Recently, I engaged in an email conversation about gentrification with John Joe Schlichtman, formerly of Brooklyn, currently professor in Chicago's DePaul University Department of Sociology, and co-author with Jason Patch of “Gentrifier? Who, Me? Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror." In the article, which prompted me to reach out to Schlichtman, the authors exhort critics of gentrification to examine their own relationship to the process. They are working on a book, tackling this topic, to be published with University of Toronto Press.
JM: Let's start with your paper. What do you see as hypocritical about urbanists critiquing gentrification? Or is hypocritical the right word?
JJS: I see nothing hypocritical about urbanists critiquing gentrification. This was a misreading of my article with Jason Patch, “Gentrifier? Who, Me? Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror,” that gained momentum through the Atlantic Cities piece about our article. Emily Badger’s article was not inaccurate, it was just incomplete, as any brief coverage of our work would be.
The closer one gets to street-level activism, the more you see community leaders who are not exactly seething about gentrification. In fact, in a whole lot of neighborhoods there are left-leaning leaders who would laugh you out of the room at the suggestion that their neighborhood getting a Trader Joes or a Whole Foods would be an injustice. They are not short sighted. They are simply in a very pressing reality.
Jason and I feel that the dialogue about gentrification in academia and beyond has grown hypocritical because it does not acknowledge some critical realities. It seemed to us that the most obvious place to start to address this disconnect was to consider the ways in which those critiquing gentrification are situated in the process.
JM: When I hear that, about community leaders not seething about Whole Foods, etc., I think that they're not quite in reality. Because in reality those businesses help to create and/or intensify gentrification--or what I call hyper-gentrification, or Neil Smith's "gentrification generalized." And that means goodbye to the existing community. I'm thinking of the Whole Foods in Gowanus and the $4 million in support they got from the city to spur more gentrification there, which is happening at a breakneck pace since the grocery chain's opening.
JJS: Let me be clear: I get the injustice. Whole Foods is happily being used as a tool for state-led gentrification. This is true and this is a gross injustice.
Gentrification is already underway in Gowanus. I am talking about all of the areas in the world where no reinvestment is happening. There is a neighborhood in Chicago where an important activist, if I recall correctly, wondered “why can’t we get a grocery store like a Whole Foods? Why are healthy foods relegated to one side of town?” Then the announcement comes that they are. Now, of course, when the realities hit, the issue becomes much more nuanced. This same activist wonders: "Wait a second, why is Whole Foods coming?"
But what is the alternative response in this moment in 2014 when the global overthrow of capitalism is not exactly imminent? What is the socially just, progressive action for city leaders to take? "No, your neighborhood can’t get a Whole Foods. Actually, what is best is for you is to get a grocery store that has old produce from places that allow it to be shellacked with chemicals: that way, hipsters won’t eat it"?
(Just for context, this is coming from somebody who has never understood Whole Foods and does not shop there, so I may be missing something here. I am hardly a connoisseur, as anyone who knows me would attest.)
JM: I was at a gentrification conference in the Bronx, and a local woman said, "We want fresh vegetables at the corner grocer." Of course, who doesn't want access to better things? But what happens is that we get into a false dichotomy: It's Whole Foods or rotten vegetables. It's hyper-gentrification or total chaos and crime. And this woman was trying to get to the middle place, which is where I think we all need to be. How do we help our local businesses better provide to the community and not get displaced by corporate giants? First we have to stop believing in the false dichotomy.
JJS: This “false dichotomy” thing is something that I hear about every day. It has become a cliché. No, the choice does not have to be between gentrification and segregation. And yes, small business creation and development should be the goal of any thinking mayor. Small businesses in disinvested neighborhoods are even more important to protect. So, of course there should be a mobilization to bring fresh vegetables.
But what is going to happen if the bodega gets the fresh vegetables? Middle class people nearby are going to go there because people like good food (and because food quality is becoming a bit of a craze) and--maybe in a few years--Whole Foods will take an interest in the neighborhood. The activists are going to get angry and say "Why do these white folks," because race is what is noticed, not class position, "always have to spoil a good thing?"
So the issue is that we are coming out of a period of middle-class urban disinvestment and entering into a period of middle-class urban reinvestment in which you and I play a part. This is the underlying hairy macro-level issue that is changing the game.
