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Gentrification is Inevitable (and Other Lies)
"We conflate the idea that cities change (of course they do!) with the idea that neighborhoods are inevitably taken over by wealthier, whiter residents."
New years — whenever you celebrate them and the fresh-ish slates that accompany them — are the perfect time for manifestos. Hillarie Maddox of Black Girl Country Living reminded me of that last week, when I asked for online reading recs and she sent me this piece, and which has been rattling around in my head ever since. Leslie Kern’s Gentrification is Inevitable and Other Lies has also been rattling around there — a book I think of as a sort of dismantling manifesto: it argues, with great clarity and precision, not just against gentrification, but against seven over-simplified, often hackneyed ways it’s been understood, normalized, and inevitablized. It turns narratives of gentrification upside down, shakes them, and displays all the presumptions that inform them. It’s a beautiful, bold, invigorating process — and at least for me, a perfect start for a year of continued questioning of the supposedly inevitable.
You can get a taste of it in the interview below — and find the book here. (All affiliate proceeds from Bookshop.org go to the Culture Study Mutual Aid fund
Can you tell us a bit about how you became interested in/obsessed with the discipline of geography — whose broad scope a lot of people don’t really understand — and your specific research interests within it?
It’s funny because the last time I took a geography class was sometime in high school. Most people’s memories of geography lessons probably involve coloring in maps and memorizing national capitals. Like most folks, I didn’t know anything about what we might call critical human geography — an area of study concerned with power, identity, and inequality and the role that space and place play — until grad school. I signed up for a course called Race, Space, and Citizenship with Dr. Sherene Razack and I never looked back.
As a feminist scholar I was always interested in how power works across intersecting systems and identities, but this was the first time I understood that geography was a crucial factor. If you think about ideas like “a woman’s place,” segregation, apartheid, anti-trans bathroom bills, settler colonialism, space is fundamental. How people are excluded, made vulnerable to violence, Othered, etc. is often accomplished through spatial processes of separation (e.g., “white vs. colored” bathrooms) and by assuming there are right or normal places for different groups of people to be and not to be.
My first forays into feminist geography were focused on women’s feelings of safety and fear in different urban environments. I think most women and other folks with marginalized gender identities instinctively know that these feelings are deeply rooted in a socially-prescribed geography of where we do and don’t belong. The safety rules that we’re taught (and then impose upon ourselves) have a lot to do with the kinds of places we’re not supposed to be in. I look at this in more detail in my last book, Feminist City.
I became interested in gentrification through another kind of feminist question. I’m from Toronto, and in the early 2000s, there was a massive condominium construction boom. A lot of the marketing hype proclaimed that young women were snapping up condos and finding liberation in a footloose urban lifestyle. This was wrapped up in a very Sex and the City inflected cultural moment that linked sexual freedom, consumption, and an urban lifestyle. But any good feminist killjoy had to ask: were condos really furthering women’s emancipation? To answer that question I had to learn about gentrification and its place in long histories of urban transformation.
I’d like to spend some time defining what gentrification is — because I think there’s a pretty stereotypical sense of what it is, and what it feels like, and who is included and excluded from it, and maybe that’s sufficient, but I’d also like to dig a little deeper into its sources and ripple-effects. And as a second question: how have we normalized the narrative that gentrification is “inevitable,” and why, as you put it in the intro to the book, is that a “dangerous narrative that strangles the possibility of change or justice?”
When sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term gentrification back in 1964, she was observing middle class households, often with more cultural and educational capital than financial wealth, “tiptoeing” into working class neighborhoods, buying and fixing up small, somewhat run-down homes. Over time, she noted, a complete social and economic transformation of the neighborhood took place. The word itself captures this change — the “gentry” were taking over and remaking space in their own image. This view of gentrification still resonates today, but what most people are experiencing is far from a household-by-household “tiptoe” effect.
Hundreds of new condominium or other luxury high rises don’t tiptoe anywhere. Gentrification today is often faster, more radically transformative, and directed by powerful state and corporate actors. Under the umbrella of gentrification, we could be talking about public housing demolition or conversion to market housing, the rise of short-term rentals through platforms like Airbnb, or greening projects that turn spaces labelled “derelict” into ecological destinations (think NYC’s High Line). There are so many phenomena that get called gentrification that some researchers think the term has lost all meaning. For me, the term still works best because it holds onto the power relations at the center of the process. In other words, it’s political.
The spread of gentrification today is less about household tastes and aesthetics (though you can still roll your eyes at hipsters and artisanal breakfast foods if you want) and more about policy making and corporate giants in the development, real estate, and finance industries. As an example, under Mayor Bloomberg, New York “upzoned” hundreds of blocks across the boroughs to allow for more high rise development, facilitating the displacement of low-income, racial minority communities as developers (who were also granted tax exemptions) bought up large swaths of land for massive residential, commercial, and tourist-oriented redevelopment. These new spaces are sites of foreign investment and real estate speculation, designed to make money, not serve as homes. I recommend the films My Brooklyn and Vanishing City to get a feel for this period of transformation.
These movies document the impact of such policies on neighborhoods like Harlem, Chinatown, and Fulton Street Mall, where seniors, single parents, small business owners, and long-time residents were being evicted or subjected to massive rent increases as changes steamrolled over their communities. These ripple effects mean that the very kinds of places that make New York, New York were being homogenized while low-income and racialized people were being pushed farther and farther out of the city.
