Building blocks to a gentrified city

Gentrification in Coburg unwittingly on the front page of the Age today.
Who do projects like Better Block ultimately benefit?

Street party in Coburg.

This is the story of the creation of a streetcar from desire. In the Texas city of Dallas, Jason Roberts was looking at ways to reinvigorate his ailing neighbourhood of Oak Cliff. It was, says Roberts, considered a bad part of town.

Oak Cliff used to have a streetcar service, once running over 32 kilometres of track. In 1956, the trolley bells fell silent, and the tracks were covered with asphalt. That, it seemed, was literally the end of the line.

But Roberts, an IT guy by day, saw the potential of what a streetcar service could mean for Oak Cliff. He created a website for the Oak Cliff Transit Authority, with a mission to fire a debate on the return of the streetcar.

Initially, the authority had a membership of one: Roberts. But that’s all it took. The local paper did a story, generously if inaccurately referring to Roberts and his supporters. The power of one soon became many, as people – including a civil engineer and a streetcar specialist – came forward.

A non-profit organisation was formed, followed by a pitch for a grant for federal government funding. The odds of success were slim. Yet the government was looking for projects that reconnected workforce housing to business areas.

It liked the Oak Cliff streetcar idea to the tune of $US23 million ($24.3 million). Work has started, and streetcars will be back on the rails in Oak Cliff next year, for the first time in almost 60 years.

Roberts wanted to start a conversation: ”Why did we take this out? If it was so important to our development, is there a way for us to bring it back?” The answer was a resounding yes.

The streetcar dream is just part of the story for the 39-year-old Roberts. He has long moved on from his IT career and, with co-founder Andrew Howard, leads the Better Block movement, now spreading across the world, including to the streets of Melbourne and Sydney.

The Better Block movement is part of a whole new approach to transforming unloved areas that have been neglected by the official channels of government and hamstrung by ordinances and planning processes. In essence, it is a grassroots movement, where locals step up and seek to improve the area where they live.

A driving principle is about ordinary people showing the potential of what could be through temporary projects. Last weekend, two streets in Melbourne and Geelong were transformed by locals as Better Block ”pop-up” demonstrations.

In Coburg, an unloved section of High Street was closed off and became a place of trees, astroturf nature strips and street chess. In Geelong, Little Malop Street was filled with vegie boxes, community-built furniture and art installations. A Better Block is planned for Sydney’s Clovelly in October. It’s about showing what could be, and hopefully, bringing about permanent improvements to an area.

The Better Block idea started getting attention in Australia earlier this year, when Andrew Howard was brought out by the Sustainable Living Festival. He drew enthusiastic crowds on a speaking tour of Melbourne, country Victoria and Sydney. ”We knew there was this great concept emerging in America, and it hadn’t really surfaced in Australia,” says Liz Franzmann, who managed the tour.

Franzmann, who works as a community organiser, has been volunteering with the Better Block movement, and was one of a group of friends behind the Coburg Better Block last weekend. ”Better Block for me is essentially using that notion of a street party, but with a change agenda,” she says.

Roberts was the star attraction at both events last weekend, and was enthused by what he saw. A common theme in both projects – and indeed the wider Better Block movement – is getting people connected. ”You can’t get physical change until you have the community really buzzing, talking again,” he says.

The movement is generating interest in Australia among planners who can see the potential. After speaking in Melbourne this week at a conference on liveable cities, several approached Roberts to learn more about the movement. Roberts also spoke to an inner-city arts group about creating their own Better Block project.

It all began for Roberts back in 2005 in the ”blighted” streets of Oak Cliff. His first project was the dilapidated Texas Theatre, a grand picture palace opened in 1931. The theatre, of course, was best known as the place where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested after the 1963 shooting of president John F. Kennedy. Police descended after a report that a man had entered the theatre without a ticket.

The history of the Texas Theatre was chequered from that notorious moment. Locals, explains Roberts, tried to run away from that legacy. A non-profit group was trying to raise funds to restore the building, but they needed millions.

Roberts loved history and old buildings. ”I wanted, for selfish reasons, just to see it, get inside and experience the space,” he says. ”But I also wanted others to, too. I wanted something to happen and I knew that I wasn’t a developer with millions of dollars to fix the problem. But what could I do? Well, I could bring people to the equation.

”And that’s where in the end, when cities or developers or anybody is trying to do something, all they are trying to do is to get people to come in. I just leapt past all of the financial concerns and all those other issues. I’ll just create an avenue for people to be involved.”

That avenue was the Art Conspiracy (referencing the ”Who shot JFK?” conspiracies), where 100 artists were brought in and given canvases. The next day, their works were sold at auction for charity.

His aim was to get energy and life into the space, to ”let people see what could be”.

”I think by just doing that act, somebody will shake out from all of this that can help us. That’s really what it was – it was people seeing the potential.”

The idea worked, and almost a decade on, the Texas Theatre is now loved again, a bustling place that shows independent films.

While he was researching the streetcar project, he noticed that cities with streetcars also had a transport system that included many modes, including robust bicycle programs.

Roberts loved the cycling culture – even though he didn’t own a bike.

He organised a bike ride. The theme was less about high-speed recreational cycling, and more about local cycling, riding to your local grocery store. He was expecting 20 people that Sunday morning. As he nervously rode off, he had 150 riders behind him. The man who wasn’t really a cyclist was suddenly their leader.

Roberts says it taught him the need for people to stand up. Those 150 were ”waiting for something like this to occur, and they were waiting for someone to champion these things: we need more of these social bike rides, and we need more of this infrastructure.

”It made me realise that, wow, just by taking a stand, people fell in line behind me and said, ‘All right. We’ve got a leader. Let’s go.’

”You will be surprised at how many times, especially when you’re dealing with these projects like the Better Block, when you bring the community together, and you talk about what’s missing in an area or could be better, we all share a lot of the same ideas.”

Then came the first block project in Oak Cliff, which has become something of a template for the Better Block movement. A vacant, underutilised and unloved block was chosen. Typically, says Roberts, the places around the world he loves are only a block in size.

”It’s kind of like your laneways here,” he says. ”You’ll find this little laneway, and you’re like, this is the perfect little laneway. I don’t need anything more. I’ve got a little cafe, I’ve got a little market. Actually the scale, it doesn’t have to be large. In fact, the smallness always makes it more intimate.”

Roberts and his friends looked at what they needed to create a centre for the community. That included bringing in trees, street side cafes and music. The two-day ”pop-up” block was an outstanding success. The block is now enjoying increased occupancies and new shopfronts. ”Things started happening … it really snowballed.”

Initially, the approach was a form of urban guerilla tactics – go around the planning process and just do it. ”My thing was, how do I bypass that, just to give people the experience of the block I have in my brain, which is that place where people sit down outside, drink a cup of coffee, listen to music, maybe outside,” says Roberts.

These days, cities and planners are hiring Roberts and partner Andrew Howard to work on projects with the community. The old approach involved consulting the public through abstract conversations at town halls, and Photoshop renderings of what is planned.

”Our idea was to take that same energy and time you’re putting into that, and just transfer it onto an area that has a problem,” says Roberts.

