The corporate steamroller of gentrification is a deliberate process

Gentrification is an ongoing process, of which we’ve had two reminders in the past month in New York City. The recent closing of the Bowery Poetry Club is a sad reminder of the dwindling number of community spaces — and one need only look across the street to see a high-end corporate clothing boutique occupying the space where CBGB showcased musical acts for more than three decades.

Even last weekend’s annual commemoration of the Tompkins Square Park police riot of 1988 was, in its own way, an echo of gentrification as the event served mostly as an act of nostalgia for the past of Manhattan’s Lower East Side that remains only in pockets. No New York City neighborhood put up more of a fight for its survival as an alternative haven for non-conformists in cultural, political and social milieus. That any of its tradition as a place of resistance to the overwhelming power of money survives in the now legalized squats, smattering of community spaces, and the out-numbered activists, artists and non-conformists who are able to remain by virtue of rent regulations is because of collective action.

Just to be clear about what is meant by the term gentrification, a working definition of it is: A process whereby an organic culture originating in the imagination, sweat and intellectual ferment of a people living in a particular time and place who are symbolically or actually distinct from a dominant moneyed mono-culture is steadily removed and replaced by corporate money and power, which impose a colorless chain-store conformity. The process of gentrification is assisted by a local government under the sway of local corporate elites, and is centered on dramatic increases in commercial and residential rents such that the people and culture who are being removed find it increasingly difficult to remain.

New York’s Lower East Side (photo by Postdlf)

This process is concurrent in many cities and countries. A special twist in New York City is that artists are used as a “bait” to put formerly industrial areas on the map as destinations, until the artists are no longer needed and are forced out by the sharply rising rents that sweep over the area once gentrification takes hold. This process can happen gradually, as it was in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, or it can happen swiftly, as it was further down Brooklyn’s East River waterfront in the “Dumbo” enclave.

These processes are never organic, but become orchestrated once a neighborhood attracts a reputation as “hip” or “interesting.” In this variant, the artists arrive in places either emptied by de-industrialization, subject to high crime rates under the impact of neglect, or a combination of the two. In the case of Williamsburg, the process greatly accelerated following a massive rezoning that allowed 40-story luxury condominium buildings along the East River where only industrial uses has previously been allowed. (That more than 95 percent of local speakers at an hours-long hearing were in opposition and that local activists spent years developing an alternative plan in line with the neighborhood’s character was of no consequence.)

So now we have the “irony” of aggressively marketed buildings branded as “The Edge” located where an open-air waste-transfer station operated only a few years earlier: Bags of garbage used to molder there until a barge could arrive to remove them.

One strongly suspects the developers responsible for the complex do not inform the newcomers of the recent past.

The pace of corporatization accelerates

The neighborhood that became know as Dumbo (the name is an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”) underwent the process much quicker. Artists had settled there, too, as space became available. One real estate company essentially bought the neighborhood and openly used the artists as bait to make the neighborhood a desirable destination, going so far as to give street-level space for them to use as galleries or performance stages for a couple of years until the developers would be ready to reclaim the building to convert into condominiums and/or rental space for high-end corporate retail businesses.

The process extended to the corporatization of the annual Dumbo Arts Festival. I appeared as a poet in the 1999 pre-gentrification edition of the festival, simply because I happened to meet the friendly organizers of the spoken-word event, which was held on a loading dock. Artists would open their studios to the public, and those participating in the festival were primarily artists who lived there. A decade later, the neighborhood had been transformed into an expensive shopping mall, and the festival now boasts a string of corporate sponsors. Few artists remain in a neighborhood now dominated by million-dollar condominiums, the owners of whom undoubtedly fancy themselves as trend setters by virtue of living there.

The idea of corporatization has so taken hold that Dumbo’s open space, the Brooklyn Bridge Park, is expected to generate a profit. That sounds crazy, but it is really true: Some of the land set aside for the park is being sold to developers to build high-end hotels or other commercial enterprises to offset the costs of the park.

But the draw of artists is not necessary. Gentrification moves in waves and is ongoing; in New York City, developers are greedily preparing to devour Harlem — its historical cachet reduced to an advertising campaign — and have begun to eye outlying neighborhoods such as Bushwick. Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store mangers who wish to cater to the newcomers.

Neglect, then profit

The city’s oldest gentrification project is that of the Lower East Side. Here the concept of “spatial de-concentration” was put into practice. “Spatial de-concentration” is a deliberate strategy of reducing the available housing stock to disperse a population. The Lower East Side in the 1970s suffered from a wave of landlord abandonments, arsons and city neglect, such as reduced firefighting services; eventually a shortage of housing triggered rising rents and stimulated real estate speculation.

