Is Gentrification Killing Cities?

by on April 11, 2017

I began Peter Moskowitz’s new book, How to Kill a City, soon after visiting New York City’s West Village where he grew up. His account of Bleecker Street being taken over by “chains such as Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Coach,” and the neighborhood becoming seeming more designed for tourists than longtime residents resonated with me, particularly as I saw the real estate office inhabiting Jane Jacobs’ former house.

Moskowitz is angry at the gentrification of the West Village and other New York City neighborhoods, and his passion comes through in his book.  There is nothing quite like having your childhood memories of a neighborhood replaced by demolition and displacement, something I experienced in the late 1970’s when highrise towers and demolitions  invaded my high school hangout in Los Angeles’ Westwood.

Moskowitz goes through what has become a familiar list of New York City neighborhoods—Williamsburg, Bushwick, the East Village, Astoria, and others—that are at various stages of transforming into more upscale communities. His book also briefly describes the gentrification process in New Orleans, Detroit and San Francisco, though he claims New York City offers the best hope for fighting gentrification and that that other cities can then follow.

What Can New York City Do? 

New York City transforms neighborhoods like no other city in America. Mayor Bloomberg rezoned over 35% of the entire city during his term, and most of these changes furthered gentrification. But Moskowitz is just as critical of current progressive mayor Bill de Blasio. He states that both mayors “not only did little to stop gentrification, they actively promoted it.”

While crediting de Blasio’s housing policy for being “more progressive,” Moskowitz reviews the mayor’s plans and correctly concludes that he has nevertheless “failed to stop the growth machine destroying New York’s neighborhoods.” But having recognized that de Blasio’s plans won’t stop gentrification, Moskowitz does not explain why. Why has de Blasio not been more aggressive in protecting working-class neighborhoods?  Why did his core political base of black and Latino voters allowed such a weak affordable housing policy amidst the current crisis? Did they try to resist the mayor and fail? Did their leaders make bad deals with the mayor? Do they see de Blasio as the best mayor possible for their interests so do not want to break with him over housing policy?

Moskowitz leaves readers guessing, missing an important opportunity to add clarity to New York City’s ongoing gentrification process under a progressive mayor. His criticism of de Blasio seems to also conflict with his belief that New York City is best positioned to fight gentrification.  After all, if even the progressive-backed de Blasio is “promoting” it, then the progressive groups fighting gentrification have nowhere to turn.  Moskowitz  could at least have interviewed key progressive city officials and activists who back de Blasio so we could hear their explanations for why they have not aggressively demanded stronger action against gentrification.

San Francisco

The book’s section on San Francisco, which he calls “The Gentrified City,” is the least successful. Moskowitz repeats the familiar stories of tenant displacement during the post 2011 tech boom and includes the soon viral video of tech workers asking Latino kids to leave a Mission District soccer field. Moskowitz seems to have come into town, visited Mission activists, and then based his chapter on what he saw and heard. He says complaints about rising rents “seem to go unregistered at City Hall,” apparently unaware that Mayor Lee led efforts to pass a $1.3 billion affordable housing bond in 2011 and a $310 affordable housing bond in 2015. Nor does Moskowitz note the city’s historic financial support for the rebuilding of public housing, long a vital housing resource for the city’s low-income African American families

Moskowitz says that San Francisco city government “is allowing new, giant office buildings to be built in previously affordable neighborhoods,” which is flat out false. Nearly all these new office buildings are built either in downtown or Mission Bay—neither of which were previously “affordable neighborhoods.” He then says “new equitable zoning would change this,” when in truth the rezoning to prevent office towers is a non-issue in San Francisco.  Moskowitz had enough real evidence of San Francisco gentrification without having to ignore and mistate facts to make it appear even worse.

Moskowitz does a better job on New Orleans and Detroit. I actually learned the most from his Detroit chapter because I have not been closely following the saga of Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert’s purchase of much of the city (though Bedrock Development Company). Gilbert makes no secret of his desire to rebrand, transform and, yes gentrify long beleaguered Detroit.

For many, Detroit fits into the thesis of another recent book on New York City gentrification, The New Brooklyn. That book defends gentrification as having transformed unsafe neighborhoods into desirable places to live, and based on this thesis many will similarly applaud Gilbert’s efforts to improve Detroit.  Moskowitz provides multiple perspectives on the city’s changes (which he does not do for San Francisco), showing that even many longtime are not necessarily happy with the “new” Detroit. His book offers an intriguing update to a city that many believe had been lost for good, and now faces new challenges.

New Orleans’ story of gentrification via Hurricane Katrina is better known. It is a sad story that Moskowitz correctly places in the category of “shock doctrine capitalism,” though he reports that New Orleans still has the “highest percentage of native-born residents of any city in the United States.”

All in all, Moskowitz adds a passionate voice to those concerned about the future of American cities. And with a president whose views of urban America appear unchanged from the 1960’s, the more attention to the steady pricing out of the middle-class from major cities, the better.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He chronicles how a major San Francisco neighborhood avoided gentrification in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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