On Gentrification

... : Historic Second Ave. undergoes transformation in Cass Corridor
A photo within Cass Corridor

In terms of gentrification, I sometimes feel that my life and belief stand in contradiction. Ideologically, I stand opposed to gentrification, yet, with my current living situation, I could be seen as an agent of gentrification. The neighbourhood within Detroit that I live in is signified with two titles: Cass Corridor and Midtown. Cass Corridor has been known “as a poor downtrodden area” by locals to Detroit, and a history of the corridor can be read here. Recent movements, (spearheaded by wealthy elites such as Dan Gilbert) have led to increasing rebranding efforts in key neighbourhoods near and within the downtown core. The Cass Corridor has faced similar rebranding efforts. The neighbourhood has been renamed “Midtown” in an attempt to make it appear more friendly to outsiders than the old Cass Corridor. This rebranding is partially responsible for the influx of wealth into the Corridor which has displaced populations who have historically lived here  including the homeless the artists, the musicians, the workers, the elderly, and the mentally ill.

I currently live in this area of Detroit, in one of the older buildings that has not yet been renovated. Yet, I could still be classified as a wealthy young professional (though the wealthy part might not be the best designation at the moment, I still have the spending power and relative safety net that most people do not). Because of this designation, I have sometimes pondered whether or not I am morally complicit in the gentrification efforts of this community. I am an outsider who moved into this community, and without a doubt I’ve taken up a space that could have been filled with someone else who has lived here for a lot longer than I have. I have wondered about my place in this community and this city, and I think that it is important for me to analyze the way that gentrification works in order to understanding my role in the gentrifying efforts of Detroit. Do I have responsibility in this or not?

I think that an examination of how gentrification works can be useful in attempting to determine who has moral responsibility within the system. This exercise will, of course, be simplistic and not touch on the more nuanced and complex realities that exist within systems of gentrification, but it can allow us to determine how gentrification generally works. Cities are composed of a variety of neighbourhoods, each with varying cultures, peoples and costs. People tend to live near people who are similar to them. This takes place because of sorting efforts which take place as a result of various socio-economic phenomena. I want to suggest that there are both “organic” and “planned” sorting efforts. For instance, we can see that people of a certain culture or racial identity tend to live together. On the one hand, a more organic sorting takes place in that people who move to a new country tend to want to live near people who share their culture and language. As a result of this, we see places like “China Town” and “Little Italy” pop up within urban spaces. Yet at the same time there are “planned” sorting efforts which result in similar circumstances. Historically, we see many neighbourhoods implement rules that restrict the neighbourhood of only people who are white. In both of these cases people are sorted based on conditions that they don’t really have that much control over. In terms of “organic” cultural sorting efforts, one could move to a neighbourhood with no relation to their culture, but given the language barrier this seems close to being impossible. The conditions of culture are impossible to ignore as a strong factor in this sorting effort. In terms of a planned sorting efforts, these flows are impossible to ignore. One cannot move into a neighbourhood that one is barred from by law. Thus, it is material conditions, rather than intellectual actions, which lead these sorting efforts to occur. On top of cultural sorting efforts, we also see class based sorting efforts. It would be a mistake to suggest that the cultural and the economic sorting efforts to not intersect – they do – but given the simplistic nature of this exercise, I will not go into detail about this here. Economic sorting efforts would seem to be more organic than planned. Typically, people will move into an area that they can afford. Thus, people of similar economic wealth tend to congregate in similar areas. The material flows of wealth tend to  determine where someone will live. A city is composed of a multiplicity of little neighbourhoods which come about through a variety of sorting mechanisms. These neighbourhoods are divided in terms of wealth and culture (and probably other factors as well). Gentrification begins to occurs when a poorer area’s culture begins to be transformed by more wealthy interests. This tends to occur in a number of stages. First, poorer, creative types (often white), tend to move into a lower income (often non-white) neighbourhoods. These creative types may be motivated by a number of things (living authentically, the thrill of a different world, or even a fictional “blank slate”) but often the most prominent factor is cheap rent. Poorer artist types, looking for cheap rent go and buy or rent property within a poorer area of town (which, because racism has led people of colour to, generally, receive less payment for their labour, tend to be predominated by people of colour). These poorer white artists move into the community and begin to transform the space by transforming the art and culture. This creative class transforms the area into a more trendy, bohemian space. Others white people see the area not as it was, but now as a trendy area that they can move into. Wealthy land owners see this, and use it as an opportunity to buy property and transform the space by creating new housing and business that wealthier white professionals can purchase and frequent. Often (as is the case in with Cass Corridor/Midtown, as well as the transformation of Core City to West Corktown) these wealthy business people will attempt to rebrand a space in order to make it more appealing to young, wealthy professionals. This removes negative connotation from the neighbourhood. All of this results in land and rent prices rising in the area, which also raises property task. These rises in cost lead to a forcing out of community members who have been living in the area for decades. The history of the community and neighbourhood is effectively erased and replaced by a  trendy white faux utopia. An act of artisanal imperialism.

Given all of this, who is at fault in this equation? Who should be held morally responsible. Most of the individuals within this system of gentrification are not attempting to actively gentrify an area and drive those who have lived there out. Instead, people are driven by the material flows which force them to take certain economic actions. Outside of the efforts of capital to capitalize on a gentrifying and rebranding effort, it is difficult to place blame on individuals within gentrification efforts. Rather, when considering gentrification we must consider that it – like racism, sexism, transphobia, and other instances of oppression – is the result of the systems of oppression that exist within our societal spheres. People are reacting to material flows, and these flows exist within systems and machines of oppression which result in unintended results of gentrification. Thus, while it seems easy to blame individuals for gentrification, it would be better to focus on the primary cause of its creation: flows of capitalism. Once we see these issues as systemic we can stop blaming each other and start looking at the root of the problem.