When did you notice Harlem was gentrified?

Tenant echo


"The amalgamation between anti-gentrification struggles and the activities of the global movement for social justice can become extremely threatening"

Interview with Prof. Dr. Neil Smith from the City University of New York

Neil Smith (born 1954 in Leith, Scotland) is Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the City University of New York (CUNY). Ten years ago he presented his first political-economic analysis of gentrification in New York, the results of which he now sees as confirmed globally. The starting point of his analysis is that gentrification has developed from a fragmented process in urban sub-areas of certain metropolises (London, New York) to a global project of the revanchist state, i.e. a state that takes revenge on the achievements of the (new and old) social movements practices and tries to recapture the city for its "rightful" residents, the real estate-owning urban bourgeoisie. Only this connection with revanchist state action makes gentrification more than a possibly regrettable but unstoppable market process.

The term gentrification (or gentrification) was on everyone's lips this summer. Although the concept has been known in German urban research since the early 1990s (and with a few exceptions was never really analytically developed there), thanks to the attention of the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office, it experienced a remarkable career in public:
Since August of this year, the preoccupation with gentrification justifies a sufficient suspicion for the Formation of a "terrorist organization" according to § 129 a StGB.
In the press and in large parts of urban research, gentrification is repeatedly portrayed as a "normal" market process that exchanges a (poorer) part of the population for higher-income earners via the mechanisms of supply and demand. However, this corresponds neither to the state of research nor to empirical reality. We therefore took the opportunity to interview one of the most important analysts of global gentrification processes: Prof. Dr. Neil Smith.

In Berlin, different stages of gentrification can be identified in different parts of the city, among other things due to the fall of the Berlin Wall. While quarters in Charlottenburg or Schöneberg, for example, have been gentrified for a long time, areas in the eastern part of the city are still in a relatively young but very dynamic upgrading process. You have been observing revaluation and gentrification tendencies for almost 30 years. How can the basic housing industry principles of such developments be described?

Neil Smith: We find gentrification or gentrification as a phenomenon above all in urban subspaces in which the urban infrastructure was previously neglected. This also means that areas are created that can be profitably "renewed". In the earliest forms, gentrification affected decaying workers' quarters near the urban centers that were colonized or re-colonized by households of the (upper) middle class. This then led to the displacement and evacuation of the existing population. The "rent gap" can be seen as the central mechanism behind gentrification. If there is no longer any investment in quarters, i.e. if they experience disinvestment, the redeemable land rent there is reduced, which means that the price of land will fall. If this divestment continues, the gap between the current realizable rent and the rent that could be obtained if the area were reinvested will widen. That goes on until it becomes attractive again to invest in the quarter.

This "earnings gap" is largely caused by market movements, particularly in the US. But in connection with gentrification, state policy can play an equally central role in creating incentives for disinvestment or reinvestment (see also p. 13, the ed.). However, only wealthy households can bear the higher costs associated with these reinvestments. Integral components of this initially economic change are then social and cultural shifts that change the type of shops, the range of goods and the public spaces in such areas. The Islington neighborhood in London, for example, or Greenwich Village in Manhattan are early examples of gentrification, but since the 1970s many cases have emerged in Europe, North America and Australia. In Berlin, early examples were registered in Schöneberg and Kreuzberg, among others, but the fall of the Wall threw an immense stock of apartments onto the market that had previously been affected by extensive divestments. This in turn led to extensive gentrification in Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte.

"City administrations tied to the idea of ​​the 'creative city'"

In the past few years, we have been observing neighborhood programs that are intended to contribute to "social stabilization" in many of the problematic areas. One strategy is the targeted settlement of artists; Fashion professionals and other creative groups. The concept is often so-called "interim uses", temporary commercial space offers at very low prices (of rooms that would otherwise be empty). Do such strategies fit into the upgrading dynamics of gentrification?

