Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Problem of Celebrating Gentrification

Those who view gentrification positively usually misidentify the actors who drive gentrification. They also often assume two sets of actors: 1) certain older residents who are seen as destroying the city (an underlying revanchist attitude) and 2) individual homeowners or business owners who "pioneer" an area and are saving the city. Yet, they do not perceive the agency of developers, investors, and city governments in gentrification. Here is my memory of a recent conversation with a colleague (C) visiting from out of town:

C: I lived in DC before gentrification, in 1992-1993.

Me: Well, gentrification began in the 1930s in Georgetown and in the late 1940s on Capitol Hill. A lot of Capitol Hill was gentrified by the late 1970s. It's been going on for some time.

C: But there were no-go areas; we were told that there were areas we should not go to.

Me: Gentrification works by investing in certain areas and disinvesting in other areas. Developers buy up low-cost buildings in areas they think might be profitable to develop and sit on them for years. They may let the buildings fall into disrepair or may maintain them at minimal cost, which often lowers the values of surrounding buildings making them cheaper to buy. This might create "no-go areas." [According to Neil Smith's rent gap theory, gentrification "is most likely to occur in areas experiencing a sufficiently large gap between actual and potential land values" (p. 464) because disinvested areas are where developers can make the most money. When developers have finished their investments in one area, then they can move capital into the most profitable disinvested area, like Ivy City and New York Avenue NE area, see 2003 Washington Post article "Where to Build Next?; As Downtown Fills In, Only Way for Construction Is Out." And the District government helps them in these processes too (see Susanna Schaller in Capital Dilemma).]

C: Do developers do this?

Me: Yes.

C: [I can't remember exactly the next step in the conversation, but it was something about white flight to the suburbs and how DC fell into disrepair.]

Me: White flight was about white homeowners [and renters?] leaving cities but this did not mean that they necessarily sold their houses. Rather, many white homeowners rented out their houses and did not necessarily maintain them very well. [I learned this a few days ago at Nathan Connolly's great talk on his book A World More Concrete at Georgetown University. These homeowners could thus do their own rent gap, doing minimal investment on their properties and waiting out for the return of capital to the area.]

This short discussion revealed to me how those who view gentrification positively often do not see the agency of developers and investors, as well as of city governments, in changing cities through investment and disinvestment. Also, interestingly, gentrification is perceived as just starting very recently, rather than as a long-term process. This long-term process should be understood as both a process of investing in certain places and disinvesting in other places, thus investment and disinvestment are connected processes. As Sabiyha Prince (2014) writes, "Gentrification is contingent upon disinvestment and dearth in urban environments...gentrification is the end result of a deliberate cycle that begins with neighborhood devalorization" (p. 46). Where is this neighborhood devalorization happening now in DC?