Can freak bohemians avoid becoming pawns in the capitalist ethnic cleansing game?
For five years most of my neighbors have been different than myself. I am white and from a middle class family; my neighbors have been latino or black and often working class. I am one small piece of the gentrification puzzle, one of the group of people the real estate analyzers call “risk oblivious”, willing to live in an area with little capital invested in it and high crime rates, eventually making the area palatable for other generally white people with higher incomes.
Gentrification happens when a neighborhood becomes attractive to a wealthier class of people than the group of people currently living in the area. Current residents get displaced as landlords jack up rents to milk the wealthier class and developers build with only the newer, wealthier class in mind. The newer, generally white residents, who have more political power, eventually grow intolerant of the old neighborhood culture, often a code word for the poorer, often non-white people who originally lived in the area.
While nobody should have to live in a neighborhood riddled with street drugs and crime, making a neighborhood ‘safe’ usually involves making it unsafe for certain classes of people, who are forced out to other low-rent neighborhoods, to shelters, or to prison. The version of ‘safety’ used by city government often involves cultural fascism: criminalizing ‘loud music’ and certain types of street congregating because they are supposedly associated with street drug trade. The key is figuring out how to protect mixed neighborhoods that are safe, fun, and sustaining for all kinds of people including the original residents.
Because our culture is based on race as well as class privilege, gentrification often goes down along race as well as class lines. It is hard to imagine stopping gentrification and displacement without a working analysis of race privilege. A race-based analysis of gentrification is not a clever way to make the racist assertion that white people make a neighborhood ‘better’ because they are white, thus implying that white people are better than people of color. That’s bullshit. The same privilege grid that lets white shoplifters skip past security guards and tracks white kids into the ‘smart’ classes follows white people when they move into not-white neighborhoods. The lecherous relationship between the (mostly) white counterculture and the (mostly) white hipster culture means that, when poor white counterculture people move into a neighborhood where rent is low, developers and landlords see hipsters with more money looming in the background and thus see a reason to invest in the neighborhood and raise rents.
For white people, a race based analysis should not be confused with a white guilt complex. White guilt is a luxurious excuse to do nothing because you assume that white people are “the problem” and therefore incapable of engaging in their own positive social action around race issues. Although whites act in the context of a twisted system of race privileged, they can take initiative and responsibility for their own actions and they way they, too, get used as pawns within a racist system. It is irresponsible to sidestep an analysis of race privilege because your politics are centered on an anarchic or democratic ideal free of race and class divisions. Actively dealing with the complex, sick reality of both race and class privilege is hard but essential in revolutionary work.
Like many people in the mainly-white activist community I’m part of, I am not entirely sure how to deal with my implicit role in gentrification. More than mere
thorns in the side of people inclined to traditional lives, I do think freak bohemians can have social and political purpose and contribute valuably to the glittering diversity that is an integral part of urban life. White bohemians are placed in a sticky position between our politics and ideals, and the reality of our unwilling but crucial role in promoting gentrification. Because of this role, we may face hostility from a number of fronts, including displaced tenants, the new yuppies, and the old property owners who appreciate the rise in property values that comes with gentrification.
How can gentrification be successfully fought? What is the place of white bohemians and activists in the struggle? Understanding the relation of property to capital is key; in this era of gentrification, city governments are working more closely than ever with development corporations. The battle can be fought both on the bureaucratic front, exposing developer-government connections, and by taking direct action against corporate developers. Tangible improvements to the neighborhood can be made directly by people in the neighborhood, although these improvements usually themselves encourage gentrification. In all these actions, it is important for newly-transplanted activists to respect the work of activists already in the area.
Real estate, the root of evil
When a friend of mine was in prison in the 1970’s, his history teacher said that the history of the world revolved around real estate. The root cause of gentrification is real estate, the relationship between property and capital. With the exception of tenant protections like rent control and subsidized “affordable housing”, housing costs are arbitrated by the market. Landlords charge what they can based upon the demand for an area. Landlords are most excited when a lot of people with money want to live in an area. When people with money aren’t interested in an area, landlords have little incentive to put money into their property, because they won’t earn enough of a profit since nobody will pay high enough rent. Buildings deteriorate and are torched so landlords can collect insurance money. Lots lay fallow, buildings deteriorate, and social services slump.
Gentrification happens because of this relationship between property and capital, because the land owner can make a profit off the fact that somebody is living on their land. It is this profit-motive that keeps poor people moving at the whim of the wealthier folks. Displacement of poor and working class people is built into the very structure of capitalism.
