Urban Social Justice: the Gentrification Debate

1 January 2017

However despite all the leaps and bounds that cities have made as far as growth and power, there are more micro-level social and economic issues that have been exacerbated by this progression. The essence of the city has and always will be the people that inhabit it; how they live, work and interact should be the primary focus of any urban environment. Gentrification, social and economic stratification and even unjust organization of space are some of the most pressing problems that many cities are facing.

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Interestingly enough, depending on whom you ask, you could get an extremely positive or negative view on the direction that the contemporary city is headed. In the mid-twentieth century a number of different factors lead to large-scale migration of middle-class white people in America from the inner city to the suburbs. Some dubbed this the “white flight” and was caused by a combination of social, economic and spatial influences. Following WWII there was a surplus of housing demand and large-scale suburban development quickly ensued.

When coupled with the creation of President Eisenhower’s Federal Interstate Highway and the introduction of GI loans, owning a house in the suburbs became both convenient and affordable. On top of this many middle-class whites were feeling pressured from the increasing minority and immigrant population and felt that the suburbs would be a “safer” place to raise children. Real-estate developers pushed the image of the “American Dream” as owning a house with a front lawn out in the safe and peaceful suburbs.

On top of that the city was openly painted as a haven of criminal activity and squalor. Ironically, today people have fallen out of love with the classic idea of the American Dream and there is a “back to the city” movement where many young suburbanites are making the move back to different urban centers as from the suburban neighborhoods they grew up in. The new generation’s desire to be ever more “connected” and “in tune” with the unique social dynamics and increased exposure that occurs in modern cities has increased the attractiveness of urban life.

However, while this influx of middle-class or as Richard Florida has labeled, the “creative class” professionals may seem harmless enough, there are some serious direct and indirect social/economic consequences that have occurred with this change in demographic. Gentrification is a hot button term that over the years has been given many different descriptions. Merriam-Webster Dictionary simple defines Gentrification as: “The process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents”.

While this definition is effective in its simplicity, what gentrification actually translates to within a community is something that has been continuously debated. Economists, sociologists and urban theorists alike have all try to tackle the task of, both quantifiably and qualitatively, assessing the issue of gentrification. However, due to the laxity of the term and the scope of the area of interest different people’s analyses have yielded different findings. One of the most heavily debated tenants of gentrification is the issue of displacement.

Displacement is the process by which can most readily be defined by the process through which residents are directly or indirectly forced out of their homes and have to move to another location outside of their neighborhood. However, as with anything regarding gentrification, the cause and the prevalence of it is intensely disputed. Some people claim that with gentrification undoubtedly comes community displacement; when neighborhoods gentrify housing and rent prices go up and often times people cannot afford to live there anymore and have to leave.

The elderly and the poor are often cited as those most likely to be displaced by gentrification. Multiple urban scholars have researched and posed theories regarding the relationship between gentrification and displacement and sure enough, the results are conflicting. Kathe Newman and Elvin Wyly examined the theory that gentrification promotes displacement in their 2006 paper: “The Right to Stay Put, Revisited: Gentrification and Resistance to Displacement in New York City”.

The scope of their research was New York City and Frank Braconi, Lance Freeman and Jacob Vigdor are credited as originally having developed the quantitative model they used for their assessment. After analyzing the statistical data of housing and migration trends provided by the New York City Housing and Vacancy Survey and conducting a series of field interviews with local residents in gentrifying neighborhoods, Newman and Wyly determined that the origins of urban displacement are too complicated to attribute solely to gentrification: National and regional housing market dynamics create a variety of displacement pressures at the city-wide level and that these pressures are expressed in complex mixtures of direct and indirect displacement as well as succession and replacement- all intersecting in locally contingent ways at the neighborhood scale” (Newman and Wyly 2006. Page: 25) It is important to note that while they conceded that the direct correlation between gentrification and displacement is hard to quantify for a number of reasons, they vehemently oppose the notion that the two are not related.

