The time for challenging gentrification as a material, economic force has passed. We used to ask “how do we stop gentrification?”. Or in more technical language, “how do we stop the flow of capital from the outside (suburbs) to the inside (cities)?” or sometimes the flow of capital from the inside (urban core) to the outside (urban slums).
We have reached a neoliberal apex. This flow of capital is conceived of as unstoppable, which is exemplary of the general perspective of capital in general. Capital is a spirit, and like a ouija board, we all put our hands on the dial, to see what capital has to tell us. Some people, the Kochs, Waltons, and Bezos of the world, have a much firmer grasp on the dial, but ultimately, they are listening to what capital tells them to do, first and foremost.
And when a neoliberal apex is achieved, it reduces any question of economic movement to questions of cultural movement. Yes, the question of stopping gentrification has past, and the new question is “how do we preserve the identity of gentrified neighborhoods?”
But the answer is as simple as they come: The only way to preserve a neighborhood’s identity is to keep the same people there, and the only way to keep the same people there is to provide the material conditions that allow them to live there.
The question implies that demographic shifts in neighborhoods happens by accident. Like, sometimes people with one identity just decide to move to a new neighborhood, with no material incentive.
One time when I was talking to a professor about gentrification in terms of the wealth and capital the gentrifiers bring into an area. My professor said “well gentrification is more than just rich people moving in, it’s also the culture changing.” Yeah, no kidding. But flow of capital is the root of it all, so why harp on the culture aspect more?
The issue with liberal thinking is their analysis doesn’t start materially. They are in favor of (marginally) bettering the material conditions of the poor, but they don’t acknowledge the historically rooted distribution of material is the root of social issues.
An especially neoliberal answer to this question is things like: local art exhibits that demonstrate the historical identity. Or, murals about what the neighborhood used to be. Or, a coffeeshop with decor that’s vaguely evocative of the “character” of the neighborhood.
(Kind of like naming American towns after words from a conquered indigenous society)
There are some people with a more honest perspective about this approach to gentrification. Namely, that these empty gestures are actually factors that draw gentrification to the neighborhood. The art about the neighborhood’s identity are a commodification of the neighborhood, and commodity forms are what capital “travels” through.
But even this isn’t the full truth, because once artists in a neighborhood react to gentrification, it’s too late. The cogs of the gentrification machine were installed years before the artists opened the door.
Gentrification is a process, or sequence of interconnected events (dare I say…a dialectic?). Artists and art galleries cause gentrification, in the sense that it’s part of the process of an area becoming more palatable to yuppies. But to get to that point, it required a long process ahead of it: punks living in flophouses, leading to bars that appeal to whites; gay men of color, leading to gay white men; Poor white people leading to coffee shops, leading to increasingly less poor white people etc.
Before you know it, half the buildings are mix-use, mid-density condos that look like they were designed in Minecraft. But if you’ve spent time in gentrifying cities and pay attention, you will see the material dialectics which lead to that point several years in advance.
Related to this, at the end of 2017, 2 professors from San Diego State University called Farmer’s Markets “environmental gentrification” ( what other types of gentrification is there…?).
When the study was released, there were several snarky pieces in publications like New York Times and Washington Post, with takes like “oh, of course these extreme professors say that, what isn’t gentrification these days?” This, of course, demonstrates absolute gentrification denialism, or outright neoliberal brainwashing, because obviously, farmer’s markets are blatant signifiers of gentrification.
I’ll concede that not all of farmer’s markets signify gentrification, because I remember going to a farmer’s market in Puyallup, which is a modest middle class exurb/agriculture community in Washington State. Also, when I went to Portland State University in Portland Oregon, there was a farmer’s market on campus every week. You can’t get much more “gentrified” in a cultural sense than a mostly white college in downtown Portland. But, that’s not what the San Diego State study was about. Almost universally, when a new farmer’s market is established in an urban area, it’s in an area in the gentrification process.
But the reason this study calls farmer’s markets “gentrification” in themselves, rather than an element of the gentrification process, and the reason the snarky articles in response dismiss that idea, is because neither is analyzing gentrification from either a historical, or material, perspective.
