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IT SEEMS, these days, that every professional thinker tackles the fraught subject of gentrification by claiming that the whole phenomenon may not actually exist.
The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century
By DW Gibson
The Overlook Press,
(forthcoming: May 15)
ISBN 13: 978-1-4683-0861-7
A January Slate headline declared that gentrification was a "myth." The story, by John Buntin, walked this claim back rather quickly, noting that gentrification had happened, sweepingly and dramatically, in "Wicker Park in Chicago, Harlem and Chelsea in Manhattan, [and] Williamsburg in Brooklyn." So we all agree: Gentrification exists. But, Buntin says, acknowledging the phenomenon still doesn't prove that it's a bad thing: "Simply documenting that low-income people were being forced out of a neighborhood whose housing prices were rising didn't mean in and of itself that gentrification was causing displacement, [sociologists and demographers] noted." Yes, perhaps the displaced people's apartments happened to have been built on ancient Indian burial grounds, and they were forced out by poltergeists. This species of magical thinking was also on display in a recent cover story for The Economist, which made the (very on-brand) claim that "gentrification is both rare and, on balance, a good thing." Here, the proof seemed to be that gentrified neighborhoods have fewer poor people in them than non-gentrified ones.
In The Edge Becomes the Center, journalist DW Gibson has gathered evidence of the existence of gentrification, and of its quite palpable and direct contribution to the displacement of low-income people, that self-styled demographers at Slate and The Economist ought to study. Gibson's subtitle - An Oral History of Gentrification in the Twenty-First Century-is a bit broader than the material he covers. This is a book about gentrification in New York City. To be precise, it's a book about Brooklyn, featuring Manhattan, in which the Bronx and Queens make cameo appearances.
A book about gentrification in America almost has to be about New York, because gentrification isn't a driver of mass displacement in any other city the way it is in Gotham. Gentrification doesn't just mean the presence of yuppies, artists, educated young "urban pioneers," and bike lanes; dozens of American cities, from New Orleans to Detroit, have all of those things and are furiously trying to attract more. The kind of gentrification that displaces entire urban communities requires the presence of tremendous, concentrated wealth. As the Marxist urban geographer Neil Smith says in The New Urban Frontier, his landmark 1996 work on the subject, "Gentrification is a back-to-the-city movement all right, but a back-to-the-city movement by capital rather than people."
The Edge Becomes the Center quotes and cites Smith so frequently that it seems as if Gibson partly intends for his work to bolster Smith's theories of gentrification with real-life examples. One of Gibson's interviewees, a young activist for tenants' rights in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, named Celia Weaver, spontaneously offers her own trenchant version of Smith's central explanation of the source of gentrification, the "rent gap":
I tend to think of gentrification as a sort of structural process where real estate capital sees growth opportunity in neighborhoods and comes in and tries to do neighborhood turnover. Real estate developers see a difference between what the neighborhood is currently making in rent capital and what its potential is and that gap is something landowners can sort of exploit and that's where gentrification happens.
Gentrification's need for capital means, in the United States, that it's largely a story taking place in New York, Washington, DC, Chicago, and San Francisco. And it is particularly destructive in New York, because New York is a city of renters. While mass unemployment, years of stagnant wages, and the transitory nature of much modern work have meant that the number of renters has spiked nationwide, even in comparatively cheap municipalities, more of New York's population rents than in almost any other American city.
In gentrifying neighborhoods, property owners don't leave unless they're bought out: This is the deceptive truism that underpins many pro-gentrification arguments. Some of the "winners" of the waves of gentrification that have swept across New York have been longtime homeowners, many of them middle-class black or immigrant families, in suddenly valuable neighborhoods. But residents who aren't slotted into this fortunate niche are out of luck.
Indeed, no one argues that gentrification is purely and universally negative. Residents of neighborhoods on the socioeconomic upswing tend to like the improved services and higher quality of consumer goods available. As Weaver the activist says of longtime residents of her community: "But the tenants, especially the tenants who have been here a long time, they say: `We lived through it being shitty, we want to stay and enjoy what's coming.'" The question for the future of New York is: Will they be able to? Many people (and a good proportion of Gibson's interviewees) are working to ensure that they will. But there are also plenty of people working to ensure that they won't-and these people have a lot more money.
IF THE REAL CRIME of gentrification is unjust displacement, it's most likely victims-those people pushed out of their homes against their will, often illegally-are renters and underwater home owners. It's usually much cheaper and easier to displace a renter than an owner.
