Gentrification, not in my backyard (part 1)

You may have never heard of it by its own name, but if you live in a fairly large city in a fairly developed country you probably know it, both because you have surely seen it or, what is more, because you have experienced it yourself.

Only in the Mission

Not the name, name is not widespread. It is ugly. It is strange because nobody uses it, and hardly anyone uses it perhaps because it is strange. Indeed, the term “gentrification”, although without being a novelty, does not really sound familiar to many, and in fact it first seems to allude to some kind of crazy biological experiment involving GM food or a rare human body disease rather than a distinctly urban and current socioeconomic phenomenon.

However, the reality hiding behind, sometimes as ugly as the name itself, will be familiar to almost everyone, for being precisely one of those unnoticed things that are going around us. Unnoticed perhaps because its name is not familiar to us, perhaps because we ignore it even has a name, or perhaps because nobody really talk about it on the media.

The scenario: a lifelong neighbourhood

Let’s set the most common setting in which this modern tragedy is usually played: a poor neighbourhood conveniently located near the city center (or an area that has some kind of strategical advantage). A neighbourhood that has always been a rather poor neighbourhood, inhabited by people of low or lower-middle class income, by popular classes, humble people, mostly foreigners or national immigrants and workers.

It is the typical neighbourhood we all know: the neighbourhood that has history and stories, the neighbourhood that has always been there preserving more or less its own essence, with the same aged or, at least, neglected look, with those buildings accumulating centuries over their foundations. That neighbourhood which has probably a church, a palace or some other recognised heritage sites, probably several, in addition to some more other gems hiding anywhere that might not have come into vogue or might not be so profusely marked on the tourist office’s maps. That neighbourhood where it is even likely that some illustrious resident was born or used to live, where some reputable writer or philosopher may have frequented this or that coffee shop, where a barricade or a revolution of some importance has been set up, or which has served as a background for a famous book or novel.

It is a bit dirty a neighbourhood but not enough to be filthy, which may not have too many utilities, which has been long time neglected by the authorities, where it used to be quite rare to see a new building under construction. A district somehow depressed, although not helpless or marginal, far from those shanties or those sad and grey suburban slums.

Napoli, da Gabby e Danielle(an idea of what could be a typical humble neighbourhood)

It is that neighbourhood whose appearance could maybe look sloppy or old, but doubtless full of life: There they are the shopkeepers, with their small businesses and corner shops covering almost any kind of basic need their neighbours might require. There they are those old fellows, eternally sitting on park benches beside flocks of kids noisily squealing and playing around, all they crowded into the very few green spaces available or, alternatively, walking around, on sidewalks or, if traffic allows it, right on the streets. There they are those bars, with their regular customers addressing their owners with extreme confidence, playing card games, eating breakfast or lunch, and yes, sometimes getting drunk, where owners give them credit, where it is normal to dress normal and where portions and drinks are plentiful and cheap. There it is the school, probably public, where almost absolutely everything happens, good and bad, gathering all races, all colours and all backgrounds. And there they are the whores, a few, not too many; the thieves, nor too many also; the problems, not too serious; some drugs, cheap of course; the gangs, usually far from becoming mafias; the street cats and pigeons shitting everywhere; the festivals as noisy and crowded as full of genuine joy; the neighbours who warmly greet each other on the street; the piles of rubbish waiting maybe too long to be collected; those small alleys smelling of urine; and if the district is popular enough or it is inhabited by the right breed of people then those women voices loudly calling their progeny or chatting from the balconies; those street markets where shopkeepers loudly challenge you to purchase their products; those crazy treasures in the form of furniture and varied belongings waiting for days for someone to pick them up before garbageman arrives; that family where nobody is afraid to leave their home’s doors and windows widely open during hot weather allowing you to dive into their privacy by just passing by… in short, a good raw material for the next Rossellini, Bertolucci, Pasolini or even Fellini movies.