For a neighborhood to have a farmer’s market, when it didn’t conventionally have one, it needs to meet some material criteria. For example, the reason food deserts exist is there’s not enough wealth to accommodate a healthy level of food. For a farmer’s market to be in an area, it needs richer people to feel safe coming there.
An area can facilitate a farmer’s market when it’s impoverished. But even if an area isn’t “gentrified” when a farmer’s market appears, the area must be along the gentrification process enough to allow the richer people to feel comfortable there.
This means the neighborhood already has at least some of these things: a coffee shop or two, a clean bar or two, neighborhood associations preserving parks, several “punk” houses—the type that have house shows in the basement, etc.
This speaks to the idea that gentrification as a process. One day, a black neighborhood has a punk house with 5 people living together, and 10 years later (or less), it has a Whole Foods.
And the most important aspect of this dynamic is there’s hardly an “agent” except for the rich class antagonists. It’s not the punks living in a flop house who cause gentrification—they’re just close to the front of the chain. They have to live in the poor area, due to being forced out of whatever neighborhood they previously lived in. And by the time middle class yuppies move in, the neighborhood is unsalvagable from gentrification, under our neoliberal economy.
The impact of this is farmer’s markets aren’t gentrification themselves, but a predictable part of the gentrification process. This process is hard to pinpoint on any particular agent—except for propreitors and realtors who seek nothing but maximizing the commodity form of housing to allow more capital to flow into that space.
This is the nature of prole-bourg class relations. It’s not useful to pinpoint class antagonisism on the particular players involved. Rather, it’s an antagonistic process instigated and facilitated by those who profit in the background. The particular objects of the process are just doing what’s most materially useful.
And finally, it’s important to acknowledge that gentrification is a symptom of the current political economy. This must be highlighted because the narrative of gentrification is that it’s a consequence of wealth in sectors like tech and finance, drawing wealth to select cities with those sectors. San Francisco gentrified because of Apple and Google. Seattle gentrified because of Amazon.
But this is not the case. The tech and finance sector are certainly the best accelerant of gentrification, because they’re two of the primary sectors rapidly accumulating capital. This is not controversial. It’s even part of the mainstream gentrification narrative, that otherwise normally reduces it to the “San Francisco, Seattle, and New York!” narrative.
For example, how does conventional gentrification ideology explain the intense gentrification of Portland, OR? The usual explanation is cultural reasons. When Portland was cool, it attracted more hipsters, which attracted yuppies, etc.
But this is still only brushing against the real truth. Capital is simply becoming increasingly concentrated, and accumulating in urban areas. That’s all there is to it. Gentrification was an early symptom of this, but it’s resonating throughout many aspects of American society.
This can be seen by the fact that all urban centers in the U.S. are being gentrified. For example, last year I read an article from Buffalo, NY about how Buffalo is facing gentrifying. This flies in the face of every mainstream narrative about gentrification.
This isn’t a knock against Buffalo, because I’ve never been there. But why, literally why, is somewhere like Buffalo gentrifying? The state population of New York has declined an estimated 76,000 people between July 2015 to 2016. People are leaving the state and moving south and west.
Not only that, but Buffalo is part of the Rust Belt, a part of the country notorious for fleeing populations. Buffalo has lost, on average, 10% of the city’s population every decade since the 50s, putting the city’s population at half the population at its height.
So where is this wealth coming from?
It can be explained in a conventional, straight-forward sense, that the children of wealthy suburbanites are moving to cities, and then that wealth from the suburbs begin flowing to the cities.
The capitalist response would be “well, it’s just supply and demand! More people are demanding to live in Buffalo, so the supply is more expensive.” But this argument goes back to my point throughout this post: gentrification isn’t just an event, and it’s more complex than just a process, it’s a consequence of capital concentrating in cities, the birthplace of capital itself. Its the centralization of power in the form of capital.
In other words, demand isn’t just magically increasing, it’s the case of people incentivized to move to cities, because that’s where the value is, and the holders of capital intentionally choking supply. As in, if capital flows through metaphorical pipes, they tighten the valve. Gentrification is a process in the sense that it’s capitalists tightening the valve on increasingly more wealthy people, thereby further concentrating wealth.