Neil Smith: Since the 1970s, gentrification has moved from a marginal, fragmented process in the housing market to a well thought-out and systematic urban development policy on a large scale. Gentrification has expanded into a comprehensive urban development strategy that encompasses not only the housing market, but also the areas of recreation, trade, employment and culture. It has also spread geographically to Latin America and Asia, where cities such as Shanghai and Beijing are displacing hundreds of thousands of poor and proletarian residents. As a generalized strategy for urbanity, gentrification not only weaves the interests of city administrations, project developers and landlords together, but also the interests of corporations and cultural and scientific institutions that need well-trained staff. Furthermore, gentrification is the paradoxical but logical result of the ecologically motivated demand for urban density. That's the page.

But these large-scale strategies are built into much more local initiatives, and city governments around the world are drawn to the idea of ​​the "creative city". In the interest of a strategy for the entire city, they try to locate the so-called "creative class" such as artists, intellectuals, entertainers, designers and high-tech engineers in specific, gentrifying districts (see also p. 16 ff., The Red. ). A pioneer of this development was probably the Lower East Side in New York, where landlords who were unable to rent out their commercial properties in the early 1980s gave them to artists cheaply with five-year contracts. Since there is no fixed rental price for commercial leases and the area rapidly gentrified in those five years, the landlords demanded rent increases of 400, 600 and even 1000% after the contracts had expired. The artists had done their job as stormtroopers of gentrification and were now displaced themselves. This local strategy is particularly popular in cities where tenant protection is more pronounced or where government regulation of the housing market is generally more pronounced. The gentrification of Berlin, for example, is more fragmented and slower than that in New York or London.

"If even Harlem can be gentrified, no area is safe"

In North Neukölln, an increased influx of student households, an intensification of real estate sales and an increase in the price of new rentals are observed. In discussions about the current developments in North Neukölln, however, gentrification warnings are partially blocked with the argument that the social structure, the neighborhood character and the poor image of the area are contrary to the life plans of pioneers and higher earners. Do you know of examples in which the social structure of a neighborhood was "too bad" for a gentrification process?

Neil Smith: Whether in university districts or other quarters, students are part of the process of "cracking" areas that established academics shy away from colonizing. The question of whether a particular neighborhood is gentrified or not depends on the one hand on the size of the "earnings gap" and the specifics of the local policy, but on the other hand also on the local conditions. Once the "earnings gap" is large enough, then - I believe - no neighborhood is "too bad" for gentrification. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that a particular area will actually be gentrified. Look at Harlem, New York City: During the 1960s and 1970s, Harlem was an international symbol of the city's decline, a "bad area". This was not least a result of racism, as Harlem was 97% inhabited by Afro-Americans in the 80s. Over 20 years ago, I interviewed an African-American bureaucrat whose job it was to try to gentrify Harlem. He said, "If Harlem is to be gentrified, the White Man really has to get a grip on himself." Today, Harlem is intensely gentrified. African-American academics, students, lawyers, gays, white yuppies are moving there - and property prices are skyrocketing. Columbia University is planning a huge project in the area. So if even Harlem can be gentrified, I don't think any area is safe. Just look at the early signs of gentrification on the fringes of Dharavi, Mumbai's largest slum (until 1995: Bombay, ed.) That is currently being demolished.

However, areas are gentrified in different ways. Some strategies have disastrous consequences, especially when the state or large institutions are involved, while other strategies lead to slower gentrifications. Some seem highly exclusive and exclusive, while other quarters may remain a more mixed scene for a longer period of time. These different fates of the areas depend on many factors such as the ownership structure and state regulatory mechanisms, on the class structure and cohesion, on the resident opposition and entrepreneurial initiatives. What all these different experiences have in common is the change in class structure and the greater or lesser degree of displacement (direct or indirect) that follows.

"A friendly and careful eviction is still an eviction"

In the academic debate about gentrification there is a dispute about the "correct" explanation of gentrification. Many studies try to explain urban changes through changed demand structures, new lifestyles, different biographical patterns, new working conditions, etc. How do you see the relationship between demand and supply-side approaches today? Is gentrification a real estate exploitation problem or a yuppie problem?

