What Is The Nature Of Gentrification Cultural Studies Essay

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What is the nature of gentrification? Some celebrate the process whilst others actively organise against it. Why does this divide exist?

However sometimes parks are not renewed, they are built on. Or if they do remain, and are indeed improved, those who used to enjoy the use of these spaces are no longer welcome. Residents, typically low income or perhaps even unemployed, are often evicted to make way for the new gentry apartments. Organised resistance of one kind or another typically meets the gentrifying front - but is usually beaten back.

Social mixing: fact or fiction?

Proponents of gentrification have dubbed the process "positive gentrification" or "social mixing". The theory is that by injecting wealthier people into run down neighbourhoods, the general wealth and standard of living in the area will rise; Loretta Lees (2008, p. 198) describes this strategy as one of "dilut[ing] concentrations of poverty in the inner city through gentrification".

Lees notes that if 'social mixing' was the altruistic and socially healthy process that its proponents claim it is, it would be a two way street, with low cost affordable housing developments being created in established wealthy areas. (Lees 2008, p. 206).

Instead, gentrification inevitably involves the creation of progressively more upmarket housing developments in areas with lower income (and mostly rental) occupancies; these new units are marketed at wealthier workers.

Those who favour gentrification in many cases create a mystification of the origins of poverty in order to paint the 'gentrifying' group as benign benefactors whose presence should be celebrated since it brings capital into the local community.

In much the same way that certain groups might argue foreign investment is beneficial to third world economies, gentrifying development is often pitched as a source of 'trickle down' wealth that will create local service jobs and / or benefit existing small business in the area. It is claimed that this 'trickle down' wealth will, over time, raise the overall employment prospects of the local area (Lees 2008).

Advocates of social mixing may also argue that the mere presence of better paid workers in areas with high concentrations of low waged workers will inject a certain aspirational consciousness into the local community which allows them to find better work. The assertion here is that in areas with high concentrations of unemployed, underemployed or low paid workers, a lower class mentality becomes entrenched and is self perpetuating.

Social Mixers do not seem to see the answer to this problem lying in the expansion of the payrolls of the state or other large employers to reduce or even eradicate unemployment, nor in bringing up the minimum wage to reduce the salary gap between highly paid and low paid workers. Instead, well paid workers will simply move in next door to the poor and introduce them to the secrets of wealth; or induct them to the subtle art of envisioning ones own success. (Lees 2008)

This rosy view of gentrification views wealth as being a product of enlightened consciousness rather than something that is extracted from the labour of others. As such poverty is viewed not as a syptom (and necessary element) of an inequal society but is instead portrayed as an unfortunate affliction stemming from the no-hope attitudes and ignorance of the poor.

It has been documented that the lived reality of gentrification typically does not conform to this analysis of the source of wealth; and that the proscribed remedy to poverty of injecting clusters of intrinsically 'enlightened' wealthier people into poor neighbourhoods has a poor track record of achieving its stated goal.

Firstly, the very name 'social mixing' is based upon the assumption that the gentrifying class will indeed interact with the local population in some meaningful way. This assumption is seen to be quite flawed, with evidence showing that in many cases the two camps stay apart from each other. (Lees 2008, p. 202)

Teresa P.R. Caldiera, looking at examples in Sao Paulo and Los Angeles in her Essay Fortified Enclaves (2002) describes how the bright, clean new gentry developments typically come complete with surveillance and security systems so that persons of lower socio-economic background can be made to feel like intruders, even in public spaces like malls and parks which were hitherto welcoming (Caldiera 2002, p. 95). She also explains how "closed condominiums are supposed to be separate worlds. Their advertisements […] suggest the possibility of constructing a world clearly distinguishable from the surrounding city: a life of total calm and security" (Caldiera 2002, p. 88. Italics mine).

