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« Elsewhere | Main | Morning Babble »

September 25, 2004

Gentrification: Good or Evil?

Francis Morrone writes

Dear Blowhards,

Do you live in a "gentrified" neighborhood?

I do. I live in Park Slope, in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn is one of the five boroughs of New York City. It is, in fact, the most populous of the boroughs. It used to be an independent city, until 1898 when it merged with New York City. At that time, Brooklyn was the fourth largest city in the U.S. (A couple of decades earlier, it had risen to third.) What many people don't know is that if Brooklyn were independent still, it would be the...fourth largest city in the U.S. Brooklyn is more populous than Houston or Philadelphia.

Anyway, the City of Brooklyn grew out of the 17th-century County of Kings (geographically coterminous with the present Borough of Brooklyn), which comprised six towns, of which one, the Town of Brooklyn, became the City of Brooklyn in 1834. This is the oldest urbanized part of a county most of the rest of which remained largely rural up to the turn of the 20th century. (For example, there had been farms in Ralph Kramden's neighborhood in The Honeymooners only half a century before that series takes place.) When people talk about the "gentrification" of Brooklyn, it is that area, the old Town of Brooklyn, to which they refer. We also often call it "brownstone Brooklyn." This is a slight misnomer. Yes, there are a lot of brownstone-fronted houses in the area, but also great swaths of red brick and of white limestone. "Row house Brooklyn" is what people really mean.

The neighborhoods in old Brooklyn include Brooklyn Heights (one of the handful of the most beautiful urban residential neighborhoods in the United States), Park Slope (not far behind Brooklyn Heights in beauty), Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens, among others. (I'd be curious to know how many Blowhards readers live in these neighborhoods, rife as they are with bloggers and blog consumers.)

In the 19th century, these neighborhoods were elegant and affluent. Indeed, they contained some of the highest per-capita-income census tracts in the U.S. The housing stock leaves no doubt of this. But the area lost popularity as the 20th century got in gear. Some of the neighborhoods became quite run-down. Some became infamous for social problems and poverty and crime. None retained the "gentry" that had built it in the first place. Actually, Brooklyn Heights retained some of its well-heeled old-timers, and never became a "bad neighborhood," though it certainly traded in its haut bourgeois flavor for one more raffish. Like Greenwich Village in the 1910s and 1920s, Brooklyn Heights began to attract writers and artists. W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Richard Wright, Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, W.E.B. DuBois, and Norman Mailer all lived on the Heights. And like the Village, young professionals began to move to the Heights. The combination of a few well-heeled old-timers, writers, and young lawyers, doctors, and brokers provided a level of articulate advocacy that few neighborhoods ever muster in such profusion at a given time. When the urban renewal schemes of Robert Moses began to chip away at the remarkable physical fabric of the Heights--to the east, the gigantic Brooklyn Civic Center scheme destroyed several Heights streets, to the north, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway also destroyed many Heights streets--these advocates were able to get the nascent New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate Brooklyn Heights as the city's first "Historic District." (Greenwich Village was second.) This designation saved the physical fabric of the Heights in perpetuity. (There is an irony in freezing the Heights, for it is glorious in large part because it did not emerge all at once, and combines outstanding buildings from several distinct periods of American architecture, from the Federal to the Beaux-Arts.) In the 1950s and 1960s, the Heights "gentrified"--or, as I prefer to put it, re-gentrified.

Other neighborhoods followed. In the 1970s, my own Park Slope re-gentrified. Lately, even Bedford-Stuyvesant ("Bed-Stuy"), New York's largest African American neighborhood, has experienced considerable re-gentrification, with soaring house values.

Now, we are all supposed to hate gentrification. The gentry invades, expropriating from folks of modest means the neighborhoods in which they have been contentedly living. The modest folks must move along, to less convenient and less salubrious neighborhoods--which inevitably in their turn will also be gentrified. The problem is acute in cities, like New York, with a high percentage of renters. Home owners, of course, react to gentrification as though they've won the lottery. This is the standard précis, anyway.

The term "gentrification" was coined in 1964 by a left-wing British sociologist named Ruth Glass. She used the word to refer to what was then taking place in a part of London called Islington. Islington originated as an affluent place, but had become a rough, working-class area. In the sixties, it experienced gentrification. (Actually, it had been experiencing something like it for some years, at least since George Orwell wrote about it after moving to the neighborhood in the forties.) It's where Tony and Cherie Blair and their family lived before moving to 10 Downing Street. (Cherie is said by the London papers to be truly upset that when Tony was elected and they sold their Islington house they got £750,000 for it, while now it is worth £1.5 million.)

