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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Taking issue with identity: The politics of anti-gentrification

Taking issue with identity: The politics of anti-gentrification

Laura Schmidt

Platypus Review 1 | November 2007


The perception of gentrification in Chicago mirrors would-be progressive groups’ social imaginations and the heterogeneity of their goals. Gentrification is the reconstitution of a neighborhood which occurs when lower-income areas with lower land value are re-developed with higher-value housing into a decidedly wealthier neighborhood. During this process the class-composition and character of the neighborhood is changed; those already living in the neighborhood cannot sustain the rise in property taxes and must move elsewhere.

In Chicago, like other cities, the process occurs along racial and ethnic lines, since many of the lower-income residents that are displaced are disproportionately non-white, and the “gentry” that reoccupies the neighborhood is disproportionately white. Gentrification’s socioeconomic implication as a geographic shuffling of people and community in the global context of capitalism makes it a local-level rallying point for anti-capitalist practice. Although groups opposed to the displacement of residents frame this phenomenon as in keeping with the laws of capitalism (understood as an abstract force), the most immediate mode of problematizing gentrification is identity politics, since it by definition involves groups of people.

Locating the politics of gentrification is difficult precisely because to want something to happen with respect to gentrification is to desire reform as the end goal. In order to transform the inevitability of gentrification, capital must be overcome. However, failing this, identity politics, which is reformative in that it doesn’t seek universal emancipation but focuses on one interest group, is opted for.

Gentrification occurs at the community level, so the displacement of people occurs from one neighborhood to another. Chicago is called the city of neighborhoods, but it is also notoriously segregated. This is also clear in gentrification; usually (but not in all cases), the “old” neighborhood and the “new” neighborhood are ethnically or racially different. It is held that those gentrifiers, consistent with the disproportionately wealthy, are white yuppies, while those who are displaced are either Latino or black lower-class families. From empirical studies, we can see that this is not the case. Yet the pervasiveness of identity politics in the liberal or progressive personality allows for anti-yuppie paraphernalia to be found abundant in coffee shops, cultural cornerstones of gentrification.

This translates into a falsely-political dichotomy. Leftist groups—which here includes anything from progressive community organizations to activists, to college students with latent leftist leanings—tend to come down on the “anti-gentrification” side. This is misleading, however, because if there are such things as sides, the “pro-gentrification” side consists of either those yuppies who move to the new area, or those who see a positive “urban renewal” with the process of gentrification. This polarization does not provide an articulation of the direction in which we should all head. Opposing gentrification is not a political judgment, and it is different than “being opposed” to displacement. The localized nature of gentrification politics lends itself to the formulation of immediate solutions to problems, reforms, thus preventing an immanent critique of capitalism, which would opt for social change at a mass level.

It makes sense that the contemporary progressive stance associates the idea of anti-gentrification with anti-capitalism; in progressive circles the market is commonsensically conceived of as an abstract villainous force. On par with such anti-capitalist sentiment is the objectification of anti-capitalism into identity, as though one group of people were inherently emancipatory by virtue of their oppression. Hence, the solution to gentrification in West Town/Humboldt Park boils down to to declaring the space as naturally Puerto Rican, thus inviting all Puerto Ricans, regardless of class, to settle in the area. This political gesture results in gentrification by middle and upper class Puerto Ricans. Pilsenites can’t keep out yuppies and artists by arguing that the space is for poor Mexicans without wanting the place to remain Mexican.

The discourse of anti-gentrification politics does nothing to suggest that poverty itself needs to be undermined, but instead seeks to keep those who are poor in their place, and those who are rich in theirs. And if it is progressive to back these efforts, one who doesn’t fit the identity of either neighborhood is excluded from arguing for its emancipation. There is a tendency in Chicago to anticipate an anticapitalist character of those who are challenging displacement via gentrification from the standpoint of identity, as though those two plights were the same. The problem isn’t that one should ignore displacement or efforts to study and remedy it.

Nor should one write off identity. If there is one thing to be leaned from how gentrification is ideologized as a struggle for the urban soul, it is that progressive political movements don’t know how to handle the identity factor reveal another short coming for progressive politics: more affordable housing should be had, but shouldn’t we aim at overcoming the underpinnings of poverty, rather than apologizing for it on the one hand, or moving “it” away from immediate sight (displacement) on the other? In order to imagine this, the framework will have to move beyond the confines of identity while clearly defining a stance on that contradiction of communal and general goals. In other words, they must actually be the same. |P