Town hall meetings, he says, encourage the emergence of naysayers, who use the platform to say no to anything. ”Often times, it sucks the air out of a room. People are just, well, I guess that’s how the whole community feels because people are saying this.”

What started as an unsanctioned exercise is now getting official backing. Roberts says the role of officials is to ”clear the stage”, cut through the bureaucracy and allow communities to innovate on a temporary basis.

This is what happened in Coburg and Geelong last weekend. Coburg High Street resident Jules Martin, a landscape architect, was one of the instigators. He and his partner moved from a beautiful, nature-stripped Northcote street 3½ years ago to a Coburg street where asphalt covered the strips, and trees struggled to grow through postage-stamp cut-outs.

”I’ve been calling it the poor cousin or the ugly duckling of the neighbourhood,” says Martin. But not last Sunday, when it was a street transformed and brimming with potential. About 300 people came to High Street, some from across town who came to see a Better Block in action.

The top-down element was also there, with Melbourne Water demonstrating and giving away downpipe diverters and the local council invited.

The ultimate aim is bringing about some permanent change. Having shown what’s possible, Martin and his fellow Better Blockers will meet again with council staff. ”It’s not going to happen unless you actually get out there and make it happen,” says Martin, ”and show that we are engaged and interested, and would like to see change.”

Short Circuit: Towards an Anarchist Approach to Gentrification

from libcom.org. Defs recommended reading!

I. Defining Gentrification

No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is everywhere the same: the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success—but they appear again immediately somewhere else, and often in the immediate neighbourhood.
– Freidrich Engels, The Housing Question

Gentrification, etymologically speaking, is a relatively new word, coined in 1964 by the English Marxist sociologist Ruth Glass. Conceptually, some would claim that it has been a feature of urban life for hundreds of years. Between 1853 and 1870, for instance, the Haussmannization of Paris forced thousands of poor people from the centre of the city, where rents had traditionally been cheaper, to the urban periphery; these migrations were the forced results of structural changes Baron Haussmann had proposed to the city’s urban geography, and rapidly increasing rents. We might anachronistically consider displacements such as these an example of gentrification, but, as we will explore below, the term has some specificity and nuance that such comparisons fail to capture.

Glass came up with the term gentrification to describe the growing displacement of residents of working-class neighbourhoods in London by middle-class property buyers, often under the auspice of “urban renewal”. Much like in the United States, London witnessed a flight of monied residents from the city-centre to the suburbs following the second World War, precipitated by a boom in suburban housing stock. This boom was largely facilitated by the state: plans for the post-WWII reconstruction of London favoured the suburbs as the supposed future of the city. High demand for housing in the city-proper led policy planners to envision a city population dispersed across a wider geographical area. Financial and infrastructural incentives, like those included in the U.K.’s 1946’s New Towns Act and 1952’s New Towns Development Act, provided developers with public capital to create new suburban areas designed to contain “overflow” from crowded urban centres. This meant that many older neighbourhoods in London quickly converted to multi-occupant dwellings; as monied residents moved to the newly expanding suburbs, the demand for housing in the city decreased and became more affordable for working-class people. Like it did in many other cities, this transformation involved converting dwellings that had previously been single family houses into rooming houses or shared accommodations.

The state, preoccupied with its vision of suburban expansion, relegated these increasingly working-class areas to decay and ruin. Repairs and renovation were considered unnecessary or wasteful and resources were funnelled into suburban development. Given these revisions, two major changes to many London neighbourhoods become salient to our discussion of gentrification: 1) Housing stock in these areas became affordable to working-class residents due to the migration of more affluent residents to the new towns and suburbs, thus creating predominantly working-class neighbourhoods; 2) The flight of more affluent residents also created a disinvestment in these new working-class areas: existing housing was repurposed but also fell into disrepair as necessary capital was now not available for maintenance uses (owing to a combination of state indifference and the migration of private capital).

Thus, by the time Glass was writing, portions of London were populated by working-class denizens who occupied architecturally older buildings that had often fallen into disrepair. This configuration of space meant that real estate in many of these neighbourhoods was cheap and often of historical or architectural significance. By the late 50’s and early 60’s, many middle-class professionals began to take an interest in these dwellings and neighbourhoods, purchasing cheap property and renovating it. These “pioneer” gentrifiers usually employed their own labour and capital, as government subsidies were still tied up in the New Towns plan and financial entities were reluctant to offer loans, as the neighbourhoods were considered risky investment prospects,on account of their primarily working-class composition. As more and more middle-class people adopted this strategy, rents rose as landlords and property owners realized that their existing properties could be more profitable if utilized by or sold to non-working-class residents. This led to the displacement of many working-class residents as their neighbourhoods became prohibitively expensive. By way of example, the Barnsbury neighbourhood of London witnessed a drop in unfurnished rental units from 61% of the housing stock in 1961 to just 6% in 1981.

For Glass, this shift represented the jumping off point for her definition of gentrification: the “rehabilitation” of working-class areas by middle-class property buyers and the subsequent displacement of the original tenants. Glass also emphasized the class element of this transformation; gentrification is a play on the English term gentry, used to denote the class of landowners and bourgeoisie immediately below the nobility in the social hierarchy. The affluent middle-class professionals who saw investment and housing opportunities in traditionally working-class areas were, according to Glass, the contemporary manifestation of the gentry. By this rationale, we may define the classical approach to gentrification as the displacement of poor people from areas and housing by the economic and social pressures brought on by having new residents with more access to social and financial capital move into their neighbourhood(s) and make substantial alterations to both the housing stock and demographics of the area. Or, in the words of English geographer Tom Slater, gentrification is “the neighbourhood expression of class inequality.”

II. The Multiple Stages Theories of Gentrification

Capital doesn’t care if we feel at home somewhere. That feeling is a barrier to investment.
– Prole.info, The Housing Monster

Building on Glass’ work in the mid 1960’s, American urban theorist Philip Clay postulated a four-stage model of gentrification that aimed to describe its mechanics more substantially. Clay’s work proved highly influential in shaping discourse around gentrification, illustrating, in part, how neighbourhoods actually become gentrified. This was a contrast to Glass’ classical approach, which was more a descriptive theory of a process already well underway by the time she was writing. Clay’s four-stage model was broken down as follows:

Stage one: Pioneering gentrification – New residents of a neighbourhood, often with more access to financial resources and cultural/social capital, move into traditionally working-class neighbourhoods. They renovate property, usually using private capital because mortgages are unavailable due to the perceived risk of the area. Little or no displacement occurs at this stage, as existing properties are often vacant and new properties are built on unused land.

Stage two: Expanding gentrification – Word spreads about the emerging “viability” of the neighbourhood; perceptive realtors begin offering property in and around the area. The associated financial risk implicit in stage one is minimized, but not eliminated: large scale developers are still wary of injecting capital into the area. Displacement begins, as the stock of available housing falls and rents begin to increase. Small mortgages start becoming available and renovation may expand to adjacent blocks. Buildings may be held for purposes of real estate speculation, as landlords and property owners see emergent changes to the area.