The word "gentrification" first appeared in the New York Times in 1972--in reference to London. The article appeared on July 2 of that year, and it was about the then intense boom in real estate values in the inflation-riven economy of the Heath years. The word appears once. This is the sentence:

"Gentrification"--the expulsion of the working class from their traditional territory--has spread much further afield.

Obviously, the term was, from its very beginning, a pejorative.

The word doesn't appear again in the Times until 1974, and it's still in quotation marks. It's the fifth mention (June 11, 1978) in which the word first appears without the quotation marks--in an article about Amsterdam. Little things such as the use of quotation marks can be important social barometers. 1978, then, is the year in which the Times decided gentrification was an established word.

Soon, of course, the word was applied to what was and had been going on in Brooklyn. But the phenomenon, if not the word, dates back in New York at least to the 1910s. An example from that time is the transformation by a British architect, Frederick Sterner, and a banker and aesthete, Joseph Thomas, of a block in the neighborhood south of Gramercy Park. This block of brownstone-fronted houses had been a solidly and stolidly bourgeois precinct when it emerged in the 1850s. But as New York's "gentry," ever restless, continued its northward trek up Manhattan island, the area fell into disfavor, a condition exacerbated when the noisy and noisome Third Avenue elevated railway was built along this block's eastern edge. So it was a pretty forlorn place when Sterner bought a cheap brownstone there. He gussied it up in a fanciful (and quite lovely) "Mediterranean" vein, so that the house stood out like a shaft of sweetness and light amid its dour surroundings. He then undertook, in part in concert with Thomas, other such renovations on the block, such that in short order rich bohemians gravitated to the street--Ida Tarbell, Theda Bara, Cecilia Beaux, Lincoln Kirstein. This was gentrification, or re-gentrification.

The same thing happened in Greenwich Village. Around 1910, Washington Square divided an Italian tenement neighborhood to the south from the tattered remnants of gentility to the north. This is the Village of cheap rents and candle-in-the-Chianti-bottle Italian restaurants that the bohemians--the writers and artists and actors and radicals, the John Reeds and Eugene O'Neills and Edna Millays--moved to. Hot on their heels, however, came the sons and daughters of haut bourgeois Manhattan, seeking an adventuresome lifestyle not, however, bereft of amenities. (A cold-water flat was fine for Edward Hopper, not for the plutocrat's daughter.) Daughters of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and of Otto Kahn moved on down. Washington Mews, between Fifth Avenue and University Place, is where one may take the measure of Village gentrification. Along the north side of the mews are stables built to serve the splendid 1830s Greek Revival town houses facing onto Washington Square. In 1916, these stables were converted to tiny quaint houses. In 1939, a builder filled in the rear yards of Washington Square North with the row of houses along the south side of Washington Mews. These new houses were designed to look like they were converted stables, such was the gentry's vogue to live where once had horses. The real coup de grâce of Village gentrification, however, came with the construction in 1929 of the luxury high-rise apartment building at One Fifth Avenue, right at the corner of Washington Mews.

So there is nothing peculiar to our own time in this phenomenon of gentrification.

In 1961, when she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs lived in the far western part of Greenwich Village, on Hudson Street, near its namesake river. Gentrification was slower to come to that neighborhood than to Washington Square. But come it did. When Jacobs wrote of the neighborhood, she noted that well-off young singles were moving into rehabbed apartments. She did not mind this--they were part of the savory stew, the diversity, she liked so much. She and her family moved out of New York before the Hudson Street neighborhood entered upon intense gentrification. In the 1990s, it overtook the Upper East Side as the most expensive part of Manhattan in which to live.

Jane Jacobs is all things to all people, it seems. Writers as opposed as Virginia Postrel and James Howard Kunstler cite her as an authority backing up their views. The Canadian writer Robert Fulford, who approves of gentrification, cites Jacobs, as does New York's Roberta Gratz, who opposes gentrification. The Jacobseans (Jacobites?) who would enlist her in the anti-gentrification crusade say that she advocated "unslumming," which is quite different from gentrification. True enough. Jacobs wrote at a time when many urban sociologists and economists still employed the model worked out before World War II by Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, and others at the University of Chicago. The "Chicago School" wrote of an "urban ecology" based on the "upward and outward" movement of urban populations in U.S. cities. That is, as people moved "upward"--i.e. became financially better off--they moved "outward" from urban centers. This model was based on observed facts. In New York, the model held throughout the 19th century. But even as Park and Burgess wrote, exceptions were cropping up--for example, Gramercy Park and Greenwich Village. There had already emerged the "doubling back" of urban populations. It may have been statistically irrelevant, but it was definitely occurring. Jacobs in 1961 wrote of another phenomenon. In her part of the Village, she observed what she called "unslumming." This involved, not the wholesale incursion of an affluent group, but rather what one might call "upward and staying put." Why, Jacobs wondered, don't more people stay where they are, and upgrade? Many more people, she said, would do just that--if government and large financial institutions just let them. The plucky inhabitants of a precious few U.S. neighborhoods had bucked the trends--in the West Village, in Boston's North End. Others would have, she said--in Manhattan's Lower East Side, in Boston's West End. But the "urban renewal" bulldozers moved in, wiping out old row houses and tenements in favor of massive, regimented, high-rise housing estates. The "projects" of the poor were particularly deleterious for the prospects of unslumming, for they represented the institutionalization, the ossification, of poverty in a given place. Many government programs to aid the poor, she said, actually dealt death blows to whole sections of our cities. And so on.

