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Why Spike Lee Is Wrong About Gentrification

from the magazine

Why Spike Lee Is Wrong About Gentrification

We’ve yet to find a better alternative for urban revival. Autumn 2015
Arts and Culture

BETH J. HARPAZ/AP/CORBIS
Columbia Heights, one of several Washington, D.C., neighborhoods that declined during the 1960s, has been transformed by gentrification.

In the 1990s, decades after the riots that followed the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, the Washington, D.C., neighborhoods of Logan Circle and Columbia Heights still showed scars of that terrible time. Through many of those years, the mostly black residents of those areas would be in luck if they were looking for a prostitute or a drug deal; they had a harder time tracking down fresh spinach or blood-pressure medication. Logan Circle’s elegant Civil War–era mansions were crumbling or boarded up; the turreted row houses of Columbia Heights were in even worse shape.

Still, the local D.C. government was growing aware of the potential of these two neighborhoods, near as they were to federal government offices and the swarm of lobbying and law firms and media and public-relations outfits near them. In 1999, a metro stop opened in Columbia Heights, right across the street from a spiffy new Target. A Whole Foods took up residence a year later in a former auto-parts store near Logan Circle. Fortuitously, the District was at the same moment beginning to catch the eye of a growing number of career-hungry recent college grads.

Whole Foods, nineteenth-century townhouses, striving millennials—is there anyone who couldn’t predict what was coming? The brunch spots, the $14 basil-infused cocktails, the bike lanes, the condos, and the soaring rents? As crime was brought under control during the first decade of the 2000s, 14th Street became as haute yuppie as they come. The tattooed crowd then tried out a dicey area of 11th Street, three blocks east in Columbia Heights. Across the street from a Chinese takeout with cashiers sitting behind a presumably bulletproof partition lies a block-long bar/diner/coffeehouse called the Coupe. The day I visited, Maria, a pleasant nursing-student barista in jean shorts and a T-shirt, told me that since one of her coworkers got mugged a while back, a policeman (and sometime customer) often stops by at closing time to make sure that others don’t run into trouble. The incident doesn’t seem to have hurt business: postgrads cram the place, sitting on comfy sofas with their six-pound textbooks, studying for law boards and GMATs.

Some might see what’s happening in Columbia Heights and Logan Circle—gentrification, in a word—as a hopeful sign. Decaying, quasi-abandoned neighborhoods in a city once dubbed the “Murder Capital of America,” whose most famous local figure was a mayor with a penchant for crack, have turned into places where people are keen to live, eat, shop, and study. But large numbers of self-proclaimed urbanophiles—including, bizarrely, many of those same people flocking to such revived places in cities across the developed world—claim to hate the changes afoot, contending that they’re symptomatic of decadent capitalism and its racist infrastructure. Many longtime locals grumble, too. In a famous 2014 rant, filmmaker Spike Lee railed against white newcomers to the once-black neighborhood of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, accusing them of being part of a “motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus syndrome.” Some wring their hands at their own complicity in the sordid phenomenon. “If you want to stop a place—anywhere—from being gentrified, don’t move there, don’t even go there—leave it the hell alone,” Alex Hudson, an editor at Metro UK, an alternative London paper, recently urged his readers.

Hudson is right about one thing: to stop gentrification, educated young people should steer clear of Brooklyn, D.C., San Francisco, London, and many other cities. Aside from that glimmer of wisdom, he’s come up with about the worst idea for cities—including their minority populations—since Robert Moses planned the Cross Bronx Expressway. Gentrification has its costs, some vexingly resistant to policy fixes, but it has brought cities in many advanced economies back from the brink. If there’s another route to urban health, we’ve yet to find it.