Then what are we talking about? How do we rein this in? Do we implement some type of government control in the neighborhood to monitor who comes in and out, and attempt to control middle-class movement? (Really? Are we to wait for a government that is going to justly administrate that?)
JM: Since gentrification is inevitable in a city where this reinvestment is happening, it seems like a good place for the Good Gentrifier vs. Bad Gentrifier question. Is there such a thing as a good and a bad gentrifier? Or, more accurately, a way to be a good or bad gentrifier?
JJS: This reminds me of Dannette Lambert’s recent article “20 Ways Not to Be a Gentrifier.” While Lambert’s article was very productive in some important ways, it also typifies what I see as a problematic point of view that seems to be gaining momentum.
In a piece I wrote called “Gentrifiers Against Gentrification: ‘Confessions of a Harlem Gentrifier’” about Jordan Teicher’s article in Salon, I likened some gentrifiers to what Patricia J. Williams described as tourists on a “safari” and, as Langston Hughes wrote in 1940, the “fascinated” white patrons of black nightclubs who observe the regulars as if they were “amusing animals in a zoo.” To me, such gentrifiers are actually more problematic than those minding their "privileged" business.
The most problematic element in Lambert’s piece is that it suggests that “it isn’t the mere act of moving into a neighborhood that makes you a gentrifier; it’s what you do once you get there.” It allows residential decision-makers to exonerate themselves from being a gentrifier by transforming gentrification into a mindset rather than identifying it as a structural problem. If you have the right intention, the thinking goes, you are not even a factor in this huge structural issue.
I respect Dannette Lambert as a person from what I have learned from Googling her; this critique is not at all about her. However, this way of thinking has--I can’t even say a veneer--a foundation of paternalism. All of this tiptoeing (as with Teicher) presumes and reinforces a tremendous amount of power in neighborhood dynamics. "These people are vulnerable: tread lightly." I get into all of this a bit more in my blog post “The Tiptoeing Gentrifier.”
JM: While I see the problems in that essay, I don't see the problem with “it isn’t the mere act of moving into a neighborhood that makes you a gentrifier; it’s what you do once you get there.” What we do when we get there is important. For example, what I see newcomers do as they get to my neighborhood, the East Village, is to criticize local businesses and celebrate the chain stores and upscale ("hipster"/"yuppie") businesses. They do this via social media and their wallets.
I know we differ on this point, but I see intention as powerful. Is the newcomer's intention to assimilate to the existing neighborhood, or to force the existing neighborhood to assimilate to her? Again, there's probably a middle ground there.
JJS: I don’t think we differ in terms of intention. I believe intention is very important. The thing is that the problematic elements and the non-problematic elements are quite often conflated so that "good intentions" render one free to go on his way.
You see people coming in and “criticiz[ing] local businesses and celebrat[ing] the chain stores and upscale ('hipster'/'yuppie') businesses” and that bothers you because you remember a day when the neighborhood was better. The new is foreign to you. But at least part of this nothing new? It is part of change and the resulting sentiment of nostalgia in the city.
Your "better" old Village, according to a previous blog post, was “punk, queer, creative, [and] crazy.” Were old-school Village bohemians more legitimate than hipsters? Says who? Would the displaced Nuyoricans and Boricuas agree with this thinking? I know this argument has become cliché (e.g., "why don’t we just give Harlem back to the Dutch") and I don’t want to fall into this trap, but where does this stop?
JM: It always gets tricky and touchy when we talk about what "people" are doing--meaning the newcomers who are moving into neighborhoods. If we talk about processes, government, corporations, that's safe. Those are de-personalized bogeymen. But if we start looking at what "white" people, or "rich" people, or "newcomers" are doing, we get in trouble (let me say here that I often get in trouble) because people identify with these and other descriptors. But many people are having an impact, often a negative one.
This goes to my idea about increased narcissism and sociopathy among many of the newcomers to the city. Many New Yorkers experience this marked personality difference in newcomers of the 2000s, and that isn't just about newness or unfamiliarity. (For the record, I don't have a big issue with hipsters. It's the hyper-mainstream suburbanites that gall me.)
I often wonder how do we talk about that without triggering knee-jerk defensiveness? And I think this is much the point of your paper--gentrifier, look in the mirror--yes?