The principal upshot of urban renewal and other government programs was to place a severe geographical limitation upon the potentially unslummable parts of cities, and in so doing virtually to guarantee market distortions as "spontaneous unslumming" quickly hypertrophied into what we all now call gentrification.

In other words, gentrification is the product of simple supply and demand.

Michael recently linked to a Reason magazine interview with Jacobs. (Truly, she must be the only writer championed by both Reason and Tikkun.) Google yields all sorts of interesting interviews with her. (And you do get quite a sense of how expert she is at crafting and recrafting her message so as to appeal to these diverse constituencies. I've written elsewhere that I think she is a modern master of what Leo Strauss called "esoteric writing.") Anyway, here in an MSNBC interview upon the publication of her new book Dark Age Ahead she says:

We have to wake up to the fact that gentrification is, like so many things, a double-edged sword. It can work well, but at its extreme, it works badly.

Gentrification, she says, can be--perhaps must be--a component of unslumming; it must not be the end result of unslumming.

Here is Jacobs in a particularly stimulating interview that James Howard Kunstler did with her:

JHK: How did Greenwich Village fare over the fifty, sixty years that you have known it.

JJ: Oh, it has done very well. If other city neighborhoods had done as well there would be not trouble in cities. There are too few neighborhoods right now so that the supply doesn’t nearly meet the demand. So they are just gentrifying in the most ridiculous way. They are crowding out everybody except people with exorbitant amounts of money. Which is a symptom that demand for such a neighborhood has far outstripped the supply.

Supply and demand.

Here is Kunstler from The City in Mind (p. 220):

As a philosophical matter, the argument against gentrification soon foundered on the shoals of logic. If it were morally unacceptable for the better-off to revive devalued city property and live in it, then where should they be allowed to live? A process of elimination left either a) the neighborhoods already occupied, b) the suburbs, or c) the rural hinterlands. Under this logic, the number of middle-class city dwellers would be forever fixed at the current level.

But is the gentrification model as commonly understood even accurate? Does gentrification force poor people from their neighborhoods? Common sense says that of course it does. But Lance Freeman, who teaches urban planning at Columbia, conducted a major study recently. His findings surprised him. The data, he says, tells us that the poor on average actually stay in their homes for a longer period of time in gentrifying neighborhoods than they do in non-gentrifying neighborhoods, even though their rents go up in gentrifying neighborhoods. Why? Because there are all sorts of reasons people move and stay. When your neighborhood sucks (not Freeman's word), you have an incentive to move--perhaps to a comparably priced but slightly less sucky neighborhood. But when your neighborhood gets spiffed up by all those Yuppies, you have an incentive to stay--and may be willing to pay more. Now, no doubt many of the urban poor cannot pay more. And no doubt plenty stay put with the aid of rent controls or rent subsidies. But ability to pay is only one factor in residential location, even among the poor. Freeman and others, such as Duke's Jacob Vigdor (who reached similar conclusions in a study of gentrification in Boston), note that those opposed to gentrification often presume that the poor neighborhoods are stable to begin with, with settled populations. This appears not to be the case, according to our best studies. The opposite seems to be the case: Gentrification actually increases neighborhood stability, including among the poor.

This is from an article on Freeman that appeared last year in the New York Observer:

Mr. Freeman referred to the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey in reaching his conclusion. He found that poor households living in gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City, including Harlem, were 24 percent less likely to have moved between 1991 and 1999 than poor people living in non-gentrifying communities. Even when controlling for various factors, like age, race and overcrowding, poor households were still 20 percent less likely to move from gentrifying areas than poor households living in non-gentrifying communities in New York City.

(Here is another piece on Freeman, from the Columbia Spectator. Here is the abstract of Freeman's study, which was published in the Journal of the American Planning Association. Unfortunately, a .pdf of the full text costs eight bucks.)

Presented with Freeman's findings, James Lewis of the anti-gentrification group Harlem Operation Take Back succinctly opined: "This is crap."