Back in the early 1960s, Ruth Glass, a young British sociologist at University College London, noticed something unexpected in her mostly working-class neighborhood of Islington, in northern London. A small bohemian-intellectual crowd—people like her, in other words—were buying some of the area’s “shabby modest mews and cottages” and once-fine Georgian terraces and transforming them into tasteful bourgeois family homes. “One by one, many of the working-class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes,” she wrote in a now-famous 1964 article. “Once this process . . . starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social charter of the district is changed.” When Glass labeled this transformation “gentrification,” she doubtless was unaware that she had discovered the demographic equivalent of E=mc2. Today, you could substitute for London not only Washington, D.C., but Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Boston, Charlotte, and—though most Americans don’t realize it—Copenhagen, Berlin, Sydney, Melbourne, Toronto, Vancouver, and dozens of other foreign cities.

What happened to make middle-class people suddenly want to live in neighborhoods that they had shown no interest in for decades? After all, the bourgeois preference for suburban life didn’t seem like a transient fact. By the early nineteenth century, a growing middle class was already fleeing rowdy city docks and grimy factories for the space and privacy of rural-ish areas like Islington and later of “streetcar suburbs” like Park Slope in Brooklyn and West Philadelphia. As industry and its workers took up more urban space, and as new train lines and highways eased commuting, the middle class shifted its belongings even farther into the countryside that we now know as suburbia, traveling to and from their mostly white-collar jobs in the city.

Yet by the time Glass was observing her new neighbors arranging their bookshelves, seismic changes were already setting the stage for the middle class’s urban return. One was deindustrialization. One by one, the paint factories, slaughterhouses, meatpacking companies, sugar refineries, and breweries that had added to the harshness of urban living were closing their doors and decamping to cheaper, more spacious industrial parks outside the city and eventually to less expensive Third World locales. The working-class jobs moved with them, needless to say—at least those that weren’t disappearing altogether into the claws of robots.

The effect on the urban economy that had sustained and grown cities and their working-class populations for more than a century was calamitous. To take a sadly typical example, New York City, at its manufacturing peak just after World War II, had 1 million blue-collar workers. By the early 1990s, the number had fallen to 200,000. These days, it’s down to a measly 76,000. The hurricane of deindustrialization hit Europe, too—not just London but places like Amsterdam, which over the last four decades lost Amstel and Heineken breweries, a Ford plant, toy factories, and more.

During much of this time, cities bled people as well as jobs. Brooklyn had 2.7 million residents in 1950. Thirty years later, its population had shrunk to 2.3 million. Seattle peaked at 550,000 residents in 1960, declining to 494,000 in 1980. Abandoned buildings blighted neighborhoods. In the Bronx, things got so bad that there was talk—just as there is in Detroit today—of letting some areas revert to farmland. In 1971, a billboard near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport notoriously asked: WILL THE LAST PERSON LEAVING SEATTLE—TURN OUT THE LIGHTS? City dwellers across the country nodded in recognition.

For reasons that few could foresee, the lights stayed on. Just as manufacturing firms were leaving town, a postindustrial labor market was being born. Finance, law, management, media, and government were all growing; by the 1990s, new occupational categories in design, media, and technology were coming on line.

This high-paying knowledge economy produced dramatic changes in domestic life that helped reverse the fortunes of many cities. First, as the name suggests, the knowledge economy demands higher levels of education and early career training (usually in the form of internships and associate positions). Years of grad school and early-career apprenticeships were, in turn, leading men and women to delay marriage and parenthood until they were well into their twenties, or even thirties. These educated, childless singles, who didn’t need much living space and paid no attention to the math scores in their local school districts, started to gravitate to center cities, where they could find everything that they thought they needed: bars, clubs, gallery openings, and similarly educated peers, with whom they began to form dense labor markets, making cities the place to find creative work.

Second, knowledge-economy jobs in media, design, law, education, and health services were proving especially appealing to educated women, even after they became mothers. Though once they start families, many of these knowledge-economy workers find themselves drawn back to the suburbs, others reject the prospect of the hour-long commute that would entail. They want a place to “live/work”—if they can afford it.