Neil Smith: On the Lower East Side, one of the anti-gentrification slogans of the 1980s was "The Yuppie Scum". I still have a t-shirt with this slogan that a friend gave me at the time. It was an effective slogan to scare off yuppies, and indeed the gentrification process in the area stalled until the city began evicting homeless people and protesters from Tompkins Square Park. But anti-yuppie slogans are not an analysis of gentrification. Even yuppies have very limited options in the housing market, albeit far more than the poor. In contrast, capital owners who are determined to gentrify and develop an area enjoy a lot of choice. This concerns on the one hand the choice of the neighborhoods they want to "consume" with the aim of gentrification, and on the other hand it concerns the type of apartments and other facilities that they "produce" so that the rest of us "consume" them. There is a huge asymmetry between the power of multimillion-dollar capitalist corporations in the market and the "power" of someone trying to rent an apartment on an average income. Hence the question of consumption and the availability of consumers is by no means irrelevant, but it is subordinate to the much greater power of capital.

"We have to start thinking in terms like 'tenant collective' and 'district councils'"

What does your economic view of gentrification processes mean for district work? Which conflicts are central and which coalitions are necessary?

Neil Smith: To the extent that gentrification has become a global urban strategy, anti-gentrification struggles must also position themselves in this context. Local strategies are essential and must highlight displacement, eviction and the loss of services and jobs in those neighborhoods where the existing working class is stranded. But such struggles always have to keep an eye on the global situation. Gentrification has become a strategy within globalization itself. Globalization involves the effort to create a global city, attracting capital and tourists, and gentrification is the central means of doing this. Some neighborhood activists (I'm thinking of people inspired by Jane Jacobs in North America) have tried to mobilize narrow-gauge gentrifiers to combat large-scale urban renewal projects, but that is itself a gentrification strategy aimed at making neighborhoods for the to provide so-called "creative class". The same can be said of the "strategies of renewal" which the EU emphasizes as the central issue of urban policy. In the UK in particular, but also elsewhere in the EU, the term "renewal" has become little more than a gentrified word for gentrification. A friendly and gentle eviction is still an eviction. I think we have to start thinking in terms like "tenant collective" and "district councils".

Such organizations should take more and more responsibility for the housing stock in their neighborhood and at the same time organize the local power base, which forces the public sector to adopt anti-gentrification legislation: rent caps, protection against eviction, increased public housing construction and so on. But in addition to organizing locally, anti-gentrification activists should work with global social justice movements. Housing is a social justice issue, and gentrification is part of a larger global capital accumulation. Today, many gentrification projects are designed, built, and funded by international capital owners based on decisions made on a global, not local, scale.

The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing are the most prominent example: in preparation for a sporting event that is also a gold mine for Chinese capitalists and the state, hundreds of thousands of poor and workers are being displaced en masse from the old neighborhoods of the city to make room for to create massive renovation projects.

The amalgamation between anti-gentrification struggles and the activities of the global social justice movement can become extremely threatening. The most recent desperate evocation of Section 129a of the German Criminal Code clearly shows this. The "terrorism" charge against seven people, including some researching gentrification, clearly demonstrates how threatening these connections can be. Class politics is equated with terrorism. Our answer to this should be to intensify the links between activists at different levels while rejecting the state's hysterical equation between class opposition and terrorism. Anti-gentrification struggles are part of this task.

Andrej Holm asked the questions. Translation from the US and editing by Jens Sambale and Volker Eick.

Unfortunately, next to nothing by Neil Smith has appeared in German, most recently "Rächen und Renovieren", in: Eick, Volker / Sambale, Jens / Töpfer, Eric (eds.): Kontrollierte Urbanität, transcript Verlag, 2007. One of the most important books Neil Smith's "The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City" was published in 1996 by Routledge.

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