“It took a bit of wind out of my sails, watching what happened in this neighborhood, watching how it happened…I don’t know how to beat this [gentrification]. I don’t know how anyone can beat this machine.”—From the article The Ins and Outs
The Generalization of Gentrification
The forces of gentrification are taking hold in America’s alpha cities. You can check the numbers or see the maps, but to get a good idea of its unprecedented rapidity, I’d suggest the blog Vanishing New York. There, you will see nearly each day the announcement of yet another old-school establishment losing the rent battle: Lenox Lounge in Harlem, Suzies Chinese Restaurant on Bleeker St., the Central Iron and Metal scrap yard below the High Line. And with the small-business soul of the city goes the regulars that gave places like New York City its identity before its global city branding.
For instance, speaking about the closing of the Big Apple meat market in Hell’s Kitchen, writer Jeremiah Moss vents on the city’s whitewashing:
The [Big Apple] exterior is wonderfully dreary, covered in graffiti and pigeon shit. Standing here, you could dream yourself into a lost New York. But not for long. It’s all coming down for more glass, more chain stores.
A couple of years ago, the Times did a piece on Big Apple. The article includes a wonderful slideshow of photos, featuring the sort of person who shops at Big Apple, the sort of person that is also vanishing from New York, replaced by the svelte and distracted, the hollow men and women, tapping away at iPhones in sterilized Whole Foods aisles.
This is not a localized thing, as cities everywhere are grappling with the abruptness and consequences of such change. And while gentrification has been occurring here and there for decades, with community capital unwound on a street-by-street basis for higher returns and bigger tax receipts, the sheer push from above, like meat through a grinder, is now so systematic—and no longer personified by the Robert Moses’s of the world but by a kind of faceless force blowing a current of yield and tidiness in—that it has just become what is, with the late scholar Neil Smith referring to this latest iteration as the “generalization of gentrification”.
In his article “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy”, Smith examines how gentrification has morphed from an unfortunate effect to an outright aim. One explanation for this relates to the ever-morphing private-public partnership in cities in which elected officials have forgone governing for investing, with policy no longer aspiring to guide economic growth but rather being crafted to “fit in the grooves” of market forces, particularly in the realm of real estate.
Why real estate?
Part of the reason is that economic leaders now primarily see Americans as consumers as opposed to producers, and so cities—particularly alpha dog global cities—have shifted their focus from payrolls to price per square feet, making real estate an increasingly important productive engine of cities as opposed to the productive capacity of the citizen. Enter, then, the volitional push of attracting as many creative class gentry as possible into the confines of a place, with real estate gimmicks—such as Mayor Bloomberg’s recent microapartment push—aimed at further squeezing blood from areas with far more density than available space.
Does such wealth-packing inject capital into a given space? Yes. Is it a viable economic growth model? Wrote Aaron Renn in a recent New Geography piece:
Indeed, all too much urbanism amounts to a sort of trickle down economics of the left, in which a “favored quarter” of artists, high end businesses, and the intelligentsia are plied with favors and subsidies while precious little ever makes it to those at the bottom rungs of society.
This is not to disown the fact that global cities are economic engines in their own right. They are. It is only to state that their long-term economic growth prospects are being sold down the river at an exorbitant price. After all, people develop, not places.
Gentrification of the Mind
Allocating supply is one thing, but stoking the psychogeography of the creative class to want and squeeze into high-priced real estate is another. Historically, the common desire to move to an alpha dog city is to be where the action is. Moreover, NYC, Chicago and the like can graduate you. They can defang your limits while toiling the mind to the experiencing of new people and ideas. Said John Lennon:
I regret profoundly that I was not an American and not born in Greenwich Village. It might be dying, and there might be a lot of dirt in the air you breathe, but this is where it’s happening.
Yet this “if you can make it here you can make it anywhere” pull is arguably not what’s driving the generalization of gentrification. Rather, it is the idea of big city suburbanization, or more exactly: the hybridization of city “vitality” with the comforts of suburbanization, creating for a kind of third place called “sub-urbanity”.
In many respects, this is not surprising, as the most recent “return-to-city” movement is largely fueled by younger suburbanites who are tired of missing out on big city action. Not the action per se of Charles Bukowski’s L.A. or Patti Smith’s New York, but the action of, well, Chandler, Kramer, and Carrie. Said Alan Ehrenhalt, author of The Great Inversion and the Future of American Cities:
This is the generation, don’t forget, that watched Seinfeld and Sex and the City and Friends – usually from sofas safe in the confines of the suburbs. I think they find suburban life less exciting than urban life. While they are in a single or childless situation, they’re particularly eager to try it.
And try it they should: varied experiences make varied lives make more richly contextualized societies. But the rub here is that the mentality sewn from “the confines of the suburbs” is not being sacrificed for the beautifully unnerving experience that is “the real” of city life, but rather that creative class enclaves are increasingly being appropriated into the domesticated lifestyle embodied by traditional suburbia.
