In this segment we discuss the cultural trends bringing white middle and upper class people back to the city and how this gentrification process is this shaping the urban landscape. In particular, we will discuss how this process is shaping long standing racial and class issues. We will discuss these kinds of questions through the perspectives of a few scholars that have studied these themes in depth.
What we will accentuate apart from the underlying political and economic forces driving gentrification, is how culture and cultural trends are clearly a driving force in and of them selves. Culturally fraught terms like “authenticity” make this quickly apparent as Sharon Zukin describes in her article Consuming Authenticity. Anchoring her argument in purchasing power, she effectively shows how consumption patterns are inherently tied to cultural trends, values and norms. Osman describes an extension of this process on the housing market in his seminal book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn . He shows how a once dilapidated housing stock goes from symbolizing the stigma of urban blight to that of cosmopolitanism, upward mobility and community. Finally, Lance Freeman’s There Goes the Hood provides a ground level description of gentrification process that results through personal reflections and interactions.
See CityLab’s discussion as to “Why Authenticity is So Central to Urban Culture”
Also, listen to NPR’s There Goes the Neighborhood to further consider these themes.
This week we took a look at Freeman’s “There Goes the Hood” which connected beautifully with the chapter from John Hannigan’s book Fantasy City that we read last week entitled “Cities are Fun.” Freeman’s article focused on what happened to the neighborhoods that experienced gentrification. A specific parallel between the authors was mentioned with regard to the improvement of the parks, where Freeman describes the process as increasing the level of security and therefore they became widely used. Hannigan’s “Cities are Fun” discusses the same thing, as with the improvement of waterfronts, which usually includes a variety of parks and shops. But only Freeman talks about the reason that these improvements are being made, because white people are moving in and they were, unfortunately, the only people that had the buying power that would allow them to move out if they didn’t enjoy the neighborhood or they could find somewhere else to go for entertainment.
These two articles are the perfect pair, “Cities are Fun” cannot be read alone, because it makes little effort to understand that these neighborhoods were not barren wastelands waiting to be reformed. Freeman’s piece is necessary to understand that these places are neighborhoods, with a distinct culture, that did not need all of the recreational improvement that “Cites are Fun” talked about.
Osman’s the Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn discusses how the history of a new post industrial middle class leads to the formation of “brownstoning”. The “brownstoners”, as they’re referred to, represent a new labor force working in the central urban district. These brownstoners represent not only the cultural, but political and economic aspects of changing American cities.
Brownstoners were primarily artists, lawyers, and bankers. The article touches on neoliberalism, zoning and gentrification, and the overall perception of brownstoning. Osman explains how gentrification, in its early years, was used as a form of white collar urban romanticism. This romanticism created a counter culture within the community which halted the development of urban neighborhoods. However, gentrification created a tension between the white collar people moving back to the city, and the pre-existing middle class. The middle class wanted maintain its genuine authenticity while the upper class wanted to change the neighborhood to suit their needs while using a false sense of authenticity to market the neighborhood as a wholesome place. Zoning is also discussed in how clear borders of Brooklyn were never fully pronounced and how it plays into gentrification as well.
Sharon Zukin’s “Consuming Authenticity” discusses the authentic feel that draws people to city spaces. Historically, city neighborhoods were separated into distinct cultural centers, where largely people from the same ethnic background would live together. Eventually, people from other backgrounds like artists would move into these cultural centers because they were drawn by their “authentic” feel and lower rent. The presence of the artists provided these spaces with more media buzz and increased the appeal to who Zukin (citing David Brooks) calls the “bourgeois bohemian”. They see these spaces as authentic because they are viewing it from the outside, but whenever a person lives within an area they become consumed with their own everyday routine that the space loses its authentic feel. This poses the question, what makes a space authentic?
The presence of the bourgeois bohemian arguably decreases the authenticity of a space because they take away from the original culture that was present in the group that resided there before. However, their presence is also what draws certain people to a neighborhood because they view it as an artsy, cool, “up-and-coming” place to live. This paradox of authenticity is simply a fabricated aura that has been created to attract people to neighborhoods.
Jane Jacobs was the first one to propose the process of gentrification in her book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” that came out in the 1960’s. In her book she discusses the relationships between neighbors referring to it as “the ballet of the street.” She was a determined activist against the destruction of old buildings to replace them with modern housing. Although the term “gentrification” first came into play in the 1980’s. Jane Jacobs assembled a group of people to fight Robert Moses and his plans to demolish the old buildings in Lower Manhattan, such as factories and warehouses, etc. She ultimately succeeded, although if Robert Moses’ plans had been put into action, the city as we know it, Lower Manhattan, would look like any other suburban city in the US.
Gentrification is a major topic presented in both Lance Freeman’s “There Goes the Hood,” and NPR’s “Episode 9: There Went the Neighborhood.” In both Freeman’s piece and NPR’s podcast, there were many reasons behind why certain areas of New York were becoming gentrified. Two of these reasons stemmed from class and race. According to a community activist from Harlem interviewed by Freeman: “I think it is more class than race. More about money. People with money can contribute to the politicians. But, it’s the case that the people with more money tend to be white and the people with less money tend to be black” (pg. 100). In this quote, the activist is trying to display how money is the main cause behind neighborhoods becoming gentrified, however, they also tie in a key element of how the people who are wealthier are usually white. Race may not be the only cause of gentrification, but it definitely plays a major role in it. White people tend to have more privilege which thus leads to a larger amount of opportunities being provided to them. In NPR’s podcast, a woman from Brooklyn who rented a room out to a white couple discussed how the couple felt as if they were above the other people in the neighborhood and ignored their neighbors. The woman confronted them and gave them the hypothetical that if anything were to happen to them while they were on the block, they would have no one to turn to for help since they’ve shut so many people out. However, not all those who saw the impending gentrification of their area coming soon were angered by it. For example, many of the residents noticed how more white people in the area brought more police protection and started the redevelopment of parks which were usually dangerous ( Freeman, pg. 99).