Poor fetishes, poor critiques: gentrification as violence - Gloria Dawson

F*ck parade anti-gentrification demonstration, East London, 2015

Hating on hipsters is not the answer to gentrification. If we want to reclaim our cities, we should organize for genuinely affordable housing in common, argues Gloria Dawson.

Recently, ROAR published an article entitled The Poor Fetish. The piece argues that in cities like London, bored and alienated middle-class people working in ‘bullshit jobs’ are driving gentrification because they pursue and participate in the commodification of ‘working-class’ and minority cultural pursuits and spaces. While I agree that this process of commodification exists, I want to counter some of the ways in which the author uses general observations about class and culture to draw incorrect conclusions about the social and cultural exclusions and enclosures that occur in major cities today.

As someone who researches and organizes around the displacement and immiseration of those of us on low incomes, I think that at least a basic understanding of the political economy of cities is essential for the effort of formulating an appropriate answer to gentrification and displacement.

Hating on hipsters

The article, like several others that have been doing the rounds recently, follows some of the common themes of what I call the ‘hating on hipsters’ critique of gentrification, according to which it’s the consumption patterns of individuals that are ultimately to blame for the displacement of working class communities. I don’t have any substantial dispute with the claim that people often practice a form of cultural tourism (while at the same time trying to keep other cultures at arm’s length) or that for most people in the cities of the Global North work is emotionally demanding, demeaning and pointless. However, a critique of forms of consumption and affective labor doesn’t get us very far in correctly and powerfully understanding the violence of gentrification.

It is true that people who are not poor get off on poverty chic and it is also true that that this appropriation can be hurtful if you happen to be poor (and I mean poor in many senses, rather than just having little money). It is also true that people make money from that desire for a certain kind of consumption; this is a form of commodification. But we should avoid the assumption that we profess to despise: that there is somehow an ‘authentic’ culture which can only be produced and consumed by the poor, people of color, and the underclass. The logical extension of some of these arguments can be fairly damaging.

For example, alongside some persistent, intersectional and effective organizing around social and private rents in Berlin (another hotspot for both cultural appropriation and gentrification), there have been attacks on middle-class students and foreign workers in the name of ‘anti-gentrification’. These incomers represent a ‘hipster’ dweller resented by those who see themselves as ‘indigenous’ and authentic to the area, and rightly or wrongly see their claim to that area under threat. Here we see that even in the multicultural cities of the Eurozone, culture-based analyses of gentrification can lead to xenophobia.

In another example, a recent US blog on gentrification in West Coast cities recommended its middle-class, incomer reader to combat gentrification in their neighborhood by shunning culturally appropriative spaces like chic lo-fi coffee bars and instead stick to ‘mom and pop’ shops that had existed in the neighborhood before they moved in.

The problem is that a consumption-based analysis of gentrification leads people to attempt to preserve the ‘authentic’ nature of a particular area. If only all of us had lived long enough to understand that in no meaningful way are cities ever like they were before. As this excellent piece on aesthetics and gentrification puts it, “the failure to challenge the formal identity between aestheticisation and commodification makes any attempt by first-wave gentrifiers to somehow ‘stay true’ (on an aesthetic level) to the spirit of the areas they are gentrifying seem ludicrous, if not… downright offensive.”

The urban middle class: privileged or precarious?

My main issue, however, is with the author’s claim that “with intimate knowledge of how the other half live comes an ugly truth: that middle-class privilege is in many ways premised on working class exploitation. That the rising house prices and cheap mortgages from which they have benefited create a rental market shot with misery.”

Here, the author equates ‘middle-class’ with ‘property-owning’. Yet many fully middle-class professionals on higher than median wages can only ever dream of buying property, especially in London and the South-East. On the other hand, many older working-class people own their own homes. Indeed, the ‘right to buy’ council housing has been a specific policy driven by the ideology that cities must be ‘regenerated’ — in other words, placed in the hands of private (individual and business) ownership — in order to promote and expand the ‘home-owner’ class.

The class analysis of the article thereby manages to exclude practically everyone I know. The author claims that “never will they [the middle-class consumer] face the grinding monotony of mindless work, the inability to pay bills or feed their children, nor the feeling of guilt and hopelessness that comes from being at the bottom of a system that blames the individual but offers no legitimate means by which they can escape.” With the growing precarization of even previously stable forms of ‘middle-class’ labor (medicine, law, teaching, especially in higher education), few of us are really immune from these anxieties and risks. Yet according to this piece, the middle-classes never suffer wage repression, retaliatory eviction, redundancy, battles with the JobCentre, and so on.

