“I can see the church from my window. All grey stones, stained glass and towering Gothic spires, it looks like a fortress, its walls mightier than Jericho’s.” So begins Jordan G. Teicher’s elegy to the Harlem that he worries he’s destroying. The house of worship might as well be, he says, “a monument to mark just how much I don’t belong here.”
My colleague Jason Patch and I recently published an article entitled “Gentrifier? Who Me? Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror” in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. We sought to take theories of gentrification “home” with us, discussing our own housing choices in a way that we hoped would incite a new gentrification conversation. One of our key arguments is that it is virtually impossible in many major cities for the middle class to make an ethical housing choice. Whether they choose to live in an impoverished ghetto, a gentrifying neighborhood, a middle class enclave in the city, or a middle class suburb, their choice will have ethical problems.
The point is that the problems of housing injustice are historical and structural. Anyone who is not resisting them (and perhaps even those who are) will inevitably reinforce them. So we might as well stop the unproductive caricatures of middle class gentrifiers that middle class urban residents often spread while deeming themselves the exception to these caricatures. It is not bad to desire a physically attractive walkable community with vibrant hangouts and various kinds of diversity. We should want these amenities for all people. In fact, such things are precisely what grassroots community organizers are fighting for in neighborhoods with deteriorating real estate, high crime rates, and disheartened residents.
Instead of implicitly thinking of gentrifiers as some other group, one that lives in wistful oblivion, we make a call for middle class urban thinkers and leaders of every background to very intentionally “emplace” themselves within gentrification. That is, we ask middle class urban residents to acknowledge and examine their own position within larger trends that affect not only their residential decisions, but the residential decisions of those around them.
Mr. Teicher’s article makes a great effort at this introspection, noting for instance that he has “more in common physically with the tourists” in Harlem than with longtime residents, “a sensation that makes [him] feel like a visitor, at best, an intruder, at worst.” Having been engaged in many conversations about gentrification and reflection over the past month since our article was released on-line and subsequently covered in The Atlantic Cities and other outlets, I sincerely appreciated not only his thinking about his role in the neighborhood, but –more generally– his willingness to be vulnerable. What Teicher began here is laudable and I believe that his words resonate with gentrifiers of all races, ethnicities, and classes of origin because they are part of a conversation that needs to happen.
According to my grad school mentor Neil Brenner and my co-author Jason Patch, “gentrification entails the reinvestment of real estate capital into declining, inner-city neighborhoods to create a new residential infrastructure for middle and high-income inhabitants.” While the arguments for gentrification often center on the idea that it brings “reinvestment,” two of its major problems related to Mr. Teicher’s piece can be understood broadly as cultural and economic. (Both, as well as most other issues related to gentrification, are inextricably political.)
The cultural problem of gentrification manifests in many ways, but I will discuss two extremes here. One extreme is that the newcomers wish the old-timers and their unfamiliar ways (e.g. grilling in front of their home instead of behind, shouting out onto the street, not speaking the prevailing language) were simply not there. Therefore, the newcomers may try to ignore the old-timers away by creating their own separate networks of familiar gentrifiers within the neighborhood. If they take a more proactive stance, they might commandeer neighborhood politics in order to limit the old-timers power and even restrict their behavior.
However, a very different manifestation of the cultural problem goes to the other extreme: the newcomer enjoys the neighborhood specifically because of the old-timers' presence. In fact, some newcomers may go beyond respecting the difference between them and their neighbors, as one would healthily do with any neighbor in any neighborhood, and instead fetishize, romanticize, or exoticize their neighbors. This newcomer could bear a resemblance to the Harlem tourist on a “safari” discussed by Patricia J. Williams (as cited by Mr. Teicher) and, for that matter, the “fascinated” white patrons of black night clubs who, as Langston Hughes wrote, observed the regulars as if they were “amusing animals in a zoo.” Such contemporary gentrifiers understand themselves to be adventuring into a jungle of sorts, onto an edge, an unfamiliar frontier, where life is charged with a sense of new encounters, new energy, new authenticity. When I read Mr. Teicher’s rhetorical image of “the breeze gently lifting the sheer curtains in [his] apartment” and carrying the “full-throated roar” of the choir, “loud enough to break through those old stones” of the church, I wondered if his article might be reproducing such a view.
