Gentrification and the Hypocrisy of Progressives
It is only natural that when the topic of gentrification comes up, that one envisions an evil businessman in a suit kicking low-income residents out of their town to make way for their Capitalistic intentions. The reason why this is natural is that that is actually what happens. And in that sense, I praise progressives for making a point to showcase the negative moral implications of gentrification.
In another sense, however, praise is the furthest thing we should be lending to progressives when it comes to gentrification: this sense is the one in which they directly contribute to the existence of gentrification. Even worse, it is the sense in which they directly contribute to the existence of gentrification, while simultaneously going to extreme measures to advertise their opposition to gentrification.
I once heard a former classmate of mine during my undergraduate degree who lived in Harlem state that, “I am going to move to Bushwick, Brooklyn. I don’t want to keep contributing to gentrification in Harlem.” I wish that this was a caricature, but sadly it is not. In any case, I believe this non-caricature illustrates the core of the problem: progressives directly contribute to a socio-economic process, while simultaneously moralizing about their distaste for this process.
“How do progressives contribute to gentrification?” one might ask. Academics ranging from economists, political scientists, sociologists, and those in urban studies agree on a stage-model conceptualization of the process of gentrification over time. To editorialize this model a bit, the first thing that happens when the process of gentrification begins is that a low-income neighborhood — which usually has a lot of business-sized rent space open and is typically populated by mostly people of color — -is discovered by the creative types, like artists and musicians. Due to this influx of people, the area grows in social capital. It is now “cool” to live in such a place because that’s where all the artists are. Policymakers might get wind of this and act to invest in infrastructure; business people or small business owners with a lot of money might find out about this neighborhood and wish to set up their business in the area, as areas with high social-capital quite readily draw in customers.
By this time in the process, you will see a low-income neighborhood that looks as if it were catapulted into a different neighborhood and fused slightly with it. Laundromats, bodegas, and nail-salons mixed up with thrift shops, high-end restaurants, expensive coffee-shops, and health food stores. At this stage, the housing in the area is still quite affordable. Landlords have not yet raised rent prices. Because of this, young adult yuppies — the majority of whom “possess” progressive principles — begin to move into the neighborhood, making it an even “cooler” place to be. Yuppies outside of the neighborhood begin to hear that their friends have moved to the neighborhood, which on top of the cheap housing and ready access to high-quality small-businesses, creates a huge incentive for more yuppies to move into the neighborhood — which they do.
By this point, the neighborhood is beyond “cool.” The cultural capital of the neighborhood is at an all-time high. Because of this, rent prices begin to rise and the original residents of the neighborhood — usually, people of color — are displaced. Generally, most of the yuppies stick around for a while when this happens.
If “black lives matter,” why are those who are chanting that mantra directly contributing to the degradation of black lives by pushing them out of their neighborhoods? The hypocrisy here is blatant and the moralizing is even more blatant. How can so many articles have been written about how much progressives hate gentrification when they are one of the major driving forces of it?
To quote from Ta-Nahisi Coates’ We Are Eight Years in Power,
I know that “gentrification” is but a more pleasing name for white supremacy, is the interest on enslavement, the interest on Jim Crow, the interest on redlining, compounding across the years, and these new urbanites living off of that interest are, all of them, exulting in a crime. To speak the word gentrification is to immediately lie.
The sad irony is that the same progressives who sip their soy lattes in Bushwick cafes while black families are forced to move — to where? They don’t know! — will moralistically quote Coates, almost as if he is God, without realizing that they are directly contributing to the euphemistic version of white supremacy.
The state-of-affairs of progressive hypocrisy with regard to gentrification is truly a disgrace. On the one hand, it is a disgrace to intellectual honesty. Do not preach what you cannot practice — especially when you shun others (though, not your own, but only your perceived enemies) for not practicing your pseudo-values. On the other hand, it is a disgrace to the very people you claim to be champions of. People of color are not happy about gentrification for obvious reasons; progressives, you are disregarding black lives when you blind yourself to the reality of your contribution to gentrification. It is a moral tragedy that such disregard stems from pure comfort. In fact, there ought to be shame attached to the fact that one moralizes about bolstering black lives, within the context of making the lives of people of color more difficult by displacing them. Most of the time, this displacement is permanent. How could you sit back and scream “black lives matter” when you are actively contributing to the permanent displacement of black lives for your own egoistic indulgences?
Brothers and sisters; comrades, and friends: shame!