A neighborhood that was an escape from the pervasiveness of corporate mass culture — its unique ambience created by a mix of Puerto Ricans, Ukrainians, Poles, artists, squatters, community gardeners, anarchists, communists and beatniks — and anchored by community spaces and local mom-and-pop businesses has been transformed into an alcohol-fueled playground for the privileged overrun by “trendy” bars and chain stores. Deep-pocketed chain stores and boutiques owned by holders of trust funds are becoming the only entities that can afford the commercial rents as the very concept of commercial rent control is never raised by any political leader.

The average neighborhood residential monthly rent is now $2,400 — this in a neighborhood where, 40 years ago, people paid less than $100 for an apartment. Commercial space has increased in price still more steeply; local businesses that give back to the community are steadily forced to close their doors. As the former population becomes a smaller minority within in its neighborhood, the ability to fight back in an organized way dwindles, until a critical point is reached where real estate interests become essentially dictatorial and the process accelerates.

The Whole Earth Bakery, a victim of gentrification (Credit:

At some point, history becomes nostalgia. And 24 years later, the Tompkins Square Park police riot — when police hiding their badges went on a rampage against anybody luckless enough to be near the park sparked an intense period of struggle that lasted for several years — was unmistakably an object of nostalgia in this year’s commemoration. And even that had its corporate echo, as one person seized control of the annual event after chasing out others who previously helped organize it, and announced that he owns the marbles and will take them home if others don’t do as he says. A most capitalist attitude.

A community needs community institutions. Several years ago, I published a book of poetry by a friend who had recently died. The poet was well-liked and very modest; his friends felt it important that his work be kept alive. After I had completed the book, I walked one Friday afternoon to the Bowery Poetry Club, saw the owner, Bob Holman, there and began to ask him if I could schedule the book-release party there. Before I could get the first sentence out of my mouth, he enthusiastically said yes, giving me a two-hour Sunday slot without charge. I don’t think Starbucks would have done that.

I don’t pretend to know the club’s financial specifics, but I don’t think it takes a stretch of imagination to imagine that Mr. Holman had a large mortgage or rent to cover each month. And his club, home to artists and performers in a variety of disciplines, was a haven for community do-it-yourself arts and culture. I mention this not because its closing is a loss to a specific community (which it is) but because it is an example of what is happening on a mass scale through the corporate homogenization that arrives in the wake of gentrification.

Passive consumers instead of creators of culture

Gentrification is part of the process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby the “commons” are taken away and replaced by privately owned space. When there are no longer places where the community can gather — whether for their own cultural events, to discuss community issues or as gathering places for demonstrations and protests — the ability to maintain alternatives to the pervasive corporate culture and to continue to retain the ability to cohesively resist corporatization or to defend themselves against a city government determined to push them out is greatly diminished.

The Lower East Side will provide an example here. During the 1990s, a former school building was used to build a community space called Charas/El Bohio; benefit concerts, dance parties, space for a variety of local cultural groups and performers, and meeting places for organizers were among its uses. In a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in which real estate developers saw dollar signs in front of their eyes and in which a large body of neighborhood activists resisted gentrification, Charas was seen not as the busy community resource it was, but as a threat that had to be eliminated.

In one of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s last acts, he saw to it that is was eliminated. Partly because of his hatred of community organizers or any opposition, partly because of his embrace of corporate ideology that insists private profit is the only legitimate usage of any property, and partly in support of a corrupt local council member in bed with developers who literally saw himself in a war against the neighborhood but who supported Giuliani, Charas was taken away and sold at far below market rate to a connected developer. Because of ongoing pressure that has blocked a necessary zoning change (the corrupt council member who did not try to hide the hatred he felt for his own constituents is long out of office), the developer has not been able to realize his plans. But 13 years later, Charas sits empty behind sealed walls and has so deteriorated that it is now uninhabitable.

That’s capitalism in action: A community resource created and run by the community is taken away so one person can make a profit, and the resource is allowed to rot unused if that one person doesn’t realize the profit.

Taking away public spaces is nothing new

The path of gentrification mirrors that of culture. The corporatized art world now mimics finance capital. In the financial world, a tiny number of people succeed in positioning their company for an initial public offering and the fantastic riches that flow upward from it while so many others labor for little; in the art world, a small number of artists catch the eye of a wealthy investor, generating multimillion-dollar sales while legions of other artists starve.

