At CityLab, Henry Wismayer reports on the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. The worst fire disaster in London since the Blitz during World War II, the blaze claimed 80 lives. To outsiders, England may appear to be a “a paragon of functioning multiculturalism,” but the Grenfell fire has become the country’s “Katrina moment” — the catastrophic event which exposes society’s egregious treatment of and contempt for its poor.
Grenfell has become a grisly metaphor for all that is squalid about the British capital, unfettered free-market capitalism, and society at large.
Against a backdrop of economic anxiety that has defined global politics for the last decade, these attitudes have insinuated themselves into the national consciousness. Britain’s right-wing press has spent years pumping out a steady ooze of anomalous stories about welfare scroungers. This project has portrayed social housing as a repository for the idle and shiftless, meaning that the grievances of tenants, like those in Grenfell Tower, can be dismissed as grumbles of entitlement. The truth, painful to admit, is that most Londoners didn’t care about the welfare of Grenfell residents until the fire betrayed the extent of their neglect. It was this prevailing atmosphere, as much as any individual political decision, which permitted someone in a boardroom, thumbing through cost projections of a proposed tower-block refurbishment, to think, “Let’s use the cheaper, flammable stuff.”
Details of the Grenfell fire victims belie such lazy stereotypes. Among the dead were Khadija Saye, a promising photographer whose work was recently feature at the Venice Biennale, and Mohammad Alhajali, a Syrian refugee who was studying civil engineering in the hope of eventually returning home to help rebuild his war-torn country. Young people with talent and dreams. But before we read their obituaries, they were anonymous shadows from the demimonde, pre-judged by dint of where they live and how much they earn.
There is, then, in the shape of Grenfell, in the tragedy of its victims and the fury of its survivors, an indelible message for the wider world. It is simply that the depredations wrought by breakneck gentrification—the yawning inequality, the dispossession, the growing cultural sterility—can only be justified through subscription to the idea that a person’s value to a city is commensurate to how much profit they generate, which is to say that people like those who died in Grenfell were worth nothing at all.
For the August issue of Jacobin Magazine, Sam Wetherell analyzes urban theorist Richard Florida’s apparent about-face on the benefits of luring members of the “creative class” to depressed cities in need of revitalization.
If you live in an urban center in North America, the United Kingdom, or Australia, you are living in Richard Florida’s world. Fifteen years ago, he argued that an influx of what he called the “creative classes” — artists, hipsters, tech workers — were sparking economic growth in places like the Bay Area. Their tolerance, flexibility, and eccentricity dissolved the rigid structures of industrial production and replaced them with the kinds of workplaces and neighborhoods that attracted more young people and, importantly, more investment.
His observations quickly formed the basis of a set of breezy technical solutions. If decaying cities wanted to survive, they had to open cool bars, shabby-chic coffee shops, and art venues that attract young, educated, and tolerant residents. Eventually, the mysterious alchemy of the creative economy would build a new and prosperous urban core.
After fifteen years of development plans tailored to the creative classes, Florida surveys an urban landscape in ruins. The story of London is the story of Austin, the Bay Area, Chicago, New York, Toronto, and Sydney. When the rich, the young, and the (mostly) white rediscovered the city, they created rampant property speculation, soaring home prices, and mass displacement. The “creative class” were just the rich all along, or at least the college-educated children of the rich.
There’s Adley Penner, a West Oakland musician who lives in a shed with Styrofoam walls. There’s also Theo Williams, of the musical group Sambafunk!, who was drumming at Lake Merritt one day when a man approached and asked if they had a permit, pulled the drumsticks from his hands, and called the police. And then there’s writer Tara Marsden, who ditched a full-time job at a tech company in San Francisco and moved across the bay to focus on her art — but now struggles financially and has had to move five times in recent years.
Since 2007, Moss’s blog has catalogued the shuttering of one New York City institution after another, and staged demonstrations (which he himself didn’t attend, for fear of outing himself) to try and save them. Where his blog has tended to focus mainly on the East Village and lower Manhattan, his book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul, is more comprehensive, looking at the city as a whole, one borough and neighborhood at a time. It traces what he’s labeled today’s “hyper-gentrification” to the Koch era, and explores the problem in historical, economic, sociological, psychological, and personal terms.
After a quick stop at a Jamaican food stall at the outdoor Borough Market, I parted with my lunchtime companion and began my solitary journey through the heart of London, with City Hall on my right, the Thames to my left and the low winter sun above me. Though most of my walks through the city tended to be directionless — at least mentally, if not also geographically — today I had a purpose: I was looking for my “third place.”
