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How to Stop Gentrification

Individuals moving to newly-hip neighborhoods admit they are part of the problem. What can they do?

John MacDougall / Getty Images

In September 2005, the New Orleans real-estate developer Finis Shelnutt told a German newspaper of the opportunities Hurricane Katrina had created for his business. “The storm destroyed a great deal,” he said, just weeks after Katrina had killed more than one thousand people and expelled tens of thousands more from the city. “And there’s plenty of space to build houses and sell them for a lot of money.” Moreover, he added, “the hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city, and we hope they don’t come back.”

Shelnutt’s uniquely forthright comments distilled the essence of gentrification, as Peter Moskowitz explains it in How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. Gentrification, in this account, is not just about twenty-something white dudes with beards riding their fixed-gear bikes into unfamiliar neighborhoods, nor filament-bulb-lit craft beer bars opening up alongside bodegas. It is not really a cultural phenomenon, as it is so often depicted, nor one driven by individuals with a little more disposable income than their new neighbors. It is about profit and power, racism and violence on a massive scale. It is, in Moskowitz’s words, “the urban form of a new kind of capitalism.”

How to Kill a City is one of several new books that seek to deepen our understanding of this widely used but little understood term and the upheaval it describes. The most recent additions to this collection—Gentrifier, by John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill and Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City by Brandon Harris—share Moskowitz’s goal of probing the structural, socioeconomic forces that drive gentrification. Like Moskowitz, who was raised in the West Village and wrote How to Kill a City in Brooklyn, each of these authors grapples with their own paradoxical position in the process: that of being both gentrifier and gentrified. The authors of Gentrifier even write themselves into their definition of the term:

We are gentrifiers. That is to say, we are middle-class people who moved into disinvested neighborhoods in a period during which a critical mass of other middle-class people did the same, thereby exerting economic, political, and social pressures upon the existing community.

These authors scoff at the “everyone but me” attitude that so often characterizes conversations about gentrification: “Gentrifier,” much like “hipster,” is almost always a term reserved for someone else. Instead of trying to avoid guilt, they examine how the places we live and socialize reproduce and exacerbate inequalities. What role do individual residents play in shaping the process of gentrification, and what responsibility do more affluent new residents bear toward those displaced? Who, ultimately, pulls the levers? And what the hell do we do about it?

Moskowitz does not dwell long on the personal stakes. Instead, How to Kill a City sets out to expose the forces that are pulling the rich back into America’s cities and pushing everyone else further and further out. Drawing on earlier urban scholars, Moskowitz breaks the process down into four basic steps. First, individuals seeking cheap rents begin moving to a disinvested neighborhood, sometimes forming their own sub-communities: artists, radicals, and so on. Before long, more middle-class people follow, and real-estate interests catch on. Soon enough, the new middle-class residents take their place in the neighborhood’s institutions and begin reshaping power dynamics, attracting more amenities (and, notably, police), as well as bigger-money developers. By the time “managerial-class professionals” find their way to the neighborhood, the original gentrifiers can no longer afford it and get pushed out, starting the process over again in another neighborhood.

To these four steps, first laid out by MIT urban studies professor Phillip Clay in 1979, Moskowitz adds two more. The culmination of the process, Moskowitz writes, is when global capital so defines a neighborhood that it serves more as an investment portfolio than a place to live: Midtown’s “billionaire’s row” and its empty condos, worth tens of millions of dollars each, are the quintessential example. One developer summed up this phenomenon neatly when he described today’s luxury buildings as safe-deposit boxes for the global elite.

At the other end of the process, Moskowitz adds “stage zero”: a crisis that opens the door to sudden change. In New Orleans, Moskowitz argues, it was Hurricane Katrina; in Detroit, it was the 2013 municipal bankruptcy that allowed Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to install an unelected emergency manager with powers over the city government. While the “stage zero” chronology doesn’t always hold up (many Detroit gentrifiers, from the aspiring urban farmers to Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert, set their sights on the city long before it officially went bankrupt), Moskowitz makes a strong case for the broader logic: Gentrification, at its most elemental, is a form of disaster capitalism, and its widely bemoaned cultural flourishes mostly just add insult to debilitating injury.

