A Broken World

Gentrification isn’t what you think it is. Not exactly.

(Courtesy flickr user Simon Bowie/CC BY 2.0)

Amanda Burden, the New York City planning director under Michael Bloomberg, once likened gentrification to cholesterol, which is to say, a necessary, organic substance capable of manifesting in good and bad ways. The same administration, reacting to the sensitivity around the “G-word,” substituted a euphemistic metric in its place: livability. Cynical, sure, but “gentrification”—deriving from an archaic, Old World class signifier—is hardly descriptive. One inevitably reaches for metaphors when trying to explain it.

In her new book, Gentrification Is Inevitable and Other Lies (Verso), Leslie Kern analyzes the discursive dimension of the term and the tradition of urban prescriptivism more generally. Among other things, she clarifies how our metaphors can help us better understand processes of gentrification and its primary movers. But is there a danger in arresting the matter at the level of language, as Samuel Stein implicitly argues in his 2019 book Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State (Jacobin)? In the following dialogue, Kern and Stein discuss vital issues—social reproduction, expropriation, contesting models of valuation—that often get left out of gentrification debates.

LESLIE KERN: The evolution and the versatility of the term “gentrification,” as it has come to represent a range of ways that urban spaces are taken, made over, and commodified, is indeed one of the themes of my book and a good place to start this conversation. In the book I consider both gentrification as a metaphor and the metaphors that have been used to support and counter gentrification. As a metaphor, the term has found a broad usefulness for describing certain kinds of cultural shifts. This has sometimes been interpreted as a “watering down,” but I think of it as an indication that people understand instinctively that gentrification is a kind of theft and, fundamentally, that gentrification is about power. Class power, yes, but not only that. When the term is used to describe the commodification of yoga, for example, or the upscaling of soul food, it’s because people see a power imbalance at work and gentrification seems to fit the linguistic bill. Interestingly, some of the metaphors used to make sense of gentrification, casting it as “organic” or natural, for example, do the opposite: they make power and agency invisible, hiding the decisions and decision-makers that facilitate and actively profit from gentrification. This is one of those metaphors that limit our ability to grasp, but also to act on, gentrification. How we talk about problems matters, because it shapes the range of possible solutions or actions we might come up with. But we don’t need to be stuck searching for the right metaphor. There are plenty of words we can attach to gentrification that bring a more visceral immediacy to it, and ground it in concrete experience. Violence is one. Theft is another.

SAMUEL STEIN: And expropriation is yet another. Leslie, at your online book launch the other day, we got into a conversation about gentrification as a kind of alienation from the product of one’s labor. This kind of alienation is something that anyone who’s worked a job understands in the realm of commodity production: you spend your time making something or performing a service, the company you work for sells it to somebody else, and you get paid a fraction of the value. It’s something labor movements have been fighting over for a long time—basically since the beginning of capitalism, but I’m thinking specifically about the way the Knights of Labor in the US distributed pamphlets to workers explaining the basic math of everyday expropriation. A few years ago, I read geographer Ipsita Chatterjee’s great book Displacement, Revolution, and the New Urban Condition, where she shows that gentrification works in the same way, only for the collective, largely unpaid, and often feminized work of social reproduction and spatial production. The argument goes something like this: a working-class neighborhood is the product of a people’s labor to build and maintain a culture, a community, and a built environment in the face of disinvestment from capital and the state. Gentrification alienates people from the product of their work—their housing, their neighborhood, their social networks, and their spatial culture—and expropriates the value of that labor for a relative upper class. Call it a gentry!

LK: I appreciate the way that helps us articulate the “right to stay put” in concrete and relatable ways, even as it’s grounded in anticapitalist and feminist theory. It also challenges the renter-homeowner divide, which is so pernicious in the US, as well as in Canada, where I live and work. This divide upholds the idea that tenants don’t have any legitimate claims to space, despite the labor that goes into maintaining their homes and communities. We really need to push back on the idea that homeowners are more valuable community builders, especially as they engage in all sorts of NIMBY-ist and other regressive politics—gating, private security, promoting law and order agendas, etc. I also strongly agree that we need a renewed focus on the threats to social reproduction from gentrification. The extractivist ethos that sees the house and the neighborhood as primarily sites of investment and profit-making undermines the very concept of home. In doing so, it exacerbates already crisislike conditions in the realm of social reproduction. This shows up in everything from the stress of living in overcrowded housing to longer commute times that keep parents away from home. It shows up in our health care and schooling systems as nurses, teachers, and other essential workers can’t afford to live in the cities where they’re desperately needed. It’s as though all of these systems are interconnected! In my bookI try to draw attention to some of these “ripple effects” by using an intersectional lens that I hope helps us move the conversation about gentrification away from the idea that it’s kind of a niche struggle over markers of taste and style.

