Peter Moskowitz’s new book on gentrification outlines how local governments cede their power over residents’ lives to private interests.
To live in a city is to watch it change, sometimes quickly and in troubling ways. These changes, more often than not, are the product of decisions by city planners on which longtime residents often have little input or sway. This process is usually referred to with a commonly used term: gentrification. But there is no single answer to the questions of what gentrification really means, what causes it, who controls it, and how it actually changes neighborhoods and the people who live in them.
How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, a new book by the journalist Peter Moskowitz, brings some much-needed clarity to thinking about a slippery concept. “While urban renewal, the suburbanization of cities, and other forms of capital creation are relatively easy to spot (a highway built through a neighborhood is a relatively obvious event), gentrification is more discreet, dispersed, and hands-off,” he writes. Moskowitz adds to the growing canon aimed at understanding and explaining the process of gentrification, and he not-so-subtly suggests that while gentrification naturally brings some improvements to a city, including more people and money, it also frequently kills some cultural traditions and diversity, the precise characteristics that make cities so dynamic and desirable in the first place.
Moskowitz tells of how gentrification has swept through some of America’s biggest cities, writing case studies of Detroit, San Francisco, New York, and post-Katrina New Orleans. In each city, there are specific problems and circumstances that helped the process along, but it’s striking how similar the choices made by politicians, business leaders, and developers—and their effects on the poor—are across the country. Gentrification, in each of these cities, dismantles and displaces existing neighborhoods and communities in order to make way for new residents who are mostly whiter and always richer than those who predate them. And the same choices seem to be made again and again.
While Moskowitz includes the important stories of those who called a neighborhood home long before coffee shops and luxury condos appeared, it’s his outline of the systemic process of displacement that is the most devastating. He convincingly shows how the choices that a city and its government make in the name of a booming economy assign value to some residents and not others: From choices on where and how to fund affordable housing, to invest in public schools, to support new local businesses but not old ones, the process that goes by the name “revitalization” is often something more pernicious.