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Urban renewal is often lauded as a blessing by politicians and land developers; it is seen as a method of bringing economic and cultural growth to an otherwise stagnant community. It is a set of changes made in the hopes that new residents come in, more businesses open, and more capital flows into the area. However, redevelopment often results in the deconstruction and replacement of a pre-existing community, displacing the former residents and increasing their hardships rather than providing revitalization. Gentrification, the process in which more affluent residents move into a poorer area and change its social and economic dynamics, is a term that comes up in virtually every debate regarding urban redevelopment. In this paper, I will argue that the use of urban gentrification for utilitarian purposes is unfair and deceptive, and the Kantian idea that positive intent matters more than consequence provides an insidious leniency. I will show the detriment gentrification causes to local businesses and residents through examples from areas that have undergone the process, and compare the arguments for and against the practice; the effects of rising property values, the changes in a community’s businesses, and the changes in a community’s social makeup will be the main areas of focus. After the research is presented, I will explore the philosophical viewpoints of Kant and Mill, and contrast idealism with the reality that urban communities must face in dealing with gentrification.
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When affluent newcomers set up homes in a poor community, they often rebuild or otherwise modify the properties they buy; by doing this, shift the property values up accordingly. The property taxes and rent increase to match this up scaling of homes and apartments. These higher income families can afford these increased fees, and the extra tax capital flowing into the area generally pleases the local government. But for long-time residents, this shift in property values can be an unwelcome burden. According to an assessment conducted by Daniel Sullivan, longtime residents of a gentrified community tend to be poorer than newer residents. Consequentially, long-time residents often become displaced by the newer, richer residents. Koreatown, Los Angeles is a prime example of this consequence. In the study “The Contested Nexus of Koreatown”, Kyeyoung Park and Jessica detailed the changes the urban enclave experienced as restructured itself after the Los Angeles Riots. During the LA Riots, Koreatown’s properties suffered damages that residents were hard-pressed to recoup from; many displaced residents abandoned the enclave altogether. Outside investment and urban revitalization seemed the only means to provide the relief Koreatown so desperately needed, but the researchers found its redevelopment paradoxical; while property values increased and the town experienced a remarkable recovery, established residents found themselves out on the streets because they were unable to afford the new rents and fees. These residents were mostly local workers making minimum wage salaries, who suddenly found their apartment complexes being bought out by development companies; the buildings would be renovated and refurbished, and the rents would be double the original cost. Gentrification had compounded the displacement of the original community instead of helping them get back on their feet. From the point of view of the established community, it is difficult to say that urban renewal provided any social good for them; they had been swapped out in favor of newer residents.
As new higher-income residents come in, the types of businesses in the area change as well. These residents have more disposable income and the sorts of goods and services they desire differ from the other residents. The concentration of professional services and retail stores increase, while smaller, local businesses go into decline (Park and Kim, 2008). To meet with the demands of a changing community, some services become overabundant to the point of instability; local business owners find themselves lacking the resources to stay competitive and go out of business, resulting in further displacement of the established community versus the incoming community. In their study, Park and Kim stated there was over-saturation of pool halls, internet cafes, karaoke bars, night clubs, room salons, and liquor stores in Koreatown; while this gives the consumer more choice, the competition makes for a very hostile and unforgiving business environment. The new stores and services can oftentimes be inaccessible to the established residents, in terms of affordability and focus; it is a form of market positivism that takes only the concerns of the affluent into account. When Koreatown was redeveloped, the new services were centered towards attracting people to the nightlife with bars, clubs, and high-class restaurants; while these businesses were popular out-of-towners and the affluent, the majority of the local community had no use for such extravagant locales. Babylon Court, an upscale shopping center located in Hollywood, is also an example of dissonance between business and the community. The shopping center is a popular location for the upper class with its expensive retail stores and famous theaters, but it stand in stark contrast to the surrounding community of the homeless and relatively poor who cannot afford the offering of Babylon Court (Curtio, Davenport, and Jackiewicz, 2007). Once again, the machinations of the gentrification process have not helped the community, but hampered it; outside investment and new businesses that were suppose to breathe life into a struggling community have instead alienated and beleaguered the long-time residents.