Of course John Lennon’s Greenwich Village this is not. And this bodes ill for alpha dog cities in that vanilla-ing a people and a place is a death knell to collective urgency, if only because comfort puts to sleep the burn that has traditionally sparked the next generation of ideas. Writes Sarah Schulman, author of The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination:
Gentrification is a replacement process. So it is where diversity is replaced by homogeneity, and this, I believe, undermines urbanity and changes the way we think because we have much less access to a wide variety of points of view. We are diminished by it. So literally, the range of our mind’s reach is much more limited because of gentrification.
But again: lest we think this is all a mistake, or simply the byproducts of shifting demographics or economic and cultural change. Rather, it is the point. It is today’s path toward urban renaissance. And it’s a path creating for a “sub-urbanity” that is emerging when the generalization of gentrification meets the gentrification of the mind.
So, what does this mean for the future of urban development? My guess is that there will be a growing unhappiness with sub-urbanity that’s going to create for a lot of people left wanting, be they young suburbanites longing for urban authenticity or indigenous urbanites who are tired of the schtick. As such, cities would do well to prepare for the “return-of-the-city movement”, which means prioritizing urban integrity and community capital against the temptations of the gentrifying machine.
Connie Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-Winning columnist and wife of Sen. Sherrod Brown, gets it. She gets the power of a city telling its own story so as to develop from its own DNA, not the DNA of another city’s so-called “success”. That is, Ms. Schultz gets Rust Belt Chic. Here she is in a recent Cleveland Magazine piece:
By the week’s end, all I could think about was the power of story and the need for more of us — “us” being everyone who lives and works in Northeast Ohio — to contribute to the greater narrative of Cleveland.
When is the last time you told someone why you live here? Have you ever?
I don’t mean to suggest that we should cast a greeting-card glow to life in this challenging region. But honestly, despite the rocky terrain, you and I are still here. There are reasons for that. There’s the narrative we should be sharing, one story at a time.
The book talk in Oberlin was a gathering of writers who’d contributed to Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. It is not a chirpy book, but it does have a happy back-story. It started when writer and editor Anne Trubek sent this message: “I’m pulling together, quick and dirty, an anthology about Rust Belt Chic — trying to get ahead of the curve on what is quickly a trending topic. I’d love to talk with you about getting involved in some way• .”
She and co-editor Richey Piiparinen asked, and more than 30 writers, and several photographers, agreed to contribute. In record time. For free.
The book is a jumble of mixed emotions. We were not building a yellow brick road. In one of the darker pieces, titled “Not a Love Letter,” Jimi Izrael writes: “I love Cleveland — she holds everything that is dear to me. But I avoid her, if I can.” Still, Izrael had to write about her. He can’t quite let her go, and we’re better for it.
In its entirety, Rust Belt Chic is a love story, the moody kind, with accusations of betrayal and evidence of forgiveness. We show up for book talks, in various configurations, because there’s just so much to say about our Cleveland. No matter our grievances and heartbreak, none of us is willing to give up. If we’re still talking, the marriage counselors like to say, there’s hope for reconciliation.
Read the entirety of the piece here.
2013 Promises to be a big year for the Rust Belt Chic movement. On a local level, talks are ongoing with various organizations and individuals to set up Rust Belt Chic messaging beyond the written form–such as was the case with Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology–and into various other mediums, including video, audio, long-form journalism, and event programming. (For an Introduction into Rust Belt Chic, the concept, click here. It is the first chapter of the book). We should have more on this front to communicate shortly. For the hell of it, check out a concept map of what it is we are trying to get at with all of this below.
Also, my colleague, Jim Russell, and myself will be writing an economic development book called Rust Belt Nation. We will lay out our vision for the new economy, with the history of the Rust Belt’s decline teeing up what we believe is a new path forward toward urban revitalization. Consider it an alternative to the Creative Classification of America. Again, you will be hearing more on this as the new year gets old.
Now, get busy brothers and sisters. We have work to do.
Given its legacy of shrinking, the Rust Belt has issues. The issues arose naturally, and relate to the fact things leave, or that so much has left. Particularly, when things leave, the mind—both the individual and the collective city mind—can get protective and restrictive. Neediness arises. The smell of desperation ensues like a pall that can tend to hang over cities, influencing decision making on all levels.
Enter “brain drain”, or that term coined to refer to the outmigration of an area’s educated citizens, particularly it’s young. You know the drill: Johnny goes to State college, comes back home for a spell, but then leaves Cleveland, Ohio for Chicago or New York. That is brain drain. And city leaders hate it, spending billions of dollars to stop it—often at the cost of coming off ridiculous, lame.