None of these patterns are new. The taking away of the commons is as old as capitalism; in fact capitalism was built on the privatization of commons. As a market arose for commodity agricultural products, feudal lords wanted to clear space for sheep meadows. Peasants were forced off the land they had farmed and barred from the “commons” (cleared land on which they grazed cattle and forests in which they foraged), forcing them to become beggars, risking draconian punishment for doing so, or laborers in the new factories to endure pitifully low wages and inhuman working hours.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered steam, a “moral” crusade promoted by owners of factories and agricultural estates in which the tiny fraction of commons that had survived were taken away; the measure of independence that rights to the use of commons provided wage laborers was denounced for fostering “laziness” and “indolence” — defects that could be cured only by forcing them to be fully dependent on wage work.

Legal codes make such work more civilized these days, but the principal remains. An independent community is a community that can’t be pacified or narcotized by consumerism; common or collective property available for community use presents a counter-example to privatization of all spaces; and the use of resources for community benefit instead of for private profit represents an especially dangerous counter-example. Such concepts must be systematically stamped out, and for resisters, a militarized police force is used to enforce the rule of wealthy elites instead of the army as in past times.

If democracy is the goal, then community self-management must be a part of it — decision-making that requires a radically different way of organizing the community. A system in which the community exists to be plundered for the private profit of local elites is incompatible with democracy.

18 comments on “The corporate steamroller of gentrification is a deliberate process

  1. Alcuin says:

    I’m reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Fascinating.

    • Please feel free to share your thoughts on it with us.

      I’ve re-read Minqi Li’s The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, on which I will publish a review on August 15. A most interesting book.

      • Alcuin says:

        Well, Ehrenreich’s book is quite a challenge to digest, particularly for anyone raised in a Protestant church. In her book, she links the suppression of ecstasy and collective joy with the rise of capitalism and imperialism and documents that relationship with copious notes and references which could be profitably explored, though in some cases that would require access to a university library. Ehrenreich’s thesis is far-reaching in its implications and is something that I think deserves further reading and reflection upon. Here is a short article that she wrote for In These Times in March, 2007 (before the appearance of her book), that provides a summation of her thesis. Fascinating, just fascinating.

        You might perhaps wonder what Ehrenreich’s book has to do with the subject of your post. I would say that artists explore collective joy in myriad ways and that the “corporate steamroller” you refer to is the counter-force that annihilates artistic expression, leaving behind the hollow shells of the creative force that generated the appeal of the neighborhood. Starbucks is a poor substitute for the neighborhood watering hole where expressions of collective joy were planned.

        • You have put it very well, indeed, Alcuin and your point is a crucial one. I just read the Barbara Ehrenreich article you linked to, and I’d recommend it to other readers. Here is a crucial passage in her article:

          “Ours is what the French theorist Guy Debord called the ‘society of the spectacle,’ which he described as occurring in ‘an epoch without festivals.’ Instead of generating their own collective pleasures, people absorb, or consume, the spectacles of commercial entertainment, nationalist rituals and the consumer culture, with its endless advertisements for the pleasure of individual ownership. Debord bemoaned the passivity engendered by constant spectatorship, announcing that ‘the spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep.’ ”

          As a society’s ability to imagine and create is debilitated, so too does the ability to imagine a world constructed in any different manner. The substitution of consumerism for self-creativity need not have a conscious link to the construction of a passive citizenry content to accept gadgetry and televised spectacle as a replacement for meaningful democratic involvement, but the latter is a logical outgrowth of the former. All the more does hierarchy become a passively accepted condition, encouraging more consumerism as an escape from what appears (falsely) to be a force of nature; consumerism is stimulated by ever more gadgets, which turn people ever more inward and further stunting the imagination.

          Ehrenreich argues that all civilizations have been hierarchical, and that “hierarchy is antagonistic to the festive and ecstatic tradition.” She notes the debate between anarchists and socialists on whether hierarchy is an integral feature of civilization. So far, of course, it has been — but will it always be so? As a Marxist, I am of the belief that hierarchy does not have to be present in a civilization, that it is possible to build a fully democratic society.

          A fully democratic society can not be created without dismantling the present-day corporation and the financial apparatus that feeds on it; production needs to be done is much smaller enterprises. And those enterprises must be cooperatives, with all employees sharing in all decision-making, in electing their managements (from their own ranks), and that management carries out the decisions made by the full collective. Enterprises in turn would have to relate to other enterprises in cooperative relations, not in market competition. And, yes, there would have to be many safeguards built into such a system, including enforceable laws from fully democratic, socially accountable governments.

