Thursday, August 4, 2011

Smith on Gentrification

I asked CUNY Professor Neil Smith for a quick lesson in his area of expertise: gentrification in New York City. Here's my question and Professor Smith's answer.

Q: I am really gripped by the following quote of yours from the NY Times: “The big perspective is that gentrification has changed tremendously since the ’70s and ’80s. It’s really a systematic class-remaking of city neighborhoods’s about creating entire environments.”

So many people say that the massive changes of the past decade in New York are "just gentrification" and "the city has always changed." How does the gentrification of today compare to that of the 70s and 80s? Is "gentrification" really the right word for what's been happening in New York City today?

Neil Smith

A: Cities are indeed always changing and gentrification has now been with us for half a century. But that doesn't mean that gentrification is an old or even necessarily familiar story. Gentrification in the 1960s into the 1980s was quite exceptional. It represented an exception to a large scale disinvestment in the city center, the withdrawal of capital from the city in favour of the suburbs, the movement of many in the white middle classes out toward the suburbs. Buildings and entire neighborhoods were abandoned, peaking in the late 1970s--"the Bronx is Burning!" In this context, gentrification happened in one house here, a street there, perhaps a whole neighborhood, but it was the exception to the larger forces shaping urban change.

That all changed in the 1980s. Gentrification became a systematic attempt to remake the central city, to take it back from the working class, from minorities, from homeless people, from immigrants who, in the minds of those who decamped to the suburbs, had stolen the city from its rightful white middle-class owners. What began as a seemingly quaint rediscovery of the drama and edginess of the new urban "frontier" became in the 1990s broad-based market driven policy.

If the rehabilitation of a brownstone in the West Village or Park Slope typified gentrification in the 1970s, by the 1990s and 2000s it was the disneyfication of Times Square, the condominium frenzy on the Bowery, and a corporate fill-in of the previously low-rent spaces feeding out from Manhattan--Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, etc., and now the superfunded Gowanus.

So yes, gentrification is a more appropriate term for the process today than it was even 50 years ago--quite literally, the take-back of the city by a privileged middle class or gentry. The class remake of the city was minor, small scale and symbolic in the beginning but today we are seeing a total class retake of the central city. Almost without exception, the new housing, new restaurants, new artistic venues, new entertainment locales--not to mention the new jobs on Wall Street--are all aimed at a social class quite different from those who populated the Lower East Side or the West Side, Harlem, or neighborhood Brooklyn in the 1960s.

Bloomberg's rezoning of, at latest count, 104 neighborhoods has been the central weapon in this assault, but it was built on Giuliani's explicit revanchism--his revenge against the street--the public, cultural lever that wedged the systematic class retake into place.

You can find Neil Smith's books at the St. Mark's Bookshop.

Also read:
The Bloomberg Way
Gentrify, Gentrify
Bobos on Bergen


Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

That's right, they took it back but now it's as good as dead.

Little Earthquake said...

Most of what this guy says is true, but I don't buy that gentrification was some kind of systematic, coordinated conspiracy between government and business to take the city out of the hands of homeless and immigrants and give it to the white man. That's not to say they haven't collaborated, but the simpler explanation is that profit motivated developers, and revenue motivated government, one building at a time. Success still hinged on consumers' willingness to move into the city and pay a certain amount of money for rent.

And while I'm fully aware that racism still exists in 2011, the notion that gentrification is nothing but white reclamation is ridiculous. Monied reclamation, sure, but money is green no matter where it comes from. This IS 2011. Open your eyes and you'll find plenty of yuppie-types from India, Far Asia, and Latin America among the white Americans - however minorities don't fit into the "yuppie" boogeyman archetype that sites like this have cultivated.

Market forces were and are responsible for gentrification - someone took a risk on investment, and someone else was willing to pay a higher rent, or a higher price for a good from a store. It goes without saying that without the drastic reduction in crime, none of this would have been possible.

Anonymous said...

Of course this guy is a college professor.

Edging out working class is one thing, but decimating crime rates and helping the homeless out of the gutter is entirely another.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what Smith is referring to when he talks about gentrification in the 1970's. To me, the decade was all about white flight to the suburbs.

