Photo credit: Emily Pober Higgins
Walking through my old neighborhood these days is a demoralizing experience. It's not that I'm averse to change; it's that I feel like I have no part in the change that's happened over the last two decades, and therefore no part in my neighborhood.
There would be no way for me to open a small business in the West Village without millions in capital. There would be no way for me to afford to live there, unless it was back at my parents' apartment, which they moved into in the early '80s, and thankfully bought before the billionaires came.
So where do I go? Deep into Brooklyn, to help displace others? Out of the city I was born and raised in completely, to another city altogether? To the suburbs from which my parents fled in search of a place where they, my brother, and I could freely express our identities and live more interesting lives?
This is the dilemma faced by many Americans today — the very act of living somewhere means struggling with identity, capitalism, and race. Locale has become political, or more accurately, it has started to feel
political because we've finally begun to talk about it. But it has always been political: since slavery ended, the U.S. has been systematically denying black Americans the same housing privileges as whites. And you could argue that the entire project of the United States is based on capital gain through displacement — i.e., of Native Americans. That displacement has continued for all of U.S. history. In the 1930s and '40s, the U.S. created "redlining" maps that in effect barred people of color from obtaining government-backed mortgages. Cities were synonymous with race and poverty (a poverty created by the government's disinvestment in them), and so the government would only back mortgages to suburban developers who lent to white people. With a few new laws, an entire new class of people — the white suburbanite — was created. The government and big banks' role in this racial division continues today, with black Americans still denied mortgages more than whites. That all explains why more black people live in poor neighborhoods today than 40 years ago.
How do you reverse a trend that goes back to essentially the beginning of U.S. history?
But the white suburbanite was not a sustainable class. The economics and the culture of the suburbs have stopped working — commutes are too long, gas too expensive, lives too staid (that's why college graduates seem to be flocking to cities). And for real estate developers, that's opened a new opportunity to take the land the government forced disinvestment from decades ago (cities), and resell it at much higher value to the same kind of people they convinced to move out of the city in the first place. To paraphrase the late geographer Neil Smith, gentrification is just a seesaw of capital. In the last few decades, we've seen the seesaw tip in the other direction, first slowly (e.g., artists moving to the East Village), and now extremely quickly (e.g., the wholescale development of entire neighborhoods in cities big and small).
So where does that leave me, or you, or anyone when it comes to housing? How do you reverse a trend that goes back to essentially the beginning of U.S. history? I often get asked if gentrification is good or bad, or both. The answer is that the question is too small. The real question is why are some people's lives and living arrangements given preference over others? Why does my desire to live in a place where I can be a writer, a queer person, an activist (i.e., a city) have to mean the displacement of someone else? And the answer is much bigger than how we usually think of gentrification — it's not just about coffee shops with single-origin beans, it's not about waving to your new neighbors (though those things play a role). The answer requires probing deep into the complex and troubling history of housing in the United States.
I try to keep that in mind when I walk through my old neighborhood now — that this isn't just about the new people here, or about me, but about these larger systems and histories. That doesn't help me feel less depressed or angry when I get cut off by a silly designer dog and its owner typing into their iPhone, but it does help me channel my energy into useful things, so I can try to change those systems that got us here in the first place. I hope my book inspires others to do the same.
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is a freelance journalist who has written for the Guardian
, New York Times
, New Republic
, and many others. A former staff writer at Al Jazeera America
, he is a graduate of Hampshire College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. How to Kill a City
is his first book. Moskowitz lives in New York City.