SS: Right. So maybe the fight against gentrification, or the fight for the right to the city (the right to live in, move through, and most importantly change the city), should be pitched more explicitly on the terrain of social reproduction politics. Because the terminology of social reproduction is, at present, a bit less commonly known than “gentrification” (though that was an obscure word not too long ago too), it’s not the framework organizers usually used to explain what we’re fighting against and what we’re fighting for. But the meaning of social reproduction is just as intuitive as gentrification, if not more so, given its universality (whereas gentrification as such really doesn’t—I would argue can’t—happen everywhere). Cindi Katz famously described social reproduction as “the fleshy, messy, and indeterminate stuff of everyday life.” It’s a great line, but maybe the more specific definition comes a couple sentences later in her essay on “Vagabond Capitalism”: “Social reproduction encompasses daily and long-term reproduction, both of the means of production and the labor power to make them work.” Marxists often describe social reproduction as everything that allows the worker to go to work the next day: being born into the world in the first place, being fed and cared for and nurtured, being schooled and acculturated, being housed and healthy, and so on. But it’s not just about the things that allow every individual worker to keep working; it’s everything that allows the system as a whole to keep operating. As such, capitalist social reproduction is not a simply good thing. It encompasses a lot of things we want to protect (like access to housing, health care, food, clothing, and education) and also things we want to tear down (like all the social and political dimensions of disciplining people into needing—and sometimes desiring—to be good workers in the first place). So if we see the fight against gentrification and for the right to the city as fights for a certain kind of social reproduction, I guess they are also fights against another kind of social reproduction—the kind of “just-in-time social reproduction” (as Cindi also sometimes jokingly calls it) that flings us from place to place at the whims of a careless and capricious social order. It’s a mean world, and the fight for a more caring one would have to encompass a new regime of social reproduction that precludes and preempts gentrification as a way of producing space in the future.

LK: Absolutely. We’re not pushing for better housing simply to make better workers. The Marxist definition of social reproduction explains its role in the capitalist economic system. But as you gesture toward, it’s also a realm that exceeds capitalism or has the potential to create and nurture relationships outside of capitalism, both with other humans and the nonhuman world. And whatever economic system we have, we all need care and we all have to participate in care. As we think about organizing care differently (i.e., not as an exploitative system that relies on gender divisions and numerous other inequalities), it invites us to think about organizing housing differently and vice versa. In my last book, Feminist City, I note how the single-family home as a form helps maintain gender inequality by keeping care labor invisible and “private” and increasing the domestic workload on individuals by precluding the sharing of resources, time, and energy across households. Yet it’s not only the feared social friction of more communal forms of living that keeps us boxed away in our single-family units. It’s the fact that in a pro-home ownership society, most folks need the home to function as an asset and a mode of wealth accumulation that will allow them to retire with a safety net and/or pass on that asset to the next generation. This is a major disincentive to exploring other ways of living together and collectivizing care work. And connected to gentrification, of course, because gentrification is one mode through which that investment can generate a return. Even though gentrification researchers in the 1970s and ’80s surmised that coming “back to the city” would be good for women, since the city provides more proximate access to work, school, services, shopping, etc., gentrification does nothing to disrupt—and perhaps even deepens a reliance on—the single-family home. Not to mention the fact that “making it easier for women to do everything!” is not anything close to the revolution in care work that we need.

SS: I’m writing now from Vienna, where I’m participating in a delegation of New York housing activists learning about the history of Red Vienna and the city’s current practices around mass social housing production. As a Jew and a leftist, it’s impossible for me to accept at face value the line I keep hearing that “the Socialists have been in power continuously in this city since the end of World War I, with the exception of the Austro-fascist and Nazi periods,” but I—like most people who come here—am genuinely awed by the scale, effectiveness, grandeur, and apparent hegemony of the municipal social housing system that houses about half the population. There’s a temptation among visitors to think we can simply transplant this model home and get our housing authorities to do something similar. (In fact, that’s exactly what all of us are going to try to do as soon as we get back home—how could we not?) But we also know this doesn’t really make sense. Red Vienna wasn’t just a progressive housing policy in an otherwise normative capitalist city. It was the product of a complete turnabout in the political and social structure. Mass social housing doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is one piece of an overall welfare state and corporatist labor regime that is completely unfamiliar to American—and probably Canadian— city life. It’s much easier to live in public and decommodified housing if the financial appreciation of owning your home (and someone else’s, if you’re a landlord) isn’t commonly understood to be your means to retire and your savings-of-last-resort if you get sick. (Maybe the latter doesn’t apply so much in Canada.) All of this is not to uphold Vienna as the pinnacle of urban social democracy—it’s not—but it is to say that a genuine and long-lasting transformation in housing only really makes sense in the context of a whole lot of other things the housing system tends to substitute for in our respective countries.