The New Orleans case is perhaps the most extreme. Half of the city was still underwater when developers, politicians, and pundits alike began celebrating the unique opportunity Katrina provided. Nearly half of the city’s population—some 250,000 people—was displaced as a result of the storm, and columnists like David Brooks encouraged them to stay out while the city lured in more “ambitious and organized” people to take their place. Federal agencies, consciously or not, fulfilled Brooks’s prescription: FEMA vouchers offered one-way tickets out, sending people to Houston, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, even as far as Utah and Minnesota rather than sponsoring their return home. The displaced were overwhelmingly black, and tens of thousands of them never came back. As of 2015, New Orleans has some 100,000 fewer black residents than it did in 2000.

This wholesale displacement of one-fifth of the city’s population created the kind of opening that real-estate developers and their political allies could only dream of in other cities. Property values were at a low, and the potential for remaking the city unprecedented. What Marxist geographer Neil Smith called the “rent gap”—the difference between the current value of a property and its potential value—was at an all-time high across much of the city. Little surprise, then, that the city’s demographics shifted, as developers courted wealthier, whiter residents who could stomach the higher rents. Today, with some 35 percent of New Orleanians devoting at least half of their income to rent, the city has become the second-least affordable city to live in nationwide.

The developers couldn’t have done it without government support, from the federal to the state to the city level. Take Freret, a once-derelict neighborhood near Tulane that is now a near-caricature of a gentrification hub, complete with yoga studios, a farmers’ and flea market, cocktail bars, and $4 coffees. It even has its own website,, and associated social media accounts.

What happened? The explanation is simple enough: Freret was designated a “cultural district” by the state in 2012, allowing new businesses—but not existing ones—to operate tax-free. A slew of restaurants opened in quick succession, turning Freret Street into a “dining hot spot” for young, white, subsidized crowds while long-running businesses like the local barber shop were left to fend for themselves. “It’s not sharing the table,” as longtime New Orleanian Ruth Idakula told Moskowitz. “It’s coming here and shoving our shit off the table and then demanding we eat your shit.”

As Idakula notes, it’s not the new residents’ food and drink preferences that are the problem so much as their attitude toward the neighborhood’s longtime residents. Moskowitz reports a 2013 meeting where a hundred-odd residents debated a proposal to hire a new private security patrol in Freret, which would be paid for by hiking local property taxes. The proposal’s defenders, all white, eventually conceded to their black counterparts’ concerns that an additional patrol would only add to already severe police harassment of black residents, and the proposal was scrapped. But the fact that it was even proposed betrays a reflexive invitation to state—or, in this case, para-state—violence that never lurks far from the surface of gentrification debates. 

Critics of gentrification have long noted its link to heightened policing. But Moskowitz goes a step further, portraying the subsidies and incentives that fuel the process as a form of state violence in themselves. Moskowitz offers as exhibit A “one of Detroit’s premier new loft conversions,” a building christened “The Albert” by its new owners:

Broder and Sachse bought the building at 1214 Griswold Street in 2013…. Before 2013, the building housed about a hundred low-income seniors who were able to afford the building thanks to Section 8 housing vouchers. All were evicted by Broder and Sachse, given vouchers to move elsewhere, and scattered throughout the rest of the city. Now the building houses mostly white millennials. Apartments at the Albert now start at $1,200 a month. Broder and Sachse received a ten-year tax abatement from the city when they began their conversion.

In a few plain but cutting sentences, Moskowitz links the two chief actors driving gentrification—profit-hungry real-estate firms, on the one hand, and the state on the other—and exposes the fundamental violence of the process. As Jerome Robinson, a 72-year-old-former autoworker, says of his former apartment at 1214 Griswold, “People can say whatever they want about these rich people coming in and doing this that and the other, but I was comfortable down there. I wanted to stay there. And they kicked me out.”

