Thursday, October 27, 2016

The aftertaste of gentrification

Alfredo Triff

Is gentrification good or bad? The answer to the question is somewhat complex because the idea of gentrification is simultaneously denounced and defended by opposing sides of the political spectrum. Let's try to move beyond "binary thinking" and examine the roots of the ideological debate.

There is a "production side" theory advocated by Neil Smith, professor of anthropology and geography at Hunter College, and a "consumption side" hypothesis espoused by Miami architect and urban planner Andres Duany, principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. In a 1981 paper entitled "Gentrification as a Process of Uneven Development," Smith defined gentrification as a conflict between upper and lower economic classes that gives rise to racial tensions and physical dislocation. Following World War II, the market price of land in core urban areas fell behind that of the burgeoning suburbs. Property owners and other real estate interests began to disinvest from inner-city neighborhoods, which contributed to their physical deterioration. Frequent changes of ownership became commonplace, and that discouraged financial institutions from continued investment within the inner city.

What followed, according to Smith, was "redlining," the practice of withholding loans or insurance for homes considered high risk. The South Bronx in New York and Hoboken in New Jersey are well-known horror stories: Landlords no longer collected enough rent to cover basic costs, and structures were abandoned or torched for insurance payouts. Add to this bleak picture the evaporation of jobs (owing to the suburban flight of industries, governmental tax incentives for suburbia at the expense of the inner city, and the often brutal highway policies of the Sixties), and you have a recipe for poverty, deprivation, and homelessness.1

According to Smith, over time this process creates a "rent gap," which he defines as the difference between the rent commanded by a piece of inner-city land and the potential rent it could command if put to "higher and better" use. Eventually the gap grows so wide that affluent developers seize the opportunity to make profits from reinvestment and rehabilitation. Smith's theory ends up on the left end of the political spectrum. His macro-analytic approach is valuable because it explains the basis of the rent gap in the inner city and points to the social ills it creates. Smith, however, ignores and demonizes the dynamics of the middle-class urbanites (or gentrifiers) who move back to urban centers. Additionally his theory lacks empirical data in the case of younger cities with no significant industrial past, such as Miami.

Andres Duany2 is on the right side of the debate. He believes it is small-scale, middle-class entrepreneurs (instead of uncaring developers and bankers) who initiate the process of gentrification. This sector of the population rejects the cookie-cutter suburban mentality and prefers to live in the city's core. In his 2001 paper "Three Cheers for Gentrification," Duany identifies three stages of inner-city transformation: A "spontaneous" first wave of "risk-oblivious" low-income pioneers (students, artists, gays, and other self-marginalized social groups) who discover the allure of the area. Then he sees a second wave of "risk-aware" investors, mobile enough to secure loans and therefore capable of satisfying building codes and permits "that the first wave probably ignored." These are baby boomers who "enjoy the bohemian lifestyle while holding secure jobs." This is followed by a third, "risk-averse" wave, made up of "conventional developers who thoroughly smarten up the buildings through conventional real estate operations -physical renovation, improved maintenance, and organized security."

Seen from the point of view of the gentrifiers, I agree with Duany's phases. What I disagree with is how he dismisses the potential negative consequences for the people already renting and owning inner-city property before the third wave moves in. According to Duany, it's very difficult to intervene "supposedly on behalf of low-income residents because urban gentrification is organic and self-fueling. Its motive force is great urbanism." I'm surprised that Duany finds "great urbanism" more relevant than social upheaval. What is worse, he opposes one against the other.

Duany follows a pessimistic and indifferent trend akin to David Rusk's "law of urban dynamics." In his 1993 book Cities Without Suburbs Rusk declares, "Ghettos can only become bigger ghettos." Or Myron Orfield's Metropolitics, in which the author proclaims, "The lack of social mortar to hold neighborhoods together … makes economic development in extreme-poverty tracts or ghetto areas all but impossible."

Furthermore, Duany's diagnosis is incorrect. In fact there are examples of inner-city revitalization and reinvestment -even gentrification- that succeed without social displacement. Paul Grogan, in Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival, cites the South Bronx and Jersey City as areas where low-income and middle-class residents united behind nonprofit community development corporations to bring change in the form of "investment, developing or renovating property, building on assets, and generally drawing power and capital into the community rather than scaring it away." In truth the gentrifier is neither Duany's hero nor Smith's villain. I could see myself as one of them (between the first and second wave), trying to find a decent condo apartment with interesting architecture in the center city. And even if I accepted that gentrifiers are agents of change, the important question remains: Who has the real power? The answer to that, in my opinion, is indisputable: The true powers behind gentrification are the property owners, the developers, and the commercial lenders who finance them. That's the production side, not the consumption side.

And as for the initial question -is the gentrification of Miami a good thing or a bad thing? -I can answer that it depends. Miami's downtown has seen some reinvestment and revitalization, which is good. Downtown's development would add jobs, improving infrastructure, increasing tax revenues, and diminishing the trend toward suburban sprawl.

This is a different story from other neighborhoods in Miami, such as Little Haiti and Little Havana, where a residential base already exists.