Today's transplant playground would not exist without the reduction in crime during the Giuliani years and his ceaseless promotion of it as his doing ("look America, we made it safe for you to send your kids!")

If I had a magic wand, I'd give a tax credit, or better, a housing voucher, to everyone who was born here and stayed here. Something to offset the cost of the meds :-)

Filmatix said...

While I agree with LE that perhaps it's not a conspiracy, but how can we deny that it's systematic and coordinated? Hasn't every single neighborhood near the city or within a half hour or so train experienced a burgeoning of the gentry? The evidence is staring us in the face, and it need not been something shadowy to be scary. If you explore deeply the process of eminent domain in Atlantic Yards, and now the hundreds of business in and around Shea/Willets Pt, the powers that be violate their own rules when it comes to upscaling everything. Replace "conspiracy" with "official policy," and you have the gist of it. The sight of luxury condos abutting Flushing Meadow Park, and the eventual gentrification of surrounding Corona and Flushing will be sickening indeed.

Caleo said...

I agree with Smith but also appreciate Little Earthquake's points.
While the face of gentrification in NYC is overwhelmingly white, the process also pushed/is pushing out many working class and working poor white ethnics, primarily old school Jewish and Italian, among many others.
I've always seen Rudy and Mike as the one-two knockout punch that floored old New York.
Without Rudy "getting tough" and "cleaning up", Mike and his developer minions could have never accomplished what they have.
As long as New York was dirty and rough, the developers could not bank on masses of wealthy suburbanites flooding back into the city, no matter how nice the condos looked.

mingusal said...

The manifestation may have been in some large part a racial one, but it seems to me that the major movement in a lot of the gentrification that has occurred in NYC has been a class/income one.

Neighborhoods like the East Village, Lower East Side, Hells Kitchen, Williamsburg, Red Hook, Gowanus, etc. never were anything but working class neighborhoods throughout their histories. In some of these areas, the remaining white working class population (like the Poles and Italians of Williamsburg) have been just about as displaced as were Blacks and Hispanics, and the neighborhoods have gone from classic low-to-mid rent working class areas to something new, different, and much more highly priced.

Indeed, I think a useful distinction can be drawn between the "regentrification" of formerly higher-end neighborhoods like Park Slope or Ft. Greene after a long period of economic decline, abandonment, and primarily working-class minority residents, and the "gentrification" of long-time working-class areas like Williamsburg and the LES.

It seems to me that these two processes have many similarities, but some significant differences as well. Smith's conflation of these processes, and conflation of the whole movement primarily with race rather than class leads to a viewpoint that inflames more than it aids a deeper understanding of the process.

youngblood said...

In terms of cutting the rampant crime of the old, gritty NYC and "helping the homeless out of the gutter", where does the truth really lie? I was too young growing up in BK to fully understand what was going on, but it seems to me that Rudy just swamped the streets with cops.
And did the poor actually benefit from this upscaling starting in the 80's, or were they simply pushed out to the outer boroughs, new jersey, and less "posh" and trendy places immediately outside the city?
I for one am skeptical that the influx of wealth was one in which all boats were raised equally. More likely, the middle and working-class were forced out due to high rents and the like. Once the upper class snobs rolled in, the city had to be cleaned up- because they are the constituency that the police respond to.

mingusal said...

I often think that Rudy, and even Bill Bratton, get too much credit both good and bad for the drop in crime in NYC. First of all, the crack boom ended by the mid-90s. And all of the new prisons that were built in reaction to the crack explosion had been finished and filled.

Crime declined significantly in almost every major city in the country in the late 90s, even in very high crime cities like Detroit (my hometown) and Newark.

The big questions is, why didn't NYC backslide more, especially once the recession hit, like other cities did? The answer seems to have something to do with the willingness of large numbers of people to move into the city and stay there (same thing is going on in DC - and most definitely didn't stick in, say, Detroit), as well as an economy that has remained relatively stable. And with a sort of cross-racial and cross-ethnic understanding - for want of a better term - that seems to ratcheted down all kinds of tensions around here.

