We share below a reflection on gentrification as capitalist dispossession, from a friend of Autonomies …
On the 14 the of June of 1989, Bruce Bailey, tenants activist in New York city, was murdered, his dismembered body abandoned in a Bronx garbage dump. His head was never found. Twenty years of activism, organising and initiating tenants associations and unions, rent strikes and legal proceedings against property owners, was thus brought to an end. In 1995, Jack Ferranti, along with his brother Mario, was accused of the crime, but acquitted. Jack Ferranti, in 1989, was the owner of fourteen residential buildings in Manhattan.
To initiate a reflection on gentrification with this barbarous act is to testify to the barbarity of gentrification, an essentially violent process of urban transformation driven by economic ambition and sustained by parallel political forces rooted in ideological justifications of renovation, resurrection and the social cleansing of the city.
The violence of the process is captured in the word “gentrification” itself. Coined by the english sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 to refer to the transformation of working class neighbourhoods in London into middle class neighbourhoods, the term gained a life of its own in spreading itself to other languages to describe apparently similar processes in other places. The meaning of the term echoes the latin word “gens”, meaning nobility or aristocracy, “gentry” in english, joined to the notion of a process of mutation, of change, in which the agency, or presence, of “noble” people gains protagonism.
Often associated with a mere change in the patterns of consumption relative to housing, gentrification can suggest a transformation that is the result of the free choice of individuals eager to return to the city for economic, social or cultural reasons; a transformation that can bring with it positive as well as negative effects, and which the public authorities must endeavour to manage for the common good. Such interpretations of gentrification may calm sensitive souls, but they are little more than fairy tales. I insist on what is barbarous in the word and I hold to what it refers to very clearly, that gentrification is a development of dislocation, dispossession, of expulsion of poorer social classes by dominant classes. Accordingly, one can speak of “gentrification”, as well as of “bourgeoisification” or “Haussmannification” (in this last case, referring to the prefect of Paris, Baron Haussmann, responsible for public works in the city, or, in other words, for its demolition and reconstruction during the reign of Napoleon III). The assassination of Bruce Bailey, as that of so many other activists in so many other countries, thus takes on a different meaning.
The growth of the big modern cities gives the land in certain areas, particularly in those which are centrally situated, an artificial and often colossally increasing value; the buildings erected on these areas depress this value, instead of increasing it, because they no longer correspond to the changed circumstances. They are pulled down and replaced by others. This takes place above all with workers’ houses which are situated centrally and whose rents, even with the greatest overcrowding, can never, or only very slowly, increase above a certain maximum. They are pulled down and in their stead shops, warehouses and public buildings are erected.(1)
The cited text is from Frederick Engels’ The Housing Question, published in 1872; a text that demonstrates that if processes of gentrification are as recent as the use of the term, these same processes are rooted in something more fundamental and much older which is capitalism itself. A metaphor may help us to circumscribe this relationship, that of the border.
A border marks a line of separation, a trace drawn on the ground, or raised as a barrier, a wall, with barbed wire and fortified viewpoints. This separation, in addition to being physical, is also ethical and political, announcing a division between what is permitted and not permitted, what is legal and illegal, between the included and the excluded; a division between authorities, powers, sovereignties. In the colonial imaginary, a border traces the limits of civilisation before the dark world of barbarism, savagery, underdevelopment. Susceptible to a multiplicity of uses, the image of the border, in second half of the 20th century, was extended to cities. North Americans would speak of “The Asphalt Jungle” to refer to problematic and insecure urban spaces, neighbourhoods, inhabited by people of dubious morality, disorderly, criminal, with a class, racial or ethnic identity serving as a marker. And as the discourse of borders serves to divide, it serves equally to rationalise and conquer. The city would thus need to be colonised to be reborn. And gentrification is one of the weapons in this conquest, some of whose battles in the 1980s were called: “Tompkins Square Park” in New York (1988), “Waterlooplein” in Amsterdam (1981), “Hafenstraße” in Hamburg (1987), “Kreuzberg” in Berlin (1980s), “Place de la Réunion” in Paris (1990), “Brixton” in Londres (1981/85). In words sung by Lou Reed, “You better hold on/Something’s happening here/You better hold on/Well, I meet you in Tompkins Square”.(2)
As with any notion that gains ideological functions, the “borders” of a city reveal as much as they hide. They allude to the myth of the individual entrepreneur transforming the world from neighbourhood to neighbourhood for its good, while profiting personally. But they hide global economic forces committed to an unequal development in the heart of urban spaces. The border of gentrification is nothing more than a particular instance of the lines of inequality that characterise all capitalist social relations. Mobilised in a systematic way with the decades of the 60s and 70s, gentrification was as much a response, as a contribution, to a series of broader global changes: the expansion of the economy in the 1980s animated by a generalised deregulation of economic activity; the restructuring of developed capitalist economies with capital flows being redirected towards services (principally financial), leisure and consumption, with parallel processes of de-industrialisation; the emergence of “global” cities and hierarchies between cities in an unrestrained competition to seduce and capture capital. The city, in this context, becomes a war machine: the external war with other cities and the internal war of pacification against non-submissive populations, both with the purpose of accumulating wealth.