Gentrification, then, is the spatial expression of the same large economic forces that have brought us the demise of a blue-collar middle class, the growing advantages of education, and greater inequality. To put it somewhat crudely, industrial cities relied on workers, mostly men, who labored with their hands; postindustrial gentrified cities rely on men and women who work with their brains. Inevitably, that reality gets reflected in the population living there. In the post–World War II era, the “overwhelming proportion of those with college educations, of those engaged in professional pursuits, and of those in the upper-income brackets” lived in the suburbs, notes Kenneth Jackson in The Crabgrass Frontier. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, the demographics had changed course. Center cities—including places like Houston and New Orleans, not usually thought of as brain centers—are becoming homes, workplaces, and playgrounds for the educated middle class. In the United States as a whole, 30 percent of the population has a college degree. But in Seattle, that number is 57.4 percent (for those over 25); San Francisco comes in just a little lower, at 52.4 percent. In Washington, D.C., the percentage is 52.4. New York added 750,000 college graduates in the five years between 2007 and 2012. Most of those grads went to magnet neighborhoods like Park Slope and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, where the percentage of college-educated residents doubled in the two years between 2008 and 2010 alone.

One final reason that a wary middle class was enticed back to cities: a dramatic decline in crime. The story is widely known by now: murders in New York City plummeted 85 percent between 1990 and 2014. D.C.’s biggest crime drop came a bit later, as did the onetime murder capital’s gentrification: its murder rate fell by two-thirds in the 2000s. Seattle, Portland, Boston, Philadelphia, and other gentrifying cities all became far safer than they had been in the 1980s.

The “creative destruction” of the old urban manufacturing economy by the new knowledge economy has its most concrete form in the factories, warehouses, and gasworks of that earlier time, now retrofitted into condos or creative offices for tech, design, and public-relations firms in gentrifying cities from Seattle to Melbourne. “Light-filled, versatile live/work space,” original beams, and Edison bulbs are the lingua franca of this global aesthetic. Modish design magazines like Dwell celebrate the “adaptive reuse” of the ruins of the industrial economy. A water-pumping station turned into live/work space for a software engineer and his artist wife might be found in Bushwick or Seattle or Berlin. “Authentic, industrial loft living in this former rocket and plane parts factory” is the brochure description of a new building in the capital of hipster gentrification, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Perhaps an even greater assault on the proletarian past is the rusting industry structures now reimagined as cultural playgrounds for a white-collar elite. Amsterdam, a city crowded with design, public-relations, and tech workers, stands in the vanguard of adaptive reuse. An old sugar factory is now a club—the “Sugar Factory.” Tourists can stay at a luxury hotel made out of a huge shipping crane, described in its PR materials as “a lasting icon of Amsterdam’s industrial shipbuilding heritage.” A shipyard in Copenhagen, shuttered in 1993, is these days home to a restaurant presided over by a former chef from nearby Noma, often described as the world’s best restaurant and itself housed in a warehouse where handlers once hoisted dried fish, salted herring, and whale oil for transport to other northern European ports. Liberty Warehouse, in Red Hook, Brooklyn’s piers, long ago rang with the shouts of longshoremen and stevedores; now it’s a $200-a-head event space for martini-tippling yuppies. In San Francisco, a former machine-works building has joined the ranks of microbrewery pubs.

One more example strikingly captures the turnabouts of modern urban history: the Seattle gasworks, where early- to mid-twentieth-century workers made gas out of coal, is now called Gas Works Park. One of its abandoned structures has become a children’s “play barn”; another has found new life as a picnic shelter, and still others serve as picturesque ruins for bikers and joggers. It’s amusing to imagine the former gas workers in their oily overalls watching the World Naked Bike Ride as it winds down in Gas Works Park. It’s less amusing that an award-winning landscape architect couldn’t prevent tar from seeping up from the depths to remind parents who spend their work hours at Amazon or Microsoft of the park’s less family-friendly origins.

