Peter Moskowitz grew up in the West Village in New York, with its small streets and diverse communities and corner shops celebrated by urbanist Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities – a neighbourhood that he can no longer afford to live in as it has become a “funhouse version of its former self”.
He later lived in Queens, then Brooklyn, then the border with Williamsburg, in fast-changing neighbourhoods where there were signs of other long-standing poorer communities being kicked out.
As such, the freelance journalist – who has written for Wired and the New York Times among others – belongs to both the gentrified and the gentrifiers. His new book How to Kill a City is his attempt to work out how to break that cycle.
He traces the drivers of the unequal geography of four American cities, with their sky-high rents and high-end condos that are pushing the poorest out to the suburbs – and seeks out the stories of those who have struggled to continue to call them home.
Moskowitz rejects the ideas that gentrification is inevitable, or that it is welcome. For most poor New Yorkers, gentrification isn’t just some “ethereal change in neighbourhood character”.
Instead, it is about “mass evictions, about violence, about the decimation of decades-old cultures”, he writes.
Moskowitz argues that gentrification isn’t to be blamed on a conspiracy of hipsters. (That is the collective noun, I have decided.)
Some trace the opening volleys of gentrification to the moment when the “pioneers” move into a neighbourhood, after which others follow, and then real-estate companies and chain stores see an opportunity to cash in.
(Another stage of gentrification, some have argued, is when buildings spring up that are meant less to house people and more to house the wealth of millionaires and billionaires. There are signs of that, perhaps, in the vacancy rate in some affluent areas of Dublin.)
But while that sequence is recognisable, Moskowitz pinpoints the start of gentrification elsewhere, earlier: in the policies of city governments that open up neighbourhoods to changes in zoning, to tax breaks, and to branding efforts.
Gentrification starts with “policies that favour the creation of wealth over the creation of communities”.
In this telling, it is about the system, rather than the individual actions of those seeking more affordable rents or the freedoms of city life.
He points to the theory of geographer Neil Smith, who back in 1979 noted the importance of the rent gap in affecting whether an area gentrifies. The more disinvested a space gets, the more profitable it is to gentrify.
Smith looked at tax data and found a pattern that showed how developers charged relatively high rents to poor people while skimping on repairs, only to kick them out when it suits them, make the repairs, and charge much more to newer residents. In this view, gentrification is a back-to-the-city movement led by capital, not people.
Municipal policies in the US make it possible, he said. He points to Williamsburg, where government interventions such as rezoning waterfronts for high-end condos, and upgrading the L train so that it runs more frequently helped it all along.
None of this means the author sees those who move into new neighbourhoods as completely free of responsibility.
At one point, Moskowitz reflects on how gentrifiers might see cities as blank, how different the mental geography of place is for those who have moved to a neighbourhood after it has changed, to those who can see the shadows of what has been erased.
“Mass displacement means that there are fewer and fewer people left to act as historians for their borough, and so people coming to Brooklyn now know only that it’s hip and expensive and has good brunch,” he writes.
As he sees it, gentrification requires the willful ignorance of gentrifiers. If people saw themselves as part of a system of economic cleansing, would brunch be as fun?
A Tale of Several Cities
Moskowitz says that he choose his four case-study cities in How to Kill a City to illustrate how gentrification is not the product of cultural and consumer choice.
“In all four, specific policies were put in place that allowed the cities to become more favourable to the accumulation of capital and less favourable to the poor,” he said.
His aim is to make it clear that gentrification is not inevitable, and is stoppable, or at least manageable.
Some of those cities are those that have gone through trauma that has allowed for a high-speed gentrification, such as bankruptcy and Detroit.
The oft-repeated narrative of New Orleans is that of a city resurgent after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. But the city that has replaced it is not the one that existed before, writes Moskowitz.
The post-storm chaos meant that local leaders and developers put in place policies that they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise: they privatized schools and public housing, broke up unions, and gave tax breaks to those would would bring money to the city.
“Most importantly, they did everything they could do to ensure that poor black people would not come back,” he says. (Some deny this.)
Before the storm, 67 percent of the city was black. Now, it’s 60 percent black, which amounts to a drop of 100,000 black people missing from New Orleans.
Moskowitz ties this back to the history of disinvestment in cities, which means that city officials have worked to encourage white and moneyed people to move to the city.
That would provide a deeper tax base to make up for the lack of federal funding for housing and transportation, he says. “That can mean attracting wealth to cities, actively pushing out the poor (who are a drain on taxes), or both.”
In San Francisco, it wasn’t an economic crash or natural disaster that changed the city. It was the surging tech industry that pushed its way into the city “and rapidly transformed everything around it”.
There, Moskowitz meets 16-year old Hugh Vargas, who shows him the two small rooms that his parents were able to afford on their combined salaries of $90,000. They were each twelve feet by eight feet.
Vargas had become a community activist after he and some friends were playing in their local city-owned field, and were told to leave by some tech workers who said they had paid to reserve the space. A video of the exchange went viral.
As Moskowitz points out, it was obvious why the video was so popular. “It showcased the sense of entitlement among many gentrifiers, and it encapsulated the mounting tension between the new and old San Fransisco,” he said.
“As our cities’ landscapes have changed, we have too, increasingly viewing ourselves not as community members with a responsibility to each other but as purchasers of things and experiences,” he writes.
Perhaps the closest this is to Dublin is the Docklands, where one of the poorest areas of the city rubs up against the wealthiest – and the inequality raises questions about who has benefitted from the recovery.
