The Eviction of Critical Perspectives from Gentrification Research

TOM SLATER 

Abstract

Recent years have seen an extraordinary resurgence of interest in the process of gentrification, accompanied by a surge of articles published on the topic. This article looks at some recent literature — both scholarly and popular — and considers the reasons why the often highly critical perspectives on gentrification that we saw in earlier decades have dwindled. Whilst a number of reasons could be put forward, three in particular are discussed. First, the resilience of theoretical and ideological squabbles over the causes of gentrification, at the expense of examining its effects; second, the demise of displacement as a defining feature of the process and as a research question; and third, the pervasive influence of neoliberal urban policies of ‘social mix’ in central city neighbourhoods. It is argued that the ‘eviction’ of critical perspectives from a field in which they were once plentiful has serious implications for those at risk from gentrification, and that reclaiming the term from those who have sugarcoated what was not so long ago a ‘dirty word’ (Smith, 1996) is essential if political challenges to the process can be effective.

When President Bush insists that ‘out of New Orleans is going to come that great city again,’ it is difficult to believe that good quality, secure and affordable social housing is what this administration has in mind. Wholesale gentrification at a scale as yet unseen in the United States is the more likely outcome. After the Bush hurricane, the poor, African-American and working class people who evacuated will not be welcomed back to New Orleans, which will in all likelihood be rebuilt as a tourist magnet with a Disneyfied BigEasyVille oozing even more manufactured authenticity than the surviving French Quarter nearby. We can look back and identify any number of individual decisions taken and not taken that made this hurricane such a social disaster. But the larger picture is more than the sum of its parts. It is not a radical conclusion that the dimensions of the Katrina disaster owe in large part not just to the actions of this or that local or federal administration but the operation of a capitalist market more broadly, especially in its neo-liberal garb (Neil Smith, 2005).

The city was moving in the right direction before Katrina struck. While residents felt the hangover from the historical heritage of political corruption (45 percent of residents say city government has low ethical standards), a large majority felt their leadership was moving New Orleans in the ‘right direction’. On a visit to the city in August, I was struck by the large number of professional ex-pats who had been attracted back to New Orleans because of that

I learned a lot from the comments of three referees — thank you for your confidence. The trouble- making in this paper is all my own, but for their ongoing support and encouragement, I thank Neil Brenner, Winifred Curran, Mark Davidson, James DeFilippis, Dan Hammel, David Hulchanski, David Ley, Gordon MacLeod, Kathe Newman, Damaris Rose, Mathieu Van Criekingen and Alan Walks. Finally, I am indebted to Elvin Wyly and Loretta Lees, whose contributions to my understanding of urban issues and especially gentrification have been immense and inspiring.

© 2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published by Blackwell Publishing. 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main St, Malden, MA 02148, USA

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change of direction. Tremendous enthusiasm was being generated by the efforts of Greater New Orleans Inc., Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, and others to spur the development of dynamic creative-industry clusters around the region’s technology base, universities, tourism, and music and film industries . . . The people of New Orleans know what they want. More than just reconstructed levees, a refurbished downtown, or even rebuilt homes, they want the soul of the city back. Their insights — both angry and enthusiastic — remind us of the underlying source of resilience that really rebuilds fallen cities: the people. Let’s hope that their leaders will understand this, and provide us all with a compelling model of a creative, prosperous and sustainable city (Richard Florida, 2006).

Lattes and lethargy

One of the more memorable comments to come my way since I began researching and writing about gentrification was from a German political scientist who had spent five years living in the gentrifying neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. At a workshop in Vancouver, when I explained my research interests, he replied ‘Interesting. But surely gentrification research is just an excuse to hang out in cool neighbourhoods sipping lattes?’ This comment, intended in jest, is actually rather astute, for it captures precisely the popular, and increasingly scholarly, image of gentrification. The perception is no longer about rent increases, landlord harassment and working-class displacement, but rather street-level spectacles, trendy bars and cafes, i-Pods, social diversity and funky clothing outlets. As David Ley (2003: 2527) put it, gentrification is ‘not a sideshow in the city, but a major component of the urban imaginary’. As the municipal rush to endorse Richard Florida’s celebration and promotion of a new ‘creative class’ in urban centres attests (see Peck, 2005, for a swashbuckling critique), gentrification — not so much the term itself, which is mercifully still something of a ‘dirty word’ (Smith, 1996), but the image of hip, bohemian, cool, arty tribes who occupy the cafes, galleries and cycle paths of formerly disinvested neighbourhoods once lacking in ‘creativity’, is increasingly seen as a sign of a healthy economic present and future for cities across the globe. In keeping with the discursive strategy of the neoliberal project, which deploys carefully selected language to fend off criticism and resistance, organized around a narrative of competitive progress (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 2001; Tickell and Peck, 2003), we have apparently arrived in the age of regeneration, revitalization and renaissance in the hearts of Richard Florida’s (2002) cities of technology, talent and tolerance. Lost in the alliterative maze are the critical perspectives on gentrification upon which our understandings of the process and its effects were built. This article seeks to uncover how and why critical perspectives got evicted from gentrification research, and argues that they need to be reinstated in the context of distressing evidence of continuing evictions of low-income and working-class residents from neighbourhoods, and continuing embourgoisement of central city locations resulting in severe housing affordability problems. The apparent lethargy towards addressing the negative effects of gentrification (particularly in Britain) has been pointed out in a recent editorial on the subject (Slater et al., 2004), so this article takes up this issue in an attempt to throw critical light on what Peck (2005: 760) has called ‘cappuccino urban politics, with plenty of froth’.