Unfortunately, these kinds of changes are often portrayed as a natural evolution of city space, rather than as the result of deliberate policy making and sets of choices by powerful actors. We conflate the idea that cities change (of course they do!) with the idea that neighborhoods are inevitably taken over by wealthier, whiter residents. This is so dangerous, in my opinion, because it means that many people don’t question the nature of these changes or stop to ask who is really benefitting. It also means that even for those of us concerned about gentrification, we can end up feeling defeated because it seems like it’s an unstoppable force.
Can you talk a bit about how you decided to organize the book as, essentially, a rebuttal? (And does it make it easier when people start whatabout-ing you in interviews or casual conversations, that you already have their go-to arguments covered?)
I hadn’t thought of that benefit before, so thank you for bringing it to my attention!
My intention for the book was of course to push back on the idea that gentrification is inevitable, and also to expand the story of gentrification beyond “class change” to include gender, race, sexuality, ability, age, and colonization as critical factors. So as the book developed, it started to make sense to organize each chapter around what I consider to be partial stories about — or ways of understanding — gentrification. This meant that I could provide the reader with a decent foundation for grasping the typical explanations for gentrification (it’s cultural, it’s economic, etc.) and then dig into what was missing, what was sidelined, what was made secondary in those stories.
I’ve found that so much writing for broader audiences on the geography of urban spaces is really rooted in a handful of urban spaces — New York, Paris, London, maybe Chicago (thinking specifically of William Cronin’s Nature’s Metropolis) and Los Angeles. What’s gained by rooting this book in Toronto?
You’re absolutely right that a lot of theory and research (inside and outside academia) is drawn from a small number of almost exclusively global north cities in the UK, western Europe, and the US. Toronto isn’t really an exception to that rule, but it is the place that my interest in gentrification began. Perhaps the Toronto and other Canadian examples help counter the idea that Canada is an egalitarian, multicultural, socialist utopia, a national and international myth that I’m always eager to dispel.
Ultimately, I think that the story of gentrification could be explored starting from almost any city in the world. In the book, I tried to include a wide range of international examples that illustrate both the predictability and unique local flavor of gentrification across all continents (but not Antarctica. Yet). This was also important because we need to gather as many stories, strategies, and tactics for resistance as possible.
What does it mean to queer the story of gentrification, as you explore in one section of the book?
It’s a great question and interesting because some of the early academic research on gentrification looked at gay neighborhoods. There’s long been a fascination with how these spaces evolve from stigmatized “gay ghettos” to recognized “gay villages” to marketized “gay destinations.” However, lesbian writers quickly sought to complicate this story, which was centered on the lives and spaces of (predominantly white) gay men. These spaces weren’t necessarily welcoming or inclusive toward lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, queer people of color, and others within the broader queer community, especially as the “gayborhood” became more solidly middle-class, respectable, and consumption-oriented. So, queering the story of gentrification is partially about ensuring that the impacts of gentrification on queer folks with a more precarious hold on property, safety, political representation, employment, and services are studied and considered.
As a verb, though, queering is about more than including missing voices. It asks us to question, twist, explode, and betray some of the very foundational norms and concepts that inform our politics. Queering asks us to question the normative values that fuel gentrification: ideas about the home and family, the relationship between property and social acceptance, and what is required for liberation and empowerment. Queering also pushes an anti-gentrification politics to interrogate its own normative assumptions. These could include the unquestioned valorization of working-class identities and spaces, the notion of community, and the foundations of the right to the city.
You write, in the conclusion, that “openness to different ways of thinking about and practising our relationship to the city and all of its human and nonhuman inhabitants is necessary.”
It won’t be a surprise to regular readers of this newsletter that I love this challenge to openness and reconsideration — and I also love the section that follows, in which you walk readers through where the work of anti-gentrification begins, and what it looks like. How did you conceive of this section, what sections seem to be resonating with people, and what parts of this work do you struggle with yourself?
For me, a single dimension anti-gentrification struggle is never going to be enough. If we don’t attend to and make connections among other crises and the violence they create — be it the climate crisis, COVID, policing, borders, reproductive rights, the rise of white supremacy, ongoing settler colonialism —then we’re not going to get very far. I’m aware that in saying that, though, it sounds like I’ve scaled up the problem to a point where people may disengage because they’re overwhelmed and feel powerless. Hence the final section of the book! Initially, I had planned to end the book at the “Gentrification is Inevitable” chapter that includes many examples of resistance to gentrification from various cities. But when I got there, I felt that something was missing. Reading examples was interesting and educational, but not empowering. The book needed to include a call to action and a path to action.
The last chapter, then, moves beyond a critique of what gentrification scholarship has been missing to lay out affirmative principles for what an intersectional anti-gentrification politics might look like. It also offers a “baby steps” approach for those who might not have any idea how to get started. So far, people really seem to appreciate this section. They put down a book about a pretty heavy, depressing topic feeling a glimmer of hope and seeing themselves as part of the solution.
Perhaps some of this emerged from my own struggle with feeling helpless. I’ve been living in a small town for over a decade, disconnected from many of the movements that I’m passionate about. I worried I was little more than an armchair commentator. Deepa Iver’s idea of social change ecosystems involving many different yet equally important roles helped me reframe my contributions. I wanted to include it in the book so that readers who didn’t necessarily see themselves as frontline, direct action warriors could conceive of roles for themselves, whether as storytellers, a caregivers, builders, healers, and more. I hope people come away with a little more hope, and a little more clarity about how they might be a part of building a different city and a different world.
You can buy Gentrification is Inevitable and Other Lies here.