They also refute the blind assessment made by some that gentrification is good for the low-income residents because: “Gentrification rebalances concentrated poverty while offering the improved tax-base, rub-off work ethic and political power of the middle-class…” (Duany, 2001, p. 37). Other scholars have conducted similar studies on gentrifying neighborhoods and come to different conclusions. Mark Davidson concluded in his 2009 paper: “Displacement, Space and Dwelling: Placing the Gentrification Debate” that the terms gentrification and displacement have become muddied by popular discourse, to the point that one assumes a direct correlation.

Furthermore, he states that there are spatial reasons for displacement and that before one even can accurately identify displacement, you need to understand the difference between “abstract space” and “places of dwelling”. Davidson cites the philosophy of Henri Lefebvre and Martin Heidegger as the basis of his theory of displacement and the nature of the gentrification debate. Martin Heidegger was a famous German philosopher, who though marred by his ffiliation with the Nazi Party, wrote one of the most influential pieces of philosophical literature: “Being and Time” in which he developed the notion of “Dasein” or as it is know: the study of “Being”. Heidegger’s theories regarding “Being” and “self” drastically re-shaped the field of ontology. He would later on to further revise his theory of Dasein to include the relationship man has with his geographic surroundings. It is from this that Heidegger established his concept of “dwelling” and declared it a fundamental tenet of Being.

Dwelling can most closely be defined how man connects with the physical world around him. Through this connection man can both literally and metaphorically build a place to live and better examine the essence of “self”. The relationship between this branch of ontological thought and displacement is the opinion that: “…’place’ should not be understood as referring primarily to the idea of that in which an entity is located; place is not simply location or position [Platz, Stelle]…”(Malpas, 2007, p. 48)

What can be implied by Heidegger’s concept of place in regards to gentrification and displacement is there is a difference between place and space. And that migration, even if it is forced, does not necessarily equate a loss of place. The other philosopher whose theories Davidson brings into the gentrification/displacement debate is French sociologist Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre was best known for his ideas regarding socially constructed space and the “spatial triad” which consists of: perceived, conceived and lived space.

When coupled with Heidegger’s idea of mans relationship with his place of dwelling you have a very relevant lens through which you can examine many contemporary urban dynamics. For Lefebvre “lived space” is both a mental and physical construct (Davidson, 2009, p. 227). He harmonizes with Heidegger’s philosophy in that he also believes that mans interaction with his physical surrounding is key to establishing a place of dwelling or as he calls it “habiter”. Lefebvre elaborates further by describing the different modern influences that damage ones sense of habiter.

Because of these contemporary economic, political and social pressures, “human being is limited to a handful of basic acts: eating, sleeping, and reproducing…” [Elden, 2003, p. 81; see Davidson (2007) on gentrification and ‘habitat’]. Davidson’s reasoning for citing the philosophical theories of Heidegger and Lefebvre in a paper on displacement is two fold. For one Davidson concludes that: “…the critique of the loss of space/place associated with displacement requires a philosophical underpinning that asserts the importance of space to Being” (Davidson, 2009, p. 31). In other words, contemporary urban researchers rely too much on quantitative analysis to determine rates of displacement. Another of his main points is that: “…it is impossible to draw the conclusion of displacement purely from the identification movement of people between locations. People can be displaced, unable to (re)construct place, without spatial dislocation just as much as they can with spatial dislocation” (Davidson, 2009, p. 228).

According to Davidson, Heidegger and Lefevre’s analysis of space, Being and places of dwelling/habiter, show us that contemporary theories of displacement and its relationship to gentrification have some fundamental holes in them. The matter of gentrification and more specifically displacement is a complex and widely disputed one. However, both can is without a doubt, be dubbed a social justice issue. Some argue that gentrification brings about positive change in previously disinvested areas and displacement is a necessary side effect that may not even be related to gentrification at all.

Others claim that gentrification is the epitome of social injustice as long-time residents (most often the elderly and poor) are forced out of their homes by rent hikes, greedy landlords and real-estate developers. When one examines the case studies done in New York by Newman and Wyly, in London by Davidson and the first hand experiences of my father and myself in Atlanta and Cambridge, MA; you can conclude that forced displacement, however you want to define it, is a social injustice prevalent in cities and gentrification is a complex and widespread issue that cannot be so easily qualified.