Cities encourage gentrification because it will generate more tax revenues, which city governments increasingly depend on as the federal government moves away from supporting local governments. Thus cities have an incentive to encourage reinvestment in an area through zoning concessions, tax structures, and reducing protection for affordable housing.
One manifestation of government-developer incest is the insidious Tax Increment Financing (TIF) zone. Instituted in 1977 and operating in 44 states, TIFs center around freezing the portion of property tax dollars that go into social services at current levels for some designated period of time, up to 30 years. The extra money earned from inflation and rising property values is channeled towards reinvestment in the neighborhood via city subsidies for developers. For an area to be designated a TIF by the mayor and city council, it must be officially considered ‘blighted’. The idea is that after all this city-supported development, the area will no longer be a haven for blight.
Neither will the area be a ‘haven’ for low-income people, who get their social services and then their homes taken away as rents and property taxes rise in response to the reinvestment. What’s worse, the excess money can be moved between TIF zones that border each other, so low income residents in a newer TIF area may be paying to further develop an area already gentrified by an existing TIF. Because TIFs can last for so long, developers may continue to get subsidies long after the area resembles a Starbucks-laced American Dream.
Government encouragement of gentrification also takes the form of zoning concessions, reduced protection for affordable housing, and weaker rent control laws.
For example, developer David Walentas tried for nearly 20 years to get permission to gentrify the DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) area of Brooklyn, NY, an industrial, non-residentially zoned area. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s city and state governments argued he lacked funding; if private market investors were not willing to fund him, why should they grant him the change in zoning necessary for him to redevelop the area residentially? But the state of New York did move their labor department into one of the buildings he purchased in the area, stabilizing his investment in the area enough to encourage several arts galleries to open. Finally in 1998, after a yuppified arts gallery community was set up, the city government broke down. They took the crucial step of rezoning the area, giving him full permission to develop luxury residential condos and an entertainment pier.
Organizations originally intended to support low-income housing, like the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), are increasingly used to funnel money towards developers. FHA support was crucial in the development of the Queens neighborhood Long Island City, a mixed area of factories, warehouses, and working class apartment buildings. Developers were unable to gain a foothold for most of the 80’s; banks were unwilling to lend to smaller developers seeking projects in such a ‘risky’ area. In order to push the area towards more lucrative developments, a large corporation was formed in the mid 80’s including such key government players as the New York Port Authority and the city’s Economic Development Corporation.
As soon as neighborhood resistance to the corporation’s luxury development project was organized, a NY state organization intended to build affordable housing joined the behemoth corporation; the state organization perversely had the power to squash local opposition to development proposals. The final straw in the fight against luxury development was mortgage insurance for the project issued by, surprise, the Federal Housing Authority! The FHA justified the development by saying they were supposed to support development “pioneers”. By the end, these gentrification pioneers were supported by four government organizations including two intended to protect affordable housing. What the fuck?
The city cheats and lies
Real, tangible neighborhood improvements often originate not from corrupt government organizations but from within the neighborhood. People in a neighborhood often have specific ideas of what could make their neighborhood a better place to live- for example, where better lighting is needed, where traffic could be re-routed to make the roads safer, where gardens could be put in. People can do these things themselves even in the absence of city support, with immediate results. However, physical improvements are easily co-opted. For example, several south Berkeley neighborhoods, frustrated with cars speeding through their neighborhood streets, took initiative and created traffic-slowing detours with concrete barriers and planters at key intersections. Later, Berkeley cops used the same method to corral drug dealers in areas with lots of drug sales.
While homemade improvements can be immensely satisfying in the short term, the kicker is that once neighborhood improvements are made, the real estate is more valuable and so gentrification is likely to happen anyway. Yuppies love those quaint community gardens.
City-funded neighborhood improvement is usually not done with the community itself in mind. Rather it is a vehicle for social cleansing and social control. “Improvement” is often a justification for criminalizing whole populations of people. For example, Oakland has a whole set of laws regulating the way people congregate in the street. These laws are meant to control cruising and what the Oakland PD calls ‘sideshows’, and are only enforced in certain, predictably minority and poor areas of the city. You can, for instance, hang out in a parking lot after watching a movie in the posh College Avenue area, but not in the black/latino areas of East Oakland. Because of these cleansing laws, entire populations of people end up in prison, very convenient for the prison-industrial complex.
Blight control is another mechanism of control, allowing the city to decide who can live in an area through harassment by fines. Oakland is in the process of making it illegal to park a camper or RV on the street; RV owners must park their vehicles in a garage. Rich people can afford storage for campers; poor people often live in campers within city limits.