One might also interpret fetishizing in Mr. Teicher’s remarks regarding how Abyssinian Baptist Church was “founded in 1808 by Ethiopian seaman” and how, while the church has been in the community for 90 years, he has been in the neighborhood for only six months. Both of these facts, he suggests, are evidence for the fact that he does not belong. One could argue that Mr.Teicher is in no way similar to anyone (Ethiopian, seaman, or otherwise) who arrived in the region in 1808, but neither, really, are most of the congregants going to morning service at Abyssinian nor the black gentrifiers in Mr. Teicher’s cohort. Secondly, there are many 90 year old (and older) edifices that New York City residents live beside without delving into such deep reflection. Why, then, is such depth of weight ascribed to this context?
Sometimes a gentrifier’s moral tiptoeing is not due to the fetishizing and romanticizing of residents just discussed, but instead to the newcomer’s view that their old-timer neighbors are politically, economically, and socially weaker than they. In such cases, the laments of gentrifiers (who are often young and white) assume that the pre-existing non-white community is impotent and disorganized and fear that the community’s very essence will wither in the presence of their overpowering –almost supernatural– "privilege." As a result, the gentrifier is oblivious to the complex and sophisticated street-level networks around them, even looking with pity upon neighbors who are economically, politically, and socially positioned to help them.
The economic side of the issue is bigger than Mr. Teicher and he astutely recognizes this as he locates himself within larger structural trends, ultimately determining that the problems are “unavoidable.” He states that he and others move to Harlem “out of necessity, and the consequences will take their toll.” He is aware that his presence “will eventually increase property values, raise rents and force out people who’ve lived here longer.” (Of course, these economic displacement pressures fostered by Mr. Teicher are not solely related to a white influx; many of Harlem’s gentrifiers are black, a complicating factor that Mr. Teicher either sets aside in this piece or does not recognize.)
The key problem with Mr. Teicher’s view here is not the processes he describes, but that he sees them as “natural.” He gives no attention to, or is unaware of, the history of housing injustices that made Harlem’s beautiful real estate "affordable." Housing does not go on sale. If real estate located in the middle of a global city is cheap, there is always a story behind it. For instance, in the U.S. context, the gentrifier’s housing ‘bargain’ is often enabled by a history of race-based injustices such as redlining, racial restrictive covenants, public housing practices, realtor codes of ethics that prohibited integration, and deteriorating schools. The systemic racism behind the depressed real estate values benefitting the gentrifier is one reason why gentrification is often criticized –why it is, as I like to say, a ‘four letter word.’
But while gentrification is a class issue, there is always more to the story than just the dictates of one’s personal finances. If Mr.Teicher is like other gentrifiers in Harlem, he is not moving there solely “out of necessity.” He is also moving there due to other pulls that he is experiencing: pulls of geographic centrality and the proximity of amenities, pulls of a social fabric in which one knows “the friendly faces at the deli,” pulls of the potential of extra square footage, and, yes, pulls of the romantic history-steeped ‘authenticity’ that he laments displacing.
From this approach of “Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror,” I argue that gentrifiers should own up to these other pulls rather than frame their housing choice as dictated merely by their pocketbook. For instance, why are Harlem gentrifiers choosing Harlem instead of outlying neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens that are more affordable and more diverse? The point is that if a new Harlem resident can afford to live in Harlem, he or she can afford to live many other places in the five boroughs. Most gentrifiers’ hands are not quite so tied.
My greatest concern about his piece and gentrification in general, however, relates to Mr. Teicher’s view that he doesn’t “belong” in his community. Why would anyone who has a choice live in a place where he feels he does not belong? We don’t know Mr. Teicher’s reasoning. However, often a resident with this view imagines a changed future community, one that feels a lot more familiar, one in which they do belong. For these residents, the present community is merely an inconvenience that they scurry through on their way to the subway or car service, albeit one that brings ‘grit’ and exhilaration to their lives. (And this is yet another reason why gentrification is considered a ‘four letter word.’)
The very terms "community" and "home," in my view, connote belonging. How can a resident participate in a community if he does not feel belonging? I am concerned that Mr. Teicher’s stance that all he “can really do…is…respect the uniqueness and significance of the community where [he] live[s],” while it is commendable in some respects, suggests that he will never view himself as more than a guest of his community and therefore will never be a full participant. This concern is evident all over the world: what kind of community does gentrification cultivate?