Stage three: Adolescent gentrification – More risk-averse people may start moving into the neighbourhood, as there now exists a growing consensus that the area is a “safe investment.” Gentrifiers, old and new, may band together into associations to exert additional political/social pressure to further the gentrifying process (i.e. Neighbourhood associations, business improvement associations, historical preservation societies, etc.). Rents increase dramatically at this point and class struggle between gentrifiers and older residents becomes most pronounced. Media attention may develop as physical changes to the area become more evident and external private capital (loans, mortgages, etc.) becomes more easily available.

Stage four: Mature gentrification – The area is considered safe, trendy, a good investment; homeowners may begin to see themselves displaced; major developers and financial institutions may begin to profit off the area. Buildings held for speculation now appear on the market. Interestingly, even the first wave of gentrifiers may be displaced at this stage, as even wealthier people decide to move in and financial entities see land in the area as a profitable investment site.

Clay’s model is both a strength and weakness for gentrification theorists. On the one hand, as noted above, it provides a relatively concrete picture of how neighbourhoods actually become gentrified. It is useful both as historical metric for examining how gentrification has affected an area and, simultaneously, as a tool to evaluate possible interventions in the process: for example, if a neighbourhood exhibits characteristics typical of stage three or four, actions appropriate to stage one would be counter-productive.

Conversely, Clay’s model is very much a microcosmic theory: it focuses on the process of how a specific neighbourhood undergoes gentrification, but offers little insight into the broader forces that drive the process; it emphasizes “how” at the expense of “why”. Perhaps the most useful feature of Clay’s model, from an anti-capitalist perspective, is the treatment of gentrification as the progressive reduction in risk for outside investors. Movement between the various stages of Clay’s model describe how barriers to outside investment are gradually removed; from a financial point of view, a gentrified neighbourhood is a safe neighbourhood. But, in the absence of a broader account of the functioning of capitalism, this analysis is incomplete. Subsequent models, like those discussed below, attempt to address these deficits by linking the transformation of neighbourhoods to the larger operation of globalized capitalism or, put another way, to add a macrocosmic dimension to the microcosmic particulars of Clay’s stage model.

Owing to several of the weaknesses cited above, two noted urban sociologists, Neil Smith and Jason Hackworth, proposed a model that takes into account the broader processes that create the conditions that make gentrification possible. Consisting of three stages punctuated by recessions, the Hackworth and Smith model views gentrification as a cycle of investment and disinvestment, and is a useful counterpoint to the narrower focus of Clay’s four-stage model.

Stage one: Sporadic and State-Led (1950-1973) – Smith and Hackworth identify this early stage of gentrification as something of a successor to Clay’s stage one. In contrast to Clay, they emphasize the role of the state in providing the impetus for further gentrification. Between 1950 and 1973, in both North America and much of Western Europe, gentrification was a relatively isolated phenomenon, largely confined to smaller neighbourhoods in larger cities. As noted by Clay’s model, pioneer gentrifiers employed their own capital and sweat equity to redevelop existing housing stock. Spurred by successes in this regard, the state began to see gentrification as a shorthand, cheaper means of accomplishing “urban renewal” projects. Limited federal funding became available after early pioneer attempts at gentrification proved successful, often in the form of grants and subsidies for the renovation of damaged or unused buildings. By controlling these funding streams, especially given the initial reluctance of private sector investment, the state exercised a primary role in determining the course that gentrification took. 

1973-1977: Recession – An emerging global economic recession created a situation where the state sought to move capital from unproductive to productive sectors, favouring investment in areas that actively produced surplus value. This discouraged tendencies at play in stage one: money used for grants and subsidies was redirected towards sectors of the economy that provided a higher return on investment.

Stage two: Expansion and Resistance (1970’s and 80’s) – Within this stage, gentrification took on both a cultural and financial dimension. Recovering from the recession, cities began to view gentrification not so much an occasion for urban renewal, but as an opportunity for investment. The state, still reeling from the recession, began to take a more cautious approach, realizing the necessity of creating new investment opportunities, but still reluctant to actively subsidize gentrification as it once had. In this light, state funding for gentrification took a more laissez-faire approach, trying to prod the private sector into further investment. As a consequence of these developments, gentrification became much more widely dispersed: in order to attract the investment necessary to further urban restructuring, cities began investing in cultural and commercial centres adjacent to potential gentrifying neighbourhoods (museums, promenades, stadiums, galleries, etc). These cultural centres, in the words of Smith and Hackworth, “smoothed the flow of capital.” And, as globalization continued apace, links between local urban restructuring and international finance became more tangible; the state sought to attract globalized capital, with gentrification as a primary target of investment. This loosening of global capital on disinvested neighbourhoods created much more rapid, ruthless, unchecked pace of gentrification, which was often resisted by the residents facing displacement.

Early 1990’s: Recession – Another, smaller global economic recession led several theorists to postulate “degentrification” as many neighbourhoods saw the process ground to a halt or severely clawed back, indicating general post-recession skittishness from investors.

Stage three: Further Expansion (1990’s-2000’s) – Rebounding from the recession, this third wave of gentrification again witnessed a shift in strategy. States and corporate powers began much more actively colluding in the process of gentrification. Gentrification became viewed, by both parties, as a strategy of generalized capital accumulation. In contrast to the casual laissez-faire support of stage two, the state was now actively partnering with larger corporate entities to further gentrification—often as development partners. Concurrent to these developments, this attitude of viewing neighbourhoods solely as sites for potential global investment and development saw gentrification branch out from its traditional roots in disinherited urban areas to many other parts of the city. Also, developers now began to play a much more active process, supplanting pioneer gentrifiers as the primary engine of gentrification. Finally, this stage also saw effective community resistance to gentrification minimized or ignored because the approach to space encoded within gentrification – that of an internationally distributed network of financial capital tied to the state’s urban planning policies – became viewed as something close to inevitable or “common-sense”. Gentrification had become, in many places, something akin to a hegemony of urban space, something healthy cities aspired to, as inevitable and regular as the tides. History has now reached a point where gentrification is no longer merely middle or upper-class buyers displacing working-class people, but an approach to space that privileges existing class relations and props up global capitalism in very real and tangible ways.

Developing a coherent picture of a phenomenon as complicated and multifaceted as gentrification requires both large-scale and small-scale analysis. We need to be able to both identify what is happening in our communities and link it to what is happening the world over. In this light, the works of Glass, Clay, Smith and Hackworth should be seen as broadly complimentary. The next section of this article will explore in greater detail some of the bigger economic questions at play within gentrification and how they relate to debates on the use of the city.

III. The Economics of Gentrification

With the upheaval of the market economy, we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.
-Walter Benjamin

The 1970s witnessed a number of critical theoretical contributions to the field of urban studies that challenged the dominant assumption that changes to urban demographics and geography were reflections of the sovereignty of consumer choice — a belief which framed the long-standing influence of the Chicago School of Sociology on the study of urban development. An important contribution to emerge from this shift was the Rent Gap Theory pioneered by Neil Smith (of the Smith and Hackworth model). This theory has not been without its critics, but it remains one of the best means of understanding the individual incentives that lead landowners to contribute to gentrification.

