Tagged: anti-hipster

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.”

Gentrification and its Discontents: Notes from New Orleans

From New Geography.

Readers of this forum have probably heard rumors of gentrification in post-Katrina New Orleans. Residential shifts playing out in the Crescent City share many commonalities with those elsewhere, but also bear some distinctions and paradoxes. I offer these observations from the so-called Williamsburg of the South, a neighborhood called Bywater.

Gentrification arrived rather early to New Orleans, a generation before the term was coined. Writers and artists settled in the French Quarter in the 1920s and 1930s, drawn by the appeal of its expatriated Mediterranean atmosphere, not to mention its cheap rent, good food, and abundant alcohol despite Prohibition. Initial restorations of historic structures ensued, although it was not until after World War II that wealthier, educated newcomers began steadily supplanting working-class Sicilian and black Creole natives.

By the 1970s, the French Quarter was largely gentrified, and the process continued downriver into the adjacent Faubourg Marigny (a historical moniker revived by Francophile preservationists and savvy real estate agents) and upriver into the Lower Garden District (also a new toponym: gentrification has a vocabulary as well as a geography). It progressed through the 1980s-2000s but only modestly, slowed by the city’s abundant social problems and limited economic opportunity. New Orleans in this era ranked as the Sun Belt’s premier shrinking city, losing 170,000 residents between 1960 and 2005. The relatively few newcomers tended to be gentrifiers, and gentrifiers today are overwhelmingly transplants. I, for example, am both, and I use the terms interchangeably in this piece.

One Storm, Two Waves

Everything changed after August-September 2005, when the Hurricane Katrina deluge, amid all the tragedy, unexpectedly positioned New Orleans as a cause célèbre for a generation of idealistic millennials. A few thousand urbanists, environmentalists, and social workers—we called them “the brain gain;” they called themselves YURPS, or Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals—took leave from their graduate studies and nascent careers and headed South to be a part of something important.

Many landed positions in planning and recovery efforts, or in an alphabet soup of new nonprofits; some parlayed their experiences into Ph.D. dissertations, many of which are coming out now in book form. This cohort, which I estimate in the low- to mid-four digits, largely moved on around 2008-2009, as recovery moneys petered out. Then a second wave began arriving, enticed by the relatively robust regional economy compared to the rest of the nation. These newcomers were greater in number (I estimate 15,000-20,000 and continuing), more specially skilled, and serious about planting domestic and economic roots here. Some today are new-media entrepreneurs; others work with Teach for America or within the highly charter-ized public school system (infused recently with a billion federal dollars), or in the booming tax-incentivized Louisiana film industry and other cultural-economy niches.

Brushing shoulders with them are a fair number of newly arrived artists, musicians, and creative types who turned their backs on the Great Recession woes and resettled in what they perceived to be an undiscovered bohemia in the lower faubourgs of New Orleans—just as their predecessors did in the French Quarter 80 years prior. It is primarily these second-wave transplants who have accelerated gentrification patterns.

Spatial and Social Structure of New Orleans Gentrification

Gentrification in New Orleans is spatially regularized and predictable. Two underlying geographies must be in place before better-educated, more-moneyed transplants start to move into neighborhoods of working-class natives. First, the area must be historic. Most people who opt to move to New Orleans envision living in Creole quaintness or Classical splendor amidst nineteen-century cityscapes; they are not seeking mundane ranch houses or split-levels in subdivisions. That distinctive housing stock exists only in about half of New Orleans proper and one-quarter of the conurbation, mostly upon the higher terrain closer to the Mississippi River. The second factor is physical proximity to a neighborhood that has already gentrified, or that never economically declined in the first place, like the Garden District.

Gentrification hot-spots today may be found along the fringes of what I have (somewhat jokingly) dubbed the “white teapot,” a relatively wealthy and well-educated majority-white area shaped like a kettle (see Figure 1) in uptown New Orleans, around Audubon Park and Tulane and Loyola universities, with a curving spout along the St. Charles Avenue/Magazine Street corridor through the French Quarter and into the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater. Comparing 2000 to 2010 census data, the teapot has broadened and internally whitened, and the changes mostly involve gentrification. The process has also progressed into the Faubourg Tremé (not coincidentally the subject of the HBO drama Tremé) and up Esplanade Avenue into Mid-City, which ranks just behind Bywater as a favored spot for post-Katrina transplants. All these areas were originally urbanized on higher terrain before 1900, all have historic housing stock, and all are coterminous to some degree.


