What does gentrification mean for the future of American cities? It means more than the arrival of trendy shops and expensive coffee. Peter Moskowitz intertwines human narratives with analysis of the systemic forces contributing to America’s crisis of racial and economic inequality, in How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. Click here now to order this book with a donation to Truthout!
In this excerpt from How to Kill a City, Peter Moskowitz describes how the changing landscape of New York City prompted their desire to understand gentrification.
When I returned to New York from college, I found myself belonging to two groups of people: the gentrified and the gentrifiers. I’d grown up in the West Village, just a few blocks from where journalist and activist Jane Jacobs wrote her pro-urban treatise The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. Jacobs’s book was a 400-page meditation on what made the Village great — its small, varied streetscapes, its diversity of profession, class, and race, its inherent eclecticism. Jacobs argued that every other city in the United States should try to emulate its success by encouraging the creation of small shops over big ones, small streets over grand avenues, and varying sizes of apartment buildings and townhouses over huge complexes.
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But when I came back from college, the Village looked a lot different from the egalitarian wonderland described by Jacobs. The Chinese restaurant my family would order from at least once a week had closed to make way for a Capital One bank. My favorite pizza place had become a high-end grocery store. The video store where my brother worked in high school had turned into an upscale clothier that seemed to only sell a few really expensive items at a time (that store then closed; it was followed by a store that seems to only sell a few children’s toys at a time, all made out of wood). The queer scene on Christopher Street, just a few blocks from my parents’ house and once one of the most famous gay streets in America, had been priced out and policed into blandness. The middle-income housing on the surrounding blocks had been converted into market-rate condos. Bleecker Street, once filled with antique stores, had been overtaken by chains such as Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, and Coach.
Now, in place of buildings that reminded me of my childhood, stood beacons of wealth unprecedented in the neighborhood. Three glass buildings designed by “starchitect” Richard Meier, taller than anything around them, had sprung up a block from my parents’ house. And right across the street from my old house, a former artist’s loft and garage had been topped with pink stucco condos and rechristened “Palazzo Chupi.” When the building opened for sales in 2008, apartments sold for upward of $25 million.
My parents’ building was different too. Every month, another apartment seemed to start renovation. Playwrights, artists, and mid-level professionals were moving out, replaced with bankers and businesspeople who were hostile to the old set of residents. People no longer held the front door for each other. People no longer said hi on the elevator. I no longer recognized our neighbors. I started giving stern looks to everyone I passed in my building. The sense of community that had made the West Village feel like home for me and my parents — and that had inspired Jane Jacobs over fifty years earlier — was gone.
What had happened between 1961 and now? Or even between the 1980s, when my parents first moved to the neighborhood, and now? The Village Jacobs wrote about is all but gone, and a new one that looks like a funhouse version of its former self has replaced it. A lot of the people are gone too, forced out because they could no longer afford sky-high rents. An average one-bedroom in the West Village now rents for about $4,000 a month. If you walk down the quiet, tree-lined blocks of the West Village on a weekday, you’re bound to see several construction crews gutting former multifamily homes and turning them into mega-mansions. In September 2014, a Texas oil heiress sold a 12,000-square-foot “fortress-like” townhome to an unidentified buyer for $42.5 million just blocks from Jacobs’s former home. Jacobs’s small townhouse now houses a real estate office. The Village is less racially diverse today too — about 90 percent of its residents are white. The only area consistently less diverse in Manhattan is the Upper East Side.
New Yorkers tend to complain about changes in neighborhoods such as the Village by focusing on the fact that they are no longer “cool” parts of town. But to Jacobs, places like the Village weren’t just cool; they proved that cities could be run with little government intervention and could foster equality without much help. According to Jacobs, the small shops, cheap rent that attracted artists and writers, varied street lengths, and mixed-use zoning policies not only made for interesting people-watching but also made a neighborhood work as a closed system. The shopkeepers weren’t only business owners, they were an unpaid police force, watching out for crime and making sure kids walking alone to school got there safely; a pedestrian-friendly block not only meant a good place to walk, it meant the creation of a place where strangers could interact and come up with new ideas and new destinies for each other; a variety of types of buildings, from new luxury apartments to old tenements, meant that a diverse group of people could afford to live in one neighborhood and not be segregated by income and race.
If the neighborhood once heralded as the best example of a place that fosters diversity and equality could become one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States and one of the least diverse in New York, what does that say about the future of American cities? And what happened to the people who were left out of the new and rarefied West Village?
When I decided to move back to New York, I knew the West Village would be too expensive, so I began looking elsewhere. I soon realized that even studio apartments in Manhattan were unaffordable for a young journalist, so I looked in the outer boroughs. For a year I lived with my boyfriend in Astoria, Queens, then in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, then at the border of Williamsburg and Bushwick.
In each place I could tell something similar was going on, only now I was on the other side of it. There seemed to be two worlds living on top of each other — a set of stores, bars, and restaurants visited by me and my friends, and a set visited by the residents there before us. When I saw the scowls on my new neighbors’ faces, I imagined that they felt the same way about us as my parents and I did about the new faces in the West Village.
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At first this process seemed so new and so odd that I couldn’t tell what was happening. Things were changing. Things were tense. But they seemed indescribable. White friends moving deeper and deeper into Brooklyn seemed to be less and less comfortable with their decisions, but still unable to prevent themselves from making them. I knew what happening to New York was part of something immense — you could see how huge it was just by looking at any given block from year to year. Yet there wasn’t really a language to describe it. And then this word started being tossed around in news articles, in Facebook rants, at bars where my old friends and I would complain about the old New York: gentrification.
By the early 2010s nearly everyone had heard of the term, and nearly no one had a precise definition, but it nonetheless adequately described what was happening: the displacement, the loss of culture, the influx of wealth and whiteness into New York’s neighborhoods. The images I saw and stories I heard both first- and secondhand started to form a coherent picture: friends moving out of the city and heading to Austin or Philly or Los Angeles, shuttered bodegas and laundromats in every neighborhood, the new banks that replaced them, the new neighbors, and the Kickstarter campaigns by people seeking the assistance of housing lawyers and a little help with rent were all part of the phenomenon described by the word.
I was in some ways a victim of the process, priced out of the neighborhood I grew up in, but I also knew I was relatively privileged, and a walk through Bushwick or Bed-Stuy confirmed that — seeing the old, dilapidated apartment buildings under renovation on block after block, with windows boarded up and signs out front proclaiming the building’s new owners. I knew people were being kicked out. It became clear that for most poor New Yorkers, gentrification wasn’t about some ethereal change in neighborhood character. It was about mass evictions, about violence, about the decimation of decades-old cultures.
But the reporting I’d seen on gentrification focused on the new things happening in these neighborhoods — the high-end pizza joints and coffee shops, the hipsters, the fashion trends. In some ways that made sense: it’s hard to report on a void, on something that’s now missing. It’s much easier to report on the new than on the displaced. But at the end of the day, that’s what gentrification is: a void in a neighborhood, in a city, in a culture. In those ways, gentrification is a trauma, one caused by the influx of massive amounts of capital into a city and the consequent destruction following in its wake.
If I was going to be complicit in this process, I wanted to know what was really going on.
Copyright © 2017 by Peter Moskowitz. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, Nation Books.