Land is a unique form of commodity, in that its exchange value is entirely dependent on its potential use value. In an urban setting, the use value of land is a social construction based primarily on its location — the general desirability of a surrounding neighbourhood, proximity to transportation corridors, public parks, shopping centres etc. Landowners and developers capitalize on property’s latent use value through the addition of labour and investments of further capital, whether the end result assumes the form of an economic venture (a factory, theme park, etc), owner-occupant housing or a multi-tenant apartment building. The type of fixed capital investment pursued by the landowner will vary, depending on zoning regulations and the maximized potential for profit derived from the use of the land — a factor that Smith described as Potential Ground Rent. However, this capital investment, once completed, becomes a barrier to further investment; once a building has been constructed, the land cannot be used for anything else. At this point, the land’s Potential Ground Rent materializes into Capitalized Ground Rent, in the form of a steady income stream (in the case of rent) or a lump sum (in the case of sale), while finance capital moves off in search of new opportunities for investment. This cycle of investment/divestment explains why areas of the city face staggered waves of development.

As time passes, technological and architectural innovations, coupled with changes to the surrounding neighbourhood combine with the inevitable deterioration of the buildings and corresponding rise in maintenance costs. This creates a gap between Capitalized Ground Rent, and the Potential Ground Rent that could be actualized by the redevelopment of the property. The more time passes, the larger this gap growths, and the stronger the incentive for redevelopment. Once the rent gap reaches a certain threshold, it becomes more profitable for a landlord to let their property sink into an abject state of disrepair than to continue paying for its active upkeep; they thus give up on the “hard work” of being a landlord and become a speculator — biding their time for the right opportunity to sell their land to developers eager to capitalize on its Potential Ground Rent. And so the cycle continues.

Changes in the structures of the city

As capitalism has transformed itself through the neoliberal restructuring of global production, cities have undergone a parallel process of urban restructuring. In developing regions, this change has manifested most clearly in the spread of Export Processing Zones (EPZs)—concentrated industrial trading hubs designed for the manufacture and transportation of cheap goods, on a mass scale, to global consumer markets. In developed regions, on the other hand, this shift has been marked by the transition to a post-industrial economy characterized by the growth of finance, advertising and service sector jobs, and the relative downgrading of the manufacturing sector. Cities, traditionally built to house workers in close proximity to large factories, nowadays reflect an economic environment in which the working class has been dispersed among a much larger number of companies, each composed of smaller, more flexible workforces.

The shift to a post-industrial, information-based economy has also forced a recomposition of the working class itself. Large metropolitan cities have become the managerial epicentres of global commerce, with wealth creation dependent on a new technocratic class based in finance, insurance, real estate, marketing and I.T. This swarm of white-collar workers is attended to by an even larger contingent of service and hospitality workers in the food and beverage, customer service and retail sectors — types of employment marked by their precarious nature and low wages. The decline in the traditional manufacturing sector has been mitigated by a corresponding rise in construction jobs, largely tied to the cyclical boom and bust nature of urban restructuring.

This shift in demographics hides the true economic forces that drive the process, as influxes of yuppies come to be seen as the cause, rather than the symptom, of gentrification. This perception is most palpable in neighbourhoods where increased condo development is synonymous with urban displacement. Yet this situation is not without historical precedent; the social and economic divisions between those who benefit from the new, higher-paying jobs of the postindustrial economy and the more precarious segments of the class echo earlier divisions between so-called “skilled” and “unskilled” labourers of the late nineteenth century. Now, as then, the primary agent of capitalist restructuring remains the capitalist class.

From boom to bust

Emerging from the economic recession of 2000-2001—a crisis triggered by the bursting of the dot-com stock market bubble—the period of 2000-2007 was characterized by massive growth in the housing sectors of many developed nations. A mixture of low interest rates and financial deregulation combined to produce unprecedented housing bubbles in the United States, Ireland, and Spain, with significant price increases also occurring in Britain, China, Australia, France, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Canada. By 2005, the Economist was reporting that the combined value of all residential property in the world’s developed economies had shot up by an estimated $30 trillion over the previous five years — an increase that not only dwarfed any previous housing boom, but was also larger (as a percentage of GDP) than the stock market booms of the 1920s and early 1990s, effectively making it the biggest asset bubble in human history.

These grossly inflated housing prices spurred a frenzy of new home construction. Between 1996-2005, there were 553,267 new houses built in Ireland (a country with a population of 4.5 million); while the three years of 2004-2006 saw over 1.8 million new homes built in Spain, and over 5.7 million in the United States. This glut of new construction produced an incredible windfall for the banking sector, which profited both from the financing of development projects and the corresponding explosion in home mortgages.

We all know what happened next. As the housing bubble in the United States burst, it soon became clear that the banks financing the boom had seriously over-leveraged themselves. Toxic subprime mortgages, hidden from balance sheets through the use of securitized debt instruments, were now spread throughout the global financial system; the result was the international economic crisis of 2007- 2008, which was quickly followed by several rounds of successive bank bailouts and the prescribed solution to the fiscal deficits created by this swindle—austerity.

Looking into the future

Alone among G8 nations, Canada emerged from the global economic crisis in relatively good shape. A stricter financial regulatory system in the lead up to the crisis had barred Canadian banks from engaging in some of the riskier practices of their US counterparts and kept them from overexposing themselves, unlike their European counterparts, to the turmoil of the credit derivatives market. Following a short downturn in 2008, the housing market soon stabilized and continued its expansion. But problems in the Canadian market were brewing, even then. Financial deregulation introduced by the Harper administration in 2006 subsequently led to the rapid creation of a large subprime housing market where none had existed before: persistently low interest rates have flooded the balance sheets of the Canadian Housing Mortgage Corporation (CHMC) to nearly $600 billion; and rising housing prices have led to exponential growth in Home Equity Lines of Credit (HELOCS), leading to a corresponding explosion in household debt levels. And over the past year, housing sales have finally begun to decline, causing many financial analysts to declare that the bubble is about to burst. Because the loans insured by the CHMC are backed up by the Canadian taxpayer, a mortgage crisis triggered by a housing collapse will automatically lead to bank bailouts and massive federal deficits, thus requiring the implementation of further neoliberal restructuring, almost certainly coming in the form of punishing austerity measures. While it is impossible to predict how this will play out in the urban environment, there are some things that we know for sure.

Much of the growth that has occurred during this bubble has been concentrated in Canada’s two most overpriced housing markets: Toronto and Vancouver. Both cities have witnessed a flurry of high-rise condo development that has accelerated the displacement of low-income residents from their respective downtown cores. These condominium towers are being built quickly, en masse—and often on the cheap. In an article entitled Faulty Towers, journalist Philip Preville spoke to a number of recent condo buyers in Toronto, who pointed out some of the structural issues they discovered soon after moving into their shiny new homes. These problems included, but were not limited to: collapsing glass balconies, faulty ventilation and drainage systems, cracks in the foundation, poor insulation, thin walls, cheap cement coating on steel rebar, improperly installed floor-to-ceiling windows and leaky sprinklers. Maintenance costs for these buildings typically begin to skyrocket within the first two years, as the “owners” of the building are forced to pay for repairs to the initial shoddy construction, and install more energy efficient water heaters, air conditioning units and fluorescent lighting systems.