JJS: I think we avoid knee-jerk defensiveness precisely by acknowledging how much bigger gentrification is than any one person, neighborhood, or city.
But also, any “narcissism and sociopathy” that we are witnessing is a macro-level change. It is not particular to New York. What is particular to New York is the rate of change because New York is so central in global flows of money, people, ideas, products, etc. "Gentrification" is not defined as a system of “narcissism and sociopathy” and a "gentrifier" is not defined as one who is “narcissistic and sociopathic.” If this is the case, there is not a problem in anyone’s mind because who would see herself in this light?
Let’s consider policy reactions. There are two implicit responses to these “narcissistic and sociopathic” newcomers. One, you give the newcomers some easy steps to start acting right (e.g. Dannette Lambert’s piece) so that the cultural tension or “violence” is less acute. Or, two, you tell them to go back to where they came from. But nine times out of ten, the criticizer would have a problem with, let’s say, a suburban newcomer going back to where they came from too because that --the old order--is spatial segregation. That was the original problem. To which the answer is, presumably, some type of spatial integration, which is messy.
These aren’t new problems. The old gentrification or the old displacement wasn’t "the right way" to go about this. The fact that some thinkers are now looking back at old gentrification as the "good old days" is an indication of the power of nostalgia. The contexts are completely different: economically, culturally, socially, and politically.
JM: I'm thinking this goes back to the gentrification vs. hyper-gentrification issue--and I'd love to hear your thoughts on that. But as it relates to malignant narcissism or sociopathy, I see hyper-gentrification as a sociopathic system, in which corporations and government collude to, as Neil Smith put it, remake neighborhoods for the upper classes. I do think that process is attractive to similarly sociopathic individuals on the ground, so to speak, and they are strongly in favor of turning neighborhoods over to the new and the rich. All you have to do is read the comments on the blog Curbed to see that.
But, putting aside the sticky psychosocial analysis, what are your thoughts on hyper-gentrification? Is this just the same old gentrification we've always had, or something different?
JJS: To be very brief, I would say that:
(a) It is the “same old” gentrification in that the middle class desires to come back to the city;
(b) It is “something different” in that gentrification is now a reliable and codified strategy for corporations and governments; and
(c) Collusion is not part of gentrification, so (a) and (b) can happen without (c).
JM: So you don't see city government and corporations colluding to hyper-gentrify neighborhoods? How so?
JJS: I do, but collusion need not be a part of gentrification. If the concept is to have any meaning, we can’t keeping throwing everything we don’t like into the gentrification pot. This is one of the key premises behind the book I am working on with Jason Patch. We are writing not only to policy-makers and academics, but also the newcomers who I see sharing Lambert’s piece.
JM: Do you see any ways to stop, or at least slow down, the breakneck pace of today's form of gentrification?
JJS: Clearly, as urban inequalities and rents increase, it is vital that units of housing are held "outside" of the full influence of the market through mechanisms such as public housing, community land trusts, community development corporations, and rent control. However, all of these methods can be perversely manipulated without an aware public. The popularity of Lambert’s article suggests that young people are actively thinking about what a just city is, especially when it comes to issues of class, race, and ethnicity. This is important, but where do we go from here?
First, it is imperative to acknowledge the large structural forces making it increasingly unlikely that the programs Lambert highlights in her later points, such as “affordable housing, education funding, re-entry services, [and] job training,” are addressed. In fact, even predominantly middle-class communities are increasingly unable to participate in the development of their neighborhoods without a fight. On this note, I see an emerging potential for alliances here.
Second, as Lambert recognizes, newcomers need to learn and utilize the existing political and organizational mechanisms of their neighborhood. This not only pertains to issues such as “re-entry services” and “job training,” but also the mundane issues that may be more germane to the newcomer’s daily life. One great arrogance of gentrification is a newcomer’s desire to place new political and organizational mechanisms on top of the old; e.g., by starting a non-profit to "help the neighborhood" without any sense of context.
Finally, to take it all home, gentrifiers need to recognize that they are not suddenly outside of gentrification simply because they view themselves as responsible. They are taking part in making a new city, one unlike any we have witnessed. The question, as always, is who will have a seat at the table in the process.
You can follow Professor Schlichtman on Twitter at @JJSchlichtman, and find him on the web at The Urbanist Chronicle.