In these neighbourhoods people normally dream on getting out, not on getting in, inhabitants usually fantasise about winning enough money to be able to someday move to a better area of the city, a more quiet and spacious place with maybe a detached house surrounded by a charming little garden and a garage to store the car, although that same dreamy people will reveal, without hesitation, even haughty and proudly, their belonging to the aforementioned neighbourhood if ever asked.

It is, so to speak, the typical humble neighbourhood, indeed very much alike to any suburb or lower class commuter town on the periphery. However, this neighbourhood may have a particularity, and that is, as already said, its very convenient location near the city center. And that is precisely what makes it special, because living nearby the downtown is, nevertheless, very attractive.

La Vucciria - Renato Guttoso(the Vucciria, by Renato Guttoso, a typical street market in a popular neighbourhood in Palermo, Sicily)

They are tidying up the neighbourhood

Everyone who might live in that kind of city, even if living in another neighbourhood, even if living on the other side far away from there, would probably known the aforementioned neighbourhood, because everyone who lives in a city, even if not living at the city center, normally knows the city center. So, everyone is used to see it the way it has always been since they were child or teens. Almost everybody has walked its streets at least once, has frequented its bars, has came to its nightlife to do God knows what, and may even have made friendship or even more with some local. Everyone has heard stories, seen pictures, knows its idiosyncrasies, its smells, its people, its local festivals, and knows more or less what to expect from that place, specially if they live or had ever lived there.

Suddenly, one day, while walking on its streets, that person realises something has changed: some old and dirty buildings have been shot down or a street is being fully refurbished; a square has been arranged so immaculately that now looks as sterilised; a design studio, an alternative and expensive clothe shop or a “modern” bar or coffee shop has opened; a new mall or a dance, avant-garde arts or similar kind of museum is about to be opened; more police can be seen around, more than ever before; some other houses back in time crowded are now apparently abandoned… you tend to think the neighbourhood is being tidied up, it seems it is getting nicer, it seems it is finally developing, and the first impulse is to rejoice, even if a shadow of doubt follows almost immediately.

If one usually goes out at night he will notice that more and more people suddenly hang out around that neighbourhood; that it has become fashionable among party-goers from a higher social profile; that some of those bars which have accumulated so many stories over the years have been suddenly closed and replaced by clubs way much cooler, crowded by indies and other examples of the most avant-garde urban tribes; that drinks and drugs have become expensive; or that a regular beer has been replaced by a rare imported drink nobody knows why it costs three times more.

How Hipsters Entertain Each Other

(hipster fashion, the sunglasses, not the exhibitionism)

Those changes seem to speed up, and that’s when you start thinking maybe they are tidying up the neighbourhood way too much: local businesses increasingly close and are replaced by new ones whose products, so outrageously expensive, the common neighbours would not probably be able to afford; the thugs, the gangsters, those gangs of kids, the old people, the normal housewives, all of them are gradually replaced by preppies, and even more by bohemians and hipsters, that people with money who dresses as if they had no money, and that somebody called once “undercover posh” (for those who lived on Mars or have not yet a clear idea about who we’re talking about visit their representative website in Spain); bars offer cocktails and gins of little content and bulky prices, similar to what begins to happen with the food, which is magically renamed by taking Anglo-Saxon terms even when it has always had a perfectly nice and viable native name; branded stores, especially those brands that try to be “not so on brands” begin to proliferate; everything starts to look cleaner and less crowded; utilities seem to work better; those rickety bikes and motorcycles that could be seen parked or constantly moving around are virtually replaced by other bikes and motorcycles which also seem scruffy but that are way much more expensive; and if one tries to find accommodation or housing around the area soon perceives that prices have soared.

In the end, the neighbourhood and its inhabitants are no longer what they used to be, but something new, something different, something that, seen from outside, the beholder does not really know if it’s for better or worse, for good or bad, or what. Yes, it seems reborn, it seems it has somehow improved, but something has been lost along the way, no doubt, and more importantly, many of the people who used to live there are gone.