Ed said...

Its really pretty simple. Pricing middle class people out of their neighborhoods is different than pricing poor people out of their neighborhoods in all sorts of ways.

I also second Mingusal's points.

Jeremiah Moss said...

it is absolutely systematic. Bloomberg didn't rezone over 100 neighborhoods so that the poor and working class could live there. he rezoned them for the monied classes. he rezoned them to make it easier to move in high-end retail, luxury condos, etc.

bike lanes are part of the plan. no smoking is part of the plan. pedestrian plazas are part of the plan. the unconstitutional use of eminent domain is part of the plan.

the gentrification of the 2000s is not the "natural" movement of economic shifts or market forces. it's the orchestration of one man, his administration, and his supporters.

this is Bloomberg's New York. he planned it and he created it. unfortunately, countless people can't get enough of it--and thus it perpetuates.

Little Earthquake said...

I see your point, Jeremiah. But without the willing compliance of the public, Bloomberg's vision would never have been executed.

The point can be made that the portion of "the public" most responsible are outsiders and newcomers. And that it's more likely to be a newcomer from Minnesota than from Pakistan. If people hadn't chosen to move here, rents would not have skyrocketed, just as they would not have plummeted had people chosen not to move away from NYC in droves between the 50s and early 80s.

The seemingly logical conclusion to draw, then, is that the majority of Americans' tastes are terrible, and they have sullied our city with their chain stores and condos.

I personally think that most of the gentry aren't that dastardly, but they ARE easy marks. Throw a Dunkin Donuts in front of them, and 8 out of 10 are going to go in there.

Youngblood - swamping the city with cops was a huge part of the drop in crime. Competent and dependable policing is the most reliable way to mitigate crime. (Under Giuliani it wasn't always competent.) The canard that crime is directly related to economic booms and busts should be put to rest, in my opinion. If this city ever gets desperate enough to slash the police force - as it did in 1974 - expect disastrous results (and low rents). Absent of course some kind of Robocop program.

Jeremiah Moss said...

"willing compliance of the public"--absolutely.

we're living at a time when psychologically savvy advertising and design, originating largely in the 1950s, has come to fruition. this is the dream come true of Edward Bernays and his followers.

(if you haven't seen Century of the Self, check it out online)

few have resisted Bloomberg's bulldozing because it offers what many people crave--comfort, ease, convenience, things shiny and familiar. human beings want those things, and we each prioritize them differently.

but, yes, most Americans are conformist, frightened of the unfamiliar, and their tastes skew to the miserably middling. as Fran Lebowitz recently said, "There's no one more average" than an American.

sadly, NYC was for a long time, until 9/11, considered "not America." now it is.

Claribel said...

I think willing compliance is too blanket a statement. There are plenty of New Yorkers on this blog who are resistant and we don’t know how many more are out there because there’s no effective means for having our grievances addressed, especially when you constantly read of good people standing up for their local businesses only to see them forced to close up shop all across the boroughs. So there’s perhaps an overwhelming sense of disempowerment in this town. I think you can patronize your favorite businesses until you’re flat broke, but in the end that doesn’t compete with a corporation or luxury business that can afford what landlords are capable of charging these days.

We can’t leave out how foreign direct investment has really skyrocketed the economics in NYC. I thought Julian Brash’s guest blog post that linked to empirical data on increased inequality among global cities to be important evidence of how our local NYC problem is mirrored elsewhere. Other global cities are seeing their cultures watered down too when younger generations in India will buy chai tea at Starbucks instead of their local store, purely for status reasons. The assimilation towards a more mainstream, less diverse ethos built on materialism is occurring in major global cities too and the many forces shaping those mainstream tastes become a dark hole to tackle. I especially appreciated Fran’s quote that “there’s too much democracy in the culture and not enough democracy in the society.” I’m beginning to think that if you critique the status quo these days, you’re simply perceived as a modern day Don Quixote facing off your many windmills.

Claribel said...

My word verification was agingogy. Must be a nickname for aging ogre! :)

MDC said...