I take it as axiomatic of life in this world that a person will seek to live in the best place he can afford. By "best" I of course mean something that varies from one person to another. What my brother-in-law thinks best will likely be something in the suburbs. For me it is a dense inner-city neighborhood, like Park Slope, where I live.

What upsets me in the anti-gentrification argument is the presumption that I have no right to live here.

But I don't believe that.

Best,

Francis

posted by Francis at September 25, 2004




Comments

Thank you, Francis, for this excellent post

As someone living in Brooklyn and happened to move from one of its neighborhoods to another (and considering another move at present), I have similar (even if half-baked and disorganized) thoughts on the subject.
A few immediate questions came to mind.
First, what do you call a process opposite to gentrification, the process of squeezing "gentry" out of the neighborhood: is it natural or artificial? And what the groups like Harlem Operation Take Back think about it?

Second, if many current artificial means of "diversifying" neighborhood - rent control and subsidizing city policies were removed do you think the data you sited (about higher stability in gentrified neighborhoods) will change significantly? Also, it looks like the goal of city planners is to keep neighborhoods stabilized; high "churn" rate is generally considered bad, did I get it right? But if we agree that cities are living organisms,aren't change and mobility signs of life?

Third. If general trend now seems to be the opposite to what Chicago school noticed, namely - "upward and in", in other words, less expensive real estate tends to be located farther and farther away from city blocks, what urban construction/utilization policies should follow? What we have now, thanks to socialistic NY policies of building projects right next to expensive condos, there is virtually no middle-price apartments in the city - you either have to be very poor (let's say making less than 28K a year per family) to have a chance for an $800 apartment on Manhattan side of Brooklyn Bridge - or to be able to shell out 3,000 and up for rental in Battery Park. - two pretty close neighborhoods geographically. What do you think dynamics of real estate market in NYC will be if artificial "democratization" policies were removed?

Posted by: Tatyana on September 25, 2004 08:21 PM



I'd say "Excellent."

Posted by: David Sucher on September 25, 2004 11:13 PM



Tatyana,

I have one observation that pertains to your third question. There are places, particularly in the west, where government meddling in housing and neighborhoods isn't as heavy handed as it is in NYC. In these places, the free-market (both economic and social) seems to reign. In Phoenix, near where I live, the trend is certainly still upward and OUT. The suburbs are growing exponentially and housing prices in the outer burbs have increased in double-digit percentages. At the same time, certain areas in the downtown area have gentrified -- but not others. I think aesthetics has something to do with gentrification. The homes built from the 1950s to the 1970s are being torn down at the same time the few blocks with pre-1950 homes are being gentrified. Frankly, I think it is because homes built past the mid-century are butt-ugly: white rock roofs, low ranch ceilings, grass instead of xeriscaping, etc.

Many of the homes built in the suburbs are aesthetically beautiful, matching the feel of the landscape with the heaviness of adobe, indigineous (how the heck is that word spelled anyway?) plants and subtle coloring with large, walled yards. People want the quiet, private lifestyle that comes with these suburban houses. They also want the urban homes of the 1930s and 1940s. When the housing market is not distorted by government policies, unwanted homes and neighborhoods gradually slide into disrepair, and eventually condemnation. Conversely, more desirable neighborhoods, as determined by the sum of the choices of individual buyers, are repaired, restored and valued.

I'm thinking about your second question as well, trying to recall an article in the local paper about neighborhood turn-over. I remember thinking, as I read the paper, that the neighborhoods with the higher turn-over were not always the less desirable ones. But this doesn't address the question of whether stability is, in itself, a positive value. That is the assumption, isn't it? Could it be that neighborhoods populated by transient buyers are more "stable" than older neighborhoods that go back generations, particularly if these transients are quickly committed and active? I'm thinking, specifically, of neighborhoods where the engineers and other NASA sorts lived in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was a child, where families were "transferred" every year or two. Those neighborhoods were stable in the sense that they had a community feel to them. Families there were used to adjusting quickly and within weeks after moving, were acclimated to their new "home."

People may make or break neighborhoods, but aesthetic value of a house and the intuitive sense of how one wants to live also go into making these sorts of judgments. Its all so murky, isn't it?

I admire your posts, Tatyana. You make me think.

Posted by: Kris on September 26, 2004 01:17 AM



Kris,
I'm pleasantly surprised (and grateful) for your high opinion of me, but I think it's misplaced. I didn't write the post we commented on and your admiration should rightly be addressed to Francis Morrone.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 26, 2004 12:26 PM



Tatyana,

You are right that Francis Morrone deserves high praise, but I was referring to the comments you make in this post and other places.