Some of the other social justice issues prevalent in contemporary cities are economic stratification and social exclusion. Both problems that are nothing new to American and even urban society, but with the ramped growth of cities and their increase role in the world economy, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots has grown more pronounced. While gentrification is more of a “hot-button” issue in mainstream urban discourse, social exclusion is a reality faced by many low-income and minority residents in cities all around the world.

As for economic stratification, it is a problem not confined to cities and is in no way a new phenomenon; their has been a sizeable gap of capital and resources between the top and the bottom for as long as their have been civilized societies. However, in recent years, due to a combination of globalization, the spread of capitalism and the recent reintroduction of the upper class back into urban neighborhoods, the inequality is more pronounced then ever. Social exclusion is the process by which individuals and entire communities of people are systematically blocked from the rights, opportunities and resources (e. . housing, employment, healthcare, civic engagement, democratic participation and due process) that are normally available to members of society. The outcome of these deprivations is that individuals or groups are prevented from fully tapping into the economic, social, and political potential of the society in which they live. In parts of Western Europe, social exclusion has replaced poverty (lack of disposable income) as the main area of study in understanding hardship faced by some in modern societies.

Examining social exclusion provides a much more in-depth analysis of the different factors that contribute to the daily and often, perpetual, struggle of lower-class urban dwellers (Room, 1999). In his 1995 book, Les Metamorhoses de la question sociale: une cronique du salariat (The Metamorphoses of the social question: A chronicle of the wage) Robert Castel states: “Society is made up of a number of collectives who are bound together by sets of mutual rights and obligations, rooted in a broader moral order. Social exclusion is the process of becoming detached from this moral order.

The task of social policy is to reinsert or reintegrate people back into society”. Several European governments have identified social exclusion as one of the central influences behind the strife of the lower class. While this a positive step toward enacting the proper social policy needed to tackle the cycle of poverty, it is unclear how widely accepted the theory of social exclusion really is. Specifically, it is unknown how extensively it has permeated American urban and social policy making. The other component of social exclusion and injustice in cities is the spatial layouts of many urban neighborhoods.

Intentionally or not, the physical layout of many poor inner-city neighborhoods directly induces social exclusion along with a host of other social justice issues. Take for the example high-rise public housing buildings found in cities like New York. That type of hyper-concentration of poor, disadvantaged people not only creates a breeding ground for tension and violence, but also is physically exclusive. Living in a massive building consisting of a homogenous community of lower class residents, spending your time either in your apartment or in the small confined courtyards and playgrounds often found in the projects, is an isolated life.

You are not exposed the social capital that a person from a more affluent neighborhood enjoys. Not only public housing, but also entire neighborhoods are becoming homogenous areas of limited social capital. A number of factors: economic disinvestment, social stigmas regarding “the hood”, along with general community disenchantment with their living situation has turned some city’s neighborhoods into bubbles; dangerous places that outsides avoid and locals cannot leave. The sad reality is because of the myriad of social problems that some urban neighborhoods face they have become highly toxic environments for everyone that lives there.

Fast food restaurants, check cashing places (rather than banks), liquor stores and pawn shops, are all staples of many downtrodden neighborhoods. None of these types of establishments are conducive to any type of healthy lifestyle and when coupled with rampant crime and drugs, little economic opportunity, poor schools, and a serious lack of capital investment create a perfect storm of economic and social stagnation. Often times due to the spatial layout of these cities, these areas of concentrated poverty are located directly adjacent or in close proximity to more affluent areas.

However, despite the geographic closeness of these different areas, the vast differences in social characteristics prevent any type of intermingling. The contemporary city is a complex and ever changing place. It is a much different entity then it was fifty years ago and chances are it will have evolved even more in another fifty years. Despite all the progress cities have made in becoming economic modules and social hubs, they have developed into innately unjust spaces: socially, economically and even spatially.

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