"It occurs to me that we really need a world with more murders, more failing schools, more grocery stores with rotting vegetables, more bodegas with old milk, more teen-pregnancy, more homeless, more crack, more heroin, more fathers on the lam, more disease, more joblessness, and generally, more death. And we need to concentrate every one of those those ills in black neighborhoods.

"We have seen the enemy, and it is change. Clearly the only way to preserve black neighborhoods from the scourge of white people is to render them as post-Apocalyptic as possible. It's not even enough to roll them back to the days of Jim Crow--that would mean an actual black middle class in Bed-Stuy and Columbia Heights, and great jazz clubs in Harlem.

"No. We need complete cultural and social depredation, a total breakdown of black humanity until our neighborhoods resemble something out of 28 Days Later. I am calling for the Superpredators of Bill Bennett's negrophobic dreams to make themselves known. I am calling for the thugs of Katrina who raped and murdered babies in the Superdome into being. I am calling for Saturday Night Specials, Starter Jackets and Lottos--the 80s on steroids, but without the great hip-hop.

"I want laws against Negroes who decide to act like citizens and better themselves. I want it mandated that all black people with college degrees live adjacent to drug dealers and sex-offenders. I want all black kids coming from two-parent homes forced into schools where they have given up reading and math, in favor of gang-fairs and all-day basketball. I want to outlaw the suburbs and the South. For black people.

"Only when black folks are reduced to human rubble, can we properly pay homage to the ruins of the ghetto. Only when property values have plummeted to hell, and died there, can we be safe from the scourge of the white interloper, who would add our cultural distinctiveness to their own, and then subjugate us under the tyranny of Urban Outfitters and Coldplay.

"We must make ourselves into something so horrid that they dare not come near us. We must be monsters reveling in a universe of pathology. We must always be acted upon, must be what whips, chains, signs, rape and red-lining have made us. And most of all we must never change.

"To do so, might mean we were Americans; might mean we were human."

--Ta-Nehisi Coates

Blayze said...

Bringing my mother to NYC to help me move things out of Brooklyn, we took a detour around midtown and she noticed that Blandhattan (Manhattan of course) was increasingly turning into our native suburb back in central New Jersey, a deluge of chain stores. The hilarious thing is she frequents chains and works at a chain store (which treats her awful no less).

I can't hate Bloomie for bike lanes, but it seems that's a complete war in and of itself between cops, old money, new transplants, the average bike rider, and Marty Markowitz. I honestly think Bloomie could care less of it but I applaud the city in general for attempting to shift itself away from cars. People drive too recklessly around here (Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn is a horrible thing to cross) and I have no problem with a shift back to mass transit and more open pedestrian spaces. Anyone who says otherwise is foolhardy considering any amount of increased foot traffic increases business on the street, populates and creates a level of safety (ala Jane Jacobs Hudson St example), limits pollution, traffic danger, noise, and generally just makes a better neighborhood. I'd honestly have no problem phasing out the often nutty NYC taxi for better buses and subways, and what I think should be implemented, light rail networks.

Of course, I can blame Bloomie and the new populace of NYC for rezoning and the loss of several old New York treasures. I've gone out of my way to frequent old neighborhood shops for coffee and mozzarella, (Caputo's and D'Amico's for instance, and just had Sam's recently. I love Carroll Gardens) and scoff at any of my friends who dare choose a chain over any local shop, be it new or old.

However, I too have been booted from Clinton Hill cause of price and must content myself in New Jersey for the time being until I can relocate to another neighborhood.

But would I want to be anywhere else? Nope. I love every crazy eccentric, billionaire housewife, and all the other street walkers I've encountered in NYC. Of course, NY is difficult and downright miserable sometimes but it's still the only place I feel the most at home.

Jeremiah Moss said...

MDC, that essay is breathtaking. thanks for adding it--and the link to the Atlantic.

Jeremiah Moss said...

he's right: "when we talk about gentrification, understand that we really are talking about the result of actual policies endorsed, not simply by shadowy interests group, but by actual Americans, erected with the explicit intent of making sure that another group of Americans remain a permanent peon class.