Figure 1. Hot spots (marked with red stars) of post-Katrina gentrification in New Orleans, shown with circa-2000 demographic data and a delineation of the “white teapot.” Bywater appears at right. Map and analysis by Richard Campanella.

The frontiers of gentrification are “pioneered” by certain social cohorts who settle sequentially, usually over a period of five to twenty years. The four-phase cycle often begins with—forgive my tongue-in-cheek use of vernacular stereotypes: (1) “gutter punks” (their term), young transients with troubled backgrounds who bitterly reject societal norms and settle, squatter-like, in the roughest neighborhoods bordering bohemian or tourist districts, where they busk or beg in tattered attire.

On their unshod heels come (2) hipsters, who, also fixated upon dissing the mainstream but better educated and obsessively self-aware, see these punk-infused neighborhoods as bastions of coolness.

Their presence generates a certain funky vibe that appeals to the third phase of the gentrification sequence: (3) “bourgeois bohemians,” to use David Brooks’ term. Free-spirited but well-educated and willing to strike a bargain with middle-class normalcy, this group is skillfully employed, buys old houses and lovingly restores them, engages tirelessly in civic affairs, and can reliably be found at the Saturday morning farmers’ market. Usually childless, they often convert doubles to singles, which removes rentable housing stock from the neighborhood even as property values rise and lower-class renters find themselves priced out their own neighborhoods. (Gentrification in New Orleans tends to be more house-based than in northeastern cities, where renovated industrial or commercial buildings dominate the transformation).

After the area attains full-blown “revived” status, the final cohort arrives: (4) bona fide gentry, including lawyers, doctors, moneyed retirees, and alpha-professionals from places like Manhattan or San Francisco. Real estate agents and developers are involved at every phase transition, sometimes leading, sometimes following, always profiting.

Native tenants fare the worst in the process, often finding themselves unable to afford the rising rent and facing eviction. Those who own, however, might experience a windfall, their abodes now worth ten to fifty times more than their grandparents paid. Of the four-phase process, a neighborhood like St. Roch is currently between phases 1 and 2; the Irish Channel is 3-to-4 in the blocks closer to Magazine and 2-to-3 closer to Tchoupitoulas; Bywater is swiftly moving from 2 to 3 to 4; Marigny is nearing 4; and the French Quarter is post-4.

Locavores in a Kiddie Wilderness

Tensions abound among the four cohorts. The phase-1 and -2 folks openly regret their role in paving the way for phases 3 and 4, and see themselves as sharing the victimhood of their mostly black working-class renter neighbors. Skeptical of proposed amenities such as riverfront parks or the removal of an elevated expressway, they fear such “improvements” may foretell further rent hikes and threaten their claim to edgy urban authenticity. They decry phase-3 and -4 folks through “Die Yuppie Scum” graffiti, or via pasted denunciations of Pres Kabacoff (see Figure 2), a local developer specializing in historic restoration and mixed-income public housing.

Phase-3 and -4 folks, meanwhile, look askance at the hipsters and the gutter punks, but otherwise wax ambivalent about gentrification and its effect on deep-rooted mostly African-American natives. They lament their role in ousting the very vessels of localism they came to savor, but also take pride in their spirited civic engagement and rescue of architectural treasures.

Gentrifiers seem to stew in irreconcilable philosophical disequilibrium. Fortunately, they’ve created plenty of nice spaces to stew in. Bywater in the past few years has seen the opening of nearly ten retro-chic foodie/locavore-type restaurants, two new art-loft colonies, guerrilla galleries and performance spaces on grungy St. Claude Avenue, a “healing center” affiliated with Kabacoff and his Maine-born voodoo-priestess partner, yoga studios, a vinyl records store, and a smattering of coffee shops where one can overhear conversations about bioswales, tactical urbanism, the klezmer music scene, and every conceivable permutation of “sustainability” and “resilience.”

It’s increasingly like living in a city of graduate students. Nothing wrong with that—except, what happens when they, well, graduate? Will a subsequent wave take their place? Or will the neighborhood be too pricey by then?