LK: I agree that, unfortunately, we can’t simply export Vienna’s social housing model to Canada or the US. I think you’re very right to point out that a true transformation in housing—and an end to gentrification—can only come about in the context of other kinds of transformations. I’m thinking of the way that the commodification of housing and a home ownership culture continue to uphold and widen a racial wealth gap that perpetuates the economic power of white people over Black and other racialized communities and allows the centuries-long theft of labor, wealth, and culture from those communities to continue. This system also maintains patriarchal power in many ways, including those discussed above but also because housing prices affect women differently due to the wage gap and their higher likelihood of being single parents, and of course those most likely to be profiting off of corporate-led gentrification are men. In settler colonial contexts such as ours, private property ownership and commodification are antithetical to Indigenous ways of relating to the land, and they stand in the way of reconciliation and land-back efforts. I also think they stand in the way of many climate change–related initiatives, in that governments have limited power to impose wide-scale changes to land uses, energy sources, housing locations, etc., without resorting to extreme measures like eminent domain. All of this is to say that we have to look at all of the power structures that our housing system is implicated in. So where does one begin? The first step is recognizing these interconnections. One example might be the work of New York’s Citizens Housing and Planning Council, which advocated for an intersectional approach to public housing, going beyond the “units, units, units” cry of advocates to insist that factors like gender, age, race, immigration, and ability have to be considered in order to make public housing truly serve the needs of those who are going to access it.

SS: This is a difficult place to be in, but it’s where we’re at. On the one hand, the rule of private property helps uphold everything we hate—exploitation, racism, patriarchy, settler colonialism, and environmental degradation. On the other hand, the rule of private property can’t be undone without also dealing with the myriad social reliances we’ve attached to it—private housing wealth as the source of personal and intergenerational security, stability, and social mobility. Social housing is what we want, but antisocial housing is what we have—see for example the New York City landlord lobby’s current campaign to hold thousands of rent-stabilized apartments empty in order to ransom the legislature into rolling back rent stabilization. There’s a particular kind of political psychopathy that develops out of real estate’s role as a primary means of securing and extracting wealth: discrimination, exclusion, exploitation, bureaucratized violence, hyperpolicing, the valuation of property over people, and more. All of this is intensified in places Tom Slater calls “concentrations of affluence,” turning the tables of social science to pathologize the rich and pointing out the consequences of their toxic neuroses. It’s a broken world.

LK: It is very broken. But, as a fellow Jew, I draw hope from the practice of tikkun olam—repair of the world. For me, bringing this idea into my political worldview allows me to think about change as acts of repair, most of which are going to be small, local, and relatively unnoticed. As abolition activist Mariame Kaba says in her book We Do This ’Til We Free Us, the horizon of change is beyond our lifetimes. Rather than taking this with a sense of defeat, Kaba says, this frees her to engage in acts of resistance and projects for change, the outcomes of which she doesn’t know and can’t control. At the end of my book, I suggest that we have roles we can play in social movements and spheres of influence in which we can act. Neither you nor I have the solution to the myriad problems we face; neither do our readers, I suspect. However, we can all conceive of acts of repair that move us toward that horizon of change. For those readers in the world of architecture, for example, I know you don’t get to decide whether your residential projects are social housing or not. But could you resist designing mixed-income projects with “poor doors”? Could you offer your expertise for free or reduced rates to nonprofit groups looking to build affordable housing? Could your organization commit to a certain amount of social justice–oriented work each year? These acts won’t “solve” gentrification. But we have choices to make: Do we cave under the weight of the status quo or try to build pieces of the city we want to see?

Leslie Kern is biding her time until she can leave small-town life behind and get back to being a disgruntled urbanite. For now, she’s a professor of geography and women’s and gender studies working on ideas for the blockbuster conclusion to her radical urban book trilogy.

Samuel Stein is three years into an epistemic crisis in which he can’t stop asking himself how we know what we think we know. Meanwhile, he’s working as a housing policy analyst and writing about housing and planning politics in New York.