Secondly, even if this class delineation were correct, the power over property ownership in cities like London does not primarily lie in the hands of middle or higher-income workers, but in the hands of private developers, large-scale landlords, and government itself. Gentrification, as Rachel Brahinsky puts it, is “capitalism playing out in the landscape. It is essentially our economy’s urban form.” It is a process involving time, land and rent, and it cannot occur without a planning and governmental framework to support it. The root of gentrification is the ability of landlords to command higher and higher rents after a ‘rent gap’ has been established in an area that has experienced less investment than other areas (or, in London, just that it’s not as expensive as everywhere else).

It’s capitalism, stupid!

Gentrification is therefore complex and cyclical, and undoubtedly the presence of coffee shops allows landlords to charge more to (housing and business) tenants. It also concurrently involves wholesale privatization of public spaces, especially retail. But if poverty and culture are sometimes commodified, buildings and land always are. The Poor Fetish article identifies gentrification as “different kinds of shops opening up,” but apart from its odd presentation of the significance of property ownership, it doesn’t actually talk about housing. Espresso Bars are symptoms of gentrification far more than they are the underlying causes.

The problem, of course, is that the causes of gentrification are hard to spot — by the time the coffee shop has opened, or the big art gallery, or the enormous utopian hoarding has gone up, a lot of its processes have already taken root in the area. Contracts have been signed. Money has moved. Investment funding has been leveraged. Visible and objectionable as they may be, cultural appropriation or ‘fetishisation’ is not what’s violently displacing low and middle-income people in the capital; it’s capitalism, stupid!

In my work on traditional retail markets and city center regeneration, I see how the consumption and culture-based analysis of gentrification I am critiquing here quickly becomes an argument about changing consumption preferences. This argument is then repeatedly used as a reason to privatize, reduce and displace small businesses, despite them being popular and profitable. In other words, local government and the private sector use the very arguments made by ‘hating on hipster’ critics to entrench socio-economic divisions and displace low-income businesses and consumers.

Yet even as a critique of retail gentrification, the piece fails, because it pins consumption patterns on the preferences of individuals and cultural groups, and not on the way in which regeneration and commercial rents are largely controlled by state and private actors. Indeed gentrification (in its guise as ‘regeneration’, which usually involves retail, business, leisure, other amenities and housing destruction and redevelopment) is often at its most vicious and comprehensive when conducted by these actors in the name of ‘regeneration’ and ‘renewal’.

The Elephant and Castle regeneration scheme in South-East London, a partnership between a large local authority and a large international property developer, is perhaps the most outstanding example of this in London at the moment. Have a look at wonderfully comprehensive web archives like Heygate Was Home or Ward’s Corner Community Coalition and tell me whether you still think it’s the art students shopping at small businesses and markets and entrepreneurs opening up coffee shops who are the problem here.

Reclaiming our cities as commons

Perhaps the most unhelpful aspect of articles like this one (and they are, as I have indicated, all too frequent) is that they give no indication that this situation can be changed. In the ‘hating on hipsters’ vision of gentrification, the middle classes are bound to live boring lives and their escape from these boring lives is fundamentally doomed. The working class, meanwhile, can only look on in horror as their authentic culture is destroyed. No one has any agency. Indeed the article itself, like the system it identifies, serves mainly to blame the individual while offering no legitimate means by which they can escape.

For few years now I have been working on, organizing around and thinking about how we can reclaim and rebuild cities that are, for want of a better phrase, held in common; and I see a great deal of inspiring action and a very effective push-back against these gentrification phenomena, especially in London. Thanks largely to committed, cross-tenure, networked organizing, condemned social housing is being re-occupied, tenants are staying in their homes, community-led regeneration plans are receiving planning permission, and some local authorities (mainly due to the pressure from below and their appallingly long housing lists) are actually building social rented housing.

Networks of organization around the principles of the right to the city are forming, recognizing that we are all people who live, work and purchase things and experiences. There is not always a simple class struggle in this process, but there are alliances and commonalities around the principles of displacement, community and the public housing system which bring together huge numbers of people who are realizing what they share. Those who stand in the way of these commons are now being named: large private developers, politicians and unelected council officers, and complex multi-actor mechanisms known as Private Finance Initiatives (PFI).

