Beyond the Politics of Anti-Gentrification: A Response to Laura Schmidt
Platypus Review 8 | November 2008
Dessie lives in the neighbourhood of Woodlawn, three blocks south of the University of Chicago, with her father and four cats. Her apartment is part of Grove Parc Plaza, a Section 8 development project built in the late 1960s, but like many public housing residents across Chicago, Dessie doesn’t know how much longer she will be able to hold on to her home. Last year, Grove Parc was threatened with foreclosure by the Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and despite an organized and vocal campaign by the members of the Grove Parc Tenants Association to save it, the future of the complex is still in doubt. Right on the edge of a campus too small to contain increasing numbers of students and faculty, and only a short walk away from the proposed site for the 2016 Olympic Stadium, Grove Parc’s land is prime real estate, and over the past few years residents have found themselves caught in an intensifying crossfire between the city, the university, and HUD. If there is a front line in the fight against gentrification, Dessie is on it.
Laura Schmidt’s (2007) article, “Taking issue with identity: The politics of anti-gentrification,” raises an interesting question. If I, a white, middle-class graduate student, choose to join Dessie in the fight against gentrification, what am I fighting for? “The discourse of anti-gentrification politics,” Schmidt writes, “…seeks to keep those who are poor in their place, and those who are rich in theirs.” Since Dessie has lived in Grove Parc, she has seen damp collect on her ceiling, had drugs sold in the vacant apartment below hers, and heard gang violence take place outside her window. If I lend my support to the campaign to save Grove Parc, am I really doing Dessie a favor? According to Schmidt, the local focus of anti-gentrification activism has given rise to the “objectification of anti-captialism into identity”. Since gentrification often involves the replacement of one ethnic group with another, activists have taken to declaring certain neighbourhoods a “natural” space for one particular ethnic group and opposing any development on the grounds of protecting that identity. This, Schmidt argues, serves only to obscure the real issue. Gentrification is a consequence of poverty, which in turn is a consequence of capitalism. If I really wanted to help Dessie, I would recognize that “in order to transform the inevitability of gentrification, capital must be overcome”.
Schmidt’s critique of the politics of anti-gentrification is misleading in many ways, not least concerning the motivations of those opposed to the displacement of people like Dessie. Nevertheless, the fundamental question posed by her article —when we fight gentrification, what are we fighting for? —is one that cannot be ignored. I think there are two different ways to answer it. The first is this: the assumption that gentrification is simply an inevitable product of a capitalist society is one that the developers hovering over Grove Parc would like us to make, but it is not warranted. Neighborhoods can be revitalized without being gentrified. The current state of Grove Parc is not a consequence of the natural function of capitalism, but of the dysfunction of under-funded bodies like HUD that have mismanaged the nation’s public housing stock whilst pouring taxpayers’ money into the hands of badly-vetted proprietors. A reformed and better funded HUD would prevent the crumbling neglect that makes poorer neighbourhoods so vulnerable to gentrification and dislocation. On this view, far from seeking to overcome capitalist society, anti-gentrification activism simply demands that government do the job it is supposed to do.
That is the first answer. I think that it is good as far as it goes, but on the most fundamental level it gets us no further than Schmidt’s critique of the politics of gentrification or the developers’ mantra of progress through capital. What all three approaches have in common is the understanding of gentrification as a purely abstract phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this in principle; indeed, for those on the receiving end of social upheaval, understanding one’s own struggles as part of a wider context can be illuminating and empowering. What is generally forgotten, however, is that there is no such thing as the view from nowhere. Any account of social phenomena, however abstract, is rooted in a particular situation, and cannot be understood apart from the particular interests and relationships that characterize it. For me to offer an analysis of some problem of yours is not for me to take up a perspective outside of our relationship, but to add a new element to it. With this in mind, let us be clear about the context in which this essay is written. The possible foreclosure of Grove Parc is Dessie’s problem, not mine. As Schmidt points out, I may well hear about it in an organic coffee shop built when the last wave of gentrification rolled through. Dessie would take my comfortable, middle-class existence any day, and I know because she’s told me. If my solidarity with her is based on some vaguely-imagined identity politics that wants to preserve the ghetto for the blacks, she’d be better off without me.
The fact is, however, that I have reason to stand alongside Dessie that is entirely self-interested. Gentrification is just one symptom of a sickness that has taken hold of modern urban society: we have become strangers to one another. If we students think that our comparative wealth and mobility leaves us unaffected, we are deluding ourselves. To live in a neighborhood patrolled by one of the world’s largest private police forces is not healthy. To move within a culturally homogenous bubble is not healthy. To be afraid of crossing a street only a few blocks from where you live for fear of the people on the other side is not healthy. Like all the worst sicknesses, you can carry this one a long time before you realize it.
That is why I began this article with Dessie. I refuse to treat her merely as a statistic because I believe that people like me looking at people like her in that way is a big part of the problem. Dessie is far from being an anti-capitalist. If she places any value in the preservation of Grove Parc, it is because that is her home, and she has had to fight for it. The main reason that I stand with her is because I have learnt that I cannot separate my own self-interest from hers. In a way, then, our common action, our not being strangers to each other, is a kind of critique of our society, but one that is laid out in practice. One might say of opposing oneself to gentrification what Wittgenstein said of philosophy, that it is “not a theory but an activity”. The task for us privileged students is not to pretend that we don’t like hanging out in Wicker Park and drinking organic coffee, but learn how our lives are tied up with those of our neighbours. It is possible, as Schmidt suggests, to see gentrification as a “local-level rallying point for anti-capitalist practice”; however, if we want to be true radicals we are going to have to get beyond that perspective and learn how to see it as Dessie’s fight to keep a roof over her cats’ heads. |P