-all inevitable outcome of power struggles.

Around the world, people struggle over the control of cities, who has a right to be, live, and work in different spaces. Many scholars have shown that city governments have actively sought to lure high-income residents and displace low-income residents in part because these high-income residents can pay more taxes and support a more expensive, service-based urban economy. As Brooklyn College sociology professor Sharon Zukin argues, the arts and historical preservation have been coopted by patrician elites, financial capital, and middle-class homeowners to support this class shift in cities. CUNY geographer Neil Smith has further argued that cities and their more wealthy residents have, in fact, taken on a vengeful attitude, seeking to take back the city after abandoning it for the suburbs in the 1950s/1960s and to punish the poor. In a previous post, I asked if CHAW was siding with banks and real estate firms that encourage gentrification maybe even of a vengeful sort or might it take other sides in the struggle over the right to the city. I wrote this with the deepest gratitude to CHAW for teaching me to draw and paint, as well as for bringing me into their wonderful community.

In the 1980s, a non-profit director in NY's Lower East Side challenged the wealthy's right to the city:
The basic issue is who owns that land. By 'own' I mean in the very real sense, morally. And we believe that that land belongs to the poor, literally, in every way, legally, morally. It belongs to the people. Because they were the people who struggled when nobody else wanted the Lower East Side. ("The Fine Art of Gentrification")
In Ward 6, many people including the poor stayed around and created a vibrant city life that continues to draw people to the area. How might we stop displacement and realize -- in the words of DC's own Chester Hartman -- the "right to stay put"?

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