The cafes and craft breweries are just pawns in a much bigger game.
"Someone who learned about gentrification solely through newspaper articles might come away believing that gentrification is just the culmination of several hundred thousand people's individual wills to open coffee shops and cute boutiques, grow mustaches and buy records. But those are the signs of gentrification, not its causes."
So writes journalist Peter Moskowitz in How To Kill A City, a book on gentrification in America, published this week. It's a study of four cities—New York, Detroit, San Francisco and New Orleans—that are all in the process of coming to terms with widespread gentrification, which in the case of the latter three has happened at dramatic speed.
Over the course of the book, Moskowitz mixes interviews with residents of the cities with findings from academic research and notes on municipal policy, creating a compelling portrait of the interplay of macro and micro level decisions in reshaping the urban environment—always to an underlying blueprint of reducing public spending and displacing poorer people while advancing corporate interests and returns on private capital.
The book was born out of Moskowitz's own experience in leaving his native New York, then returning to find that the West Village neighborhood he had grown up in was now filled with wealthy newcomers, and neither affordable nor hospitable to people like him.
"I moved out to Queens, and then Brooklyn, and I realized I was moving into neighborhoods where people were giving me the same 'why are you here?' look that I'd been giving to new people in the West Village," Moskowitz says in a phone call. "And that got me interested in how levels of power work in a city: that I could be on one side of it in one neighborhood, and on the other side of it in a different neighborhood."
The human stories Moskowitz tells in the book are filled with pathos, and frequently touch on the intersection of race and gender: The gay Latino man pushed out of San Francisco's Mission district and across the bay into the more conservative city of Concord, or the black New Orleans woman struggling to find a job while post-Katrina reconstruction organizations bring in scores of young white graduates from out of town. But more enlightening are the stories of the city council meetings, rezoning plans and investment schemes that lay the groundwork for gentrification, often explicitly being described as such.
"The most surprising takeaway I had [when writing the book] was how unsecretive and how blatant politicians had been in the past with pro-gentrification policy, especially in New Orleans and Detroit," says Moskowitz. "The economic czar of the Detroit government actually said, 'please bring on gentrification we need more of it'. It would sound like a conspiracy if it wasn't laid out in plain English."
Part of the aim for the book, Moskowitz says, was to try and steer the conversation around housing in the US towards that which can be found in parts of Europe, where rent control measures and pro-squatting movements are more common. Towards this end, having set up gentrification as a powerful systemic force, the book closes by chronicling various resistance tactics, and outlining policy-based strategies for working towards a less gentrified future.
"I'm optimistic when I meet with activists who've been doing this for a long time," says Moskowitz. "Gentrification might be a new term, but housing inequality has been going on for hundreds of years. People have been coming up up with new and inventive tactics to fight these systems for so long, and that gives me hope that these people know what they're doing. What remains to be seen is how we can motivate all the people who haven't started to do that work."
How To Kill A City is out now published by Nation Books/Perseus/Hachette.