          Ehrenreich, in noting the anarchist side of this debate, summarizes the anarchist John Zerzan, whom she summarizes as arguing “that the problem goes much deeper, and that we cannot achieve true democracy without eliminating industrialization and possibly the entire division of labor.” Trying to convince people to go back centuries to a pre-industrial state I think is impossible (do we really want to return to the days before modern plumbing?), but Zerzan’s point about eliminating the division of labor is valid. Many Marxist thinkers (going back to Marx and Engels) have wrestled with the division of labor.

          Rudolph Bahro, in his The Alternative in Eastern Europe, argued that the division of labor (exemplified in the split between mental and manual labor) is precisely the cause of alienation and hierarchy in both capitalist and Soviet-bloc societies. He argues that ending the division of labor — and the divide between mental and manual labor — is the only way to bring about equality. Bahro was an East German Marxist who was imprisoned and then exiled to West Germany for his criticisms of East Germany. That he did so from a Marxist, rather than pro-capitalist, perspective made him all the more dangerous to East Germany’s 1970s rulers.

          It is no accident that Giuliani, when mayor, enforced New York’s archaic law prohibiting dancing in bars and clubs without a city permit (originally put on the books so Black-owned Harlem jazz clubs could be shut down at will). Giuliani could not stand the idea that somebody, somewhere, was doing something outside his control. And so it came that a group formed calling itself “The Dance Liberation Front” lampooned the anti-dancing laws, often using public dancing as a weapon of choice. It is only a short journey from there to the Chile of the military dictatorship, when Pinochet declared “Not so much as a leaf moves in this country without my knowing it.”

  2. 3D Eye says:

    Excellent post, Pete. This is important stuff, and gentrification is taking place right now here in East London, although it’s in its early stages and people are quite organised and resistant to the ambitions of big business. These are early days, though, and we still have, here in Hackney at least, ample low-rent properties that artists, artisans, shopkeepers and others can move into. Thankfully, right now, for those of us who came to live here in the East End many years ago and can still afford to be here, it’s still a brilliant multi-cultural place to live. Let’s hope we can keep it this way! Your post is a very useful reminder of what we could be up against. You might like to take a look at some links to newspaper articles that give further details of our local scene. GF

    • Hello 3Di, and apologies for the delay in responding as I have been away from the computer for a while. I’m pleased to hear that London still retains its interesting areas. Good luck with the fight that all of you are mounting to retain the character of your communities. A London stripped of its counter-culture would be a disastrous outcome.

      I just read the Hackney Citizen article you linked to, and the issues do sound familiar. Especially the part about the landlords raising rents by large amounts. The idea that a handful should amass vast wealth at the expense of the many, and entire communities should be wiped out as part of this process, is not limited to one country or one city, but is the logical expression of “market forces” that are allowed to run unchecked. A world of corporate chains stores identical to those in all other cities would be an unimaginably boring and barren world.

  3. 3D Eye says:

    Here’s a link I meant to post with the others. Maybe you’d like to add it.

    Click to access hackney_isnt_crap_booklet_reduced_file_size.pdf

  4. Tom says:

    Please don’t say it’s all because of capitalism. The word corruption is what you are looking for. Capitalism keeps prices down by creating competition between business. Without it, one particular company could sell their product at unreasonable rates, and you would not have any other choice than to buy their product. Corruption on the other hand ruins everything that it touches, from business to people, and all are damaged by it. So please, don’t attack capitalism, because if it is left untouched by corrupt governments and people, it is really a very good thing.

    • Greetings, Tom. The picture you paint is a romantic one, that of a 19th century conception of small businesses competing in emerging or small markets. But competition, when left to the mercy of markets, results in what we have today — a handful of giant oligopolies (and some monopolies) large enough to dominate their markets, effectively stifling competition through their immense power and reach. In order to survive that relentless competition, those giant companies must grow ever bigger.

      If we eliminate government regulation, then there are no constraints on markets or market competition; the imperative to survive dictates that more ruthless actions will be taken. Corruption — such as bribery — is inevitably going to be among those actions. When a corporation bribes a government official to gain a contract, for instance, the corporation is acting under the stress of market competition. Corporations can (and do) just as easily bribe other corporations to gain a competitive advantage — corrupt governments are not at all inherent in this process.

      The economic meltdown we are currently enduring, the massive inequality and concentration of power in corporate hands (and, given the topic of this post, the power of landlords to extract astronomical rents), is the logical outcome of the growth of capitalism. It is the product of the very competition you praise. It is true that in small markets or markets for new products competition does result in a lowering of prices. But only a handful of competitors can survive that competition, and when the market becomes more mature and dominated by a small number of survivors, price competition ceases and often prices are artificially higher because it is easy to monitor what your competitors are doing when you can count them on your hand. Collusion is often the result (that would be corporate, not government, corruption) but collusion is not necessary when it is easy to monitor the pricing of competitors.