When these buildings, facing the divestment cycle outlined in Smith’s Rent Gap Theory, begin to decay, they will pose unique obstacles to reinvestment, owing to their diverse per-unit ownership structure. As these condo units become more and more dilapidated amidst the context of a collapsing real estate market, their value will drastically plummet. Owners of these condos will be faced with the choice of either continuing to live in them, while paying ever mounting maintenance fees, selling them at a loss, or converting them into rental units. As many current condo owners will likely have no interest in becoming landlords, these units could foreseeably be subcontracted out to rental agencies or sold off in blocks to a new generation of slumlords, who could seek to increase their profits by neglecting to carry out required repairs. No matter how this plays out, in a decade or two these high-rise condominiums, currently epitomized as the status symbols of the urban “middle-class” and the cutting edge of gentrification, are fated to become the slums of the future.

IV. Anarchist Responses to Gentrification

Houses are ours because we build them and need them, and for that reason we’re going to have them!
-Rent Strike Participant, Milan, 1970

Anarchists understandably feel an intrinsic and visceral opposition to gentrification. It represents a capitalist attack on our neighbourhoods and homes, a destructive expression of state and corporate power that uproots entire communities. Perhaps most of all, it enrages us because it so often seems largely beyond our control, watching landlords and speculators mould neighbourhoods as they will, with the firm support of the state. As disgusting as this situation is on its own, there are also several reasons that anarchists should oppose gentrification from a purely strategic point of view.

As we have noted, gentrification is both a process of transforming the city to reflect changes in the global economy and a restructuring of urban space to meet the constantly expanding needs of capital investment: this effectively makes gentrification the urban front line of capitalism. If we can halt the incursion of gentrification into a neighbourhood, we are effectively halting capitalism’s expansion, and denying capital the chance to reproduce itself at our expense.

Gentrification brings with it increased repression through the installation of additional CCTV surveillance cameras, the further commodification of public space, a broken window approach to policing and the spread of private security. It is a process perpetuated by local business and resident associations, developers and city counsellors: manifestations of the ruling class banding together to collectively assert their class power. Struggling against gentrification thus means struggling against the spread of this repressive apparatus and a chance to sharpen our skills while defying the collaborative efforts of capitalists and the state.

Finally, neighbourhood-level struggles against gentrification can build a capacity to assert our own class power by spreading confidence in the possibilities of collective action. The violence of gentrification pulls back the veil of capitalism, showing it plainly for what it truly is: a contest between classes with mutually opposing interests. The state’s willing collaboration in this process, be it through the blatant doublespeak of city counsellors or the eagerness of police to defend the private property rights of absentee landlords, can make our neighbours increasingly receptive to anarchist ideas, as they become validated through lived experience.

Conceptualizing an Anarchist Intervention Against Gentrification

Resistance to gentrification is a pervasive feature of the gentrification process. The form such resistance takes, however, is nowhere near universal and varies widely from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. In some places, acts of property destruction, sabotage and propaganda assume a place of prominence; in others, neighbourhood groups or associations form in order to exert organized political and economic pressure on gentrifiers and their agents. Historically speaking, concerted anti-authoritarian responses to gentrification have been limited and have usually been closer to the former approach, as borne out by numerous historical examples (Mission Yuppie Eradication Project in San Francisco; the Anti-Gentrification Front in Vancouver; and the Toronto Solidarity Cell in Toronto).

Both of these approaches have individual strengths and weaknesses but, broadly speaking, most neighbourhood responses to encroaching gentrification seem to fall somewhere on a continuum between the two. On the one hand, acts of property destruction, sabotage and propaganda are usually enacted by individuals or small groups, working alone and often isolated from larger political projects or neighbourhood engagement. On the other, the emphasis on organizing tenant or neighbourhood committees necessitates a wider focus and often employs tactics like door-knocking, social research and lobbying. The primary difference between the two poles of this hypothetical continuum is where the effective locus for resistance is located: the “direct action” pole locates the site of resistance as the individual or small group, whereas the “advocacy” pole situates the network or group as primarily important.

It is important to note that no individual or group that we know has taken a hardline stance that either the social or the individual is the sole force capable of attacking gentrification. We have divided actions along this continuum not to caricature perspectives on struggle, but to talk about how energy and resources are expended in anti-gentrification work and to foreground how both poles presuppose perspectives on gentrification that are problematic and incomplete. To further develop this distinction, we will look at two recent approaches to anti-gentrification work that have coexisted in the same geographic area, Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES).

Vancouver’s DTES is often colloquially referred to as “Canada’s poorest area code”. Recent years, however, have seen an influx of gentrifying capital in neighbourhoods like China Town and Gastown, with the attendant new condos and businesses familiar to the process. The rapid changes in the neighbourhood have seen longtime residents displaced and necessary social services rendered inaccessible. The volume of people affected by the DTES’ gentrification has produced a range of responses, two of which typify both the strengths and weaknesses of the continuum proposed above.

The Anti-Gentrification Front (AGF) is a moniker used by several anonymous individuals who have staged acts of targeted property destruction and propaganda, usually in the form of communiqués posted on the internet. These attacks on businesses and developers, including the destruction of a new pizza restaurant’s windows in late 2012, have attracted enormous media attention and placed questions around the gentrification of the DTES at the forefront of discussions around development in Vancouver. In some ways, the AGF’s choice of tactics demonstrates a relatively sophisticated, if incomplete, understanding of gentrification. AGF actions seem to be designed to increase investor trepidation by ensuring the neighbourhood remains “risky”. Its actions demonstrate that members of the DTES community will continue to resist ongoing gentrification with direct action.

Conversely, however, the very nature of these tactical choices ensures that the AGF will remain small and largely anonymous. This risks creating a vanguardist clique, where “effective” resistance to gentrification remains the province of a small, politically homogenous group that may not reflect the broader wishes of the neighbourhood they claim to act for. Small group formations like the AGF are, by their nature, largely politically unaccountable and do not articulate an alternate vision for the area. Seen in this light, anti-gentrification work is an inherently negative political project: it opposes, but does not propose. The limitations of this perspective are already apparent, as AGF actions are recuperated and depoliticized by those eager to paint their resistance as the work of mere criminals and agitators—a trope that has been front and centre in media and popular discussions of AGF actions, and has limited broader public support for their work.

The Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) is a community group formed in 2009, out of the ashes of several other neighbourhood groups, including the Downtown East Resident’s Association (DERA). The DNC has done much to highlight the gentrification of the DTES, including publishing reports and studies on the impact of gentrification and organizing meetings and town halls for residents to discuss and strategize around gentrification issues. The DNC is open to all residents of the DTES who agree with its organizing principles and constitution, and has a broader focus that many anti-gentrification groups, engaging in work around harm reduction and anti-colonialism, among other issues. In contrast to the AGF, the DNC actively engages in the political process, even having a member of its Board of Directors on the Local Area Planning Process (LAPP) committee—a City of Vancouver-run project to produce a development plan for the “revitalization” of the DTES. The DNC receives funding from several other community organizations and donors, including the Vancity credit union.