Bywater’s elders, families, and inter-generational households, meanwhile, have gone from the norm to the exception. Racially, the black population, which tended to be highly family-based, declined by 64 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the white population increased by 22 percent, regaining the majority status it had prior to the white flight of the 1960s-1970s. It was the Katrina disruption and the accompanying closure of schools that initially drove out the mostly black households with children, more so than gentrification per se.1  Bywater ever since has become a kiddie wilderness; the 968 youngsters who lived here in 2000 numbered only 285 in 2010. When our son was born in 2012, he was the very first post-Katrina birth on our street, the sole child on a block that had eleven when we first arrived (as category-3 types, I suppose, sans the “bohemian”) from Mississippi in 2000.2

Impact on New Orleans Culture

Many predicted that the 2005 deluge would wash away New Orleans’ sui generis character. Paradoxically, post-Katrina gentrifiers are simultaneously distinguishing and homogenizing local culture vis-à-vis American norms, depending on how one defines culture. By the humanist’s notion, the newcomers are actually breathing new life into local customs and traditions. Transplants arrive endeavoring to be a part of the epic adventure of living here; thus, through the process of self-selection, they tend to be Orleaneophilic “super-natives.” They embrace Mardi Gras enthusiastically, going so far as to form their own krewes and walking clubs (though always with irony, winking in gentle mockery at old-line uptown krewes). They celebrate the city’s culinary legacy, though their tastes generally run away from fried okra and toward “house-made beet ravioli w/ goat cheese ricotta mint stuffing” (I’m citing a chalkboard menu at a new Bywater restaurant, revealingly named Suis Generis, “Fine Dining for the People;” see Figure 2). And they are universally enamored with local music and public festivity, to the point of enrolling in second-line dancing classes and taking it upon themselves to organize jazz funerals whenever a local icon dies.

By the anthropologist’s notion, however, transplants are definitely changing New Orleans culture. They are much more secular, less fertile, more liberal, and less parochial than native-born New Orleanians. They see local conservatism as a problem calling for enlightenment rather than an opinion to be respected, and view the importation of national and global values as imperative to a sustainable and equitable recovery. Indeed, the entire scene in the new Bywater eateries—from the artisanal food on the menus to the statement art on the walls to the progressive worldview of the patrons—can be picked up and dropped seamlessly into Austin, Burlington, Portland, or Brooklyn.


Figure 2. “Fine Dining for the People:” streetscapes of gentrification in Bywater. Montage by Richard Campanella.

A Precedent and a Hobgoblin

How will this all play out? History offers a precedent. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, better-educated English-speaking Anglos moved in large numbers into the parochial, mostly Catholic and Francophone Creole society of New Orleans. “The Americans [are] swarming in from the northern states,” lamented one departing French official, “invading Louisiana as the holy tribes invaded the land of Canaan, [each turning] over in his mind a little plan of speculation”—sentiments that might echo those of displaced natives today.3 What resulted from the Creole/Anglo intermingling was not gentrification—the two groups lived separately—but rather a complex, gradual cultural hybridization. Native Creoles and Anglo transplants intermarried, blended their legal systems, their architectural tastes and surveying methods, their civic traditions and foodways, and to some degree their languages. What resulted was the fascinating mélange that is modern-day Louisiana.

Gentrifier culture is already hybridizing with native ways; post-Katrina transplants are opening restaurants, writing books, starting businesses and hiring natives, organizing festivals, and even running for public office, all the while introducing external ideas into local canon. What differs in the analogy is the fact that the nineteenth-century newcomers planted familial roots here and spawned multiple subsequent generations, each bringing new vitality to the city. Gentrifiers, on the other hand, usually have very low birth rates, and those few that do become parents oftentimes find themselves reluctantly departing the very inner-city neighborhoods they helped revive, for want of playmates and decent schools. By that time, exorbitant real estate precludes the next wave of dynamic twenty-somethings from moving in, and the same neighborhood that once flourished gradually grows gray, empty, and frozen in historically renovated time. Unless gentrified neighborhoods make themselves into affordable and agreeable places to raise and educate the next generation, they will morph into dour historical theme parks with price tags only aging one-percenters can afford.

Lack of age diversity and a paucity of “kiddie capital”—good local schools, playmates next door, child-friendly services—are the hobgoblins of gentrification in a historically familial city like New Orleans. Yet their impacts seem to be lost on many gentrifiers. Some earthy contingents even expresses mock disgust at the sight of baby carriages—the height of uncool—not realizing that the infant inside might represent the neighborhood’s best hope of remaining down-to-earth.

