Bill Lindeke

The Gentrification Paradox

As long as I’ve been working and writing about city planning, a problem keeps coming up in my mind. Things I often consider to be improvements — a new transit project, investing in a beautiful streetscape, replacing a parking lot with a new apartment building –are sometimes greeted with frustration or anger by people in a neighborhood. It’s what I call the “gentrification paradox.” To me, this paradox is partly about how our cities are deeply entwined with complex social histories of race, class, and neighborhood identity. It’s impossible to separate these issues, and they can lead us into tangled logics.

But I also believe that often frustrating gentrification debates will go nowhere as long as they ignore deeper issues of economic inequality. We need to talk about capitalism. If your home is getting bulldozed by a wealthy developer, do you care whether he is black or white or Middle-eastern? To me, the problem we’re talking about when we talk about gentrification is economic and social inequality.

Gentrification is our word for how money controls our cities.

I don’t want to ignore race. In fact, the history of cities is crucial to understanding the connection between race and economic inequality in the first place. (A short list includes redlining, restrictive covenants, the connection between racism and “neighborhood” identity, perpetuated real estate wealth, police profiling, and the spatial inequality of our schools.) These issues are massively important, but to me solving them only happens when we address deeper issues of economic inequality.

I have two sets of questions, neither of which have easy answers:

Who gets to speak for our city?

In other words, should homeowners have more influence over city decisions than others? Should long-time residents have more influence over city decisions than newcomers? For me, the answer has to be “no” for both of these questions. But how do we respect local histories without reifying identities that often exclude others?

Who benefits from city plans?

In other words, what questions must cities ask themselves about fostering economic development? How can cities make investments and improvements without deepening inequalities? How can planners and politicians begin to make decisions that are meaningfully democratic?

As I said, these questions don’t have easy answers. But if we don’t take the time to ask them, we’re doing ourselves and each other a large disservice. We all have a right to the city.

Bill Lindeke has been blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He’s a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Minnesota, working on his dissertation about bicycling, cities, and affect.

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