Like all major economic and demographic changes, gentrification has upended familiar ways of life. In the United States, this upheaval almost inevitably takes on a racial aspect. In left-leaning blog posts and articles, changes wrought in places like Logan Circle or Harlem are routinely described as “ethnic” or “racial cleansing,” or, more bluntly, “white people stealing shit.” In his 2014 remarks, Spike Lee, referring to newcomers, also said: “You just can’t come in the neighborhood. I’m for democracy and letting everybody live but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now shit gotta change because you’re here? Get the fuck outta here. Can’t do that!”

Lower the rhetorical heat, and you almost get the point. In the mid-twentieth century, poor Southern blacks had migrated into northern and midwestern cities. A combination of black preference and white discrimination helped create mostly African-American neighborhoods like Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bronzeville (Chicago), and Columbia Heights, where, despite many urban ills, residents forged a local culture about which they felt considerable pride. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, a heavily Caucasian college-educated population started checking out apartments in these areas. In Columbia Heights, the white population increased from 7 percent to 27 percent between 2000 and 2010. (D.C., once the “Chocolate City,” went from 70 percent black in 1970 to 61 percent in 2000 to just under 50 percent in 2012.) During the first decade of the new millennium, a number of gentrifying cities with large black populations, including Chicago and New Orleans, lost more than 10 percent of their black residents. Largely white cities like Portland and San Francisco got even whiter.

But as shocking as a whiter Bed-Stuy and Columbia Heights may be, gentrification is best understood through the lens of class, not race. For starters, plenty of gentrifiers are black. The black educated middle class, some of whom had left for the suburbs when inner cities were collapsing, are now driving up rents for longtime residents in gentrifying areas of Harlem, Brooklyn, D.C., and Brownsville, just as their white counterparts are. In Black on the Block, her book on African-American gentrification in the North Kenwood–Oakland area of Chicago, sociologist Mary Pattillo describes “divergent class interests” that confound widespread assumptions of a unitary “black community.” Guilt-ridden plaints with titles like “Confessions of a Gentrifier,” written by struggling white Brooklyn-based writers, may be a mainstay Internet genre, but kindred “Reflections of a Black Gentrifier” essays by young black lawyers and journalists also enjoy a lively following.

Also undermining the racial theory of gentrification is the disappearance of numerous white working-class neighborhoods. In a recent study, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson found that Chicago neighborhoods with a substantial white working-class population were more likely to gentrify than areas that were more than 40 percent black. Remember, too, that gentrifiers have been considering many hardscrabble neighborhoods, like Dumbo in Brooklyn, that never had sizable black populations.

Another major current of gentrification suspicion blames its dislocations on an insatiably greedy 1 percent. “How Oligarchs Destroyed a Major American City,” announces a Salon headline—about Houston, of all places. “[A]t every point,” explains Gavin Mueller, a writer at the left-wing Jacobin, gentrification “has been a takeover planned by large business interests who fund their projects with tax abatements. . . . A powerful capitalist class of bankers, real-estate developers, and investors is driving gentrification, using a mixture of huge loans (to which only they have access) and government funding to push land values higher.”

A small nugget of truth is hidden in what one could call the Occupy Theory of gentrification, though it needs to be set in historical context. For a long time, the problem for cities was that “large business interests” had no interest in building there. With populations declining, who would buy (or rent) what they had to sell? To encourage investment, city governments courted business with tax abatements and loan guarantees. Some developers signed on, though they couldn’t have known for certain that the educated class was readying itself for an invasion. Now gentrifying cities are rolling in affluent customers. The windfalls for speculators, investors, and builders, particularly in New York, have understandably caused some grumbling from rent-challenged taxpayers, chafing over their contributions to those perhaps redundant abatements.