Posted by: Kris on September 26, 2004 12:48 PM



I think it's elementary, that in NYC at least, rent control is the biggest culprit behind the inflated rents (fewer "other" apartments, less incentive to build) that drive many of those with moderate incomes out of certain neighborhoods in the city, or out of the city itself.

The whole question, not so much of gentrification, as of those who have to live in the right place, or they'll die, fascinates me.

One of the few truly liberating statements I've ever read was written by Florence King when she wrote that where she lived wasn't important, it didn't really matter to her. She also wrote that wherever she lived she felt almost a compulsion to strip down her immediate surroundings, her apartment or house, to the bare minimum. King may have been an extreme example of a certain type but on the other hand I think many people make a radical mistake in their lives when they allow themselves to be sold the bill of goods that where they live (and furnish) goes a long way toward defining them, is vital.

Some of those people who MUST live in The Village, or Park Slope or some other "in" place; it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if they were forced to live in Duluth, Minnesota (the horror, the horror) for a year or two. Several things might happen: they might actually come to like, even love, aspects of the place; or be driven in on themselves and discover resources they didn't know existed; or have confirmed that they really are the type of people who can't live outside a certain ambience.

My guess is that for most people it would unshackle them from the notion that there's only one place and one way to live.

Hey, it might even unsnobbify them!

Posted by: ricpic on September 26, 2004 01:04 PM



Tatyana,

What you say about squeezing the "gentry" out of neighborhoods is a very good question--if by "gentry" we mean what people actually mean when they use that term, i.e. the "middle class." In fact, the middle class was squeezed out of neighborhood after neighborhood after World War II. They were squeezed out by banks unwilling to make loans for house repairs or house purchases; by builders of expressways and housing projects; and by crime. They were also "pulled" rather than pushed, by federally guaranteed home loans, etc., and also, to be honest, by many Americans' simple preference for new homes in uncrowded neighborhoods in places where one got to spend maximal amounts of time in the cozy confines of one's private automobile. Anyway, it was called "white flight" in the 1960s, and it constituted a very large part of what we used to call the "urban crisis." People said it was very, very bad. (Not all people. Many radicals felt it would hasten the revolution if the cities became all-poor. These weren't fringe radicals, either, as they actually managed to get much of their agenda in place. Remember "welfare rights"? I do.) Now that some of the middle class that got pushed and pulled from cities has begun filtering back (and it is still a statistical blip, by the way, as vastly greater numbers of middle-class whites opt for exurbia rather than the inner city), some people are finding all sorts of things wrong with it.

As for rent controls and subsidies, I know that Freeman's study concluded that they did play a significant though not determining role in the stability of the poor populations in gentrifying neighborhoods. Some planners do prize stability, but Jane Jacobs, for one, never said that everyone should stay put, only that successful neighborhoods, the ones that worked, had a mix of settled and transient populations.

One of the best studies is a book called "Scarcity by Design" by Peter Salins, a highly respected real-estate economist who is now the provost of SUNY. It was published in 1993. Salins maintains that a mix of government programs intended to aid both landlords and tenants led to radical misallocations of housing resources and the general withdrawal of rental housing developers from the New York market. One need only ride the number one or four trains through the Bronx, or the Brighton line to Coney, or the 7 out to Flushing--elevateds all--to see the seas (the oceans!) of brick apartment buildings that went up in such profusion in the 1920s and 1930s (yes, the 1930s)--and thus to see that the housing crisis was not always so, that the private market kept ahead of demand in rental housing in New York. Millions of middle- and working-class New Yorkers lived for reasonable rents in convenient, comely, comfortable, safe, family-oriented neighborhoods in the outer boroughs (and even in Manhattan). What happened next is an urban catastrophe with no end in sight.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 26, 2004 03:37 PM



Kris,

I second the praise of Tatyana. Her ability to respond quickly, intelligently, and interestingly to book-length postings is one of the reasons I wanted to be a Blowhard.

I wonder if the article you refer to on neighborhood turn-over was about or otherwise made reference to Richard Florida, who is very hot in some circles these days as an urban-development guru whose studies indicate that cities should focus their resources on attracting well-educated, young, often transient workforces that consume lots of Starbucks coffee. He thinks stability is highly overvalued.

Ricpic--

You always have provocative things to say, too! I'd love to read that Florence King piece--was it in NR? As for myself, I aspire to little more than to be able to live in the sort of neighborhood I have grown to love. So I guess I'm the opposite of Florence (whose writings I love). My neighborhood surroundings, and the objects that surround me in my home, mean a very great deal to me--even as they may seem modest to others.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on September 26, 2004 03:45 PM



An excellent, excellent essay!

As a life-long New Yorker (the last 36 years as a resident of the West Village and the South Village [which also might be called "west" SoHo]) and virtual life-long admirer of Jane Jacobs (first read her work in the late 1960s and have read all but one of her major works, each many times over) I'd like to add a few thoughts.