The border, or urban borders, are borders of profit, of surplus value. As an agency of urban colonisation, gentrification presupposes the systemic practice of eviction and dispossession of poorer social classes. Today a global phenomenon, with local variations (and which does not extinguish continuous suburbanisation), it rests upon a very simple economic possibility: the potential difference in the value of rent of city land and constructed urban areas. Gentrification is nothing more than the realisation of this potential; a process that is economic, but also political and social. It presupposes law and state power and requires the erasure of the geographies and histories of the poor and working classes of the city, substituting these last with a different social history that justifies in a preventative manner an other and new urban future. “It is the case”, writes Neil Smith, “that gentrification is a movement of return to the city, but it is a movement of return of capital more than of people.”(3)
The modern metropolis has consequently become a divided space, an agglomeration of enclaves and geographies of segregation surveilled and policed by agencies and apparatuses of control. Public spaces as territories of collective self-definition, the result of agonistic encounters, are transformed into zones of domestication, only accessible to pre-defined social identities and useable exclusively according to pre-selected rhythms or ways of being. The city secures itself as a space of “normality”, a necessary condition for its function of absorbing the over-production and surplus-value of an economy ruled by the exclusive logic of unlimited growth.
It was Henri Lefebvre who reminded us in the 1960s that the city is a collective work, product of the creativity and the social relations of all of those who contributed and contribute to its reality. What characterises capitalism however is the conversion of any object of labour that can be used into something that can be sold, substituting its use value for exchange value. The city for its part, under the reign of capital, is equally subject to this metamorphosis. It is for sale. Cities accordingly cease to be what Lefebvre described as “refuges of use value, seeds of a virtual predominance and of a valorisation of use”; “centres of social and political life where not only wealth is accumulated, but also knowledge, techniques and works.”(4) For Lefebvre, the “eminent use of the city, that is, of its streets and squares, its buildings and monuments, is the Festival.”(5)
The complex and contradictory reality of the capitalist commodity reproduces itself at the level of the city. Ways of being, of life, associated with or tied to non-economic habits disappear or are appropriated and sold as folklore. “The urban centre becomes … a product of high quality consumption for foreigners, tourists, peoples of the periphery, suburbanites. It survives thanks to a double role: a place of consumption and a consumption of place.”(6) The city divides itself into functional zones of production of wealth, consumption, habitation and decision. “Urban life [which] assumes encounters, confrontations of differences, knowledge and reciprocal recognition (including ideological and political conflict) of ways of life, of ‘patterns’ that coexist in the city”, are pushed away from the constructed urbe;(7) controlled, marginalised, suffocated, destroyed, urban life dies and the city comes to exist in permanent crisis, in a state of exception ruled exclusively by regimes of security whose only goal is to assure that nothing happens.
What significance can there be then in the demand for the right to the city? Of what efficacy, of what relevance are “more just” housing policies in the context of a globalised capitalism? By no means dismissing such policies, it is nevertheless of the greatest importance to signal their practical limits and equally the poverty of such policies in the face of the crisis of the city. To reduce the right to live in a city to the right to a home is already to assume the misery of the commodification of urban spaces, and therefore to submit housing policies to evaluations of viability according to essentially economic and political criteria, with the latter having to do with political order. It is, in other words, to condemn such policies to failure.
To inhabit does not signify habitation, or housing, a tragic and violent translation by notable politicians and ideologues of the third French republic. “Until this time”, Lefebvre tells us, “‘to inhabit’ was to participate in a social life, in a community, in a village or a city. Urban life possessed among others this quality, this attribute. It gave to be inhabited, it allowed city dwellers-citizens to inhabit.”(8) To inhabit is a way of being in the world, a way that was never, nor could it ever be, individual. To inhabit implies to create, to care for, and to share spaces shaped by women and men; in sharing, we make ourselves and re-make ourselves in community with others.
The right to the city then should not be conceived as a right to something that already exists, an identifiable good, classifiable and measurable. The city, by contrast, is made. It is constituted and constructed through social relations in which each acts as a weaver. If capitalist urbanisation tends to destroy the city as a social and political reality, then the right to the city can only be understood as a re-appropriation of the city by those who live it.
We close with the words of David Harvey:
… the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of life we desire, what aesthetic values we hold. The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual or group access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desires.(9)
1. Friedrick Engels, The Housing Question : First Section  (Cited on May 25, 2015: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/housing-question/ch01.htm)
2. Lou Reed, “Hold On”, New York, 1989.
3. Neil Smith, La nueva frontera urbana : Ciudad revanchista y gentrificación. Madrid: Tarficantes de sueños, 2012.,p. 130.
4. Henri Lefebvre, Le Droit à la Ville. Paris: Economica/Anthropos, 2009, pp. 4, 2.
5. Ibid., p. 2.
6. Ibid., p. 10.
7. Ibid., p. 13.
8. Ibid., p. 14.
9. David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso, 2012, p. 4.