When renewal is enacted for the good of a community, the existing community is seldom the beneficiary; instead, the community is steadily changed and replaced so that revitalization is a result of a new populace. Increased diversification and social mixture does not occur, but replacement and segregation are often the result when dealing with gentrification. In “Gentrification and Social Mixing”, Loretta Lees stated that middle newcomers into urban communities self-segregated themselves even though they polled in favor of diversity in a neighborhood. This process of gentrification is regularly aided by social policies created by the state. One example of that occurrence is Cabrini Green in Chicago. In 1994, it qualified “the worst case of public housing in the US”, and was subsequently given $50 million to redevelop; the demolition and vouchering out that followed displaced a significant portion of low-income tenants and recreated the community as a middle class neighborhood (Lees, 2008). The UK developed similar policies; the London Borough of Brent New Deal for Communities project funded the demolition of tower blocks and created over 1500 privately owned units, but at the loss of 800 publicly owned units (Atkinson, 2008), displacing low-income residents. The pre-existing community is pushed out by the changes in the local economy, and an ever so subtle social cleansing takes place, while policy makers flaunt their love of social utility and the public good and claim they are alleviating the poverty of urban areas.
A utilitarian action should result the greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people. J.S. Mill demanded empiricism in deducing what benefited the whole, but gentrification puts the happiness and experiences of distinctly different groups at odds. Does gentrification serve the happiness of the old residents or the new residents? Empirical examination of data tells me the old residents are simple refuse in gentrification and newer residents are primary concern. Is the greater happiness a matter of population quantity or is it a matter of population quality? Another empirical examination reveals gentrification is process that favors people of higher income, a matter of quality rather than quantity. My examination reveals gentrification results in the greatest happiness for the few, rather than the many. So I pose the following question: how does one justify gentrification as serving the greater good? Social policies advocating gentrification claim they have improved and revitalized urban communities, when all they have done is displace the established low-income families to make it seem like they have reduced poverty in the area. This deception is something I take huge issue with; even Milton Friedman, a man who was likely supportive of urban renewal practices, spewed vitriol at using the excuse of “social good” to achieve a personal agenda.
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Gentrification in the name of social utility is a failure, but Immanuel Kant said noble intent matters more than consequence. However, noble intent is something subjective; what is noble to one person is not necessarily noble to another. The consequences of gentrification are dire and far-reaching and to excuse the process based on a subjective ideal is an indulgence too easily granted. In duty-based ethics, a person must consider his ideal as if it were a universal maxim; if it is contradictory, then it is a faulty ideal. Suppose everyone went around tossing people poorer than themselves out of house and home, destroying and rebuilding properties for their own use; this would result complete chaos, with people of all social standings in furious conflict with one another. Through policy making, proponents of gentrification have also reduced the idea of community to a region of a map rather than people; Kant would be taken aback by the lack of respect for the sovereignty of the individual. Intent alone cannot save the policy of gentrification; it is something flawed by subjective agendas, and Kant’s objective ideals cannot be effectively applied to the realities of the situation.
Gentrification carried out in the name of utilitarianism is a deception wrought upon troubled communities. It is too often that the promise of revitalization is made a cloak for a cleansing of a community’s social order. The residents suffer through a process of steadily increasing hardships and eventual replacement by the more privileged; it’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, except with the bourgeoisie instead of aliens. With the increasing property values and magically disappearing poverty, statistics are made reinforce the idea that gentrification works wonders for communities. I cannot properly express my disdain for this sinister sort of planning; it is a type of dastardly deed fit for villains with long mustaches, twiddling fingers, and large hats. While I would vastly prefer investment and invigoration that allowed a community to become self-sufficient by its own efforts, I would simply settle for the sham of social good to be dropped from the pitch. If you’re going to wipe out and rebuild a community, call it for what it is; they’re probably too poor and helpless to stop you.
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