The Occupy Theory misses the dilemma that city halls face: Where are they supposed to put all those programmers and marketers and designers knocking at their gates? Things are so bad in San Francisco that one young entrepreneur is charging $1,000-a-month rents for shipping containers stored in warehouses, retrofitted into tiny apartments. But the problem isn’t unique to the “neoliberal” United States. Google almost any major city name in Canada, Europe, or Australia, along with the phrase “housing shortage” or “soaring rents,” and you’ll get a flood of stories. The New York Times reports that 40,000 new workers arrive to join Stockholm’s myriad tech and financial firms every year; the city’s housing shortage threatens to send them elsewhere. According to Der Spiegel, landlords in the former immigrant district of Neukölln in Berlin sometimes double the rent once they get a glimpse of the well-heeled “students, families, and young professionals” exploring the area.

The demand for housing the relatively well-to-do has set the stage for some dodgy landlord dealings. A recent oral history of gentrification in New York, The Edge Becomes the Center, by D. W. Gibson, profiles a number of unscrupulous and even illegal dealings by landlords and their attorneys. One attention-getting chapter, reprinted in New York, concerns a Hasidic businessman whose racist machinations confirm Spike Lee’s worst fantasies. He tries to buy out black tenants in all of the Brooklyn buildings he invests in, since, he insists, white people don’t want to live with blacks. “Every black person has a price,” he says. “The average price for a black person here in Bed-Stuy is $30,000. Up over there in East New York, it’s $10,000.” An even worse example is the landlord who demolishes a rent-regulated Hispanic tenant’s bathroom for renovation. Months pass during which she has to use a neighbor’s facilities, and it becomes clear that the only way the apartment will see a bathroom again is when the tenant moves out.

How many bad actors like these are out there? Judging from the anecdotes in Gibson’s book and tenant-advocacy groups, you’d conclude “a lot.” Researchers, however, haven’t found forced displacement of tenants and owners to be nearly as widespread as these stories suggest. (Neighborhood turnover between demographic groups is another matter.) In a study of several New York City neighborhoods between 1986 and 1995, Columbia University urban-planning professor Lance Freeman, who happens to be African-American, found a displacement rate only 0.5 percent higher in gentrifying New York City neighborhoods than in areas that remained low-income.

A 2010 paper from NYU’s Furman Center actually found less turnover and more renter satisfaction among poor households in “gaining” or gentrifying neighborhoods in U.S. metropolitan areas during the 1990s than in stagnant areas. The most pessimistic picture comes from a University of Toronto study, and even that one fails to qualify as dystopian. The authors calculate an average 10,000 displacements a year among renters in New York City between 1991 and 2002. Most of the displaced blamed costs. A small number did become homeless. The findings are troubling, but keep in mind that those 10,000 represent less than 10 percent of intra-city moves among renters. The urban poor, in large measure because they’re searching for better opportunities, have always moved more than the affluent. Economist Joe Cortright, who studies mobility and urban development, observes that “far more of the long-suffering poor move out of high-poverty neighborhoods that stay poor than move away from high-poverty neighborhoods that see a significant reduction in poverty.”

Shifty landlords (and overcrowded housing courts), suspect tax abatements, and zoning changes are all worthy subjects of policy debate, but no policy can change the crucial fact that gentrifying cities are far better off than their cheap-rent counterparts. Cities like Dayton, Detroit, and Cleveland that have struggled unsuccessfully to attract a large professional and creative middle class would like nothing better than to see such people beating a path to their forlorn neighborhoods. True, those places have lower rates of inequality than glamour-pusses like Los Angeles and New York. But they also have higher levels of concentrated poverty, a more widespread problem. Middle-class residents bring investment and safety, support local businesses, and pay taxes that, if government behaves itself, can go to upgrading infrastructure and improving city services for everyone. Urban areas ignored by the educated middle class—and that’s still lots of places in the United States and in Europe—don’t have that luxury.


THADDEUS HARDEN/CORBIS
“You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations,” lamented filmmaker Spike Lee, “and you come in and now shit gotta change because you’re here?”

