“Gentrification” As Fig Leaf

In a discussion as mystified as the one around gentrification, it can behoove us to break things down into oversimple terms.

I like Matt Bruenig’s take, where he reduces gentrification to three essential facets: inequality, market competition, and property commodification. When framed this way, he points out, solutions to the problem of gentrification quickly become clear – stymie any one of these facets, and gentrification slows or stops.

Moments of analytical clarity like this are useful in a superficial conversation dominated by self-help (at first, “20 Ways Not To Be a Gentrifier”, and then, confronted with reality, “Five Ways To Be a Good Gentrifier”) and consternation (finally, “There’s Basically No Way Not to Be a Gentrifier”) . They remind us of both the breadth of potential solutions, as well as the political conditions that limit us from them. But why are these moments so hard to come by? Why are discussions of gentrification so narrative and confessional? Why is so much ink spilled on the subject while at the same time, so much of it avoids the word “capitalism?”

Gavin Mueller notes that “[Liberal discourse] buries the structural forces at work and choreographs a dance about individual choice to perform on the grave… Gentrification becomes a culture war, a battle over consumer choices.” Discussion about gentrification, along with the term “gentrification” itself, becomes sacked of its structural content. To take things a step further – what is the mechanism by which this happens?

Someone hit the nail on the head at the local Jacobin reading group, where we discussed Mueller’s article – “gentrification” merely points towards the lived experiences of the urban middle class. Your archetypal gentrifier – middle-class, professional or “creative,” probably white, with family depending on age cohort – does not get to decide in a meaningful sense what neighborhood they live in. This is decided, rather, in the board rooms and council chambers of corporations and municipal governments. The little influence gentrifiers do have is dampened by their status as newcomers, as well as their secure place in the socioeconomic hierarchy. But most of all, it’s dampened by the fact that real policies combating gentrification entail constraining the growth potential of real estate capital, something for which there is little desire to take up among the gentrifying classes.

Facing alienation from municipal politics and unwilling to engage in anticapitalist politics, gentrifiers retreat into the private sphere. Gentrification is then experienced as a series of consumer choices, first and foremost the choice of where to make one’s home. It’s experienced as an inexorable process that, like so many other things in contemporary American life, the individual has no control over. Even the choice of the purchase is substantially constrained – do you want to go to Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts? Columbia Heights or Shaw?

But we experience relatively little angst over our coffee purchases. There are few topics, on the other hand, that inspire more liberal hand-wringing than that of gentrification. Unlike the coffee industry, where guilt can be assuaged with fair-trade marketing, the violence of gentrification is geographically and economically immediate. Even when the white middle class tries to be “good,” it can’t help but carry out the next step in a centuries-long program of racialized poverty and oppression. It can’t rest easy with the knowledge that overt programs of segregation in the Jim Crow South are waiting to be toppled. Racism is built into the very economic arrangements that structure our lives – economic arrangements that it has no effective control over.

Faced with an injustice that they cannot look away from but refuse to address, the middle and upper classes respond with “gentrification” – a fig leaf suspended over the cycle of appropriation and the class, race, and political dynamics that drive it. And just like all fig leaves, we intuitively know what lies beneath it. In lieu of confronting that which we believe to be out of our hands, we talk about “gentrification” as a process suited to urban “hacks” and technocratic “solutions.”

More importantly, the fig leaf of gentrification produces fig leaf policies – namely, inclusionary zoning. Samuel Stein’s summary of its outcomes echoes perfectly gentrification-as-fig-leaf: “Inclusionary zoning might displace more poor people than it houses, but when the system’s casualties aren’t counted, they aren’t seen.” It’s a policy that doesn’t stop gentrification, but only grafts a few low-income families onto otherwise renovated communities. But what matters more than the displaced poor, for all the beneficiaries of gentrification, is that there is a fig leaf to cover up a problem that otherwise demands concrete, anticapitalist action.

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