The authors of Gentrifier are skeptical that a definition of gentrification that includes Katrina-level disasters is a useful one at all. And it’s true: The shock-doctrine template doesn’t quite transfer to cities like San Francisco, which was doing just fine economically before it became a Silicon Valley playground.

Yet they largely agree with Moskowitz on the set of factors that have driven today’s gentrification crisis. The most important is the segregation that resulted from a combination of suburbanization and urban renewal programs around the midcentury. Both suburbanization and urban renewal were backed by copious federal spending: Mortgage subsidies and highways encouraged an ascendant white middle class to escape the city, while redlining and redevelopment schemes kept the mostly black urban poor in. White areas were neatly demarcated from the black ones that didn’t. This set the stage for widespread disinvestment from urban cores. To secure a federal loan, one Detroit developer in the late 1930s built a literal wall separating his new homes from an adjacent black neighborhood. Direct federal construction played a role too: As Richard Rothstein documents in his landmark new book The Color of Law, the years leading up to and during the Second World War saw a spate of aggressively segregated public housing construction, which homogenized even previously integrated neighborhoods.

After the war, cities began to deindustrialize as factories followed whites to the suburbs, leaving the urban poor increasingly stranded in ghettos with diminishing job prospects. Neoliberal spending cuts, beginning in the late 1970s, compounded their plight, further starving the inner cities of amenities and services. Sometimes the neglect was targeted: In 1976 alone, the city of New York shut down thirty-four fire stations in poor, largely black and Latino neighborhoods; by the end of the decade, seven Bronx census tracts had lost virtually all of their buildings, and another forty-four tracts had lost more than half.

Economic isolation and the fraying of the social safety net contributed to record levels of crime in inner cities, with public housing complexes hit particularly hard. Policy elites’ response was to blame the buildings themselves and, wherever they could, tear them down. Between 1990 and 2008, some 220,000 units of public housing were razed nationwide—about half of them under Bill Clinton’s signature “redevelopment” program, Hope VI, which provided for only 60,000 mixed-income units to replace them.

Federal, state, and city governments did not feed this vicious cycle out of pure malice, transparently racist as officials’ motives often were. Rather, their decisions corresponded to the interests of business: those of the realtors who lobbied to demolish slums but not to replace them, for example, or of the builders who lobbied for new housing towers but no funds to maintain them. Where necessary, realtors also took matters into their own hands. The notorious blockbusting schemes of the postwar period provide just one example of how real estate has actively courted racial tension in the service of profit.

The path from the rampant deregulation, privatization, and financialization beginning in the late 1970s—the explosion of the finance, insurance, and real-estate sectors and their increasingly arcane methods of packaging debt—to the housing market crash of 2008 is by now well documented. So is the decimation of black wealth in the ensuing mortgage meltdown: In 2007, the average black family had a net worth of one-tenth the average white-family’s; by 2011, that number had dropped to one-sixteenth, or roughly six cents in black wealth to the average white family’s dollar. Wall Street, as ever, found innovative ways to profit off the collapse: hedge funds, large investment firms, and private equity companies snapped up foreclosed homes and converted them into rentals, making them some of America’s biggest landlords. “The reach of global capital down to the local neighborhood scale,” as Neil Smith puts it, has reached a new extreme. And with it, Moskowitz writes, has come the “destruction of black urban life ... the canvas on which gentrifiers now paint.”

Landlords, developers, financiers, and the arms of the state that they twist to their advantage: these, all three books agree, are the real gentrifiers, “the true authors of this blood-sodden land’s next evolution,” in Harris’s words. The forces of gentrification, in short, are the same ones driving inequality at large. The squatters and punks who battled cops at Tompkins Square Park in 1988 summed it up neatly: “Gentrification is class war.”