(Hipsters came here to stay)

We are gentrifying

What has been happening while you were walking around the neighbourhood seeing all those changes is nothing more than a new process of urban transformation, class struggle and mastery of space exclusively characteristic of this time which already has a name: gentrification.

The term basically refers to a process by which the social class of the “gentry”, the gentlemen, affluent and educated people to summarise, turn a space into their own space (you do not believe me, believe Wikipedia).

In principle there should be no problem with this, but the point here is that those “gentry”, and more specifically their children, their youth or their middle-aged exponents, suddenly decide they want to live exactly in that humble neighbourhood we were talking about before, that neighbourhood where some other people are already living. Why? Well, ultimately only they know why, but normally it is due to a mixture of both economic and cultural reasons: That is, firstly because poor neighbourhoods placed in a strategic area offer an attractive good value-for-money ratio (specially when it comes to housing) thanks to their generally lower cost of living and good location. In addition to this, it is also because certain people from the upper classes feel attracted to popular environments, either as a rejection of that bourgeois and wealthy background they come from, by mere rebellion against conventional-isms, by adhering to a particular subculture or urban tribe, by mere individualism, by the desire to follow a creative and artistic lifestyle or any other reason.

This people are, in principle, very similar to those Bohemians from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and indeed could be said they are exactly the same kind of people but in a different millennium. The main difference here, however, is that these new Bohemians of our days are closely followed by real estate companies, and that’s where problems begin.

(Hank is quite concerned about hipsters massively moving to his own neighbourhood)

The neighbourhood became full of posh and modern people

No matter whether it happens before or during that phase of “discovery” of the neighbourhood by these young and affluent alternative spirits, new Bohemians are not the only ones who get involved into this process, since very soon other agents come into play to get their part: Public authorities and real estate agencies smell money from long distances and partner together to push up the value of the neighbourhood knowing that it has potential and, furthermore, that there is a group of people willing to generously pay for it.

But, in order to make room for these new neighbours of bulging wallets they first must get rid of those who already live there, so they focus on getting away with the popular classes. And so, landowners systematically increase rents so those tenants with less resources have to move out because, suddenly, they can not afford the new prices anymore, and so they rent their homes or, better yet, sell them to those newcomers hipsters or to real state companies that will improve them or just tear them down in order to build new and better houses. If necessary, they will put pressure on tenants and even harass or mistreat them to force them to leave, and the same might happen to small landowners. Public authorities will cooperate improving utilities, safety and, of course, evicting impoverished families or squatters who refuse to leave their homes. Moreover, to make the neighbourhood trendy among young snobbish and tourists, initiatives and projects supposedly aimed to support avant-garde and alternative cultural movements will eventually be unleashed, normally under bombastic and pretentious or misleadingly amusing names.

More and more, the process accelerates as it feeds back: the arrival of wealthy neighbours attracts others, especially as the area acquires pedigree. Prices go up and up, and more and more of the former residents just move away because they can not afford to live in their own neighbourhood anymore. Newcomers open their own businesses, obviously designed to target people from their same purchasing power, and local shopkeepers have to close. Normal people start running out of places to shop, to socialise or to just have a coffee. Population density decreases, meaning there is less space for people to live, more homes are demolished to build new businesses, and those large groups of retirees, kids and neighbours disappear from the streets, as same goes on with whores, thieves and even immigrants. The streets, more empty now than ever, look embellished and clean, and everything is nice for those who remain and can afford it, but of course not for those who have been forced to leave.

(the option, or not option, of staying could be even worse, if not just ask Kenny)

(read the second part of this article here)

(lee este artículo en Español aquí)

2 responses to “Gentrification, not in my backyard (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Gentrificación, no en mi patio trasero (primera parte) | marcosmarconius·

  2. Pingback: Gentrification, not in my backyard (part 2) | marcosmarconius·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s