With great hesitation I want to make some remarks about gentrification, and presume to make them because I don’t see anyone else doing so in weeklies, blogs, etc. I’ll make it brief since typing necessitates putting down my hand-ground pour-over coffee, bacon scone made with all locally-sourced ingredients, and having to swish my fair-trade, hand-woven faux-Pakistani/deStijl shawl over my shoulder so the fringe doesn’t get between my fingers and the keyboard, causing me to mistakenly type phrases like “reactionary bourgeois ignoramuses.” You know what they say about honey vs. vinegar.
In the interest of due diligence, and since many have surely written about the subject with far more erudition and research than I have, I looked some basic things up on this topic. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “gentrify” as to “renovate and improve (especially a house or district) so that it conforms to middle-class taste.” According to a Wikipedia entry that presumably reflects a current understanding of the term, “Gentrification is a shift in an urban community toward wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values. Gentrification is typically the result of investment in a community by real estate development businesses, local government, or community activists.” In territory located somewhere between the OED’s rather politically uninflected definition and Wikipedia’s immediate acknowledgment of the topic’s web of social implications, Merriam-Webster defines it as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” The only phrase that is glaringly problematic in any of the three characterizations is “middle-class or affluent people,” suggesting that the two classes are interchangeable or even in the same species.
All seems well and level-headed in that initial paragraph on Wikipedia, but scrolling down to the contents of the article reveals the heading “Gentrifier Types” and the subheadings “Women,” “Gay and lesbian people,” and “Artists.” Before following the link and thereby diving into the depths of the hive mind, I give myself and you time for a hearty laugh and a girding of the loins. But our alarm generally goes unrewarded. It turns out there are theories about certain kinds of single, childless and/or gay, and working people who seek cheap housing in a city so they can be close to work. Huh! The “Artists” section recognizes that artists are usually not “first-stage” or “prototypical” gentrifiers, but rather “marginal” gentrifiers, which is a subset that’s the first to get pushed out of a neighborhood by rising property values. The article also states that “Just as critical to the gentrification process as creating a favorable environment is the availability of the ‘gentry,’ or those who will be first-stage gentrifiers. The typical gentrifiers are affluent and have a professional-level, service industry jobs, many of which involve self-employment.”
Which gets to the major point I have to make. The agents of gentrification are real estate developers and landlords, not artists, writers, musicians, restaurant or bar owners, or anyone else. The point must be made here because I have never once read it in print or online, and rarely heard it even in casual conversation. That may be because it isn’t true, but the process seems to me very clean cut. Creative types move to a given neighborhood for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it is what they can afford. They may seek a live/work situation or a place to make messy work. Like my wife Lexa, a longtime resident of West Oakland, they may be attracted to living among working class people and not suburban or more well-to-do types, since they can relate to the former. Their presence gives a neighborhood a bohemian flavor. They set up galleries and a shop or two so they can sell each other art and things. So then how the artists do what they need to do and how they live the way they want to attracts people from outside the neighborhood who need amusement and things to spend their money on. This gives rise to a restaurant and a bar, because wandering around makes you hungry, and a neighborhood suddenly getting its own name, which is when it becomes a “thing.” Which is when landlords and developers smell money and raise property values, sometimes accompanied by “improvements” and new construction. Seem reasonable?
Artists are usually renters–rarely property owners–who live in a neighbo because they can afford it, and they have no direct control over property values. They are also the first to get priced out, and the last to profit from a neighbo rising up. Articles like the ones in the current “Oakland” issue of SF Magazine issue portray this happy society of artists selling expensive pieces and making a living, but it’s not happening in any statistically significant numbers.
The minor point I have to make is only that there may not be such an entity as a gentrifier–in the sense of a conscious, intentional agent of gentrification–of any kind besides a real estate professional. Creatives in the renting class have absolutely nothing to gain by rising property values, so they cannot be said to be gentrifiers. Neither can tech industry employees be described as gentrifiers: the fact that they are paid a certain amount of money for doing certain work reflects only a market tendency in compensation, not an intention for how the money will be spent. It would be surprising if a techie wished to spend any more money than an artie on any given good or service. Besides, only an artist would think that a low six-figure salary guarantees anyone the power to influence or direct events outside their own life.
A coffee shop just opened in West Oakland, which makes the number of grocery stores and coffee shops in the neighborhood equal. Fear not, though, since it isn’t until they pull up all the disused railroad tracks crossing Peralta Street, which rattle the skulls and shred the bikes of those who pass over them, gates and barriers that they are–not until then will we really have something to worry about.