On top of this is the fact that in many instances the 'gentrifying' class is white whereas the local population is of Hispanic or African American descent. In this manner antagonism can stem from what may be seen to be the continuation of an entrenched racial divide, not just from the fact that a wealthier group is (typically somewhat forcibly) moving into a less wealthy area. (Lees 1998; Caldiera 2002; Knox 1993)

This can serve to create a sense of defensiveness in the locals who may feel that their area is being 'colonised'. Adding of this is the fact that since gentrification drives up land values, there is a tendency for persons of lower economic means to be 'priced out' of their neighbourhood. Whereas previously it may have been viable for tenants to move between relatively cheap rental housing or units in their area, the onset of gentrification (and associated generalised increase in land value and rent) means that tenants must either stay in existing rental contracts or move to another suburb completely (Knox 1993; Lees 1998 p. 219).

This removal of the freedom to move around can add to a feeling of resentment not just toward the abstract idea of gentrification but towards the actual 'new people on the block' who are the human face of this phenomenon.

Sharon Zukin- the Loft Lifestyle

Certain types of gentrification- particularly 'early' gentrification of abandoned and run down factories when the new tenants are experimenting in and celebrating the architectural canvas they are inhabiting, has produced liberating glimpses of a different type of society. Sharon Zukin's analysis "the creation of a loft lifestyle" (1982) looks at how artists took up residence in cheap lofts and disused factory space in the South Houston st area of New York (SoHo) in the late 1960's and early 1970's and lived very different lives there to the white picket fence, nuclear family scenario prescribed by the institutions of popular culture.

Zukin looks at how the physical layout of the loft, with its typical open plan fusion of all living spaces into one big space, challenged the conservative notion that women belong in an isolated kitchen space: "in this loft, the space of the kitchen not only expands into the living area but it dominates the living area" (Zukin 1982, p. 71)

Moreover, without focussing too heavily on the context of the peace and love, student, womens liberation, queer rights and anti Vietnam war movements, Zukin observed that:

"Quite a few of the first generation SoHo residents who took part in the movement to legalise artists living lofts there (1969-71) or whose lofts were pictured in magazines were men or women who lived alone or in gay (primarily male) couples. Photographed in their lofts, discoursing knowledgeably about the merits of the Cuisinart or metal wall studs and plasterboard, these people became both part of the mainstream, home-oriented public and arbiters of home style.

"In a similar gender free sense, a survey of Manhattan loft residents found that an extraordinarily high proportion of couples refused to identify a man or woman as head of the household" (Zukin 1982, p. 72)

Of course, the normalisation of same sex relationships and the recognition of household labour as an essential contribution to society - and not something to be relegated to women in enclosed rooms - are not predicated upon gentrification. However certain early experiments in populating disused factory space helped create urban spaces which were neither manufactured, pricey bourgeois apartments nor unrepaired, dingy slums; and which were spaces for exploring creativity and alternative relationships.

This was on top of the fact that cities, unlike suburbia, could accommodate, in the words of Linda McDowell (1999) " […] a network of clubs, bars, rooming houses, restaurants, YMCAs, areas in central park and public baths […] that were part of the landscape of gay sexuality". Looking at the work of a range of commentators, McDowell also notes that "[…] the city was an arena where the strict and hierarchical ties of small towns and villages were relaxed and dissolved. Consequently, women too were able to experience something of the rootlessness and displacement at the heart of urban experience" (McDowell 1999).

Looking at gentrification through this prism, it could be argued that the conversion of abandoned and disused urban buildings into accommodation- and importantly affordable accommodation, not just for the well paid- is conducive of creating liberating places for independent and empowered women, gays, lesbians, transgender and intersex people to live.

To claim that this is the main type of 'gentrification' would be plainly false; in most cases it is these early artist /alternative communities that are uprooted along with the homeless and the low paid or unemployed in order to make way for progressively more upmarket development.

In her essay 'discourses in collision or collusion' Katherine Gibson (1998) highlights the fact that cities create more potential for cashless exchanges of labour than is typically the case in suburban areas.

