Yves here. I suspect most readers will agree with Dorman’s take on gentrification, and wanted to add some observations.
I’ve lived in New York so long that when I dated artists in Soho, they at best lived in AIR (artist in residence) lofts or were quasi-squatting (as in they’d moved into space zoned commercial and would typically try to pay the landlord, but even then they knew they could be tossed out at any time). They’d make the space habitable by putting in minimalist kitchens (and by “minimalist” I do not mean hip and swanky, I mean “put together with a a few old fixtures, makeshift carpentry, and illegal wiring”). If you went out on a Sunday at 11:00 AM in search of a newspaper (it was a hike), if you saw another person on one of the cavernous blocks, that was a lot of people.
Similarly, in the early 2000s, when I was living in Australia but would come back to New York periodically, two people I knew had offices for their IT businesses in a squat building that took up half of a city block in the meatpacking district (for complicated reasons, my cat Blake was living in one of the offices for a while and made it his mission to get out and investigate every room in this enormous building). In those days, aside from the meat vendors, the sort of famous Western Market and a couple of a couple of coffee shops on 14th Street, a few struggling boutiques and one hugely hip overrated restaurant, Florent, a couple of blocks away, you had trucks rumbling through and very little street life, save the trannie hookers who’d come out starting at 8 PM. You’d be more likely to see used condoms or needles on the pavement than cigarette butts.
Admittedly, I was effectively a tourist in these neighborhoods. But I liked them at their gritty stage when the pioneering types moved in, people who were self employed and needed someplace cheap, and cheap meant seedy. And unlike the typology that Dorman describes below, these situations might seem more benign because these low-end members of the celebrated “creative” class were occupying commercial space.
But that too has a cost. As Robert Fitch explained in his book, The Assassination of New York, the city had had long-term development plan, to push manufacturing out of Manhattan and turn it into an island for the well-off.
At my old gym, I’d sometimes chat with Danny, a gregarious man roughly my age, who’d run a business in the garment district for many years. He was proud of having provided high-paying jobs for his workers, many of whom were highly skilled. His cutters made $60,000 a year in the 2000s and some, first generation immigrants, sent their kids to college.
But even though the garment district (an area between 34th and 42nd Streets on the west side) was zoned for manufacturing only, the city allowed, even promoted, having the loft-like spaces used for offices. When one of the my IT buddies went bankrupt in the dot-bomb era (among other things, he’d had a contract for $2 million due to be signed September 12, 2001 for a project with United Airlines, fall through for the obvious reasons), he moved a skeleton operation to a shabby sublet in the garment district).
The rising rents squeezed manufacturers like Danny. He’d go with other traditional garment center business owners to the Mayor’s office to plead for the zoning rules to be enforced. Not only could they not get a hearing there, but they also had no success in getting media coverage. He reluctantly moved more and more of his operations out of Manhattan and now has hardly any employees here.
And it isn’t just Manhattan that stumbles all over itself to try to attract the rich to drive real estate prices up. On the other end of the spectrum, one of my brothers live in Escanaba, a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I lived there for a couple of years in my childhood. Escanaba then was a thriving, largely blue collar town, with two manufacturers driving the economy. The smaller mill closed and the larger, a paper mill that should have remained world-competitive, has suffered greatly under the tender ministrations of private equity. Escanaba’s population has fallen from over 15,000 when I lived there to under 13,000.
My brother has served on the city planning commission for many years. He’s seen Escanaba pay repeatedly for development plans all based on the same premise: build high end condos on the waterfront. The wee problem is that the “waterfront” is already occupied by Luddington Park, a lovely WPA project and one of the city’s most important amenities, the marina, and a large iron shipping port that is going nowhere. Another wee complicating factor is that a city a mere 60 miles away, Marquette, already has successfully gone down the “provide waterfront glam on the cheap” path, despite having even worse weather than Escanaba (Marquette is on Lake Superior and has impressively brutal winters; Escanaba is on Lake Michigan and is in a 60 mile stretch called the “banana belt” despite also having impressively cold winters by virtue of its anomaly of 60-70% winter sunshine) because it has Northern Michigan University as its economic driver, and the things that go with colleges: some intellectual life and bookstores, movies, cafes, and restaurants out of proportion to the population.
Needless to say, my brother’s proposals that were more modest and focused on avoiding being a Marquette also-ran, like building an aquarium to attract more day-trippers, weren’t sufficiently appealing to the local construction industry to get any support. Apparently it’s preferable to nurture fantasies that will never get done.
By Peter Dorman, an economist and a professor at Evergreen State College whose writing and speaking focuses on carbon policy, child labor and the global financial crisis. Originally published at EconoSpeak
This is the bane of urban development, right? Old housing stock, built for yesterday’s working class, is spiffed up and priced far out of reach of today’s regular folk. High end shops replace hardware stores, bric-a-brac recyclers and appliance repair centers; a tide of designer coffee flushes out the cheap, refillable kind. Who can afford to live there?
But wait! Those refurbished old houses are beautiful. It’s a pleasure to peruse delicate artisanal fabrics and custom-designed furniture. The food is fresher, healthier and tastier. And what’s the alternative—to put a blanket over everything old and keep out all improvements? Is gentrification even a problem?
It is. It’s wrong if whole neighborhoods are uprooted, unable to afford housing and services available to them for generations, and the dynamism of city life is crippled if only those who have already made it can make their home there.
Regulations that restrict the development of new housing have rightly come under attack. Encouraging infilling and greater density benefits the environment and keeps housing costs down, but that only moderates the impact of gentrification. The luxury apartments that replace old single family houses are still beyond the means of most of us.
My hypothesis is that the basis of gentrification as an urban problem, rather than a type of broad-based development that benefits everyone, is extreme inequality of income. Gentrified neighborhoods are those outfitted for the upper echelon to spend their money on, and prices are geared to what the traffic will bear. The rest of us can’t afford it.
Imagine that income were distributed much more equally in this country. Maybe a few people would be rich, but there wouldn’t be enough of them to fill up whole cities. And the gap between the better and lesser off wouldn’t be so large as to preclude mixed neighborhoods. As overall incomes rose over time, so would the quality of housing, shopping options and services.
If I’m right, the solution to gentrification isn’t a prohibition on investments that upgrade urban life, but serious measures to reduce economic inequality itself. The test is whether countries without the great divide between the rich and the rest are as subject to gentrification as the US.