The approach to gentrification presupposed by the DNC understands resistance to gentrification as a communal effort, but also creates some confusion regarding the scope and limits of their activities. By accepting a role in official discourse around development, the DNC largely focuses on advocacy and research. The ties between the city, businesses and non-profits like DNC also create a web of associations that serve to obfuscate the way gentrification actually proceeds, painting it as a process to be managed, with the participation of anti-gentrification groups like DNC serving as means to legitimate this perspective. Additionally, the flow of funding, resources and legitimacy that organizations like the DNC rely on from outside entities can diminish the effectiveness of the organization, linking them to those that may seek to influence their politics. For example, in 2012, DNC member Ivan Drury was removed from a seat on LAPP when the city manager accused him of being “threatening” and “bullying” for employing direct action tactics by leading a neighbourhood delegation to confront a Development Permit Board meeting on condo development.

As anarchists, we need to situate our efforts to resist gentrification between these two poles, developing a perspective that retains the social focus and flexibility of groups like the DNC but also acknowledging the necessity of extra-governmental resistance to gentrification proposed by formations like the AGF. We need structures that are accountable to and reflective of the neighbourhoods we struggle in, but that also develop a radical and comprehensive indictment of the broader capitalist forces that produce gentrification. In short, we need to develop structures in our communities that can effectively bridge the gap between “direct action” and “advocacy”. We would argue that the assembly form is the only structure that can viably incorporate these criticisms and function as an effective challenge to gentrification.

Understanding gentrification as a multifaceted process that encompasses many struggles, including work around police harassment and defence of immigrants, we need structures that are both flexible enough to respond to a variety of community issues while retaining a political perspective rooted in a sound understanding of how global forces shape our neighbourhoods and communities. Directly democratic neighbourhood assemblies can focus involvement in neighbourhood struggles, serving as both an impediment to unwanted investment (by serving as a viable conduit for collective action and a means of developing class consciousness and identity) and a tool for bettering the neighbourhood for current residents. This can be done by ensuring its composition reflects their needs and desires (social services, new development, etc.) of the local residents and mobilizing broad segments of the community to fight for them.

The possibilities for urban assemblies can be glimpsed by looking at the successes of events like the Milanese rent strikes of the 1970s. Tenant unions were formed by autonomists who sought to take the class consciousness of workers in the factories and transpose it to the neighbourhood level; to accomplish this they built structures capable of addressing tenant grievances with direct action, in a manner similar to the way radical unions operated in the workplace. For the Autonomia, struggle could not be compartmentalized into neat divisions and so their project emphasized listening to their community and acting on their material needs, while injecting a broader program for political action. This led to several large scale occupations, rent strikes and other direct actions that both secured their neighbourhoods and advanced a radical anti-capitalist program. While not explicitly centred on anti-gentrification efforts, these struggles opened up the neighbourhood as a site of organization and contestation, a development necessary for successful anti-gentrification work.

It seems positively utopian to argue that such formations could quickly emerge in today’s neoliberal metropolis. North American anarchist politics, especially as it applies to anti-gentrification, seems irreducibly tethered to either pole of the continuum. But, as the example of the Italian Autonomia demonstrates, the essential prerequisite for action that bridges this divide is the construction of a tenant or neighbourhood identity, just as effective action around labour struggles requires identification as a worker. In order to build a neighbourhood assembly, residents must both believe in a common identity and the capacity of collective action to address their material needs. The autonomist theory of the social factory provided this groundwork in the Italian context. Lacking that in post-industrial North America, the project of building neighbourhood assemblies becomes one of creating these foundational prerequisites in the communities we live in.

We would argue that community-focused direct action campaigns resulting from social research and lived participation in our communities (rent strikes, anti-police brutality campaigns, and actions taken to stop evictions and deportations) can both produce concrete gains and protect existing services for community members under attack, while serving as intermediary building blocks for producing larger-scale grassroots structures. Over the past twenty years in North America, many groups have sprung up that mirror this trajectory. In New York City, Movement for Justice in El Barrio is an immigrant-led anti-gentrification group that has organized with tenants in Spanish Harlem via encuentros, which are open assemblies designed to listen to residents’ concerns about and form plans of action to see that they are addressed. This format has produced a large, diverse movement against the ongoing gentrification of East Harlem that has won several major victories against landlords and developers, all the while emphasizing the root of the process as being neoliberal capitalism. Less specifically, the solidarity network (solnet) model also broadly reflects this understanding, offering the flexibility to respond to various neighbourhood struggles while forging ties among participants. Seen in this light, the solnet format has great possibilities for anti-gentrification struggles. Resistance to a phenomenon as both distributed and localized as gentrification requires new forms of organizing and it is groups like the solnets or spaces like the encuentro that serve as necessary stepping stones for the broader, wider assemblies that could effectively contest the emerging neoliberal consensus that the cities and neighbourhoods we live in are just opportunities for investment and that we, as working-class residents, are merely impediments to the free movement of capital.

Conclusion

The macroeconomic forces that ultimately drive this gentrification are, at least for the moment, firmly beyond our reach: anarchists couldn’t change interest rates, even if we wanted to. We can, however, contest these manifestations on the local level, and we should do so with urgency. By building local structures of neighbourhood class power, we delineate physical territorial gains that can be defended from further capitalist incursions, and which can inspire others facing similar conditions. Gentrification is a relatively ubiquitous phenomenon within the developed world, and so it represents a potential entry point of anti-capitalist resistance for almost anybody. As these struggles proliferate, grounding themselves in different neighbourhoods, they can network together, thereby increasing their participants’ collective capacity to attack and defend.

Anti-gentrification struggles elucidate the connection between the macrocosmic economic forces of capitalism and the microcosmic experiences of everyday life in our neighbourhoods. In this way, struggling against gentrification can represent a negotiation between the global and the local that ought to prefigure all anarchist thought and praxis. The fight against the transformation city into a desert of capital grounds us in a place and time: we struggle where we live, but this itself is a contingent fact. In cities, towns, slums and neighbourhoods across the planet, the same struggles are being enacted by the same class, differing only in minutiae like zoning regulations or height restrictions. In electrical engineering, a short circuit is a connection between nodes that results in an overcharge of energy, possibly causing damage, fire, etc. We believe that anti-gentrification work can prove a short circuit to the smooth functioning of capital, a coming together of atomized people and neighbourhoods to assert their power collectively and provide the small spark, the brief flare, that can place the entire system in jeopardy.

Invitation to participate in the 6th AMAGG (6th Annual Montreal Anti-Gentrification Games)!

from Anarchist News.

Spring…the sounds and sights of lilacs blooming, starlings teaching their young to fly, and freshly tagged condo presentation centre… time for Montreal’s 6th Annual Anti-Gentrification Games!

There’s plenty of analysis on why gentrification is fucked, and everyone has their own reasons, informed by ideology and experience. Rising rent and increased enforcement of nuisance bylaws chase broke folks out of their homes. Condo developers profit off of an image of community that their developments work steadily to crush. And as gentrification changes the social and geographic landscapes of neighborhoods, spaces are sold out to the more easily controlled, and we (as anarchists, etc.) lose ground in our skirmish with society. Even if we don’t feel that we have true communities in these neighborhoods; luxury condos, the lifestyle they promise, and the measures of social control they require ensure that the types of lives we want to lead and the communities we want to sustain and create will never be possible.

Let’s create the spaces we want to live in, and destroy the ones we hate! St. Henri, Point St. Charles, Verdun, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve—this is your formal invitation to participate in Montreal’s 6th Annual Anti Gentrification Games!