So what is to be done? In cities ranging from Oakland to New York to Barcelona to Cape Town, grassroots movements have proposed, wherever possible, decommodifying housing—seeking to transform it from real estate into home, as David Madden and Peter Marcuse sum it up in their 2016 book In Defense of Housing. Steps along the way can include everything from enacting and strengthening rent control laws to taking land off the speculative market using community land trusts. Grassroots groups nationwide and internationally have long been fighting on these terms and, little by little, gaining ground. For gentrifiers conflicted about their own role in the process, there is no more straightforward answer than to recognize your own stake in these fights and join in. Your outrageous rent is not only making your life hell, it’s driving up everyone else’s, too. When you organize to reduce it, everyone wins.

But the fight against gentrification must go a step further. At its core, it demands a robust defense of the public sector—including, perhaps especially, public housing. Increasingly privatized or demolished, and dismissed as an inevitable hotbed of corruption and crime, public housing may be the most maligned iteration of New Deal-era social policy. In some respects, rightly so: there is no question that the projects of midcentury were designed to actively enforce segregation by race and income, with staggering consequences. Harris quotes Jay-Z’s description of the projects, including his native Marcy Houses, as “huge islands built mostly in the middle of nowhere, designed to warehouse lives.”

The housing projects of the twentieth century did much to concentrate poverty and anchor inequality in the urban landscape. But it is testament to the failings of the market that even these spaces of gross neglect, where they still exist, are not only fiercely defended by their residents but remain a highly sought-after housing option among the urban poor. (Some 257,000 families are on the waiting list for New York City public housing alone.) Nor are they spaces absent of community, as Jay-Z himself acknowledges in the 2011 memoir Harris quotes. Ashana Bigard, a longtime resident of New Orleans’s demolished St. Thomas houses whom Moskowitz interviews, looks back on the barbecues and music that were a constant feature of life in the complex and remembers, “That’s what connected us.” Even residents of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe—perhaps the most notorious development in U.S. housing history, demolished after barely twenty years—looked back fondly on the sense of community at the complex when they first moved in. It was only after the elevators broke down and the trash piled up, through no fault of the residents’, that crime spiked. And despite it all, today a majority of residents in the New York City Housing Authority, the country’s largest, express satisfaction with their living conditions.

A new public housing, of course, would need to be carefully designed to remedy segregation and inequality rather than entrench them as the previous generation of projects did. It might take inspiration from the successes of limited-equity cooperatives like New York’s union-developed Penn South, community land trusts like Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, or offshoots of those models like mutual housing associations. (Publicly seeded coops have their precedents abroad as well as here in the United States.) If there is one consolation to be taken from the disastrous social engineering that produced today’s gentrification, it is that conscious policy decisions got us into this mess, and conscious policy decisions can get us out.

With the country’s most boorish real-estate tycoon of all now in the White House, it can be hard to avoid the feeling that the challenge for housing-rights advocates—as for all those fighting for justice—is Sisyphean. But the time to start building is now. Already, backlash to the Trump agenda has made popular appetite for a reinvigorated public sector all the more apparent. Some 57 percent of respondents to an April Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll believe that “the government should do more to solve problems and help people”—a record high since the poll began in 1995—and only 39 percent believe “the government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals.”

In New York, groups like FUREE, led by public housing residents, and Picture the Homeless have long been setting out blueprints for truly affordable, democratic, and achievable forms of housing, and politicians are finally beginning to take note. City councilmembers like the Bronx’s Ritchie Torres—who grew up in NYCHA’s Throggs Neck houses and testified at a recent rally to the “transformative power of affordable housing”—are also taking a proactive approach. Under pressure to counterbalance the Trump agenda, more liberal politicians can be swayed to do the same, and we have little choice but to keep pushing them.

Our own positions within the everyday class warfare of gentrification may be conflicted; certainly this is true of all the authors of the books under review here. And it is important not to lose sight of the ways that personal attitudes and actions daily aggravate the crisis of gentrification. But it is telling that even Harris—despite being black and, for most of his time in Bed-Stuy, poor—contributes in his own way to the “great social experiment” making the neighborhood unlivable for people like himself. If the forces of private profit are so irrepressible that even he cannot escape their grinding contradictions, clearly they need to be attacked at the root. Housing rights activists across the country have long been acting accordingly. Join them.