      You might wish to read a previous discussion if you’d like me to flesh out some of what I wrote here and/or read the sources I mention in that discussion.

      • PP says:

        Pete, your history of gentrification here qualifies as part of the NYC school curriculum for the history of this city. Tom’s perspective is the result of a whole generation of indoctrination; but with a loving brother like you, Tom will be able to see through the lies. That’s true brotherly love. And you really do have to be very gentle when you encounter someone who has no idea that they’ve been hood-winked, and inherited lies…our meeting around the Whole Earth Bakery eviction was not an accident – PP

        • A whole lot of indoctrination indeed is a necessary condition to maintain our dominant world system. That is why we should always respectfully engage well-meaning people who know things are not right but thanks to what they have been taught all their lives are unsure of the structural nature of the world. And for folks outside of New York City, the Whole Earth Bakery was a wonderful home for vegan goodies run by a most generous proprietor who gave to the community and greeted his regulars with hugs. The bakery was forced to close after two decades in its last location because of stratospheric rent increases by a greedy landlord who lives many miles away and sees the neighborhood as only a cash cow to exploit.

  5. Paul Gilman says:

    Excellent piece Systemic Disorder,

    Yes, gentrification is about capitalism. Capitalism is not just about free associations based on markets. That is just a small part of capitalism. A bigger part of capitalism is about domination based on individually owned economic power. The more money and control of the means of production one controls, the more power one has.

    This power is not static, it must consume! That is it must somehow transform one thing to another and, like a vampire, devour some surplus wealth. Capitalism can not let anything just be itself, it has to consume everything. Its both a psychological imperative and an economic force. If a capitalist entity doesn’t devour raw materials, and transform them into something to be consumed by some market, that entity dies. When territories are taken over, a new territory that can be taken over has to be found. When there are no new territories, then old territories have to be destroyed and re-consumed! That’s what gentrification is, along with everything the blog states.

    Gentrification shows how undemocratic capitalism is. The people in the communities under assault by gentrification have no say in what happens to their homes and neighborhoods. Along with what is happening in New York City, another example of gentrification is what happened to American Indians. The First Nations weren’t given any choice in when the were forced off their lands. The Culture of the Lower East Side, Manhattan is under a similar assault.

    One other aspect of Manhattan Island’s gentrification that is not really discussed, is that is engineered as the blog states, and in this case, gentrification of Manhattan is about turning the Island into a gated community, in which the international ruling-class has a safe haven from the chaos their capitalist rule is having in their countries. So all these super rich people will be flooding into Manhattan, and island surrounded by all sorts of tech security, a playground, and the rest of New York, and possibly the world will have to pay for it. In the mean time all sorts of wonderful non-ruling class people will be forced out. If the Giulianus/Bloomianus plan works, NYC will be turned into a “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” dystopia.

  6. […] the artists’ works are included in major private and public collections, they exemplify—as New York City morphs into something different—the antithesis of “disastrous […]

  7. Iyobosa says:

    What a compelling read. It highlights that the accelerating rate of globalization shows no sign of slowing. Gentrification is rife over here in London. The causal erosion of communities is not hyperbole, it is fact and it is actually sad to witness and live in. Moreover, it appears resistance is futile.

    I’ve touched on similar themes here, have a read and let me know what you think.

    • I would imagine the very fact that Boris Johnson is mayor of London demonstrates the gentrification you have endured. It was not so long ago that Margaret Thatcher abolished London mayoral elections because Labour kept winning. Will London retain its appeal if it is turned into a homogenous upscale shopping mall? Will New York?

      And I do hope Johnson’s dream of unrestricted foreign investment is not realized. New York is full of skyscrapers mostly empty because they are bought at mutlimillion-dollar prices by the wealthy of other countries as either crash pads when on a visit or an investment to flip when the price is right. Almost all residential construction is luxury buildings for the wealthy; the resulting lack of housing for the rest of humanity drives up rents to obscene levels.

  8. Bob Holman | says:

    […] Dolack has written a Think piece about gentrification using the changes at the Bowery Poetry Club as a starting point. Good […]

  9. Felipe says:

    So it is. People with financial capital (money) want to change the rules of society so that it benefits them while those with no financial capital but with social capital (being ‘sociable’ and ‘nice’ to people) want to change the rules so that social capital takes a higher importance than financial capital. It’s all capital: financial capital (money), social capital (friendships), sexual capital (good looks), etc. Ready to be exchanged for other capital. Humans are very interesting animals =)

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