Here are some ways in which one could participate:
– organize a neighbourhood block party
– resolve a conflict with your neighbor amoungst yourselves
– put up anti-gentrification, anti-police graff
– redecorate a condo presentation centre
– convince a yuppie that a neighborhood is ‘too dangerous’ to buy a condo in
– start a luxury car hood ornament collection
– redesign condo promotional advertising
– take advantage of a free sale at a gentrifying store
– be creative!

The only points you get for participating are -10 for taking yourself too seriously.

Get together, stay safe, and have fun!

–Montreal’s 6AAGG Organizing Committee

Invitation à participer à la 6e AJAGM (6e Edition Annuelle des Jeux Anti-Gentrification de Montréal)!

Le printemps… ses sons et le vue des lilas en fleurs, les étourneaux apprenent à leurs petits à voler et les bureaux de vente de condo fraîchement tagués…il est le temps pour le 6e Edition Annuelle des Jeux Anti-Gentrification de Montréal! Il existe plusieurs analyses pour expliquer pourquoi la gentrification, c’est de la merde, et tout le monde a ses raisons, influencées par l’idéologie et l’expérience. Les augmentationa du prix des loyers et l’application des règlements sur la nuisance ont pour effet de chasser les pauvres de leur maison. Les promoteurs immobiliers profit d’une image de la communauté qu’ils s’encharnent consciencieusement à détruire. Et alors que la gentrification tranforme profondément le paysage urbain et le tissu social des quartiers, des espaces sont vendus à ceux et celles qui sont plus facilement côntrolables et nous (en tout qu’anarchistes, etc.) perdons du terrain dans notre combat contre la société.

Même si nous ne sentons pas que nous avons de réelles communautés dans ces quartiers, les condos luxueux, le style de vie qu’ils promettent et les mesures de côntrole social qu’ils nécessitent assurent que n’y seront jamais possibles les formes de vie et les communautés que nous voulons créer. Faisons en sorte de créer les espaces dans lesquels nous voulons vivre et de détruire ceux que nous détestons!

St. Henri, Pointe St Charles, Verdun, Hochelage-Maisonneuve…ceci est une invitation formelle à participer à le 6e EAJAGM!

Cette participation peut prendre diverses formes:
– Organizer un party de rue de quartier
– régler un conflit avec des voisin.es sans la participation des flics
– faire un graf contre la police ou contre le gentrification
– redécorer le bureau de vente d’un condo
– convaincre un ‘bobo’ qu’un quartier est trop ‘dangereux’ pour qu’il y achete un condo
– commencer un collection des ornements de capot des voitures de luxe
– concevoir un nouveau design pour la pub d’un développement de condos
– profiter de la ‘gratuité’ d’un commerce gentrificateur
– faisons preuve d’imagination!

Les seuls points de participation sont: -10 points pour se prendre trop sérieux.

Organisez-vous, restez prudent.es, et amusez-vous!

–Le comité d’organisation de la 6e EAJAGM

Large protest voices opposition against gentrification of the Downtown Eastside

from Straight (unfortunate name)

More than 200 people gathered at the corner of Main and Hastings streets today (June 11) to voice their opposition against the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside.

 

They carried signs and chanted slogans calling for affordable housing. Several speakers placed an emphasis on the rights of aboriginal people, and argued that a lack of affordable housing contributes to high levels of violence against women.

Herb Varley, a resident of the Downtown Eastside who served as an MC for the demonstration, told the Straight that rising rents are forcing many low-income earners out of the area they consider their home.

“Many people who I’ve talked to, they’ve said that in other neighborhoods, they don’t feel welcome and that they don’t have a connection to those neighborhoods,” Varney said just before the protest got underway. “And then they came down here and they found themselves and they found a community… but now they’re being forced to leave.”

Varley, who also goes by the Nisga’a name Gwin Ga’adihl Amma Goot, is a member of the Downtown Eastside Local Area Planning Process, which is working with the City of Vancouver to improve the quality of life in the area. But he said he’s dissatisfied with that process.

He claimed that while more than 1,000 condos have been approved for the few blocks immediately surrounding the Carnegie Community Centre, less than three dozen affordable housing units have been made available in that same area.

“We’ve been asked to work in good faith, but every condo unit that comes and gets approved is a show of bad faith,” Varney explained. “So we’ve had a thousand shows of bad faith versus two dozen shows of good faith, with maybe another 12 still up in the air. That’s not a very good ratio and we are understandably upset about that.”

After approximately 20 minutes blocking the intersection of Main and Hastings streets, the group of demonstrators moved one block east, to the BC Housing office at Hastings and Gore streets. There, a number of speakers expressed frustration with what they described as that office’s failure to provide affordable housing in the Downtown Eastside.

As the march moved back west along Hastings Street, Ivan Drury, one of the event’s organizers, told the Straight that he has participated in the city’s Local Area Planning Process for two years and has yet to see the initiative make any difference in the Downtown Eastside.

“People are here today because being included in a planning process is not enough,” Drury said. “People are here today because we need justice, not accommodations for the real estate market.”

“The voices of low income people are being marginalized,” he added.

Addressing a group of Downtown Eastside advocates in April 2013, city manager Penny Ballem said that affordable housing and related issues are a “major focus” of the city.

“The city is working very hard to leverage all the opportunities that we can to improve housing for low-income people, to renovate and rehabilitate housing, and there’s a lot of work still to be done,” she emphasized.

Once Unsafe, Rio’s Shantytowns See Rapid Gentrification

from Archinect.

Views of Ipanema Beach and the South Zone in Rio are seen from Vidigal. An eco-friendly hotel is under construction in the favela. The hotel, which will hire local workers, is part of a massive gentrification process underway in a neighborhood once wrought with violence and drug traffickers. (Lianne Milton for NPR)

A new boutique hotel perched on top of one of Rio’s previously most dangerous favelas is about to open. And yes, there is a jazz club and yoga, too.

These are new services catering to a new kind of favela resident.

“It’s actually very conveniently located for my work,” says Natalie Shoup, a 22-year-old American who lives in a favela called Babilonia, or Babylon. “This has a good amount of transportation to every part of the city. It’s nice. It worked out really well.” — npr.org

A fixer-upper kind of town: comments on gentrification in Oakland

There has been some really interesting writing coming out on the gentrification of Oakland, California recently, and this is an important piece. I’m really interested in trying to cover the much broader spectrum of issues that gentrification and housing justice encompasses than ‘stuff white people like’ but at the same time I don’t think it’s okay for white people to wash our hands of the situation here in Melbourne by concluding (for example) that the gentrification of Footscray has been a government planning policy since the 1980’s. Yes, it has – but I don’t believe that the discussion should end there.

From Oakland Local.

This past weekend, I moved out of my place in Deep East Oakland. I still work at 98th and International — in a middle-school after-school program — but my residence at 82nd and MacArthur drew to its natural close, the house where I’d lived during its renovation by a housing nonprofit I volunteer with now ready for sale. I’m staying at a friend’s place by the lake for now; it’s on the old Parkway side, not the Grand Lake side, but even though it’s supposedly ungentrified territory — well, it’s worlds away from Deep East.

