If there were any doubt that gentrification has come to my corner of Brooklyn, that was put to rest last weekend with the appearance of an ice cream truck. An ice cream truck painted with the logo and red color of The Economist. Yes, it was just as this reads. Free scoops of ice cream were being given out as a young woman with a clipboard was attempting to get people to sign up for subscriptions to The Economist.
Not that there had been any reason to harbor illusions about gentrification — the glass-walled, high-priced high rises sprouting like mushrooms after a rainstorm are merely the most obvious of multiple signs. The neighborhood where I live, Greenpoint, is notable as a Polish enclave, although a sliver along the East River was mainly populated by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and artists two decades ago. In short, a place for people needing a (relatively) cheap (by New York City standards) place to live and which still possessed a working waterfront.
Not really the sort of folks who might be expected to read one of the two main flagships of the British finance industry. To watch, or participate in, an art parade, sure. That is the sort of procession one used to see. Or Mr. Softee, a local franchise with ice cream trucks (of the traditional sort) that played a jingle, over and over again, that had a way of getting inside your head, although not necessarily in a good way. One summer a Mr. Softee truck seemed permanently stationed on my block, leading me to write a poem on the uses of Mr. Softee’s ice cream other than eating and even as a talisman against an invasion of space aliens. As I said, the jingle has a way of getting inside your head.
But no matter how bizarre the sight of an Economist ice cream truck, there is nothing actually funny about gentrification. Not even a Financial Times ice cream truck in pink (although perhaps a little too close to the color of Pepto-Bismol for comfort there) would be funny. Systematic evictions, the wholescale removal of peoples, the wiping out of alternative cultures and the imposition of the soul-deadening dullness of consumerist corporate monoculture has become a global phenomenon.
Rent laws don’t help if your home can be torn down
This has accelerated to where not simply buildings are being emptied out, but entire complexes. In Silicon Valley, a San Jose apartment complex with 216 units is being demolished to make way for a luxury high-rise. The hundreds of residents there are protected from higher rents by local rent-control laws. But that law has a rather big loophole — the rent-controlled buildings can be torn down, and the residents kicked into the street with no recourse and no right to a replacement apartment. The San Francisco Bay Area as a whole lost more than 50 percent of its affordable housing between 2000 and 2013.
Gentrification literally kills — symbolized by the tragic death of Alex Nieto in San Francisco’s Mission District. A story brought to a wider audience in an essay by Rebecca Solnit, Mr. Nieto was a long-time resident of the Mission who was shot by police for being Latino in a local park — targeted because gentrifying techies, new to the neighborhood, decided Mr. Nieto was a threat and called the police, a tragic ending that was set in motion when a techie thought it amusing that his dog was menacing Mr. Nieto as he ate on a bench.
The Mission, as is well known, has long been a Latin American enclave. What is happening there, and in so many other neighborhoods in so many other cities, is no accident. Gentrification is a deliberate process. 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.
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.
Dictatorships of favored industries
There are interests at work here. The technology industry has a stranglehold on San Francisco, for example, its techies with their frat-boy culture rapidly bidding up housing prices and making the city unaffordable for those who made it the culturally distinct place it has long been. New York City is a dictatorship of the real estate and financial industries; the process of gentrification there has progressed through a mayor who snarls and can’t be bothered to hide his hatred for most of the people who live there (Rudy Giuliani), a mayor who covered himself with a technocratic veneer (Michael Bloomberg) and a mayor fond of empty talk but who is the Barack Obama of New York (Bill de Blasio). They follow in the footsteps of Ed Koch, who showed his humanitarian streak when he declared, “If you can’t afford New York, move!”
Despite the reasoning of a federal judge who two years ago overturned a San Francisco ordinance designed to slow down speculation in housing that accelerates exorbitant rises in rents, those rents do not rise without human intervention. Not a single county in the U.S. has enough affordable housing for all its low-income residents, according to a report issued by the Urban Institute, which also reports that only 28 adequate and affordable units are available for every 100 renter households in the U.S. with incomes at or below 30 percent of their local median income.
The trend of rents taking up a bigger portion of income, although accelerating in recent years, is a long-term trend — one study found that rents have risen close to double the rate of inflation since 1938, and the prices of new houses at an even higher rate. Gentrification and the rising rents that accompany it are found around the world, from Vancouver to London to Berlin to Istanbul to Melbourne.
Just as markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the biggest industrialists and financiers, allowing the “market” to determine housing policies means that the richest developers will decide who gets to live where. The vision of former New York City Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg (enforced through policies kept in place by Mayor de Blasio) is of Manhattan and adjoining areas of Brooklyn becoming a gated city for the wealthy, with the rest of us allowed in to work and then leave. The most profitable projects for developers are luxury housing for millionaires and billionaires — interests coincide. Even when a local government makes a tepid attempt, under public pressure, to ameliorate the harshness of housing conditions, such as with San Francisco, it is swamped by the tidal pull of market forces.
This global phenomenon derives from a top-down global system, capitalism, under which housing is a commodity for private profit instead of a basic human right. A free scoop of ice cream really doesn’t compensate losing the ability to keep a roof over your head.