Here is what has been my "take" on Jacobs and "gentrification."

One of the specific criticisms that Jacobs makes in "Death & Life . . ." about what is now called "gentrification" (which she herself in 1961 called "unslumming" and may have also called "urban revitalization" -- I don't have the book handy at the moment) is that a successful neighborhood generally needs a VARIETY of people to be truly successful over time. She points out, to cite one example, that the new upscale residents of her West Village neighborhood were less likely than people of more modest means to have the time and inclination to provide the "eyes on the street" that are the backbone for neighborhood safety and civility. (She also points out that this function is performed in more uniformly affluent city neighborhoods, like Park Ave., by paid "watchers" -- doormen and nannies.)

But unlike many leftist critics of gentrification who have cited her work, Jacobs also argues that successful city neighborhoods, including those in the process of "unslumming," also need to be able to attract "people with choice" from outside the neighborhood (while also retaining some of its own upwardly mobile residents). Thus the Jacobs quote (I'm paraphrasing): "I don't see how it's possible for a neighborhood to be revitalized without gentrification."

But Jacobs also sees hyper-gentrification as bad for the long-term health of city neighborhoods (and the larger city as a whole) because it is yet another manifestation of stultifying -- and, ultimately, dysfunctional -- uniformity.

The big question, so it seems to me, is how does Jacobs propose that cities deal with what might be called "hyper-gentrification"? When she wrote the book in the late 1950s, early 1960s, hyper-gentrification was mostly a theoretical problem -- most cities were still endangered by the exodus to the suburbs, the building of highways, radiant city urban renewal schemes, etc. (Living in the Village in the late 1960s it amazed me how so much of it [and nearby SoHo, Chelsea, etc.] was still a backwater and untouched by "revitalization.")

It seems to me that Jacobs proposes in "Death and Life. . ." (and, indirectly, in "The Economy of Cities") that the way to solve this problem, when and if it occurs, is to encourage even more gentrification (and urbanization) in yet other declining or stagnating neighborhoods. (And presumably, the cultivation and development of even more "great" American cities in the future.) In other words, Jacobs, who seems to me to be an essentially up-beat optimistic person, appears to me to be saying, "Enlarge the pie (focus on creating MORE successful urban neighborhoods), don't fight over the divying up of a static or shrinking pie (a viewpoint which presupposes cities that are inevitably static or shrinking).

How might this work in real life? ONE example: Imagine if Jacobs' prescriptions (fine-grained mixed uses, high densities, short blocks and a mix of old and new buildings) had been followed in the so-called "South" Bronx (which really includes more than just the southern portion of the Bronx) during the 1960s. Imagine if instead of losing thousands and thousands of housing units to abandonment in the 1970s (leaving landscapes of rubble strewn lots), these areas had been made into truly vital, successful urban neighborhoods instead? The pie (successful, desirable urban neighborhoods) would have been enlarged, and the struggle for space in the city's hottest neigborhoods -- hyper-gentrification -- would have been eased. (Plus, New York City would have vastly increased the area of its healthy -- and economically fertile and vibrant -- urban tissue.)

The easing of hyper-gentrification would have been further lessened by the gentrification and densification, following Jacobs' precepts, of failing neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. (Which, because they are generally low-desnity, offer, perhaps, even more of an "up" side.)

Interestingly, it seems to me that the whole issue of "gentrification" really became an issue in NYC in the late 1970s, early 1980s, when areas like the "South" Bronx were in horrifying decline and New Yorkers began to flee en mass to the suburbs -- or, alternatively, the hot, "Jacobean" neighborhoods of "fortress" Manhattan or, nearby, "Jacobean" Brooklyn. However, in past eras, (or at the beginning of the decline in question) when new housing markets for the poor were plentiful (i.e., when the poor could move into recently "opened-up" formerly middle-class neighborhoods like Harlem and those of the outer boroughs) pushing the poor out was less of a "problem" likely to arouse advocates for the poor (since the poor were, to an extent, being pushed out and "up" to physically better housing).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on September 26, 2004 03:56 PM



Francis.
"Many radicals felt it would hasten the revolution if the cities became all-poor. These weren't fringe radicals, either, as they actually managed to get much of their agenda in place."
I am dubious. But I suspend judgment because of your great knowledge; but I'd like to hear more, reference some documentation etc etc I have no doubt -- I heard them -- that there were people who said "It can't get better until it gets worse." (Actually, I say much the same thing about urban congestion -- but that's not a policy prescription as much as an observation.) But that such radicals had sufficient power to pass legislation...well let's just say I'd like to hear more.

