In Praise of Gentrification

Why our traditional assumptions about economic development are all wrong.

A shopping mall opens in a former girdle factory on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, long since colonized by artists and retroactively claimed as their birthright. A cry goes up all over town—the neighborhood is being taken over by corporations! As it turns out, the owners are Hasidic Jews who have been in the neighborhood for generations, and the stores that open in the “mall” are all small businesses—a bookstore, a café, a novelty shop, and a clothing boutique.

No matter: there are other things to whine about. A 20-story hotel is going up on Rivington Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in the last decade transformed from a heroin alley—where shootings were common and cab drivers refused to drop off passengers—to a neighborhood teeming with nightlife and overwhelmed on weekends by the “bridge-and-tunnel” crowd: suburbanites coming to the city to unload their cash. Gentrification! But the owner—if anyone bothered to find out—is a longtime resident who invested his own money in daring architecture to create a new local icon.

It’s a never-ending refrain in New York City—a beggar can hardly get a new pair of shoes without a murmur about gentrification. The word was only a rumor to me before I moved to New York from southeast Michigan in 1995, but I was conditioned to hate the phenomenon before I had ever heard the word. As a middle-class lefty with novelistic aspirations surrounded by others of the same mind, it would have required a herculean questioning of assumed values to have thought otherwise.

And yet reflecting on the almost total lack of economic development in my native towns of Flint and Detroit, over the years I began to wonder whether gentrification wasn’t a phantom, and an opposition to it a fundamentally reactionary disposition. “Does Gentrification Harm the Poor?”—a study by a Duke University assistant professor of public policy and economics Jacob L. Vigdor issued jointly by the Brookings Institution and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 2002—found it impossible to prove that the poor were being displaced at higher rates than normal in neighborhoods with an influx of middle-class professionals. It was more common for them to improve their economic status. By contrast the systematic movement of capital out of cities—a kind of reverse gentrification—was continuing to have a disastrous effect on places like Flint and Detroit.

“Suburbanization…has selectively pulled affluent households out of urban jurisdictions,” Vigdor wrote. “In the process cities have become concentrated centers of poverty, joblessness, crime, and other social pathologies. A detached observer of this cycle might conclude that its reversal—the return of affluent households to the central city, associated increases in property values and the government’s tax base—would be welcomed by city leaders. In fact the response to such a turnaround, if labeled as ‘gentrification,’ is quite likely to be negative.”

For more than three decades cities such as Flint and Detroit have done everything possible to drive away businesses and encourage the middle class to leave, spurred on by a hypocritical “liberal” mentality that automatically reacts against economic development as if it were an assault on the poor. Inevitably any effort by developers to renovate a significant historic building in Detroit—often for the use of corporations or for upper-middle-class housing—becomes embroiled in endless political disputes that ultimately sink the project. The result in most cases is that once the redevelopment effort fails and attention is drawn to the dilapidated building, political leaders opt for the relatively uncontroversial expedient of demolition. Problem solved.

The failure of socioeconomic studies to link gentrification to displacement suggests that there is actually another reason for opposition to development: nostalgia. Everyone in New York (or Boston or Chicago or San Francisco or even Washington, D.C.) has had the experience of seeing a favorite coffee shop replaced by a Starbucks, a small bookstore outmoded by a Barnes & Noble, a local grocery run out of business by a supermarket chain. As empty storefronts fill up with ever more fashionable boutiques and generic chains, and streets are overrun by crowds of hipsters and yuppies, we’re often filled with pangs of regret for a time that once was (usually a year or two earlier). Flint and Detroit should be so unlucky.

On Second Avenue not far from Detroit’s Cultural District—where for a time in the early 1990s the gallery hours at the Detroit Institute of Arts were reduced because of lack of funding—there used to be a café called Zoot’s in one of those famous Queen Anne-style houses that have mostly been burned down or left to rot throughout the city. In 1994, when I was living in Southfield—a 1950s suburb increasingly abandoned by the white middle class for ever more distant suburbs—I would drive 10 miles on the Lodge Freeway for this rare vestige of urban life.

No shops ever opened on the block surrounding Zoot’s, and eventually the owner gave up and left. I ran into him several years ago in the East Village at Limbo, a coffee shop on Avenue A that was once, like Zoot’s, a lonely urban outpost. Limbo is long gone too, but there are now coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and boutiques on every block of the street. Back in Detroit, just north of the building that used to house Zoot’s, a decrepit local dive called the Bronx Bar has been converted into another incomparable urban refuge through the installation of dim Tiffany-style lamps, two jukeboxes, and a pool table. It too will likely disappear before long, not because of gentrification but because of a lack of it.

But no matter how much anecdotal evidence is assembled or how many studies are published indicating that gentrification benefits cities, the myth of gentrification persists. Until well-intentioned people begin to embrace change and recognize that not only is gentrification not bad but it’s what allows cities to prosper, every development will confront the same knee-jerk opposition.

Last May the New York city council approved rezoning plans to allow residential high-rises on the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfronts, previously reserved for industrial uses—such as waste transfer stations—and mostly off-limits to local residents. Planned development includes a 28-acre public park, a walkway stretching along the entire north Brooklyn waterfront, 30- to 40-story apartment towers on the East River, with financial incentives to reserve a third of the units for low- and moderate-income housing. The new zoning should put an end to a four-year-long battle against a power plant proposed in the area, as well as to the pathetic scene witnessed every Fourth of July when locals gather on Kent Street to watch the Macy’s fireworks display through barbed-wire fences—with police on hand to prevent trespassing.

Predictably an immediate chorus of groaning was heard around the city. People who had never been to the neighborhood criticized the plan for defacing the waterfront with million-dollar apartments blocking views of the river—which, apart from a small park, is now impossible to see without trespassing. Anyone who has had to sneak through the fence at the end of North 7th Street to hear the current trickle over the rocky shore and get panoramic views of the Manhattan skyline should have ridiculed this nonsense. Instead they all chimed in. As far as I’m concerned, the waterfront towers can’t be built fast enough.

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