Gentrification is not magic. It's what our forefathers intended to happen."

T. said...

It would be very interesting to know what Prof. Smith thinks about the gentrification in Berlin - esp., as that is in different ways in process in different quarters of the city, how he suggests to try to observe that, the reactions of the people to it and what he would suggest as suitable indicators and concepts.

Anonymous said...

You write as if Bloomberg invented this all--but your are SO wrong. This started in a big way in the very late 1970's and early 1980's, when the COOP concept took hold, and tax breaks were expanded for coop buyers. That's what changed the Upper West Side first and then many other areas, as those who had been renting were forced to find new neighborhoods...And you are clearly not aware of the various Koch era blueprints for "transforming" 42nd Street. These plans were even worse than the faux-populist "entertainments" now displayed for Disney at al.By the way, I have lived here since 1970, and your "yunnie" concept is so plainly idiotic it staggers the mind: spoiled shits from NYC wealthy families or the suburbs have ALWAYS played the role of boho, or gentrification wallah...

Anonymous said...

Have to add an addition: John Lindsay closed off Fifth Avenue for pedestrians. While I totally agree that having people park their assess in Times Square is absurd, the idea of opening a street to people rather than cars only is not--think of what Guiliani did to close streets off from sidewalks on Fifth Avenue--was Lindsay a gentrifier? He was behind planting trees all over the city--does that make him a gentrifer? Those trees today make a good deal of NYC a more hospitable place during summer--and believe me, I walked these mean streets in 1970 and afterwards when the stench of dog shit and no leafy cover made life pretty rough, not to mention the possibility of gettig mugged if you made the mistake of walking down the wrong side of a street--of course, we had great music, cheap restaurants, low rents, a lot of roaches and lot of rats...I like your blog but man, do you whine---1990, your approximate arrival date to NYC coincided with the racist media treatment of Mayor David Dinkins ("Do Something Dave" was the Post's headline after a weekend of murders)...Crime was much worse in the 1980s and 1970s but the media coverage was muted...Let's just say that the 1990's were neither the good old days...nor were they as funky as your memory recalls...There is always someone else with a longer memory.

Anonymous said...

Great post and comments. I see chain stores as a slightly different phenomenon from gentrification. Chain stores like Dunkin Donuts and Subway don't usually seem to lead to higher rents-in fact, being less expenssive, they tend to be common in the less high-rent and fashionable parts of the city.

It's the upscale bistros and cafes, which cater to people who look down on Dunkin Donuts or Subway, that help attract monied professionals to live in a particular area and over time contribute to a neighborhood's class transformation. (Certain urban-originated, upscale mini-chains, like Five Guys and Shake Shack, may seem like exceptions, but once they become ubiquitous enough to be thought of as proper chains, like say Starbucks, they are no longer attractive to the gentrifier class.)

Of course, you can make a perfectly valid argument that chain stores drive local stores out of business, and that in doing so they damage the city's culture and make it an overall blander place. I happen to agree with that argument. I just think it's somewhat distinct from the issue of gentrification as it's usually discussed.

City Of Strangers said...

Hi Jeremiah,

Interesting Post and interesting thread. I agree with many points made here not least that gentrification was well underway in the very early 90s when I first arrived - I remember feeling that it was pretty much over, even then. I would add, though, that it's too much to blame one man - Bloomberg, or even Guiliani - since this process has unfolded in like fashion in many other cities. London, under Mayor 'Red Ken' was even more gentrified in the 00's than in NY, a process that continues into the present as the super-rich of the world move there (and here) in ever greater numbers.

The same could be said for lesser cities like Toronto or Vancouver, in my native Canada, where the whole model seems to revolve around attracting the well off to city centre and pushing everybody else to the margins. Perhaps a better question might be WHY this model seems to be the universal one for 'successful' cities. I would guess it has a lot to do with the loss of manufacturing, and the myriad short-sighted economic decisions made over the last thirty years that have led us to the mess we're in now.


Caleo said...