This dynamic accounts for a curious quirk of New York gentrification as we have come to know it: Many of its victims are the initial gentrifiers themselves-not the starving artists kicked out of squats, but members of the professional class who find themselves displaced by members of the rentier class. Gibson interviews Paula Segal, an attorney who devoted months to persuading the city to give her community access to a publicly owned vacant lot for use as a garden-a campaign that, in turn, inspired her to work to do that with property across the entire city-and her story culminates in a familiar New York real-estate punch line: "I got priced out of that neighborhood just before we got access. I don't live there anymore."
The most arresting and, I think, important chapter of The Edge Becomes the Center is an interview with a landlord. The landlord, a twenty-six-year-old Brooklyn Hasid, hides behind a pseudonym, which is probably for the best, as he openly admits to breaking the law. "Ephraim" makes explicit the racism, violence, and contempt that are supposed to remain sub rosa in the real-estate transactions that drive gentrification in Brooklyn. Ephraim's "trick" was originally to purchase the titles to foreclosed properties and then, rather than buy them outright, rent them out in the long intervals before the banks finally seized them. He is now a more traditional owner of various midsize rental-apartment buildings around Brooklyn.
Hasidic Jews, Ephraim says, are "holding Bed-Stuy like this-he squeezes at the air in front of him, strangling it." He admits to "tricking" a tenant into vacating his apartment by promising him money he didn't intend to pay him. And Ephraim explains why displacement isn't just an unfortunate side effect of gentrification, indeed, is essential to the success of the process: "That's why we don't usually buy buildings with tenants. They actually bring down the value of the property almost 60 or 70 percent."
Ephraim blatantly admits to racially discriminatory lending practices. He brags of taking ownership of a building full of tenants paying $1,300 to $1,400 a month. "And we got them out of the building and now we have tenants paying $2,700, $2,800, and they're all white. So this is what we do."
Ephraim will rent only to white people, a policy he justifies by claiming it's not what he wants-it's simply what the new tenants demand:
Again, I don't want to be a racist, but when I have a building-I can't even say it because it's not going to sound right.
He lowers his voice again:
If there's a black tenant in the house-in every building we have, I put in white tenants. They want to know if black people are going to be living there. So sometimes we have ten apartments and everything is white, and then all the sudden one tenant comes in with one black roommate, and they don't like it. They see black people and get all riled up, they call me: "We're not paying that much money to have black people live in the building." If it's white tenants only, it's clean. I know it's a little bit racist but it's not. They're the ones that are paying and I have to give them what they want. Or I'm not going to get the tenants and the money is not going to be what it is.
Ephraim's admission of racial bias might get him in trouble (if he were to be identified, at least), but for the most part landlords can get away with just about anything in the current political climate. Tenants'-rights lawyer Brent Meltzer explains what a joke the process is-and how thoroughly it tilts toward full landlord empowerment:
We have at least four or five cases right now where landlords go in and demolish properties. It used to be that they just wouldn't do repairs and through neglect the tenants would move out. Or they would bring bogus cases. There's one landlord attorney in court and he has a kind of big mouth and he was saying, "I tell my clients bring ten bogus cases, it's only forty-five dollars to file. And nine of them get dismissed but you win one and you get your money back plus so much more." And that's the reality.
No policy will alter the basic consideration that, as Ephraim notes, renting to the poor is a hassle. Like all tenants, they frequently demand expensive building maintenance and renovation, and they have high security and sanitation standards. But unlike wealthy tenants, the poor don't give their landlords enough of a return on investment to make doing that work seem worth the effort. An empty building in a gentrifying neighborhood, generating no rent but increasing in value all the same, is more rewarding to a landowner than one full of low-income tenants. No amount of high-density, mixed-use construction can change that fact. Development on a scale sufficient to drive rents down can't happen in New York for the simple reason that creating lower rents isn't in the economic interest of the people who invest in real estate.
Capital would rather keep buildings empty than rent to the poor. Landlords can break the law with impunity, and some actively seek to purge buildings and neighborhoods of black and brown tenants. Developers have immense political clout and use it to destroy good-paying jobs and eliminate affordable housing.