Need evidence of those impacts? Take a walk on a sunny Saturday through the lower French Quarter, the residential section of New Orleans’ original gentrified neighborhood. You will see spectacular architecture, dazzling cast-iron filigree, flowering gardens—and hardly a resident in sight, much less the next generation playing in the streets. Many of the antebellum townhouses have been subdivided into pied-à-terre condominiums vacant most of the year; others are home to peripatetic professionals or aging couples living in guarded privacy behind bolted-shut French doors. The historic streetscapes bear a museum-like stillness that would be eerie if they weren’t so beautiful.

So Hipsters Aren’t the Economic Boon Some Urbanists Thought They’d Be

From Jezebel.

originalRemember how the creative class of writers, artists, urban cheesemongers, professional tricyclists, novelty button manufacturers, food truckers, and artisan mustache-growers was supposed to supplant crumbling blue collar industries in economically stagnant cities? Remember? Well, according to Richard Florida, the editor-at-large for The Atlantic Cities, the creative class was totally going to work all those miracles, propping up cities like Detroit and Cleveland with pale, keyboard-cramped hands. It’s just that, um, well, that’s not at all what has happened.

Joel Kotkin, one of Florida’s sternest critics, sounded off (a little too gleefully) on the creative class’s many economic failures today in the Daily Beast. It’s been a trendy line of thinking over the last couple of years among urbanists, journalists, and academics, explains Kotkin, that an influx of “hip” young residents into urban areas would benefit those areas. The new arrivals would help build wonderful little independent bookstores, coffee shops, and tapas restaurants. Everyone would prosper as a result of such glittering monuments to urban hipsterdom — property values would go up, downtrodden blue collar workers would be enlightened, and there would be locally sourced produce for everyone.

The only hitch in all this optimism, as Kotkin notes here and others like Tulane sociologist Richard Campanella have have noted elsewhere, is that all these wonderful new creative class businesses benefit only one group of people: members of the creative class. In his thesis about the rise of urban creatives, Florida pointed to cities like San Francisco and Seattle as bastions of highly-educated, creative residents. With just a few more bike lanes and liberal arts majors, El Paso, for instance, could become a bustling hub of creative activity and not merely a glorified urban hipster playground.

So much faith was placed in the hands of the creative class that the Florida’s Creative Class Group cultivated a client list of cities ready and willing to spend the money necessary to make themselves over in the image of cities like Portland and Austin. Here’s what happened with that:

Alec MacGillis, writing at The American Prospect in 2009, noted that after collecting large fees from down-at-the-heels burgs like Cleveland, Toledo, Hartford, Rochester, and Elmira, New York over the years, Florida himself asserted that we can’t “stop the decline of some places” and urged the country to focus instead on his high-ranked “creative” enclaves. “So, got that, Rust Belt denizens?” MacGillis noted wryly in a follow-up story last year at the New Republic. Pack your bags for Boulder and Raleigh-Durham and Fairfax County. Oh, and thanks again for the check.”

And what does a newly hipsterfied city end up looking like? Well…

For Rust Belt cities, notes Cleveland’s Richey Piiparinen, following the “creative class” meme has not only meant wasted money, but wasted effort and misdirection. Burning money trying to become “cooler” ends up looking something like the metropolitan equivalent to a midlife crisis.

At times Kotkin can be pretty dismissive of the sort of generically and passively progressive creatures that comprise the creative class — young, usually single, and hungering for a cool district to settle down while they work through the 20-something angst. Their service-based hipster enclaves underperform economically, and have little, says urban thinker Aaron Renn, “in the way of coattails.” In other words, the creative class produces so little, that no crumbs fall from their table — there’s barely enough for them. Moreover, though such creatives certainly espouse diversity and political correctness, they also, as Campanella noted in his excellent demographic study of New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood, function as the first wave of gentrification. Campanella describes a four-phase process of gentrification, beginning with a pioneering group of (in New Olreans) so-called “gutter-punks” and continuing all the way to the arrival of high-income professionals:

The frontiers of gentrification are “pioneered” by certain social cohorts who settle sequentially, usually over a period of five to twenty years. The four-phase cycle often begins with-forgive my tongue-in-cheek use of vernacular stereotypes: (1) “gutter punks” (their term), young transients with troubled backgrounds who bitterly reject societal norms and settle, squatter-like, in the roughest neighborhoods bordering bohemian or tourist districts, where they busk or beg in tattered attire.

On their unshod heels come (2) hipsters, who, also fixated upon dissing the mainstream but better educated and obsessively self-aware, see these punk-infused neighborhoods as bastions of coolness.