Benjamin.
You (and Jacobs) have the right idea: there is very little that society-at-large can (or I'd say should) do about gentrification. The best hope is more interesting neighborhoods to spread the pressure. I see gentrification as both a result of regional transport failures and changing tastes. In general I think that valuing the city is a good thing, so I am happy with the trend and wish it well. I acknowldge that for some individuals it creates problems and for "vulnerable" populations (old, infirm, handicapped, etc) we should do more by way of subsidy as neighborhoods evolve.

And except for a tiny group of idealists, I don't think most people care about living, per se, in a demographically "diverse" neighborhood. (But this is a larger discussion which should distinguish between
1. "ethnic" diversity -- fine -- and
2. "income" diveristy --not so good.
Those are big big differences.)

(My reaction, when I hear someone rave about the "diversity" of their neighborhood -- as opposed to simply accepting it as a reality with which they are comfortable -- is "Oh! How gracious of you!" It strikes me as diminishing their "diverse" neighbors into the picturesque.)

Posted by: David Sucher on September 26, 2004 04:49 PM



Another Brooklyn-based Blowhard reader here--been living in the "fruity" section of the Heights, off of Cranberry St., for about a year now. Great piece, Francis.

Posted by: Dick on September 27, 2004 09:07 AM



What a gorgeous posting, many thanks. Fascinating to learn all this.

A question? What's your bet as to what would be likely to happen if NYC's rent control schemes were simply, like that, done away with? I followed some of the reports from Boston and Cambridge when they recently re-did rent control. Can't remember much specific, but I came away with two impressions. One was that all the reports seemed primarily political -- hard to tell what was really going on, given that most writers seemed to want to crowbar the facts into a political p-o-ov. Second was that it reminded me of '90s welfare reform. Tons of panic beforehand, but it has maybe played itself out in less shocking and onerous ways (and maybe even OK ways) than were anticipated, at least by the more hysterical elements.

But this is all just from surfing the web. Is there any real reason to support rent control? The fear always seems to be that you'd wind up with a desirable center that only the rich could afford, and that poor people would wind up with four-hour commutes to jobs cleaning the apartments of the midtown rich. Is there any reason to think that that would actually be the result?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 27, 2004 11:04 AM



...you'd wind up with a desirable center that only the rich could afford, and that poor people would wind up with four-hour commutes to jobs cleaning the apartments of the midtown rich.

Isn't it exactly what we already have in Manhattan? Nothing to fear, then - open the flood gates.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 27, 2004 11:13 AM



For what it's worth, Mailer is still a Heights resident - he lives down the street; we saw him in our first week after we moved in. Having grown up in Flatbush - one of the mixed affordable naighborhoods Francis alludes to - I agree completely with his post.
Gerald

Posted by: Gerald on September 27, 2004 12:47 PM



Since you ask, my blog Pepper of the Earth and I live down the butt end of Brooklyn Heights - it's about 10 years now I've been on Atlantic at Clinton, just barely in the neighborhood. Grew up on the Upper West Side, where we moved when I was a kid after Washington Heights started to get a little rough around the edges.

Posted by: Linus on September 28, 2004 01:00 PM



I am not qualified to comment on New York neighborhoods. I am a child of small-town Texas and about as far from this conversation as the moon. Except... we do have the phenomenom here in Cowtown, as well (if you classify "gentrification" as such)on a smaller scale. The older Mistletoe Heights neighborhood was once home to founding fathers, doctors and lawyers. Then, sometime after World War II, the houses became run down, the titled and entitled folks moved to the suburbs, and the neighborhood became a mixture of old people who refused to budge, crack addicts, and hispanic multi-family households. These were once large and stately homes with custom mouldings and sumptious yards, and the mailbox held posts for the Waggoners, the Peter Smiths, etc. Early in the 1980's, Yuppies with tons of money to burn took an interest in these once beautiful homes. The house that was bought for less than $40,000 in the early 70's, now fetches at least 10 times that amount in Mistletoe Heights.

Me? - I am waiting for my suburban neighborhood to become gentrified so I can secure my retirement with my fat equity increase and move somewhere near Big Bend where my nearest neighbor is a longhorn cow.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on September 28, 2004 02:21 PM



My only experience from Brooklyn is thats TV-show.. umm, what was it called again, something about a school. Well, tata