Whilst tending delving into a debatable argument that this is syptomatic of the 'end of history' and shows a class analysis of capitalist societies to be either false or too simplistic, the essay nonetheless identifies this interesting characteristic of the urban fabric. This would further tend to reinforce that insofar as it involves urban renewal and the creation of urban residences where previously they may have been few (or none), gentrification helps expand these bases of progressive human interactions.

It would be interesting to see Gibson carry out a similar analysis of residents living in Havana, Cuba, which also has a substantial informal (cashless) sector but without the pronounced class divide seemingly prevalent in the unspecified 'Pacific Rim world city' she looks at (Gibson 1998).

The point, perhaps, is that these sometimes quite culturally enlightened and progressive pockets that bubble up in between the advancing front of gentrification and the often severe poverty and disrepair of the modern ghetto/ barrio/ favela/ slum provide us with a glimpse at how entire cities could look if they were not divided along the lines of class, gender, sexuality and race.

Crushing the soul places

Jeff Chang, author of "Can't stop, won't stop- a history of the hip hop generation" (2005) elucidates an image of the relatively ungentrified Central Park of early 1980's New York, complete with "native and immigrant sons and daughters of philosophers and kings, hard hat workers and maids". (Chang 2005 p.145)

Chang interviews a graffiti artist, ZEPHYR, whom he believes found the park to be "an opening into a different world" (Chang 2005 p.145).

Speaking to Chang, ZEPHYR recalls:

"You get out of school, fuckin' get your little bag of reefer, going to the park, meeting up with your homeboys, kids from Brooklyn, the Bronx," he says.

"It was extremely mixed, like a freak scene of young kids. Some of the kids were really from wealthy families and then some were like more down and out, some were homeless. But it was really cool because that scene went on for, I'd say, the better half of a decade." (Zephyr n.d in Chang 2005 p.145)

Chang says that the "parkies" (as serial users of the park were known), had in the park "a safe space to experiment with drugs (especially marijuana and psychedelics), sex and style" (Chang 2005 p.145).

Continuing his interview with ZEPHYR, it emerges that the police

"…had a total hands-off policy. There was fucking clouds of pot smoke. It looked like the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert. Imagine that every day, seven days a week." (Chang 2005 p.146)

Chang goes on to discuss how the park was a place where graffiti artists interacted and formed artistic and activist relations with punk artists and activists from the lower east side. It is important to consider this perspective of park users when looking at the gentrification of such spaces. (Chang 2005)

The mainstream media reports such spaces with their ad-hoc crowd as marauding and scary; and yet those who frequent the parks have a completely different perspective. For them the park is a place of great attraction; and their enforced exclusion from it would be both tragic and enraging.

Resistance to gentrification I

Not far from Central park, closer to Manhattan, was a small park home to similar socialising as recounted to Chang by the graffiti artist ZEPHYR.

Neil Smith, in his Essay "New City, New Frontier: The Lower East Side as Wild, Wild West" (1992) tells the story of a riot which erupted one Saturday night in August 1988 at this place - Tompkins Square Park, "a small green in New York City's Lower East side".

According to Smith, police spent a good part of the night battling "a diverse mix of anti-gentrification protesters, punks, housing activists, park inhabitants, artists, Saturday-night revelers, and Lower East Side residents".

"The battle followed the city's attempt to enforce a 1:00am curfew in the park, on the pretext of "cleaning out" the growing numbers of homeless people living or sleeping there, kids playing boom-boxes in the early hours, buyers and sellers of drugs using it for business" (Smith 1992, p. 61).

The park sounds not dissimilar to the one in Greenwich village described by Chang and ZEPHYR. Smith goes on to say that "many local residents and park users saw the [enforced Tompkins Square Park curfew] differently"; that it was viewed as part of a broader agenda of "[Taming and domesticating] the park to facilitate the already rampant gentrification of the Lower East Side."

Smith outlines how police in riot gear "forcibly evicted everyone from the park before midnight, and mounted a series of "cossacklike" baton charges against demonstrators and local assembled along the park's edge" (Smith 1992, p. 61).