Their presence generates a certain funky vibe that appeals to the third phase of the gentrification sequence: (3) “bourgeois bohemians,” to use David Brooks’ term. Free-spirited but well-educated and willing to strike a bargain with middle-class normalcy, this group is skillfully employed, buys old houses and lovingly restores them, engages tirelessly in civic affairs, and can reliably be found at the Saturday morning farmers’ market. Usually childless, they often convert doubles to singles, which removes rentable housing stock from the neighborhood even as property values rise and lower-class renters find themselves priced out their own neighborhoods. (Gentrification in New Orleans tends to be more house-based than in northeastern cities, where renovated industrial or commercial buildings dominate the transformation).

After the area attains full-blown “revived” status, the final cohort arrives: (4) bona fide gentry, including lawyers, doctors, moneyed retirees, and alpha-professionals from places like Manhattan or San Francisco. Real estate agents and developers are involved at every phase transition, sometimes leading, sometimes following, always profiting.

This is the reality of the what a rise in a creative class does to a city, a reality that proves inconvenient for many hipsters and millennials whose value system is at odds with the idea of gentrification and, what incensed New Orleans writer Jules Bentley, criticizing the city’s burgeoning food truck culture, described earlier this month in terms of hipster colonization. His rant is worth reading in its entirety even if you don’t know much about current New Orleans demographics because of little gems like these:

Blitzkrieg cultural imperialism allows previously under-Instagrammed areas of our city to fulfill their potential as playgrounds for the rich without the headaches of investment or community engagement. Never mind having a Starbucks on every corner-when your favorite high-concept boutique eateries can chase you around on wheels, you can go absolutely anywhere and still get the same $12 bacon and wheatgrass smoothie.

There’s a lot of anger in that paragraph, but there’s also strong ray of righteous truth — the privileged 20-somethings of this country are imposing an ironic brand of cultural homogeneity on the “authentic” urban neighborhoods they flock to.

Berliners Are Waging a War Against Gentrification

From Vice. I hate Vice but the article is a good overview of what’s afoot.

It’s been 23 years since the Berlin Wall was demolished, and now the bulldozers are back. This time, however, no one’s clapping. When word got out that a developer was planning to build a luxury apartment complex right on top of the preserved section of the wall (known as the East Side Gallery), 6,000 people showed up to block the demolition crews, proving that irony is still alive and well in the city that, 23 years earlier, was campaigning to have the wall destroyed.

For a while, the public outcry seemed to work. Protests continued, petitions were signed, local artists spoke out in indignation, and David Hasselhoff even married the wall in protest, which, surprisingly, isn’t the weirdest thing he’s done in his professional career.

The developer in question, Maik Hinkel, was apparently surprised at the response and assured Berliners that he would work with the city’s mayor to find a compromise. But last Wednesday, under the cover of darkness, Hinkel broke his promise and removed eight meters of history forever. The worst part? Hoff never even got a chance to honeymoon 😦


Police guard the East Side Gallery. Photo by Ash Clark

Formerly preserved sections of the wall have been taken down before, but it’s never sparked such a huge reaction. Most of the protesters I spoke to were less concerned with the wall itself than with the super expensive apartments that were replacing it because these days the word on every Berliner’s lips is “gentrification.”


Protesters near the wall. Sign reads: “Berlin is not for sale.” Photo by Nina Hüpen-Bestendonk

It’s no secret that Berlin is changing. Nowadays, on a Sunday morning, the distant thud of the Berghain’s sound system gets drowned out by the nasal chatter of American exchange students drinking lattes in cute, authentic cafés.

And the phrase “Silicon Allee” (Berliner Allee is, funnily enough, a street in Berlin) pops up more and more frequently, sitting nicely alongside “Silicon Roundabout” and “Silicon Forest” in the growing list of cities lucky enough to obtain their own version of California’s favorite tech metonym. Housing prices have risen more than 32 percent since 2007, and while the Wall Street Journal calls it a “melting pot of talent,” and that fine-art lecturer you’re sometimes forced to hang out with calls it “the place to be.” But not everyone is so excited.


Pro-hipster poster by the Hipster Antifa Neukölln group. The top line reads, “Gentrify our neighbourhood—more bars—more wifi—more organic markets.”

