Juliet Kahne on Gentrification and Spike Lee

Juliet Kahne on gentrification & Spike Lee

I have been researching gentrification for over five years now, and have yet to see the problems that stem from it, or the heated discussion surrounding it, subside. Spike Lee, for one, struck a nerve recently with Brooklyn’s public when he expressed his views at NYC’s Pratt Institute about the process chewing up and spitting out the distinct culture, and people, of the neighborhood he grew up in:

“You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting… like you’re motherfuckin’ Columbus and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people. You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people.”

Gentrification, which can be broadly defined as the social, physical, economic, and cultural ‘upgrading’ of a given landscape that results in displacement to lower-income residents, is the most talked about and controversial process in recent decades in regards to urban change. It is harsh, and it is extremely problematic for the future of our cities. What is most powerful about gentrification is that – despite what we see as the negative implications it has on social, cultural, and architectural heritage, community values, and indeed the social mayhem it can cause on the ground between varying demographics – it is all about money. The movement of capital, the increasing gap between the rich and poor and the increasingly squeezed middle-class all contribute greatly to this growing, and global, process.

However, much of the process we see in major urban areas is also fuelled by a collective cultural and political reaction to an increasingly neoliberal city, one that is commercialized, homogenized, even publicized, and increasingly expensive. Furthermore, the process is not limited to the inner city, or any particular kind of city, or country. Gentrification, first notably researched and coined by Ruth Glass in London in the 1960s, has been confirmed in numerous North American and European cities, but it has also been observed in cities such as Johannesburg (see Visser and Kotze’s 2008 work), Shanghai (see Wang’s 2009 work) and Istanbul (see Tolga Islam’s 2010 work), to name just a few. Each of these locations provides a completely different physical, political, economic, social and cultural context, but the process on the ground has similar impacts. This is now a global process, having long-affected urban and suburban areas beyond the ‘neighborhood’, and it has the potential to affect everyone and anyone who cannot keep up with the growing costs of living, particularly in cities.

Gentrification has the potential to, and often does, diminish existing culture, dilute communities and displace the most financially vulnerable. The process can be seen in varying landscapes, from a house by house colonization in a historic neighborhood to a blatantly obvious ‘tear-down and rebuild’ development in a disinvested city center – and as a result it is now more difficult to distinguish when and where this process is taking place, and who exactly is affected by it. Because gentrification often creeps in, and on the surface may offer many benefits to an area, the process is sometimes seen as positive. Cleaner streets, renovated housing, a reduction in crime and more amenities are often seen as the ‘bonuses’ of gentrification. This leads to articles like Argument Over a Brownstone Neighborhood by the New York Times’ Constance Rosenblum, which fuelled Spike Lee’s recent rant on gentrification, in which people see general positives resulting from the process – in this case, in Bed-Stuy, the focus is on Historic Preservation status by the city – something I have witnessed the unfairness of first-hand in southern Los Angeles.

Living in a society where anyone can become a speculator in a global market that offers rewards for having vision in terms of property poses great danger to those who cannot, or simply do not, care about such things. As property value has great potential to skyrocket under the right circumstances – and we all read about these cases daily – people are making tremendous profits on such investments without possibly thinking about, or intentionally disregarding, the impact this has on a particular landscape and its existing people. These changes only benefit a certain portion of a given population, while the rest continue to feel alienated from a new environment and are forced to keep up with the growing costs of living there as a result – from groceries to taxes, and parking to leisure. Spike Lee refers to this outcome in stating how many residents in his old area were forced to give in and sell their properties for a profit, moving somewhere else where their money went further:

“When these real estate guys come around and open a suitcase with a bunch of money they’re gonna sell it. I mean these people you’re talking about are elderly. And they get the money, their money goes a lot further down South. Black people by droves in New York City, it’s called reverse migration. They’re moving to Atlanta, they’re moving to North Carolina. They got a house, they got a lawn, they got a backyard, they have less taxes… New York City’s a hard place and so if you’ve worked all your life and you’re retired, they’re selling their houses and I don’t blame them.”

As Spike Lee demonstrates, the complexity of this process on the ground is astounding. And it is indeed filled with grey areas. Gentrification in neighbourhoods, for example, is often a slow, complex process with many people involved and affected for various reasons. The problem is not so much new people moving in, but why certain people have to move out, which is the most difficult aspect of this process to research. People are displaced by gentrification either because they can no longer afford the housing (for various reasons, and at times are pushed out by force), or because they do not connect to the local culture that has replaced the previous one. The sad irony is that, when gentrification is actually taking place, many of those who are the most affected, or are soon to be the most affected, are either oblivious to it or simply feel powerless to stop it. With the lack of policies in place to protect vulnerable residents and their homes from the eyes of the profiteers (be it individuals or the city/state itself), it seems that the only defence against gentrification is community action, and a lot of it. Or, if a neighbourhood is really lucky, a sympathetic government.

It is easy to focus on the local problems evident as a result of gentrification. However, keep in mind that gentrification in urban neighborhoods is not an isolated process – it is a symptom of the underlying poor health of cities. This process can result in newer, glossier landscapes on the surface, but underneath rests the truth of an increasingly problematic economic situation where people are fighting and struggling to get by. Without policies in place to protect rents, vulnerable residents or even the cultural landscapes that have evolved from previous migrations, there will be little room left anywhere near our cities for those who just can’t keep up with the new breed of the Joneses. Or indeed don’t want to.

So what happens to the culture of our cities when the essence of what makes them special – the diversity of its people – are pushed out to the fringes? Spike Lee points out just this:

“People can’t afford to live here anymore […] So, if New York City is not affordable, then the great art that we have is not going to be here, because people can’t afford it.”

I do believe he is right.


Juliet Kahne is an American cultural geographer, PhD survivor, and urban soul-searcher, currently based in London.