Gentrification and Fixing Cities

A web post making the rounds here and here at the SustainableCitiesCollective and on twitter the last few weeks makes me sad on two counts.

First, it illustrates how environmentalists can have a tin ear.

Second, when environmentalists do try to understand race and inequality, we often forget that cities spring from forces much deeper than what we see on the surface. William Faulkner told us, “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.” Forget that and we’re doomed to fail.

The author of this post, Jim Russell, does make a good argument: that people – the human element – is more important than a place or piece of concrete. And therefore, we should invest in people first. (You can see another post about his thinking here.)

But I think he goes badly wrong when, in his enthusiasm to drive home his argument that “people develop, not places,” he separates people from places and their history in those places. He decides, finally, that “Gentrification is not about race or class. It is about xenophobia.” “Xenophobia” as Russell is using the word, means that people dislike anyone not like themselves moving into their neighborhoods.

That may be true. But using xenophobia to describe this complicated problem says everything and nothing at the same time. Any hope of understanding American cities and inequality turns to mush.

We know that people, at first, struggle to find common ground with someone they believe is not like them. We also know that a society defines some people as different in order to exercise power or control. (Before people can decide a person is different, they have to decide how they will define that difference. Is it based on hair color? The pitch of their voice?, Their height? Their skin color?, etc.) In this way, defining difference is a way of defining who gets perks.

The United States traditionally has used race as a way of defining who gets those perks. My last post was about Affirmative Action for Whites and described how a GI Bill financed college education and home loans were just two important government subsidies that depended heavily on whether someone was considered “white.”

Sometimes defining difference is about saying who doesn’t get a perk, as Ira Katznelson has shown. In that same post, I describe how legislators wrote African Americans out of coverage from minimum wage laws and Social Security. Northern liberals compromised with Southern – on the backs of African Americans – to get their social safety net.

Russell does turn to history and, perversely, seems to think that his example of Southern blacks moving North clinches his argument. But pointing out to that African Americans who left the South in the Great Migration ended up with higher levels of education and income doesn’t show, as he says, that “migration trumps race and class.” Rather, it illustrates just how severe were the Southern laws that limited education and job opportunities for African Americans.

The challenge for us is to provide opportunity in place – where people live – and do what we can to keep from disrupting the existing social supports. These can be informal connections – the friend or relative who is willing to watch your child while you run a necessary errand or the neighbor who is willing to share a cup of sugar or news about who locally is hiring.

We can’t fully cultivate that opportunity unless we identify the economic and social rules that limit people. Those rules are about race and class.

As environmentalists trying to ensure that we have cities that work and lower our impact on the earth, we need to remember that. We need to invest in people and their place.


Other good things to read (and watch) this week:

“The White Man Whose ‘March on Washington’ Speech You Should Remember Too,” Michael Kazin, The New Republic.

“One Easy Thing All White People Could Do That Would Make The World A Better Place,” Upworthy video, (4 min).

What the March on Washington Called for, and What We Got, Gene Demby, NPR Code Switch

“Dream Deferred: Minimum Wage higher in ’63 Than Today,” LA Progressive



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  1. This is great, Todd! Much to think about as we grapple with the similar but very different problems people face here in Sikkim. I’ll have to mull over it some more to have anything coherent to say but I wanted to thank you for adding a deeper perspective to the conversation.


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