The anti-hipster rhetoric has become so prevalent these days that it’s even prompted pro-hipster advocacy groups to counteract some of the prejudice. (Is being anti-anti-hipster the new hipster?) Hipsters get so much of the blame because they’re what academics call “middle gentrifiers”—artistic types who flock to the cheap rent and subsequently make the area seem trendy to listings magazines who think that video-art installations in dirty squats equal cool, pushing up the rent and forcing out the established community (in this case, largely Turkish) who’ve lived there for years.

It’s the same story from Dalston to Neukölln, with exactly the same signifiers: kebabs and dance music are the face of 21st-century European gentrification.


A “not for sale” sign outside the Køpi 137 squat.

Unlike London, however, this is a city that values its mietrecht—its tenants’ rights—and it refuses to go down without a fight. Most people see gentrification as an unstoppable force, but Berlin might be the first city that actually has a chance to effectively challenge that preconception.

Two weeks before the first wall demo, 500 people gathered to protest the eviction of a family who couldn’t afford their rising rent. They left 15 cars burned and ten police injured. Similar protests have been happening almost every week for the past two months, and one this Tuesday got particularly violent. It’s difficult to pinpoint why more intense protests are kicking off now after years of increasing rent, but it’s safe to say that the backlash is getting visibly more violent.


The Køpi 137 squat remains in place, despite attempts by police to evict its residents.

On the frontline of the debate are the squatters. For a while, people thought they were doomed, but in a city where even senior citizens will squat their retirement home to prevent its closure, a blanket downfall of squatters seems unlikely.


Cuvry Brache is a “free space” that won the right to exist despite attempts to develop the area. People camp there in tents and hold festivals in the summer.

The squatters’ existence is a bit of a paradox. Those taking residence at Køpi 137 and the Cuvry Brache squat in the Kreuzberg district know that gentrification threatens their existence, but they also know that their existence encourages gentrification. The more radical squats that exist in Kreuzberg, the more appealing that Kreuzberg seems to middle-class art students and the developers that inevitably succeed them.

Their solution to this vicious circle of hipster-driven gentrification is to surround themselves with graffiti saying stuff like “No tourists, no hipsters, no yuppies, no photos” and chasing you with dogs if they see you pointing a camera toward them. In fact, the only way I managed to get photos was to go when the squatters were forced indoors by a foot of snow.


A teepee home at Cuvry Brache.

Those who aren’t squatting are protesting against the oncoming pileup of gentrification. I went to one demonstration held by residents of subsidised housing in Kottbusser Tor, an area in central Kreuzberg. Even though their accommodation is meant to be social housing, it’s becoming increasingly unaffordable.

“Every year we get a letter from our landlord raising the rent by 13 percent per square meter,” Matthias Clausen, one of the protest’s organizers, told me. “It’s like a countdown before we have to leave. That’s what gentrification feels like for my neighbors and me.”


Residents at Kottbusser Tor protesting their increasing rent. The sign reads, “Our neighbors are here to stay! Including those on benefits.”

Matthias continued: “We’re demonstrating because of the high rent that we can’t pay. We live in social housing, so our rent is subsidised and yet it’s still too much for our neighborhood, which is one of the poorest in Berlin.”

I asked him if many of his neighbors were being evicted. “Yes,” he responded. “Five or six letters of eviction are sent out every day in Berlin. We’ve managed to prevent many of them, though.

“New Berlin depends on the foundations of the old Berliners. Students and artists come here for the cheap rent, and that cultural avant garde destroys itself because they drive up prices. A lot of my friends feel bad for living here because they feel like they’re part of the problem, but it isn’t just an automatic process of the free market. There are individuals who are investing, who are driving up the rent, and there are ways around this. There are people making decisions and the process of decision making is something we can influence.”


More protests against increasing rent. The sign reads, “Stop racist exclusion! Not just in the real estate market!”

And Matthias has a point. Around half of Germany’s voters are renters, and with the federal elections coming up in September, politicians will be forced to address the issue. The Pankow district is already imposing a ban on luxury modernizations, while Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor, has proposed reviving Germany’s low-income housing program that was left behind in the 60s.

The destruction of the East Side Gallery might seem like a death knell for old Berlin, but that isn’t necessarily the case. The important thing is that so many people demonstrated against it, and that more and more protests are happening every month. As the issue starts to reach its boiling point, the world should keep its eyes fixed on Berlin because it may just provide the first real solution to the gentrification that’s been sidelining heritage and bulldozing history all around the world.