Gentrification Kills: Race, Inequality and the Death of American Cities

Photo by Tim Hettler | CC by 2.0

Peter Moskowitz in his book How to Kill a City criticizes the narrative that gentrification is “good development for the city.” He deliberately writes a counter-narrative to mainstream newspapers’ jolly stories praising gentrification by pointing to expensive new restaurants, pricy coffee shops, “hipsters,” and new fashion trends.  In How to Kill a City gentrification worsens class inequality and racism.

Moskowitz writes an elegy of growing up in the 1980s in the West Village in Manhatten a few blocks away from where Jane Jacobs had lived. He enjoyed the many races and classes in the Village that Jacobs had praised in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. Jacobs had lauded the old village of small shopkeeper looking out to prevent crime and protect children, and Moskowitz felt safe and protected as a child walking alone. After being away for college, Moskowitz returned to find out after 2010 the Village had one bedroom apartments costing $4000/month which he couldn’t afford:   he was gentrified out.  The blacks and Latinos had been pushed out, and only wealthy whites lived there. Small shopkeepers had been priced out–the old community was dead.  Moskowitz in order to be a journalist in New York lived in Brooklyn where his only choice was to be a gentrifier.

Moskowitz’s is brilliant in showing the why of gentrification:  the federal government under President Reagan cut the budget of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s by 40% and cut the Department of Transportation by 17.5%. Many cities had to turn to bonds to pay for services, but some like Detroit learned that credit ranking companies had downgraded their credit rating until the city couldn’t get a loan. Detroit, New Orleans, and many other cities then devised policies based on producing economic growth by wooing rich people to the cities and moving out poor people.

The author produces much evidence to show how gentrification worsens class and racial segregation as well as ends community by analyzing New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York. Though MIT urban studies professor Phillip Clay had in 1979 defined gentrification as a four-stage process, Moskowitz points out there is a 0 stage where cities open themselves up to real estate speculators. In 0 stage cities start “gentrification through zoning, tax breaks, and branding power.” The book argues that that central to gentrification is cities adoption of housing policies benefiting only real estate developers.

In his New Orleans section Markowitz argued that 0 stage was Hurricane Katrina after which the city’s politicians used shock doctrine described by Naomi Klein. The city government privatized public schools and public housing—both had black majorities. The city busted unions dominated by blacks, and gave tax breaks to any investor bringing money into the city to build new offices, condos, and market rate apartment. Moskowitz calls gentrification “an urban form of a new kind of capitalism” that abolishes any measure of well-being except for economic growth. These policies drove 100,000 African-Americans out of the city, replacing them with upper middle class whites.

Moskowitz says that Detroit after the 2013 bankruptcy like New Orleans also used shock doctrine to reshape the city. Detroit housing had 68% subprime mortgages in 2005. As home prices in 134.8 square miles of the city where mostly blacks rapidly declined, the city put in high property taxes:  $4000/year on a house worth $8000/year. Since 25% of black Detroit was unemployed, many lost their homes to bank foreclosures or foreclosures to unpaid property taxes. The result was Detroit lost 237,000 people between 2000 and 2010 reducing the black population.

The city focused all its rebuilding on 7.2 miles of downtown, Mid-town, and Corktown building new bike paths and light rail. Corporations gave out forgivable loans for middle class white home-owners, and then favorable press to the new residents and new white-run businesses. Both the city and the developers ignored the other 134.8 square miles of Detroit where mostly blacks live.  Obama gave $150 million to Detroit for new light rail in the 7.2 mile gentrified area and for knocking down homes in the rest of the city. Also the state of Michigan subsidized millionaires in hope that they will build in Detroit.