The most important reason gentrifiers should "emplace" themselves within the gentrification around them relates to the apparent fatalism in Mr. Teicher’s article. In many cities, gentrification (or the threat of it) is ubiquitous and every middle class urban resident is an agent of it. It is not unreasonable, then, that Mr. Teicher concludes there is “not much” he can do because he is not in the business of “building more affordable housing.” Teicher is more sensitive to his community than are many gentrifiers who have not engaged in such public reflection –but the reality is, of course, that the poor people fighting for places to live are not in the business of “building more affordable housing” either.
The problem with systemic injustice is that it perpetuates itself; all one has to do is, in the words of Burke, “to stand by and do nothing.” In the absence of discussion, the path of least resistance for city leaders around the world –even those who care about the fate of poor people– is to create more profitable housing for the more affluent where reasonably priced apartments and owner-occupied housing once stood. Mr. Teicher and I have the luxury of not having to think too much about the affordable housing arena (at least at this moment in our lives), but that does not mean that we shouldn’t.
I believe that this is an important era for neighborhood transformation. For the sake of argument, let’s just concede that there was a period –as we all seem to assume– when all gentrifiers were merely bohemians looking for authenticity or materialistic, shallow yuppies for whom the city was a playground. This is not what I see today. Many of the students in my college classroom right now are the children of gentrifiers and, given their class position, many of them will be gentrifiers themselves. And I don’t see this lack of reflexivity and shallowness in many of them, just as I do not see it in Mr. Teicher.
While there are ample counterexamples to be sure, I see many residents who want to be a part of their community and sincerely want to labor for a better future. But they need the tools to intelligently and respectfully participate in their communities rather than lament over them at arm’s length. The hopeless approach of rhetorical self-mutilation over one’s harmful (gentrifilogical?) footprint generates some colorful poetry, perhaps, but bears little fruit.
If gentrifiers want a right to the city, then they need to get involved in the political issues of the day. What does this mean? First, they must recognize the general structure of housing in their own cities that makes gentrification the path of least resistance for urban leaders who often make their decisions beyond the light of adequate public scrutiny. But more specifically and concretely, they can be active in progressive neighborhood politics.
Most neighborhoods experiencing gentrification have leaders and organizations that are attempting to resist it, control it, or best position themselves for it. Interestingly, some of these organizations are composed of early gentrifiers –on whom the irony is usually lost– who do not want to see the neighborhood change any further. But others, the ones doing the most vital work, are made up of residents who preceded the gentrification and who are experiencing great turmoil and upheaval around their neighborhood’s transformation.
It would be messy for such organizations –the former usually composed fully of gentrifiers and the latter usually composed fully of non-gentrifiers– to partner with one another. Similarly, it would be messy for an individual gentrifier to partner with the latter ‘old-timer’ type of organization to develop a unified vision for the neighborhood that includes, for example, preserving the units of affordable rental housing that still exist, developing new (truly) affordable housing within the gentrification, and advocating for innovative supportive housing for people without homes. But I argue that this is the type of partnership that is possible in this present era. The alternative is for each side to ignore the other and to allow bigger interests, with resistance divided and conquered, to continue unabated with their own vision for the city.
Democracy is messy just as diversity is messy. Gauging from the Internet discussion about gentrification I have witnessed in the last month, a few ignorant sentiments might be expressed on both sides during the type of dialogue that I am proposing. But I would like to live in a city where everyone discusses their mutual fate, and conquering the topic of gentrification and all of its attendant dangers as an entire community may be the best start. After all, most of the major concerns in cities today are in some way related to it.
The approach outlined in “Gentrifier? Who Me?” discourages middle class urban residents from thinking that it is others who are the real gentrifiers (e.g. the white newcomers are the gentrifiers, the artist newcomers are the gentrifiers, etc.) Instead, we can own up to our housing decisions, reflect on why we made them, explain this stance to others including our neighbors, and –ultimately– fight for solutions to make the city a place for all people.
[NOTE: This is a piece that I had been working on for Salon. When it was nearing completion, a supervising editor said that it was not a good fit for Salon's readership. Hence, my first ever blog entry. I would appreciate comments not only on the content of this piece, but on the functionality of this blog.]