Safe, sustaining neighborhoods are an aspect of society everyone should enjoy. The way to prevent gentrification is definitely not to keep affordable neighborhoods crime-ridden and scary to both outsiders and the people that live there. And the way to prevent crime and drug abuse is not to criminalize the culture of youth of color and homeless people. A sensible strategy towards neighborhood improvement is to employ people who actually live in the area to do neighborhood cleanup and improvement. A number of these programs exist but are often in tenuous positions. For example Oakland has a youth program training and employing young people in street cleanup and environmental education. Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown is fixated on clean bus stops; the youth program offered to step in and clean up the stops, but Jerry Brown would rather cut the entire youth program in favor of a 24-hr city-wide bus stop clean up crew, a more expensive option without the benefits of youth employment. Where are Jerry Brown’s priorities??
The future of property
White activists and freaks should take responsibility for their role in gentrification and should actively work against it. Gentrification, housing, displacement issues are not new; groups all over the political spectrum are already waging campaigns and newer activists should see what the scene is. Obviously it is good to get in touch with existing groups to make sure you don’t step on their toes. The Autonomous Zone, an anarchist community center in Chicago, worked closely with the Brown Berets, a Latino activist group already active in the same area. When issues came up the two groups would contact each other, sometimes reserving different days for actions associated with a specific group.
Artists in the San Francisco Mission District were not quite so willing to work with housing and displacement activists. As live/work spaces first gained popularity among what was still the artist fringe, some artists thought city regulations were hindering their progress converting old warehouses into loft spaces. In their excitement they petitioned city hall for relaxed building code standards, less obligation to affordable housing, and zoning breaks. Against the recommendation of other artists working with housing groups, the artists refused to define “artist” in the code relaxation; essentially they wrote a blank check for corporate developers to build armies of loft space. The result is the San Francisco we see now, covered in boring bullshit post modern loft space. The politically unsavvy artists wrote their own eviction note.
Now is an excellent time for more militant activists to get involved in anti-gentrification campaigns. In the late 1980’s, community direct action against developers helped temporarily dry up enthusiasm for gentrification. For example, numerous riots supporting the squatter community in New York City’s Tompkins Square park brought international attention to the gentrification of the Lower East Side. However, as more militant organizations morphed into housing and tenant service organizations, developers encountered less opposition and charged full speed ahead. The time is particularly ripe for direct action in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the fall of the virtual E-conomy left many developers with unfinished projects. Once an area is cleared or tamed, it is ready for the newcomers whenever they will arrive; but it is also true that
the exact course of history is now unclear. Diverse, community based organization and activism may affect the future of all the property for sale now in the Bay area.
One successful example of gentrification resistance is Boston’s Dudley Street neighborhood. One of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, the community got fed up with neighborhood decline in and in the early 80’s organized to improve their neighborhood. They managed to improve their neighborhood into an extremely pleasant place to live without gentrification, through community cohesion and involvement at every step of the process, and a vision that included social as well as economic improvements. The neighborhood organization, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, got funding from a local foundation but retained control of the spending. In an unprecedented victory they gained eminent domain over the many empty lots in the neighborhood. They launched an impressive affordable housing project where families earning as little as 15,000 a year can buy into co-ops or new homes. The neighborhood set up a shopping area but allowed only local business to move in, with no chain stores or check-cashing outlets allowed. Local business started a campaign to keep local money in the neighborhood.
Specifically, what can white punks, bohemians, and activists do to fight the gentrification of their neighborhoods? There is not one formula; here are some ideas.
*Look around and talk to people about neighborhood change and anti-displacement work already being done. Do oral history projects of the neighborhood.
*Expose development plans on the part of corporations and various branches of government. Snake your way into the ‘public’ meetings held by the inner workings of the government bureaucracy. Oppose corporate development scams with a range of tactics.
*Support the foundation of neighborhood associations like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.
*Help fight individual evictions.
*Help with direct neighborhood improvement projects like kids projects, gardens, traffic slow-down devices (and do other things to fight the yuppies who want to leach off this good work).
Gentrification is essentially apartheid by race and class. There are always multiple cultures coexisting in one area; the question is which cultures are officially recognized, and what political power these recognized cultures have. As an area gentrifies, the range of activities and people considered acceptable in the area shrinks. Formerly vibrant urban areas become suburban monocultures were human creativity is replaced by packaged experiences OK’d by the market. Neighborhood gentrification mirrors global homogenization where culture and life are governed by an increasingly small number of rich, powerful organizations with no relevance to the immediate local. Imperialism stifles life; a Boston anti-gentrification activist shouts, “one longs for more bad taste, for more surprise, dirt and looseness, more anarchic, unself-conscious play.”