Gentrification web

In early 2000, frustrated by the lack of public information on gentrification available online, I wrote and designed Gentrification Web.1 As a brief visit to the website reveals, I knew (and still know) nothing about effective web design, but I did know enough about gentrification to summarize decades of debate in accessible terms, and spell out what

1 http://members.lycos.co.uk/gentrification. This reference to my website should not be treated as a form of advertising; I discuss it to point out the overwhelmingly critical reactions to gentrification that I have learned about since I launched the site.

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the process is and who it affects, accompanied by some photographs I snapped in London and a few relevant links. The tone of the website is largely critical, partly because two years previously I had been evicted from my flat in gentrifying Tooting, London, because of a rent increase, but mostly because the gentrification literature which informed it is predominantly critical. After I launched the site, I received little feedback and very few emails, and wondered why I had bothered. But around six months later, my inbox began receiving several emails a week from interested browsers, which has remained the case to this day. Aside from a marketing executive from the Seagram corporation, former owners of the trendy Oddbins wine stores in the UK, who asked me for a list of gentrifying neighbourhoods in British cities so he could advise the company board where to locate future stores,2 the people who have contacted me over the years have one thing in common — they are against gentrification because of what they have seen, heard or experienced. Neighbourhood organizations, displaced tenants and political activists from Boston to Buenos Aires to Budapest have told me stories about gentrification in their part of the world; other browsers have sent attachments documenting local struggles over gentrification through photographs, flyers and protest art. Some stories of upheaval and landlord harassment have been quite distressing to read, whilst some accounts of resistance and fighting for affordable housing have been very uplifting. With the feedback from traffic to the website it became impossible to see gentrification as anything other than a serious issue — a major disturbance in the lives of urban residents who are not homeowners, gentrifiers or hipsters. Not only has the website proved to be a useful tool in combining scholarship with political commitment — its very existence counters the latte-soaked image of gentrification articulated by journalism and policy discourse.

Yet this is an image which, at precisely the same time as these emails have been arriving, has been additionally fuelled by some recent scholarship on gentrification, which is far removed from the radical, critical politics of gentrification research of previous decades. A process directly linked not just to the injustice of community upheaval and working-class displacement but also to the erosion of affordable housing in so many cities is now seen by increasing numbers of researchers as less of a problem than it used to be, or worse, as something positive. The next section of this article provides a taster of some of the published work that contributes to the now popularly held, yet ultimately incorrect, assumption that gentrification ‘isn’t so bad after all’.

The tragically hip?3

In a quite remarkable about-turn in her perspective on gentrification, Sharon Zukin recently co-authored an article focusing on the commercial activity taking place on one block in the East Village of Lower Manhattan (a neighbourhood which has seen more than its fair share of gentrification and displacement) and argued that ‘far from destroying a community by commercial gentrification, East Ninth Street suggests that a retail concentration of designer stores may be a territory of innovation in the urban economy, producing both a marketable and a sociable neighbourhood node’ (Zukin and Kosta, 2004: 101). Even more remarkably, Zukin appears persuaded by the arguments of Richard Florida (2002) on the aesthetic and economic benefits of bourgeois bohemia, as evidenced by passages such as ‘the East Village illustrates how a cultural enclave that is stable, diverse and broad-minded can attract the “creative class”’ (Zukin and Kosta, 2004: 102) and ‘far from criticizing new consumer culture as evidence of gentrification, we think it is good to encourage consumption spaces that provide complementary kinds

  1. 2  I refused, though I must confess to being tempted to ask for a year’s supply of wine in return.

  2. 3  The Tragically Hip is the name of a well known Canadian rock band from Kingston, Ontario — but it’s an equally suitable name for a band of scholars promoting gentrification (even if this promotion is

sometimes unintentional).

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© 2006 The Author. Journal Compilation © 2006 Joint Editors and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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of distinction’ (2004: 102). The entire article treats East Ninth Street as a block utterly independent from the rest of the neighbourhood and all its history of class struggle and political turbulence: ‘the block does not exactly conform to this wild history’ (2004: 106). This is a conclusion drawn from unsubstantiated comments of storeowners on the block, some with a hazy grasp of history,4 and from an observational research project that feels more like a series of shopping excursions. In its theoretical redundancy,5 rather tedious street-level detail6 and obvious affection for Eileen Fisher’s clothing store,7 this article is particularly disappointing, not least because it comes from the pen of an eminent urban sociologist whose landmark book Loft living (1982) had the dual impact of first, critically exposing the ‘artistic mode of production’8 behind rampant gentrification and industrial displacement in New York’s SoHo district, and second, convincing gentrification researchers that culture and capital could be understood as complementary forces in driving the reinvestment and resultant middle-class conquest of urban neighbourhoods. On the basis of this article, opponents of gentrification, it seems, may have seen the defection to the creative class of one of their best and most critical voices. 

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