Spontaneous Interventions spotlights dozens of well-meaning urban actions by individuals trying to solve problems in their neighborhoods. But are the “improvements” they propose welcome by others in the community? Do they really solve problems or just conceal them? And do they benefit the few while they neglect the many?
Many spontaneous actions intended as local improvements raise questions about gentrification. Not only are their creators often, apparently, gentrifiers, but the contributions themselves may bring unwelcome changes to a neighborhood’s character. Other similar actions—whether by conscientious new arrivals or advocates of social justice—explicitly engage the gentrification issue. They can bring much-needed attention to a process of neighborhood transformation that is usually ignored. But is this good enough? Government doesn’t define, recognize, or deal with gentrification, and it’s time to bring it into the light of day. But how?
First, let’s be clear what gentrification is not. Gentrification is not the same as change in neighborhoods. Change occurs all the time and in every neighborhood: People move in and out, buildings fall into disrepair and undergo renovation, and businesses come and go. Gentrification is not improvement of housing, public space, and the physical improvement of the environment. That can and does happen without gentrification. Gentrification is not the arrival of “different” people—although that is often a part of it. The seeming homogeneity of some communities often conceal differences that exist underneath the surface—broad individual and social differences, which can be masked by narrow ethnic and religious mores.
So what is gentrification? Gentrification is when neighborhoods change in ways that force many longtime residents and businesses to move out because land prices and rents have skyrocketed overnight. “Different” people arrive in large numbers, and the big difference is that these newcomers are much wealthier and more powerful (they may or may not have a different skin color or ethnicity). With them comes the money to improve housing and the physical environment, often creating improvements that the past residents fought hard for but could not afford to do or lacked the political power to secure. Gentrification means wiping out the social history of an existing community or turning that history into a hip, marketable cliché. With gentrification, the people who are displaced disappear into the vast metropolis; governments and our leading institutions care not what happens to them or where they go, while significant public resources are provided to help make life better for the gentrifiers.
To some extent, this Spontaneous Interventions exhibition honors gentrifiers by giving them a prominent place at the prestigious Biennale. Missing from the stage are the local residents and businesses who, over decades and with little fanfare, improve their communities through many brilliant and creative actions. Their many gradual, small steps have to be analyzed and understood for their role in shaping the urban environment and creating livable cities.
This is also why it’s so important to bring gentrification into the light and consider not only the people and things that come with it but also all that is lost because of it. As a first step, we need to talk about it, argue about it, and laugh and cry about it. Then we can move towards doing something about it.
Everyone living in a neighborhood facing gentrification—newcomers and long-time residents alike—needs to seek common ground and use that to struggle to improve the community in a way that doesn’t force people out. They have to learn to use established tools, including land trusts, rent regulations, and measures to stop speculators. They have to learn how to improve the environment without forcing residents and businesses to move. They need to develop their own plans, gaining increasing control over land and expanding local democracy by including people of all economic and social strata.
Those concerned newcomers who call attention to gentrification through creative actions need to do it in a way that reaches out to and embraces the community’s endangered people and institutions. Most neighborhoods that are tagged as “gentrified” are actually “gentrifying,” and too often those who are still hanging on become invisible to the newcomers. Gentrifiers need to open their eyes and mouths, and soon their hearts will open too. They may have personally done nothing to create the conditions leading to gentrification. They may have simply been looking for affordable housing in a livable environment and recognized the importance of a diverse neighborhood. The danger comes from hunkering down with the other gentrifiers, thus becoming complicit in the process of transforming the neighborhood into a homogeneous, unwelcome, placeless enclave.
We need models of planning and development that involve community improvement without displacement. Gentrification is not placemaking but place-taking. It destroys our collective memory of places, contributing to the global homogenization and commodification of everything. Bring it into the light of day and it could melt away in the sunshine.
Tom Angotti is a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, the City University of New York, and director of Hunter’s Center for Community Planning and Development. His most recent book is New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate (2008) and his forthcoming book is The New Century of the Metropolis: Enclave Development and Urban Orientalism.