While there aren’t San Francisco-levels of protest around the changes that tech workers have brought to that corner of the Dublin, there is undoubtedly a sense of different communities living side by side, but not together.
It surfaces sometimes at Dublin City Council meetings.
At a meeting about Poolbeg West SDZ in mid-May, Sinn Fein Councillor Chris Andrews noted the change of profile around Ringsend and Sandymount in the last 15 or 20 years. “Low-, middle-income people can’t afford to live there anymore,” he said.
Said independent Councillor Ruairi McGinley: “The technology companies are major employers, they’re growing, they’re there for the long-term.”
Said Sinn Fein’s Andrews: “Unfortunately, they’re destroying local communities.”
As an immigrant, the fear is that the affordable-housing crisis in our city will be blamed not on government policies, though, but on those of us who are newer.
A Clearer Picture
Some of the narrative built up by Moskowitz would seem conspiratorial, but he backs it up with quotations from businessmen, governors, and commentators who have laid out their visions for the future of their cities.
New Orleans elites wanted to see the city rebuilt after the hurricane “in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically”, said local businessman James Reiss.
New York Times columnist David Brooks said that “the key will be luring middle-class families into the rebuilt city, making it so attractive to them that they will move in, even knowing that their blocks will include a certain number of poor people”.
At this point, Dubliners might well feel jealous of New Orleanians that there are articulated visions for the city to discuss and debate – even if the picture that they portray is unattractive to many.
In Dublin, with the split powers between the council and the central government, and only rare statements from the Dublin City Council Chief Owen Keegan, it can sometimes seem as if we are simply drifting, with no clear picture of where we are trying to go.
Perhaps we in the media are failing to do our part in joining up the dots ourselves, and making sure that we are giving a fleshed-out picture of the changes. Breaking news moves fast. Slow-burn big stories are missed.
It’s much easier to report on new entrants to neighbourhoods – the coffee shops, or pizza parlours – than it is to report on the void left by those displaced, the fading histories and lost communities, writes Moskowitz.
Those pop-up stores are the symbols of gentrification though, and not the causes, and that’s a disservice to readers.
“If we want to have any hope of fixing this process – of ensuring that as our cities change, low-income people can stay; that the people who built our cities aren’t relegated to its outskirts, pushed to communities where community is hard to come by and basic services are lacking – we have to understand what’s actually going on,” he writes.
Who Is Next?
At one point in the book, the author talks to Pres Kabacoff, a big developer in New Orleans, about what he thinks about people who feel they’re being pushed further down the ladder by gentrification.
People just have to move, he says, essentially. “You might argue that New Orleans could use a little gentrification,” Moskowitz quotes him as saying.
For those who think that Dublin could do with a little gentrification, Moskowitz has a warning that once a city starts on that path, it’s hard to turn back.
In many neighbourhoods and cities around the world, it is not just those on the lowest incomes who are struggling to stay in their homes and communities, it is middle-class professionals, too.
Back in July 2016, a council official from Lewisham Borough Council in London came to Dublin to talk to councillors about a stackable modular housing project that they had done, to deal with the housing crisis there.
In his presentation, Jeff Endean gave an outline of the housing crisis that they were facing in London, where the average house price at the time was €600,000.
“This is a problem that goes way beyond homelessness, to how does London house its working population, even to how does London house its professional population, which increasingly can’t afford to live anywhere near the centre of London, ” he said.
Change, for All
There is another moment in How to Kill a City that many Dublin renters will be able to relate to.
Upon hearing of plans for a new streetcar line that will run by his home, Moskowitz says his first thought is that he will have to move.
When local businesses back in February learnt of the potential redevelopment of Newmarket Square in Dublin 8, some of the expressed similar concerns about affordability.
But are there better responses to fears of being pushed out than resistance to cleaner streets, and tree planting, and better public transportation?
“Only if we institutionalise a system that keeps some land affordable to the poor, or at the minimum if we provide for people who cannot afford to rent when land gets expensive, will residents of cities in the United States become more stably housed,” writes Moskowitz.
Some of the current interventions that are in place in the United States will be familiar to those who watch housing policy here.
The current mayor of New York has promised more affordable housing, which will piggyback off hundreds of thousands of units of market-rate housing. Moskowitz appears sceptical of this approach – but doesn’t address whether 100-percent public-housing projects are a viable alternative or create problems.
But it’s unclear how affordable some of the homes will be, and how bringing in such high levels of market-rate housing to neighbourhoods could affect current residents, he says.
With no government rules for affordable-housing schemes in Ireland, the same concerns have been raised here. For all the talk of affordable housing, there is still no settled definition of what it is, and who would be eligible.
Moskowitz calls for a series of more forceful interventions: public lands should be protected and turned into affordable housing and community spaces, rather than sold off to private developers.
Other lands might be sold with conditions, such as requiring developers to build a certain percentage of affordable housing. There should be more input from communities into planning decisions at a local level.
There should be more public housing built. That needs to happen alongside a rise in taxes, wages, and spending on the poor – and those who live in cities must channel their anger into challenges to unaffordable housing.
Otherwise, the vision he sets out is stark: “In the same way that the suburbs were once inaccessible to the poor, in the near future American cities will become gilded jewel boxes, and the exodus of the poor to the suburbs will continue unchecked – that is, until the rent gaps in cities become too small to make gentrification profitable, and a new form of spatial filtering begins.”
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