When gentrification is criticized these days, it tends to be done in terms that muddle the issues. The least useful way to criticize gentrification is to obsess about an area's character, coolness, or even worse, "grit". Lamenting the proliferation of cupcakes and cappuccino is a staple of reporting on places like Williamsburg or Dalston. But this kind of story reduces something that's all about inequality to middle-class agonizing over authenticity.It also makes it rather amusing to read, but never mind. I'm sure you've got a serious point to make, haven't you?
The leading myth is that the only possibilities for neighborhoods are gentrification or urban decay. Well-meaning liberals sometimes think cities face a choice between the bad days of the past and a gentrified future. Urban theorists invoke this same theme with the idea of the city as a ceaselessly changing organism that can either gentrify or stagnate. But these are all deeply misleading arguments, because they offer a false choice. No serious critic of gentrification wants to maintain the status quo. Instead of either gentrification or decay, cities could push for more equal distribution of resources and more democratic decision-making.Ah. I suspect this is the new dictionary definition of 'more democratic', which actually means that the people who pay for this and drive the changes should get less of a say. And I'm not wrong, as it turn out...
Another myth is that gentrification actually trickles down to help everyone. Evangelists for elite-dominated urbanism sometimes argue, as New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg did recently, that attracting the super-rich is the best way to help those city-dwellers he quaintly calls "those who are less fortunate". But the trickle-down argument for gentrification ignores the fact that the "very fortunate" invariably seek to bend municipal priorities and local land uses towards their own needs, usually to the detriment of their less powerful neighbors.Yup, thought so. This is a man intent on spending other people's money on other people.
Probably the most damaging myth about gentrification is that nothing can be done about it beyond wrangling a few tokenistic concessions from big developers. But gentrification is not an unstoppable force. It's true that it has its roots in political-economic processes – the commodification of housing, the neoliberal transformation of the state and the growth of economic inequality – that require action at large scales. But there are many policies which, even in the short term, would produce a more democratic and egalitarian city: more and better public housing, rent control and regulation, community control of neighborhood space, expanding social welfare, strengthening progressive labor unions, and empowering social movements that embody the political ambitions of the urban working classes and poor.Did he leave anything out of the Big Socialist Wishlist there?
Even today, it's not too late to unforeclose urban politics and build an alternative to the city of gentrification and inequality. The opposite of gentrification isn't urban decay; it's the democratization of urban space.Chalk another one up for that new dictionary.