All change is bad. Take gentrification. Gentrification is when rich people suddenly take a liking to a poor part of town, move in, raise property values, and force longtime residents – that is, the poor – to move out.
Right? No, that’s not what gentrification is. It is the pejorative term for change. All cities change, and change sometimes creates problems such as making it harder for poor people to afford to live in their neighborhoods. But cities and their neighborhoods always evolve, always have and always will. How to soften its impact on the most vulnerable is the big question.
Part of his post focuses on the tendency of some people, such as urbanist Edward Glaeser, to chide Jane Jacobs for the fact that after she helped rescue Greenwich Village in the 1960s, property values rose, causing demographic shifts that promoted greater blandness. Glaeser and others claim that this history challenges the wisdom of Jacobs’s thinking about cities, such as her emphasis on the vital importance of old buildings. Old buildings provide affordable space for entrepreneurs who can’t afford to build or lease big new glass boxes for their start-ups. Mehaffy writes:
But Glaeser and other critics seem to miss Jacobs’s point. For Jacobs, the answer to gentrification and affordability is not an over-concentration of new (often even more expensive) houses in the core. Rather, we need to diversify geographically as well as in other ways. If Greenwich Village is over-gentrifying, it’s probably time to re-focus on Brooklyn, and provide more jobs and opportunities for its more depressed neighborhoods. If those start to over-heat, it’s time to focus on the Bronx, or Queens. Or Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans.
Providence has been trying to channel the energy of redevelopment quite well over the past several decades, promoting revitalization not just downtown but in neighborhoods such as West Broadway, South Providence and the Jewelry District. But Mehaffy also urges cities that create large new development districts to divide them up into smaller development parcels. Providence has done quite poorly at this, and the results are clear in Capital Center and the nascent I-195 corridor, the latter with its innovation district of proposed large glassy unalluring research boxes.
My upcoming book Lost Providence, due out Aug. 28, offers a sense of the kind of churning that affects evolving cities, whether in neighborhoods or downtowns. I quoted an old column of mine from the Providence Journal, “In defense of gentrification,” written in 2003 about decisions the city made on the way to its current promising revitalization:
One can no more expect landlords to neglect buildings in perpetuity as welfare programs for struggling artists or buck-a-beer joints than one can expect those same tenants to embrace building improvements that will raise their rents. They whistle past the graveyard as the gathering clouds of renaissance darken, praying that their landlord fixes up all his other buildings before getting around to theirs.
There is a certain vitality to dark streets empty most nights until drunks stumble in a rowdy mass from clubs at 1 a.m. But it will be a sad day if City Hall ever determines that the preservation of this vitality should be the urban policy of Providence.
Fortunately for Providence, that policy did not prevail. Gentrification is a word that dangerously oversimplifies that realities of change in cities. Mehaffy’s post is an excellent antidote to that.