Resistance to the gentrification II

Green Bans, Red Union by Meredith and Verity Burgmann (1998) documents the efforts of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) to protect parkland and heritage buildings in Sydney, Newcastle, the Central Coast and elsewhere from gentrification in the early to mid 1970's.

The BLF, working with local resident action groups, confronted the corrupt NSW government of Robert Askin - which was facilitating a developer free-for-all fuelled by speculative local and foreign investors. For instance the Askin government enacted the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority Act (1968) which allowed it to evict tenants from public housing in the Rocks to make way for hundred metre high towers. (Burgmann & Burgmann 1998, pp. 195-201)

According to Burgmann "One family of five in the threatened area had approached the housing commission about alternative accommodation and been told they would be put on the end of the 40,000 person waiting list". (Burgmann & Burgmann 1998, pp. 196-197)

Local renters formed a residents action group numbering some 200 people and successfully petitioned the BLF to support their cause; the union declared in late 1971 that it "would not move a single brick until the 416 residents had been satisfactorily rehoused". (Burgmann & Burgmann 1998, p. 196)

Soon after the union agreed to protect a list of heritage houses supplied by the Australian Institute of Architects, since at the time there was no legislation to ensure this (Burgmann & Burgmann 1998, pp. 230-232).

This was a rare instance of the community and organised labour movement not just confronting a very powerful adversary with a pro gentrification agenda, but - for a few years at least - achieving substantial victories, most of which have endured to the present.

Jack Mundey, secretary of the NSW BLF during the height of the green bans, said "[…] we don't want the next generation to condemn us for slapping up the slums of tomorrow". (Mundey nd. Burgmann & Burgmann 1998, p. 231)

In seeking to protect parkland and working class/ heritage housing in areas like the Kelly's Bush, Centennial park, the Rocks, Wooloomoloo, Waterloo, Surry Hills and Victoria street, the BLF and community campaigners were confronted with attempted bribery, standover tactics and police violence.

However a powerful combination of work bans by workers in this highly unionised field as well as vocal and ongoing community demonstrations made it politically impossible for most of the green bans to be broken. Not so for the union, which was crushed by its own Federal Bureaucracy under pressure from the establishment and subsequently outlawed by the government. (Burgmann & Burgmann 1998)

There was at least one human victim of the stoush, too: outspoken Victoria st. community campaigner and author of local Newsletter Now, Juanita Nielsen, who was 'disappeared' on July 4, 1975, never to be seen again. Loretta Lees writes of low-income tenant organiser Bruce Bailey meeting a very similar fate in June 1989 in New York.

Neither Bailey nor Nielsen's killers were ever bought to justice (Burgmann & Burgmann 1998, pp. 213-214, and Lees 2008, p. 222)

Benign or malignant?

Clearly, gentrification is not a benign phenomenon. Both in cases where there is well organised resistance to gentrification and in cases where resistance is strongly felt but not so well organised, those interests pushing to develop an area will use a range of forceful methods to try and bring their agenda to fruition.

Advocates of gentrification claim that it raises the general standard of living in the area being developed and flushes out "undesirables".

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with renovating run down buildings, or indeed demolishing a few that are too far gone and building new (and perhaps sometimes larger) buildings in their place. It is the manner in which this is done which is key.

The reason that many find gentrification offensive is the forceful manner in which it is implemented. The eviction of low income people and the homeless; the exclusive nature of the new residences and the manner in which property speculation jerks rents up in the area; the destruction of parks and heritage buildings; and the way in which local homeless people, youth and persons of colour are surveilled, policed and scapegoated to distract from the antisocial nature of the gentrification itself.

It may be the case that there can be a type of urban renewal which respects the endogenous population, regulates for enough low or slowly rising rents to avoid pricing out the locals, and does not need to resort to Orwellian surveillance measures and cheap scapegoating in order to justify and protect itself.

However such an urban renewal would need to occur under the direction of empowered, evolving communities - not at the whim of a narrow group of forceful speculative developers whose overarching interest is profit.

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