Tom Lunke, a former city planner who now works for the semipublic Harlem Community Development Corporation, explains that developers intentionally thin the housing stock in desirable neighborhoods, converting multiunit buildings in the East Village, Harlem, and elsewhere to single-family homes. The industry has even used its considerable political influence to erode the earning power of New York's now endangered middle class:
Manufacturing zones end up suppressing the value of the land because manufacturers' whole business is set up to put their capital back into their business, not into real estate. The real estate industry pushes city planning to rezone all these manufacturing areas for residential because it's a higher rate of return for them.
Another of Gibson's interviewees notes that he can think of no New York neighborhood that has become more affordable since the 1970s. Gentrification moves in only one direction. It takes a major crisis-the crash of 1929 or the fiscal crisis of the '70s-to make any New York neighborhood less expensive, and, thanks to the resilience of the modern ultrarich, our last crisis of that nature ended up looking like a minor hiccup. Just a few years after global capitalism seemed on the verge of complete collapse, Manhattan is busy constructing the tallest residential buildings on the continent, and Brooklyn has its highest real-estate prices since 2003.
The neoliberal wonk, with an econometric solution to every human crisis, says more development, even of ultraluxurious pieds-à-terre, can only help the rest of us: It churns out more cash, which in turn adds supply to the housing market. If the central problem with gentrification is displacement, the answer is not rent regulations-measures widely despised by the city's influential real-estate players, though also ones endorsed enthusiastically by actual renters-but more development. But the wonk argument fails, as usual, to account for the lived experience of the people involved in these transactions. The case against rent regulations is that they distort the market. But the undistorted market, as we've clearly seen, forcibly displaces people from their homes.
The pro-development crowd also likes to remind us that "people don't have the right to live wherever they want"-and that if certain of them can't afford "hip" neighborhoods anymore, that hardly rises to the level of a tragedy worthy of government intervention. Of course, it's always been the case in America that certain people have the right to live wherever they want-that's the right that allowed the republic to stretch from sea to shining sea-but let's concede the point. Once you're there, though, and once you've established yourself in a community, it seems profoundly antithetical to any intelligible notion of liberty that you should be forced to leave merely because someone else shows up with a briefcase full of more cash than you can put together on short notice.
"People have a right not to be displaced from their homes against their will" may sound anodyne, but in the twenty-first century it's a radical notion. And any defense of gentrification as it's practiced in New York and our other urban-real-estate playgrounds rejects it.
The Edge Becomes the Center is an oral history in the tradition of Studs Terkel: The book is primarily made up of interviews with a variety of people "effecting and affected by gentrification," as the publicity materials explain. A few chapters focus on people who lack either interesting gentrification stories or useful insight into the gentrification machine, but for the most part Gibson chooses his speakers well. He keeps the chapter spent with a New York state senator mercifully brief. He even manages to get an audience with Alan Fishman, the financier who notoriously "earned" $19 million by spending three weeks as CEO of Washington Mutual as it imploded. Predictably, Fishman has a rich man's admiration for Michael Bloomberg and disdain for public institutions, but he does deliver one telling aside in his rather blinkered version of recent New York City history: "I think the drop in crime enabled people to move into neighborhoods," he says of neighborhoods that had been continuously occupied by thousands of people, despite years of (arguably intentional) municipal neglect, prior to their supposed rejuvenation.
Still, The Edge Becomes the Center ends on a hopeful note, exploring a nascent effort to unite organized, radicalized tenants in Crown Heights and property owners in Greenpoint who see uses for land besides the extraction of rent. But to me the most likely vision of the future came from "Niko," a pseudonymous real-estate professional.
Rent stabilization, unlike rent control, simply caps the rate at which rents can rise annually. But when a tenant leaves a stabilized apartment and it gets renovated, the owner is free, once he or she clears a few procedural hurdles, to charge whatever the market will bear. It would be political suicide for a New York legislative body to retire rent stabilization, but no one is doing anything to stop it (and, one presumes, its former beneficiaries) from gradually disappearing in newly desirable New York neighborhoods. As Niko explains:
Because every year . . . the number of rent-stabilized apartments decreases through buyouts, and that once-stabilized apartment is probably getting deregulated. That's what's happening: The efficiencies of the market. It's happening at a very slow pace. And maybe that's how it should happen, so there's less of a shock impact on the tenants.
Put the frog in the water before you turn up the heat.
On the bright side, by the time the oceans rise to swallow the once-great city of New York, no one you know will be able to afford to live there anyway.
[Alex Pareene is special-projects editor for Gawker Media and editor emeritus of RacketTeen.]