If these residents were slowly evicted or bought out by the third wave of "risk averse" developers, the result would be bad gentrification. Why? Because it violates a basic principle of distributive justice: Treat people equally. Distributive justice, or welfare capitalism, is not the antithesis of free enterprise, the true fuel of gentrification. The two can coexist productively. The problem occurs when poorly managed gentrification leads to rocketing price inflation, social disruption, and a loss in cultural diversity.

I'd like to suggest a promising paradigm that shifts away from ideology. I'm referring to the idea of "cultural capital," a term coined by sociologist Sharon Zukin in her book Loft Living, a study of the gentrification in New York City's SoHo district during the Sixties and Seventies. Gentrification for Zukin results from a combination of culture and capital that generates urban cosmopolitanism. Her account of Sixties Manhattan surprisingly resembles today's Miami.

According to Zukin, as postwar New York replaced prewar Paris as the center of culture, the art world began generating tourism revenue and bringing prestige to the city. In the Fifties, Manhattan's upper-class elite discovered that modern art could work as an important urban and economic power. A change of the urban fabric was initiated by artists themselves, who fought a war with landlords, city agencies, and zoning laws for recognition and support of their lifestyle in the city's once-derelict industrial spaces.

Thanks to the artists' perseverance, an aesthetic and economic rebirth of those vacant warehouse districts began to take shape. The "artist's loft" of the Sixties became a symbol of urbanity and consumption of culture. By the Seventies the metamorphosis was legitimized when artists won the legal right to reside in loft spaces in key sections of lower Manhattan. Also in the Seventies, ironically, SoHo underwent Duany's third phase of gentrification. When real estate developers discovered the potential gold mine, the less prosperous among the cultural proletariat were priced out of the very area they had helped revitalize. They were forced to leave and begin the cycle anew in Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Perth Amboy. Today Brooklyn arguably has a more exciting art scene than Manhattan.

Will Miami's Wynwood neighborhood resemble the earlier phase of Lower Manhattan's renaissance?

We have to wait and see. Wynwood had a defining moment from 2004-2007, when Real Estate interests came, bought and built, followed by brand name commercial developments along North Miami Avenue.3 That was then. With the Real Estate Bust of 2008-2009 it seems as if gentrification may have slowed down. But it's only temporary. Though Real Estate prices have come down considerably, bank restructuring has made lending even tougher for low middle-class people. And there is unemployment: Our jobless rate of 11.1% is the highest among Florida's major urban counties. Builders and wealthy tenants have the means to hold and wait. Private and commercial interests can always benefit from lower condo prices.  

Our "condo-miracle" may have (temporarily) helped Miami's economic base, but it could prove costly. Why? The almost simultaneous emergence of gentrification and displacement, speculative activity, and large-scale foreclosure provides a schizoid image of a city half-phoenix /half-ashes. And in the midst of the ashes stand not only unsold condos and broken dreams, but un-housed and displaced people, a paradox of the new order.
1 For a revealing account of the Hoboken renaissance click this 1984 New York Times article by Anthony de Palma. 2The more one examines DPZ projects, the more one understands its basic tensions: 1- New Urbanism assures integration and affordability but its projects are built for the elite. Despite the best intention of planners and designers, 2- New Urbanism operates within an economic system that benefits the status quo: Developers, Real Estate and Banks interests. 3- On the surface, New Urbanism seems to contribute to more inclusive and equitable communities, but in fact it spurs the growth of exclusive developments. 4- While the public rhetoric of New Urbanism project a committment to traditional patterns, its actual approach to growth betrays modernist tactics and premises. From a post-2008 recession point of view, Duany's DPZ fares better on its "Downtown Plans" than its "Villages and Towns" (the explanation would take us beyond the topic at hand). What is left of physical and intellectual landscape? Through advertising, public order legislation, gentrification and the commodification of popular culture, Global capital has effectively appropriated the social agency to bring about conscientious change. Hence, as the Spacejackers Manifesto puts it, "to exist today means to tread on the property of other."  4 Wynwood has changed its face. Some important galleries (like Perrotin) have closed or (like Locust Projects) moved to the Design District. Some smaller galleries that populated North Miami Avenue, have moved to North West 2nd Avenue and beyond (which gallery would really treasure being next door to the West Elms, Targets and Marshalls of Miami?).


Anonymous said...

I am forwarding this article to my urbanism class at FIU. Thanks.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Excellent post I very much like this image: "...foreclosure provides a schizoid image of a city half-phoenix /half-ashes". La Chichi

miamibourbaki said...

Thanks, guys and Chichi.

T-Rob said...

I think this idea is interesting and the presented arguements, both, very believable. I think however relying on history repeating itself might leave someone blind to things going on in the world around them. I do not have any ideas of my own to add to this but, I do feel with the rising middle class and the meager 1% who are rich you'll find that cities will expand to purchase cheap land and create "cookie-cutter" housing such as most housing seen in cuttler Bay, and Homestead.
The romanticized Idea Duane proposed sounds better on paper, in my opinion. I'd like to believe that the artists that are brewing in this decade with everything thay has occured will be the ones aspiring Miami's future.

A.T. said...

Robert: Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

duane has defended the point of pedestrian friendly but the pedestrian he has in mind are all yuppies.

Anonymous said...

Hey Triff. This is a cool mf blog.


miamibourbaki said...

Thanks, Tommy. Keep visiting.