This morning, as I sat on my friend’s couch and penned a lengthy blog post about “Game of Thrones” and Margaret Thatcher, some workmen down the block began to play music. It was loud, with thumping basslines and catchy Spanish rhythms, loud enough to be obnoxious to neighbors. Nobody said anything for about an hour or so, and with the windows open I tapped my foot in time to the beat as I wrote. Then a woman began shouting from her own window, at first somewhat politely: “Can you please turn that music down? I’m trying to study for a test.”

It wasn’t apparent that the workmen had heard and her shouts quickly became angry. “Turn that music off! It is too fucking loud and I have a goddamn test!”

The music went off, moments later, and I could hear the discussion from the street through the window. The woman and another neighbor spoke loudly and angrily, while the workmen were quiet and deferential, not native English speakers; the woman and her neighbor cursed at the workmen, repeatedly. When the young man with whom they were speaking raised his own voice in anger — not shouting as the two neighbors were, but speaking up — the neighbors threatened to call the cops and walked away. “This generation,” the male neighbor said, as they returned to their houses. “They’re such brats.”

Two minutes later, the music returned.

Immediately, the shouting woman was back. The workmen turned the music down and then off as she cursed; she had already called the cops, she said, and they were on their way. She wanted the music to stay off, she said. The workmen walked away without a word, the Spanish rhythms silenced but the air still crackling: this neighbor insisted, loudly, on a promise that the music wouldn’t reappear. “I need you to promise me,” she shouted at their backs. “Can you promise me? Can you fucking look at me?”

They did not. The music had been off for several minutes then.

She called the cops.

“There’s a situation here,” she said. “Some young men are playing music very loudly and they refuse to turn it off.” In the course of her entire conversation with the police she gave them the workmen’s license plate numbers to run, suggested that they were illegally using handicapped placards, and never once deigned to mention that the music had turned off and stayed off for some time now. Eventually, the second neighbor joined her. “I just got off the phone with the police,” she told him.

“Good,” he said. “These people need to be reported.”

Privilege, thy name is white people.

I wrote a piece more than a year ago, about my move to Oakland. It was published at Grist, an online environmental magazine, and it got quoted in Slate, and I felt Internet-famous for a day. I talked about moving to Oakland in 2009 and discovering the opportunity here, on the less-hip side of the Bay, and I used a careless and unspecific phrase: Oakland, I said, was a “fixer-upper kind of town.”

There are things in Oakland that need repair and investment, both social and capital. The streets in the flatlands could use some attention. Even the feds agree that the police force needs an overhaul. I’ve spent time laboring to improve some of the housing stock, not for home-flippers or wealthy new buyers but as part of a nonprofit that helps lower-income elderly and disabled people with home maintenance and upkeep; it exposed me to a lot of wonderful, old-school Oaklanders, and it made me regret my incautious words. I grew up in Cleveland; I know what it is for a formerly wealthy industrial town to be hurting economically. To call it a “fixer-upper,” though, implied that the solution could be found in the civic version of a new coat of paint, that new restaurants or farmers’ markets or food trucks could be an answer in themselves.

They are not.

All of those examples are based on food, because food is trendy right now, and food justice is a real thing.

From my house in Deep East it was half an hour by bus to the nearest real grocery store, each way. I was only feeding myself; my groceries are easy enough to carry on public transit. To feed a family in those circumstances must be a bitch, but then, grocery stores and wealth track each other fairly closely around here, just as public transit and wealth do.

Strange, given that decent food and available transportation are two of the most pressing needs of lower-income people, but then I guess that’s just what privilege is all about: when you can choose not to bother with the expense and hassle of a car and you can also live anywhere you want, why not go for density and deliciousness? Yes, you could live somewhere farther out and afford a car, but this is so much nicer; this has so many amenities.

Your amenities, however, are other people’s lifelines. And now that you’ve moved in, those people can’t afford the neighborhood anymore. They’re pushed to less desirable places, without BART stations or late-night bus lines or stores that sell fresh produce, and while you just feel liberated without the burden of a car these people wish they could afford one.

It would be such a nice amenity.

I’ve been reading this series so far, and many of the comments. It’s mostly interesting, and occasionally horrifying, which is a pretty good ratio for the Internet. Some people seem to believe that you can talk about gentrification without talking about race, but these people are wrong: housing policy has always been a tool to maintain white supremacy, to create intergenerational wealth amongst white folks and to ensure the entrenchment of poverty amongst black folks. Even the poorest white people in America have benefitted by not being black, in very tangible financial ways.

Gentrification is not entirely white, but it is almost entirely white.

It’s impossible to talk about Oakland without talking about crime, and law enforcement. Oakland has a high violent crime rate. Most of the perpetrators, and most of the victims, are young black men. Noting this fact is not racist, but philosophizing that blackness is somehow determinate to Oakland’s criminality — while holding that whiteness is incidental to gentrification — well, that is very much racist, indeed.

It is possible to be white, move to Oakland, and not be a gentrifier, to contribute to the actual community instead of imagining — and using one’s privilege to engineer — something sanitized and whiter and “better”.

Forcing poor people of color to move to Richmond may improve Oakland’s “image”, it might move it up in rankings by Forbes or the New York Times, but it doesn’t actually solve any of the deep, fundamental problems of crime, of a racist police force, of poverty.

Fortunately, all you have to do to be a non-gentrifying white person is listen.

Not to me — I’m white, too, on food stamps more often than not but still privileged.

Stop listening to me and go out and listen to your neighbors.

Go to Deep East. Don’t drive there — take the bus, the 1 or the 40 all the way down the avenues. Don’t bring headphones. Ask people what they think about Oakland. You’ll find a lot of opinions. Consider them.

Volunteer to fix up a house with Rebuilding Together, and get to know the homeowner. Most of them are sweet old ladies with stories of Oakland stretching back decades. They’ll tell you about how they bought their house in the fifties, or the sixties or the seventies, before Oakland’s manufacturing economy imploded and lower-skilled workers couldn’t find well-paying jobs anymore.

Go to an Oakland public school, an elementary school or a middle school or a high school. Volunteer as a tutor. If you speak a second language, volunteer to translate for parents. Volunteer at an after-school program, to teach something from your career field. Chaperone kids on a field trip to UC Berkeley, and tell them what it was like for you to go to college. Talk to them about graduate school.

Use your privilege — your political voice — to pressure OPD into reform. When a person of color pens an essay about how white people shouldn’t call the cops unless they want to alienate their neighbors of color, don’t write her off as juvenile or immature or ignorant: there’s a good chance she’s had more experience with the police than you have, and her sentiments, while not necessarily solution-oriented, come from an honest and informed place. Try to understand that place, and use that information and understanding to help those persecuted by an authority whose racist violence is all too often implicitly sanctioned by white people.

And the next time a Hispanic person refuses to pinkie-swear that he’ll never bother you again, don’t call the cops on him. In fact, the next time someone on your block is blaring music loudly, approach them and treat them like a person, rather than reaching for your white privilege before your common humanity.

You’re a decent person. You’re not a racist. I get it: none of us are, anymore. In a community like Oakland, where white people tend towards the educated and liberal, racism and gentrification are just things that happen, things outside of ourselves, because even though we’re white people we’re not that kind of white person.

But what if we are?