“How do you feel as a gentrifier?” I was recently asked by a journalist. I initially thought she was referring to the fact that I live in one of the most gentrified areas in Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg. I was about to stammer something along the lines of: “I’ve been there before” or “I do not have enough money to be called a real gentrifier” etc. , but then she interjected. “I mean your Neukölln project”. Now this took me by surprise. The project I am working on in Neukölln (see past blog entries on NEMONA here and here), is about bringing young fashion designers and immigrant tailors/seamstresses together in a Berlin neighbourhood (Neukölln), with extremely low social indicators (poverty, unemployment, education etc.).
I almost exploded, yet I remained calm. I looked her directly in the eyes, hoping she’d turn into stone, and quite simply said: “I don’t know what you’re talking about”. The subject changed abruptly. In the end, the journalist left the interview completely dissatisfied, though still fluid and human. But just for the record here is what was on my mind, while I was giving her the “evil eye”.
Gentrification is fashionable. It has long left the ivory towers of academia (and this is a good thing) to become a household term, used by anybody and – unfortunately – at any time. It is increasingly replacing terms such as urban regeneration, upgrading, renewal etc. Yet this increasingly common term hides two traps.
The first trap: people sometimes use gentrification as a positive term. I was in Lausanne last week and heard a city official use gentrification as a synonym for “making a place better”. This was either ignorant or cynical (or both). Gentrification, by definition, includes displacement – it produces winners and losers, and I expect city representatives to have the capacity to understand that.
The second trap: by using gentrification as a generic term for any type of neoliberal spatial restructuring, as Neil Smith recently proposed (see blog entry here) it loses its sting. It is important to keep it focused, so it can still be retained as a useful analytical tool.
I take issue with two more aspects in this discussion. It is very hard to use gentrification a priori to talk about a phenomenon. You can look back and recognize that an area was gentrified (with or without the famous two-phase model), but it is almost impossible to foresee gentrification – as any other social phenomenon. We can identify individual signs of gentrification, we can (and should) warn about the risks of gentrification, but we can not deal with it as a natural phenomenon, where, once things have gone down a certain path, there is no way out of it. Social reality is much too complex for that. The development of such a social phenomena is so multifaceted (multifactorial) that it can not be simply reduced to a cause-result equation. In other words, even though we may have all the signs that gentrification is about to begin, when an area starts changing, it is impossible to say if it will really take place. There is no natural law behind gentrification.
If we take seriously the argument that any upgrading – be it symbolic or material – of a place naturally entails gentrification, then what does that really mean? It means we should not attempt to do anything to makes people’s lives better – because in the long run, you only harm the very same people you purported to help. Of course, doing nothing is always easier and that is exactly my second issue.
None of the above means that gentrification is not a very real threat for neighbourhoods or for whole cities. It is important to remind people of the possible perils and to also remember that any urban intervention produces winners and losers. The point is that every time we try to tackle a broader issue (e.g. poverty) at a local level, we are bound to produce conflicting results. But the solution cannot be not to do anything at all, can it? No, it means we need to find different measures for different geographical scales.