The seeds of gentrification were planted in the late 70's and early 80's, but did not fully bloom until late 90's and then Bloomie's reign.
I have an uncle who moved here in 1973, and to suggest the city was gentrifying in any real way in the late 70's and 80's is ludicrous.
I moved here in 88', and the difference between then and now is stunning.All the natives I know agree. Even in 2000 the city looked substantially different, and I knew people who rented one bedrooms in the EV for $700 a month, and they were not rent controlled.
Yes, there have ALWAYS been wealthy, spoiled brats around town, as well as douchebag Wall Street types.
But they were not a seeming majority, and the whole city did NOT cater to their every whim.
A significant shift has taken place in this town in the past decade, and anyone saying it was like this 20 years ago is being ridiculous.
If I could take a time machine back to 1993 and re experience the feel and look of this town in the early 90's I'd do it in a heartbeat.

lauren said...

jeremiah, i always said i was not from the "united states'. especially since i moved out of the country. unfortunatly most developing countries are now chain stores, sprawl, malls. i can never get used to that. a city should be a city. now they are all the same. there is little ethnic differences. there IS something i do find perplexing about this post: #1) new york is the center for thousands of immigrants. many are poor or working class. if new york is shifting to the monied class, than where do these people go?? they are living somewhere in NYC. #2) if there are so many third world immigrants, then where are the ethnic areas? i assume sunset park in brooklyn is very chinese, & jackson heights is little india, etc etc. i am sure they have the chain stores as well. maybe these are the only individualist areas left? #3) a poster made a fatal error. they said that dunkin donuts (& other lower end chains) are not paying high rent. WRONG. these are fast turn over places, & do pay very high rent. fast food, cheap nail salons, walmart type of places pay alot.

City Of Strangers said...


To the last poster - I said gentrification was underway, I didn't say it was anything like the present. Even the 00's were nothing like the present. We thought it was, but we had no idea what was to come and looking back, our worries about the gentrification of the LES and all neighborhoods like it (because this trend, happened simultaneously in so many different cities), were incredibly naive.

The recession, curiously, has accelerated the process of gentrification and made NY one of the most economically divided cities in the world (I think NY is 9th overall). It's a very strange time to be in this city.

But again, this trand is not exclusive to NY. The same thing has happened in London, where rents have actually gone up over the last couple of years. And Toronto, and . . . so on. This seems to be the global capitalist model . . .


rob said...

@T: loss of manufacturing plays an important role in that upscaling of the center, assisted by city administration which requires ever expanding revenues to supply services -- recall the downward spiral of white flight: loss of tax base, diminished services, more white flight leading to municipal bankruptcy. An safe, clean, upscale center, like a safe clean, upscale park, are indispensable to attracting and keeping residential and commercial wealth.

A case in point, if you don't mind my interjecting the immediate concrete, is Manhattan's Chinatown. The loss of the sweatshops undermined the economy there. Amidst the crisis, the proposed BID uses "clean streets" as a ruse to grab the space and character of Chinatown for the benefit of corporate interests leaning towards tourism in place of local residential labor.

City administration has collaborated only minimally so far, I imagine because Bloomberg has no influence over Chinese-American real estate ownership. So most of the pressure seems to be corporate.

But once the BID is implemented, the city will find it a perfect partner for upscaling, and it will start with inclusionary zoning, bringing new market-rate condos with a few middle- and moderate-income units to co-opt the politicians. And new immigrants from China will land in Sunset Park instead.

It's a sad fact that community preservation doesn't preserve culture. Communities will gentrify all by themselves. Constant immigration and economic abandonment seem to be the only antidotes to urban mediocrity and its infatuation with comfort.

Anonymous said...

This isn't about white people it's about a new social class taking over the city and making it their own. The South Bronx, LES, etc were all white up until the 60's when welfare benefits went crazy and then those neighborhoods went to sh*t while the middle class whites moved to the a** ends of the boroughs. Now what's happening is rich yuppies and wannabe trendy artist people with rich families are taking over the city and basically it's been happening for 15 years now.

Red Hook Rules said...

Stimulate White Flight!

genevieve said...

A lot of these condos and office buildings have been sitting half empty for years.