The answer to gentrification is not agonizing over where you sip your coffee, snort your coke (if you must) or choose your cauliflower. If we actually want to build a city for everyone, we should support and participate in those organizing efforts against displacement, against privatization, for housing held in common and at rents everyone can afford. Those of us writing about the misery-inducing phenomena produced by capitalism have a constant responsibility to understand and explain these issues in terms that allow us the possibility to destroy, re-form and transcend them.

Taken from https://roarmag.org/essays/gentrification-critique-structural-violence/

Comments

Steven.
Jan 5 2016 14:49

Just read "the Poor Fetish" article to which this piece responds. Seriously it's one of the worst things on the gentrification of London I've ever read.

It goes on about the "hipster" "middle-class" (which are now apparently one and the same, making each term even more meaningless than it already was) appropriating "working class culture". And it describes what these "hipsters" do which is go to warehouse parties in car parks and drink cocktails out of jam jars. Like jamjar cocktails and car park raves are somehow authentic working class culture which have now been "commodified"…

TBH I think this just ends from similar American articles written around the year 2000, when PBR, dive bars and trucker caps were "cool" in the US, just parroted in a completely different context 15 years later

anabraxas
Jan 5 2016 21:08

Agree with commenter above... That's the most awful, paper-thin, and borderline reactionary analysis of gentrification I've read, period.

Organizing for lower rents? lol

How about fucking up with the investments schemes and drive for capital accumulation of promoters and their gent of fancy customers, as well as the spectacular face value of targeted neighborhoods? How about destabilizing these areas FROM BELOW, so that their money appeal gets spoiled so bad that property values and credit bubble deflate, as the interest rates get steeper so are the general property insurance costs?

As usual, liberal Leftists like this writer don't get any damn clue of how capitalism actually functions, and who the capitalists are (as if she did, that'd be way too close to her personal life for comfort).

I'd just title this text "Poor critique:"

Agent not available
Jan 5 2016 21:39

Ew. That ROAR article starts off with a quote from Zizek.

Steven.
Jan 5 2016 22:15
anabraxas wrote:
Agree with commenter above... That's the most awful, paper-thin, and borderline reactionary analysis of gentrification I've read, period.

Organizing for lower rents? lol

How about fucking up with the investments schemes and drive for capital accumulation of promoters and their gent of fancy customers, as well as the spectacular face value of targeted neighborhoods? How about destabilizing these areas FROM BELOW, so that their money appeal gets spoiled so bad that property values and credit bubble deflate, as the interest rates get steeper so are the general property insurance costs?

As usual, liberal Leftists like this writer don't get any damn clue of how capitalism actually functions, and who the capitalists are (as if she did, that'd be way too close to her personal life for comfort).

I'd just title this text "Poor critique:"

just to clarify, my comment was not in response to this article, but in response to the article which this article was responding to.

Also I've tried reading your post a few times but still don't understand what you are suggesting. Could you explain further, perhaps with some practical examples?

Anarcissie
Jan 6 2016 13:29

'Hating on hipsters' is actually a hipster practice -- if there even is such a thing as a hipster.

A long time ago, back in print days, I read an article which was the result of actual research into urban development. It showed that, years before an area was redeveloped or gentrified, the pattern of tax, insurance, and mortgage payments (or lack of them) in the area changed to one reflective of higher real estate values. Clearly, the landowners and other interested parties knew what was going on in advance. I am pretty sure the same sort of evidence could be found today, although the rate of gentrification has been speeded up greatly and the time gap between targeting by Capital and actual redevelopment has narrowed.

The current furious rate of radical gentrification in some areas, at least those I am familiar with, is clearly also driven by changes in the financial structure and environment of the communities in question, to wit, the wasting away of the old lower middle and upper working classes and the decline of social democracy, accompanied by a huge creation of funny money through near-zero interest rates for the rich.

The first system of redevelopment has been going on for many generations and reflects the public worship of Capital which permeates the culture. Probably not a lot can be done about it immediately because culture changes only rather slowly. Many people at many different economic levels want to get in on it if they can. It could be made more humane if the decimation of the Welfare state could be reversed.

The second set of circumstances, however, will soon collapse. By 'soon' I mean in the next five or ten years. At that time, if the social disorder is not too great, it might be possible to initiate new forms of occupation and ownership.

Jacques Roux
Jan 13 2016 11:29

I think this article from Cava Sundays last year is a more valuable read https://libcom.org/library/hipsterphobia-cava-sundays