Sunday, May 8, 2011

What is it

In the 1960s, as many American cities burst and burned, the upper and middle classes fled to the suburbs, leaving behind a decaying infrastructure and a socially isolated urban underclass.  In more recent times, many urban centers have undergone re-gentrification, and with it the return of the upper classes, safer neighborhoods, and better services.  But gentrification often drives poor and working class people from the very places they had called home.  Is gentrification on balance a morally and socially good thing or bad thing?  Does it serve more to increase inequality or to lessen the isolation of the urban underclass?  John and Ken assess the moral cityscape with Stanford sociologist Frederic Stout, co-editor of The City Reader.

Listening Notes

It’s a word that stirs strong emotions. Depending on whom you talk to, it might evoke anger, guilt or defensiveness. “Gentrification” is often defined as an influx of well-to-do, young, Anglo-American people into a predominantly non-Anglo-American and poor neighborhood, driving up rent and food prices, and driving out the previous inhabitants. Yet is that a fair and balanced picture? Does gentrification pit the needs of the less well off against the wants of better off? Or can it help an entire neighborhood redevelop? Is gentrification on balance a morally good or bad thing? John and Ken turn to Frederic Stout, lecturer in Urban Studies at Stanford University and co-editor of “The City Reader,” to help answer that question.

Frederic tells us why we ought to question the common picture of gentrification. First of all, he notes, the middle-class seems caught in a popular opinion trap: They have been villainized in history classes for leaving in 60s (so-called “white-flight”) and now they are vilified for coming back to cities. He also tells us that typically it’s not the people moving in who do the displacing, but city planners, through re-zoning and occasionally full-scale demolition of a neighborhood.

Frederic gives us the model he personally prefers to use to think about gentrification. He sees what happens in cities as a struggle between the government elite, the free-market, and communities. Most policy, he claims, conforms to the demands of government and the market, and he thinks communities need to take a more active role. Specifically, he believes communities should see themselves as social entrepreneurs, possessing a collection of assets they can use to negotiate with the government and the market.

Frederic also defends the “gentrifiers.” He sees them as the new employees of a new economy— the “creative class”—moving into neighborhoods where aging members of the industrial economy live. In short, gentrification is a result of demographic shifts in age and structural changes in the economy.

The last section of the conversation turns to how to help make sure gentrification occurs in the best possible way, creating neighborhoods that are integrated, diverse and economically thriving. While there is no one right answer, Frederic presents several considerations to take into account. We’ll leave the rest to you, the listeners.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 3:59): Caitlin Esch investigates an example of gentrification taking place right here, right now in the Bay Area, in the Oakland neighborhood of Temescal. 
  • 60 Second Philosopher (seek to 49:38): Ian Shoales finds gentrification in an unlikely place: Williston, North Dakota, where oil extraction has brought in money and strained infrastructure.  

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Frederic Stout, Lecturer in Urban Studies, Stanford University

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