Posted by: Jim on September 29, 2004 09:18 AM



I enjoyed your article immensely and even though I now live in New Mexico I still have a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge in my house.I grew up in Brooklyn in the 50's and mid sixties when I was taken to the suburbs of Long Island for what my Dad decided was the safest place for our family at that point in time.I raised my son in Maine and would give anything to have given him the run of Prospect Park,Museum of Natural History,stick ball,smells and sounds of music and food from so many places.I'd ask my friends if they could get me invited because what was that good smelling Czech,Hungarian,Iranian,Italian and Lebanese food and language I was absorbing as I walked through my beautiful Park slope??I suppose my dad was right and I certainly couldn't have raised my son there as the prices now are so unbelievable.I miss it so much sometimes.I want to go home because it will always be home.It was a wonderful time in Brookyn's time and how proud we were when we got out young,handsome idealistic Irish catholic president.My father put me on his shoulders one night so I could see him as he rhode through Brooklyn.My grandfather on my mother's side was an asistant DA in Brooklyn a long time ago and she did grow up in one of those beautiful brownstones only several houses from where my apartment was growing up there.
I always wondered how my life would have turned out if we had stayed.Thanks for some wonderful memories.Thanks.Nora

Posted by: Nora O'Connor on October 4, 2004 02:09 PM



I live in Crown Heights, and I want to tank you for this great piece.

Dave

Posted by: Dave on October 4, 2004 09:11 PM



Your article is informative and well-argued. Is it still true that, along with gentrified neighborhoods, Brooklyn and Queens have ethnic enclaves in which houses are handed down from generation to generation? I'm thinking of Bensonhurt (where I lived in the mid-1980s), Richmond Hill and St. Albans. These working-class families who stayed probably have seen their property values explode.

Posted by: Richard LeComte on October 5, 2004 01:48 PM



That tv show about Brooklyn ... No, not Welcome Back, Kotter. The Patty Duke Show, which ran on ABC from 1963-1966:

Number Eight Remsen Drive, Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn, New York, the residence of the Lane family: Martin,
the managing editor of the New York Chronicle; his wife, Natalie; their daughter, Patty, a perky, bubble
gum chewing teenager who dug Paul Anka records and slumber parties; their son Ross; and their glamorous, intellectual Scottish cousin, Cathy Lane, who is
residing with them until she completes her high school education and is able to rejoin her father, Kenneth Lane, a foreign correspondent for the Chronicle.

Stories depict the lives of two pretty high school girls, sixteen-year-old identical cousins: Patty, the
average American girl, possesses an unquenchable thirst for life and the ability to complicate matters that
are seemingly uncomplicatable; and Cathy, shy, warm, and sensitive, possosses a love for the arts, and,
treasuring her European unbringing, sometimes encounters difficulty as she tries to adjust to the American way of life.

The girls confused everybody in their middle-class neighborhood by
mischievously switching personalities at critical moments.

http://www.tvtome.com/tvtome/servlet/ShowMainServlet/showid-1743/#info

According to the theme song, unlike her sophisticated European cousin, "Patty's only seen the sights/A girl can see from Brooklyn Heights."

Posted by: Roger Sweeny on October 6, 2004 10:13 AM



Great post. I think a lot of the anti-gentrification movement is aesthetic in nature: people don't like that the people that made up the neighbourhood are seemingly being forced away. But the extreme conclusion of arguing against gentrification is that everyone should just stay where they are, "know their place", and I think the flux of human life would never allow for that.

A few years back I did my college thesis on the preference for city life as incomes change, and it seems to follow a J-curve - people like to move to the suburbs as they get wealthier, and then as they get even wealthier they move back into cities but only those cities that have certain "urban life" amenities like theatres. Freeman's conclusions sound about right: you can't assume that you have these extremely mobile yuppie types devouring whatever neighbourhood they sink their claws into, while the hapless poor never ever move and have their community ties destroyed. Gentrification probably upsets those who have to move out, but those who stay - and if the data is right those who stay are quite a large proportion - get to enjoy the benefits: fresh opportunities for interactions in the street (one of Jacobs' pet ideas), for instance.

Posted by: Daryl on October 8, 2004 12:10 PM



Great Post.

As a resident of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I can attest to the positives of gentrification. Fort Greene is one of the rare neighborhoods in the "brownstone Brooklyn" of Francis' post which retained its ethnic diversity
while allowing for the introduction of economic capital. Fort Greene is a diverse community composed of middle-class families, artists and professionals, where the median household income is about $25,000. Of the roughly 60,000 people who live there, 60 percent are black. I have not observed this same trend in other areas of gentrified Brooklyn, namely Park Slope and Cobble Hill, where walking down the street conjures up images of suburban Westchester, a sea of white faces.

Posted by: Valery on October 8, 2004 03:01 PM



A conservative government in Ontario eliminated rent control about seven years ago. Toronto's very hot real estate market has lead to a glut of condos, and the vacancy rate has increased significantly. There may be little connection between these two facts, but here is an article that discusses the coincidence from a left-wing perspective: http://www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_07.29.04/city/tpa.html

Posted by: Jan Schotte on October 15, 2004 12:52 PM






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