Moskowitz’s analysis of San Francisco is different. Though Mayor Lee had welcomed the largely white workers in the booming tech industry to San Francisco zoning for new condos and office buildings, the author points out San Francisco wasn’t in an economic crises but had a balanced budget before the tech boom. Still the city handed out tax breaks to corporations including $30 million to Twitter to locate  downtown. Moskowitz calls S.F “the city as growth machine.” S.F. has pushed the working class, including many blacks and Latinos, out of the Bay Area, and to the far suburbs.  The faraway suburbs in the Bay Area become the dumping ground for those who can’t afford S.F.—but people without cars in the suburbs have even a harder time getting jobs or to the doctor:  these are the new slums.

Moskowitz argues in N.Y. is different in that decades ago in the early 1900’s the city’s business elite thought 420,000 factory workers who lived in the southern part of Manhatten lived too close to the city’s center. From 1922 to the 1960s these rich men tried to convince the city to plan its deindustrialization through rezoning to keep land values high and to privilege the wealthy. Starting in 1959, the city listened and rezoned causing 600,000 industrial jobs to leave the city between 1959 and 1986.  With huge job losses, the city almost went bankrupt in 1975. Mayor Beame got developer Richard Ravitch to create a plan which was a shock doctrine:  “cut city salaries, lay off city workers, and close hospital, firehouses and schools.”  New York, which had been a welfare state, ceased to be one despite the many protests of cutting city services.  The city soon started spending more, not on social programs that help the poor but on programs that help the rich—“namely subsidizing development.”

In the South Bronx fire houses were closed down resulting in fires burning out whole neighborhoods causing 80% of the people to flee.  The new N.Y. was an anti-industrial, rich real estate city “making sure New York was first to benefit from it by making way for financial and real estate capital.” Mayor Bloomberg was a pro-development Republican who rebranded the city as good for the global rich and spent $1.4 billion to subsidize private developers. The next mayor de Blasio rezoned 20% of new apartments to be affordable, a small change, refusing to challenge or stop the growth machine.

Moskowitz argues that mayors are elected on if they can run cities as profitable businesses:  “cities, more than being places for people to live, had become ways to produce, manage, attract, and extract capital.” These new mayors no longer care if the city has affordable rents or has good public schools or residents who are diverse and healthy or if San Francisco’s great literary culture is ending.

The author defines gentrification bringing about “a void in a neighborhood, in a city, in a culture… a trauma caused by the influx of massive amounts of capital into a city and the consequent destruction following in its wake.” His book is a powerful argument that gentrification does great harm.

In stage 1-2 gentrification when wealthy whites come live in the neighborhoods displacing the residents, Moskowitz adopts the term “gentrification of the mind” from Sara Schulman to describe the new residents’ mindset. Schulman thinks gentrifiers are “inherently stupid” when they believe that “obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free.” They believe The New York Times Styles section describing “frontier” neighborhoods and “pioneering” residents unaware of the language of colonialism where brave men settled a “foreign dangerous, and wild land and made it civilized” when discussing Brooklyn.

Moskowitz ends the book with a chapter on fight back and looking at an ungentrified future. Moskowitz stresses that a new housing policy must be anti-racist. He praises the Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network, an umbrella group of 15 “people-of-color activist organizations,” to fight for tenants rights realizes that their local fight is connected to “a global struggle” putting working people at the “heart of community building.”

Moskowitz credits many New York activists and writers who taught him of many ways to end gentrification Moskowitz argues that cities should “expand, protect, and make accessible public lands,” creating affordable housing and community spaces, not selling off public land to developers. In both New Orleans and Detroit the cities own much land where public housing and public spaces could be built. Many cities have powerless community boards which Moskowitz thinks should be given real power so that people can input what they want in their cities.

The author mentions Congresses’ 1942 rent control act to curb wartime inflation, so the nation again can pass a national rent regulation law and/or tax on land speculation” to help with the housing crises.  He admits that changing federal and state policies is different but feels it’s necessary. The federal government could also have a “new New Deal” with building public housing nationally but without the segregation of before as well as subsidizing more public transportation. Finally, the federal government could raise taxes on the rich and support unions that raise wages for the poor. In this excellent book Moskowitz feels people have to find ways to gather together in gentrifying cities to build a different future.