For instance, in Pittsburgh, there was a civic booster campaign thought up to keep educated folks from going. It was called “Boarder Guard Bob”. According to researcher Chris Briem, “Bob” was a Smokey-the-Bear-type of public service announcement made into a Barney Fife character, with the billboard-size messaging of “Bob” intended to “stop young people at Western Pennsylvania’s borders before they had a chance to leave for other cities”. And while this particular retention strategy (luckily) never went to print, various “plug the brain drain” strategies persist in one form or another at exorbitant cost to taxpayers.
But beyond the near-pitiful messaging, there are major problems with the brain drain approach, especially from an economic development perspective. For example, when, as a community, you are intentionally telling your citizen’s not to go, you are asking them to sacrifice personal development for the benefit of a place. To this point, my colleague, Jim Russell—a leading thinker in brain drain boondoggles and blogger at Burgh Diaspora—says it best, stating: “Discouraging geographic mobility is the same as restricting access to higher education”. In other words, it’s like telling Johnny to stick with his high school diploma so as to forego leaving the community for a 4-year degree.
What’s more, getting people to stay put does little to grow a local economy. In fact it hurts it. Because leaving home is often a rite of passage. It develops a person. I mean, can you imagine if there was no odyssey in the epic Odyssey? If so, Odysseus wouldn’t be the changed man with perspective and experience as he was when he returned back to his homeland, and so there’d be no “there” there. In this sense, the Rust Belt needs to engage their young to embark on their own “Hero Journey” if only to gain skills and broaden geographic connections. This is international economics 101 (see China, India, Brazil, etc.). It should be a domestic economic priority for the Rust Belt, and it would be if only the Cleveland’s of the world could let go of the protectionism that defines their longstanding existential fears of shrinking into one big pile of ruin porn.
Of course confidently encouraging outmigration is part and parcel with an understanding that many expats will “boomerang” back. But many are, and at a faster rate. To wit: as the alpha cities of the America like NYC get too expensive or creatively-class cute, many Rust Belt refugees are pivoting back from a certain left-wanting lifestyle if only for the opportunity, tradition, and honest-to-god reality that is “Rust Belt Chic”. And when they do, they often become “economic ass kickers”, which is term Russell uses to exemplify the fruits of the Hero Journey that is not only individually experienced, but felt in the local economy as well.
Take Sean Watterson, the co-proprietor of the wildly successful restaurant the Happy Dog on Cleveland’s Near West Side. He moved back from D.C. because, according to a recent Plain Dealer article, “Cleveland-ness is like Polish-ness or Irish-ness. It’s an ethnicity”. Here, Watterson not only runs a great hot dog business, but uses his establishment to advance a circulation of ideas by hosting a variety of events like “Life, the Universe, and Hot Dogs”, which is a series hosted by researchers from the Institute for the Society of Origins. Another big hit is the live performances by members of the Cleveland Orchestra called Classical Revolutions.
Cool sounding events, sure. But there is more to it than that, as such happenings spark cross-fertilization between parts of Cleveland—the blue collar West Side and the intelligentsia of the East Side—that have long been divided, often at the cost of Cleveland as a place of cultural and economic innovation. And how exactly does Watterson’s own “Hero Journey” come into play in his self-stated goal to break down barriers “between east and west and between high culture and low culture”? It likely relates to the fact he experienced experience outside of a legacy city bubble that enabled him to see and cross bridges that others have difficulty envisioning.
Now, does this mean that cities simply need to let people leave to prosper? Obviously not. If the place expats are boomeranging back to is stagnant and disparate, with openness and connection disabled by a collective insular mentality that: “that’s just the way things are done around here”, well, the boomeranging effect won’t hold. And the economic ass-kickers won’t ass-kick.
The goal, then, of cities should be on fostering return migrant connections, or to know who they are, why they are there, and to help get them together so that their collective unchained perspective can pop bubbles of inert status quo. This need is real. For instance, take this first-hand return migrant account published in Rust Belt Chic by Dana Marie Textoris:
Funny how your location-based identity, your physical and mental place in the world, can flip like a switch: Before I was a Clevelander managing to make it in San Francisco….right now I feel a lot like a San Franciscan stuck in Cleveland. In either place, I felt just a little bit Other. A bit of a novelty. Just a tad on the outside looking in. Where does that leave me? Where is home? As I type this, I realize, with sort of an internal groan, that the place I’m left in, the guide to what I’m searching for, is probably just right here, inside me, where my two lives — West Coast and Midwest — are now combined. I’m not really a true Clevelander anymore…I’ve picked up way too much San Francisco for that. The balance I’ve become, a little of this and that, is just what I’m hoping I’ll find, one day.
So, to all Rust Belt cities—this is where your attention must be turned: not on the ones who are leaving for good reason, but on those returning who have not left for good. They have brought the path of their self-discovery back to your doorstep.
Don’t close the door by screaming at the backs of others.