Regardless of what we think about it, the conditions that drive gentrification and urban inequality, displacement, and neighborhood turnover are not likely to ease up. The United States produces about 1.6 million new college graduates yearly, up from 840,000 in 1970 and 1 million in 1990. Many of those 1.6 million will want to U-Haul their dorm gear to locations with the best job opportunities, which means cities such as New York, Washington, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Officials project another 400,000 people moving to Portland by 2035. Seattle has been growing by 14,000 to 18,000 residents a year for a while now. The Sustainable DC Plan, endorsed by the D.C. City Council, expects 250,000 new residents over the next 20 years. The same dynamic—growing numbers of college-educated young people crowding into knowledge-work cities—is overwhelming the capitals and hot spots of western Europe. That means more demand for housing and offices, more competition for space, and—if development continues to be resisted as it is in so many places—ever-higher rents.

The dislocations wrought by the decline of the industrial sector and the arrival of the knowledge economy have helped transform the familiar character of places—and for many, these changes are the crux of the argument against gentrification. At their worst, the objections have a nostalgic, even snobbish, air. New York City has “lost its soul,” writes the celebrated academic Sharon Zukin of Brooklyn College. “Hordes of vapid arrivistes” are crashing the vibrant party of artists, musicians, intellectuals, and minorities of Seattle’s “glory days,” one local writer mourned recently on Gawker. In her acclaimed anti-gentrification film My Brooklyn, Kelly Anderson rages against the Shake Shacks replacing hip-hop businesses on Fulton Mall. The movie’s title doesn’t appear to be meant ironically, though the director is a Montreal native who only moved to Brooklyn as an adult in 1988, “lured by cheap rents and bohemian culture,” according to her film’s publicity.

Behind this sort of grievance lurks an idea of a time when neighborhoods sprouted organically out of the industrial-ethnic-urban soil, when neighbors helped raise one another’s children, when the city was diverse and hummed with energy, and when, apparently, community residents didn’t move. Jane Jacobs, the brilliant seer of the urban village, describes her neighborhood of Greenwich Village as a place where longshoremen rubbed elbows with poets at the White Horse Tavern and the deli owner held on to the house keys of homesteaders like herself. But urban neighborhoods of yore were more typically insular, homogenous enclaves, not particularly friendly to outsiders. That insularity created dense social networks for disoriented immigrants, but it also helped breed vicious turf battles and suburban flight. It’s a sad irony to hear echoes of the same longing for homogeneity in Spike Lee’s rage against middle-class whites moving into black Fort Greene or in Alex Hudson’s plea for people to leave potentially gentrifying neighborhoods “the hell alone.” As Daniel Hertz noted in the Washington Post, anti-gentrification sometimes sounds suspiciously like segregationism.

Still, gentrification anxiety infects not just heavy-breathers like Kelly Anderson but all of us. The urge to hold on to familiar landscapes and ways of living is as human as memory itself. Change is happening in many cities so fast and so dramatically that it overwhelms all sense of continuity and violates our urge to believe in the enduring solidity of places and things. All city dwellers, save perhaps Donald Trump, feel an anxious twinge when they see cranes cluttering their city’s skyline. Cities need to tread carefully as they look for a balance between growth and community cohesion and memory. But urbanites need to understand, as well, the tension between their affection for local history and the needs of future city dwellers—and, ultimately, the ephemerality of all things human. Brush gets cleared and trees get cut down to make farmland, which, over time, morphs into streets and buildings and neighborhoods for growing cities. Neighborhoods get denser, locals die, or they take off for better opportunities. Groups assimilate or move on. Bedford-Stuyvesant goes from rural village to German bourgeois suburb to Jewish enclave to black ghetto to whatever comes next.

Even Jane Jacobs wasn’t born in the place she held up as a citified ideal. Nor did she die there. But thank goodness she didn’t leave New York the hell alone.

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