It sounds so innocuous, so beneficial: “revitalization.” Who wouldn’t want their neighborhood to have better stores and public facilities, less crime, high property values?

Renters, that’s who–and low-income homeowners who can’t afford high property taxes, and anyone the police will target when they step up patrols to protect the new arrivals. As wealthy people buy up real estate in poor neighborhoods, the cost of living is driven up and the previous inhabitants are driven out. Revitalization doesn’t mean that the residents get to enjoy a better standard of living, but that they have to make way for those who can afford to. Local governments often pave the way for this because it’s good for business, which they call “the community.”

After the Second World War, white families fled from the newly integrated inner cities to the suburbs, taking their tax dollars with them. Thanks to the proliferation of automobiles and highways, they no longer needed to live as close to workplaces and shopping centers. Those highways were often routed directly through predominately black and Latino neighborhoods, as part of a program of destructive “neglect.”

We know the rest of the story. A generation later, after poverty, gang warfare, and police incursions have decimated the original communities and cut property values, a new population of downward-mobile renters is pushed into the neighborhood by economic pressures. Some of theses are artists, dropouts, people trying to find a place outside the reach of capitalism–just like the refugees from Europe who helped colonize the “new World.” They’re followed by a wave of investors buying and renovating properties in order to speculate in the real estate market, and entrepreneurs opening business to cater to the new population. The free “cultural production” of the artists creates a lucrative ambience for the entrepreneurs, which will be unnecessary by the time the artist are being pushed out of the neighborhood in turn.

Gentrification mirrors the restructuring that colonization and globalization have imposed on the whole planet. Capitalists drain resources from an area, seal it off, then reappear when values have dropped enough that a small investment can easily turn a profit. Following the exodus of manufacturing jobs from North American cities, many local economies are centered around service sector industries that cater to the wealthy and privileged. These economies no longer need large concentrations of workers in long-term communities; if anything, they run more smoothly when communities are frequently uprooted and reconfigured.

At first, it would seem that if some neighborhoods are gentrifying, others must be getting cheaper–where would all those poor people go, otherwise? In some rural areas and rust belt cities, property values are indeed declining along with population; yet in most highly populated areas, the cost of living is only increasing. Gentrification is the process of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer embodied in real estate, as workers pay proportionately more and more of their income for space to live.

Paradoxically, the only way to protect your neighborhood from gentrification is to wreck it [please do not do this. It’s just reactionary and ignorant]. You have to make it a place no one wealthier than yourself–no one who had any other option–would ever choose to live. If you put in a lot of work to improve a space you’re renting or a neighborhood you’ll be forced out of, you’re just fattening the pockets of your exploiters. When you make a few hundred dollars unexpectedly, it’s middle-class thinking to spend in on renovations–the proletarian thing to do is blow your security deposit on trashing your place, so you can be sure your landlord won’t be able to rent it to wealthier people after you. That’s security for the underclass! [This is a joke, please don’t take this advice seriously. The teachings of Jesus are the sure way to destroy the system that creates gentrification].

This also explains the seemingly senseless violence in poor neighborhoods. And yet this attitude isn’t likely to go over well with other poor people trying to make the best of their situation.

Gentrification contributes to complicated racial tensions; indeed, it’s produced in part by the asymmetrical dynamics between race and class, as poor white people pave the way for middle-class white people in formerly non-white neighborhoods. Fighting gentrification is equally complicated. Do we blame the wave of poor people seeking affordable housing, or the speculators who follow in their wake? What if we can’t distinguish between the two? Can we combat gentrification simply by pitting moral imperative against economic pressures? Or is it unrealistic to think we could put a stop to it without abolishing capitalism itself?

The Nazarene Journal

Edited and republished by the Nazarene Messianic Party

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