Gentrification Reality Tour: Neither Benign nor Benevolent

Claims that the threat of gentrification are grossly exaggerated belie a fundamental misunderstanding of the real threat, the real victims, and the real consequences of inner-city redevelopment.

June 14, 2005, 12:00 AM PDT

By Charles Shaw

Photo: Charles ShawJohn Norquist, the President of the Congress for the New Urbanism, wrote that the threat of gentrification "is grossly exaggerated in all but a few mega metros and [the] obsession with the perceived threat from the moneyed class slows needed reinvestment in most large US cities."

He also quoted a dubious study by Columbia University Professor Lance Freeman, which claims that "low-income residents were no more likely to move from gentrifying neighborhoods than those not experiencing gentrification."

Although I do agree with Mr. Norquist that gentrification is not much of an issue in places like Detroit, where very few people want to live, his claims that the threat in places where gentrification is thriving is "exaggerated," and is nothing more than "armchair liberals assuming the heroic mantle of protectors of the poor," aside from being misguided and condescending, belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the real threat, the real victims, and the real consequences of inner city redevelopment.

The poor do not have a choice in the matter. They are being forced out of their neighborhoods, often by much more dire and sinister means than just escalating rents.  The North Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, one of the nation's poorest and most neglected neighborhoods, exemplifies this problem, as shown in Drug War Reality Tour, a documentary by the Sundance Award-winning Guerilla News Network. Deindustrialization, accompanied by an increase in unemployment, created large ghettos in Philadelphia and other inner cities and some of their adjacent suburbs. The illicit drug market, as well as the rural prison-industrial complex which exploded in the subsequent 20 years as a result of the consolidation of independent farming into Big Agribusiness, became replacement economies for labor forces that were deemed expendable.  As cities began to thrive again in the 1990s, these ghettos became large areas of very valuable real estate for prospective development.  Now, the only problem was how to remove the inhabitants.

"Once a thriving industrial hub for the textile sector, during the late 1970s Kensington was hit by a wave of de-industrialization which saw American jobs lost to the growing pool of sweatshop labor in Mexico and South East Asia. Today, Kensington's two major sources of income are welfare and narcotics." 
--Drug War Reality Tour

The Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) conducts The Drug War Reality Tour, which transports busloads of people into Kensington to witness firsthand the battlefield of America's own domestic Drug War.  Throughout the tour, the street-wise members of the KWRU explain the ins and outs of the inner city narco-culture and how forces like police complicity and corporate investment are aiding and using the drug epidemic to drive Kensington's people out of their own neighborhood in order to make room for new urban development.

"It's clear that there are forces at play that are using the consequences and devastation of the drug epidemic, and the deterioration of economic conditions, to begin to create a situation where they can push the poor out of urban areas to try to attract the so-called ‘Creative Class'—the educated class with the higher incomes—into the inner cities to try and create an infrastructure that will attract investment," says Willie Baptist, the Education Director of the KWRU. "So what you see now is an acceleration of this pushing of the poor into the periphery."

Because of the property seizure laws enacted during the last three Presidential administrations, the so-called "War on Drugs" has been used to evict tenants and seize inner-city property, which is then auctioned off or sold to waiting developers friendly with the police and city government, for barely a fraction of what it is worth.  This practice in part helps keep afloat the artificial real-estate bubble which has been keeping the American economy from collapsing in on itself due to unemployment, crushing debt, and trade deficits.

In Chicago and New York, two of the most heavily gentrified cities in the nation, promises to rebuild failed public housing and decayed neighborhoods with New Urbanist mixed-income developments have mostly been a chimera.  In Chicago, the Drug War has long been an established apparatus of gentrification, as police flood developing neighborhoods with an occupation-like finality, often making mass-arrests of young Black and Latino youth under the controversial "gang loitering ordinance" which prohibits more than four people (of color) from congregating together on any given block.  Despite the blatant unconstitutionality of this law and its racial profiling, the message is clear: things are changing around here, and you are no longer welcome!

There is no policy apparatus to mandate -- or incentive to motivate -- developers to set aside units for low to moderate income families.  And when "low-income" units are set aside, they are generally for those with an income of $30,000 a year; yet most low-income families barely survive on $8,000-$12,000 a year.  Former Chicago Housing Authority residents who wanted to continue living in subsidized housing under the Section 8 voucher program, or move into one of the paltry few replacement units which have been built, have had to undergo Draconian scrutiny as part of screening processes, and very few have been approved.  And even if residents do manage to secure Section 8 vouchers, very few private landlords will accept them as tenants.

Thus, continued racism, fear of the poor, and the specter of "drug crime" have given major cities all the pretext they need to forcibly change demographics, displacing hundreds of thousands of poor people—mostly black and Latino minorities.  Those displaced are forced to move to the few compact, decaying ghettos that remain (for as long as they remain before they are gentrified), or increasingly to decrepit inner-ring suburbs which are fast becoming the most dangerous places in the nation.  And of course many remain homeless and living in the streets.

Regarding diminishing tax bases and the need for investment, Norquist posits a monolithic understanding of "investment" by insinuating that the only form available is through the redevelopment of residential real estate.  Although redlining and white flight moved most of the middle class out of the industrial cities, there is more than enough money in the wealthy class and the corporate tax base to rebuild our cities a dozen times over.  But our government—federal, state, and municipal—has an entrenched policy of profligate corporate welfare, and the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy have had an almost universally deleterious effect on state and municipal budgets across the nation. 

Despite the budget crises, cities have systematically eschewed taxing corporations, instead giving them TIFs (tax increment financing) and tax abatements to beat the band.  While corporations more and more are becoming the sole owners of urban real estate, the solution for most city and county governments is to over-tax the working class residents to compensate.  This is a massive policy failure and speaks more to the corruption and prevailing robber-baron mentality of our so-called leaders and the corporate establishment than it does to population demographics.

How many billions of tax dollars were bilked from urban residents to build private sports arenas in the last 20 years?  To allow billion-dollar transnationals to erect corporate headquarters in gleaming skyscrapers, or introduce Big Box retail outlets in former residential areas?  Yes, cities do need more residents of all sorts, but they are not getting them; what they are getting is a two-class system of the affluent, and the desperate-to-indigent, many of whom are only there to work in service jobs for the monied classes.

All this has created what I would characterize as an unspoken, "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" policy to redraw our cities into two-class City-States.  Cities, corporations, developers, the "Creative Class," policy wonks, and apologists hide their intentions behind code words like "market forces," "investment" and "crime prevention," when in fact the market system only benefits those with enough capital to dominate it.  In addition the "crime issue" has become  a code word for racism and fear of the poor, as most property and violent crime has significantly receded in the last 15 years, and drug arrests have skyrocketed, in some places by as much as 1,000 percent.

Charles Shaw is a writer and activist living in Chicago. He is the publisher of Newtopia Magazine, and a Contributing Writer and Editor for The Next American City.

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