Dr. Damien Thompson
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Center for Food Justice & Heathly Communities
I recently had the opportunity to sit and spend some time in conversation with a former student and his partner. They are both committed activists confronting structural oppression in Denver on a number of fronts. At one point our conversation (as perhaps is typical of activist conversation in Denver today) shifted to gentrification. We discussed the rapid disappearance of affordable housing for residents, the loss of communities of color and the remaking of some of the more diverse communities in the city into monoculture landscapes of consumption. The question was posed to me as to whether gentrification can be slowed or halted. My answer in short was and is “No.” We all laughed at my blunt reply but the purpose of this blog is to clarify my answer as well as to connect my response to a major hurdle confronting the fuller application of a regenerative development paradigm in cities in the United States.
Cities must be considered dialectically. Urban space is not simply a container in which people make history, but is a product of human activity. Gentrification marks a response to the internal contradictions of capitalism itself. Henri Lefebvre has argued that capitalism survives and even appears to flourish despite its own internal contradictions “by occupying space, by producing space”.
The gentrified spaces of neoliberal capitalism, homogeneous yet fragmented, mark a period of capitalism in crisis where the urban revolution becomes a battle over the spaces where we live not the spaces in which we work.
The United States was presented with this type of crisis of accumulation following WWII. Productive capacity was in overdrive but the war machine was winding down and the result was excess industrial capacity and the overproduction of many commodities.
David Harvey has argued convincingly that when capital experiences a crisis of accumulation it switches flows into the built environment (i.e. Homes and other fixed assets). Suburbanization in the United States was the “spatial fix” that allowed for the survival of crisis and made an indelible impression on the landscape of the country. The spatial fix manifested as more political patronage, access to employment, educational and entertainment opportunities for largely white suburban enclaves leaving behind more limited employment opportunities, a smaller tax base, higher crime rates, and most importantly low land rents in the center city. Ultimately the low rents of the inner city begin to draw renewed interest because of the necessity for profit.
Regardless of the source and reasons behind the initial investment in development— whether public, private or some combination of the two—collateral development is attracted. Both the primary and collateral phases of gentrification are accompanied by significant public subsidy. While the specifics of gentrification vary from city to city it is this secondary phase which attracts mainstream middle and upper income renters and homebuyers, which subsequently drives up property values and rents, thereby driving out poorer residents with the most vulnerable—people of color, renting families with children, and elders on fixed incomes being the most adversely affected.
Economic realities, agendas and systems impact policy, supply, as well as demand. Denver neighborhoods are undergoing rapid gentrification in a seemingly total and racialized restructuring of urban space.
The changes underscore Neil Smith’s conception of the “revanchist city” a term that encapsulates the political, economic and social shifts that are part of a movement to reclaim the city from those to whom it was left in the capital and white flight of the 1940’s and 50’s. Since the 1980’s increases in executive compensation, increases in employee productivity through the implementation of various technologies and the liberation of capital in the form of free trade agreements has created another crisis represented by surplus capital as well as surplus labor.
Gentrification is the “spatial fix” to this particular episode that began in the 1980’s and is related to deindustrialization, the boom in downtown real estate, redevelopment of urban waterfronts and the rise of service economies centered on hotels, convention centers and entertainment districts. The economic benefits of gentrification are realized mostly through privatized profits for new homeowners, equity firms, banks and other private investors.
If the most vulnerable of us cannot be proven to benefit from the professed improvements of development, can we be reflective enough to recognize the insufficiency of our own assumptions and the subjectivities that help to solidify them? The issue with gentrification from my perspective is that elders and other vulnerable community members who have continuously bore the brunt of intersectional oppressions are often gone when the development vision comes to fruition.
This isn’t a critique of those impacts per se but a critique of the social outcomes where the people who are benefiting from the lower crime and higher economic activity are the same folks who have historically benefited from access to these circumstances anyway. As an economic process gentrification in itself is value neutral. It is the decisions made that exacerbate its most pernicious effects and suffuse it with a cynical rationalism, its impact on our most vulnerable residents that we can judge to be just or unjust based on experience and analysis.
The primary roadblock I see to wide adoption of a regenerative development paradigm is that it challenges directly the logic of the modern capitalism and its revanchist form of neoliberal urban politics in particular.
This doesn’t mean that entrepreneurship and businesses are not important aspects of a regenerative paradigm but the underlying logic of entrepreneurship and business need to be radically different. We must ask questions such as:
- What are our responsibilities to one another in cities?
- What is meant when we talk about development?
- Who has the power to determine to whom the benefits of this use flow?
- Who possesses the financial and social capital to make their vision of the city a reality?
- Is this vision inclusive of our most marginalized residents?
At this moment equal protection under the law, socio-economic and cultural diversity, and who has the right to the city are being challenged in ways not seen in a generation. Part of our resistance to this danger is to articulate a different vision for how our societies and our cities based on human development not simply economic development.
More about Dr. Damien Thompson at Regis University:
Phone 303.458.4912 | Email firstname.lastname@example.org