My first place is a flatshare in North London — an area characterized alternately as middle class; an area overrun with affluent, well-groomed “yummy mummies”; and as the intellectual hub of London. It’s the family-friendly part of the city, but it’s also rapidly falling victim to the kind of hipster gentrification that has already affected its trendier cousin, East London. It also has some of the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden areas, such as Tottenham, where unarmed 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police in 2011, sparking the infamous London riots.
My second place, an office in Kensington, the richest borough of London — provides me with a vastly different version of the city than my first place.
I needed to find my third place, the place that could connect the authentic me, the persona I am at home, with my surroundings — with my wider home. Since moving to London from the north of England five years before, something had been missing for me — some deeper connection with the city. I hoped finding my third place would give personal meaning to the random masses of concrete and strangers I happened to live among.
I get wrapped up in issues about gentrification in my hometown of Seattle. When I do look up to see how the story plays out elsewhere, it’s often in nearby San Francisco or Oakland or Portland. I look there for what we can learn and what we have to lose.
My own narrow focus is why I was surprised to read about the gentrification of Mullae, an industrial-artistic district in Seoul, South Korea, where “the neighborhood’s unique features were destroyed through over-commercialization.” It’s a familiar story, as artists to join with residents to keep neighborhoods like Mullae — or Boyle Heights in Los Angeles or New York’s Chinatown — authentic and alive.
The situation in Mullae now calls for artists and factory owners to unite in resistance to speculative capitalism. Otherwise the neighborhood will follow the model of Daehangno, Bukchon, Seochon, Garosu-gil, and Jogno in becoming a generic shopping district. Landlords in those areas earned fortunes by raising rents until the neighborhood’s unique features were destroyed through over-commercialization. What followed was not prosperity but hollowness. Young people stopped visiting areas that were no longer seen as “authentic,” and as retail dropped off, building owners chose to leave spaces vacant rather than lower rents. We see a hint of this now in Mullae, as several spaces on Dorim-ro have sat empty for the past few months, despite strong interest. The sole hostel, Urban Art Guest House, is on the last year of its contract, and proprietor Lee Seung-hyuck is not sure whether he will stay, as the building owner intends to triple the rent.
It’s tricky to write about gentrification. Beyond the genre’s clichés (can you avoid the well-meaning, clueless pour-over barista?), there’s often a tension lurking between the stories of real people (whether the displaced or the invaders) and the broader, structural conditions that produce their respective urban migration in the first place. At n+1, an excerpt from Brandon Harris’ new book on Bedford-Stuyvesant draws a nuanced picture of one of the current epicenters of gentrification in the U.S. He shows how complex this phenomenon is on the ground (with various configurations of race, class, and personal history coming into play), and how inextricable it is from processes that started decades ago, including the discriminatory urban-planning policies put into place by 20th-century “Master Builder” Robert Moses.
In late August, Highline Residential, a realty company that was spending significant amounts of money developing Bedford-Stuyvesant properties, released a promotional video called This Is Bed-Stuy, in which smiling blond twentysomethings give a “neighborhood tour.” Many longtime residents found the video—in which the pair of pale hosts sip expensive coffee and brunch cocktails at recently opened establishments while offering testimony to the neighborhood’s amenities and vibrancy—deeply offensive, seeing no mention of the institutions with which they associated Bed-Stuy. Highline Residential didn’t give a shit about them, the general sentiment went, other than wondering when they’d get the fuck out. Suddenly New York magazine and the Daily News were falling over themselves profiling entire blocks of Bedford Stuyvesant real estate, interviewing generations of owners and tenants, publishing op-eds by black journalism professors who had long lived in the district, and interviewing women who had been pushed out to East New York, or all the way to the Rockaways. [Robert] Moses, and the forces of history that animated his mindset, would drive the dispossessed right out of this city if the market allowed.
They came in the tens of thousands, pushing baby carriages and packing roller skates. All in all, an estimated 200,000 pedestrians crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on May 27, 1937, its first day in business. The bridge was already a San Francisco landmark—a flaming, burnt-orange beacon conceived a decade earlier by Leon Moisseiff, who had engineered the Manhattan Bridge. It was a graceful design, but suspension bridges still weren’t entirely safe—the engineer’s Tacoma Narrows Bridge would fail spectacularly only a few months after it opened in 1940.
The Golden Gate also has a dark side. To afford a view of the city, the bridge has a low barrier that is easy to scale. (In “Jumpers,” the New Yorker’s Tad Friend meditates on the bridge’s reputation for death—for the families and friends of those who succeed in their jumps, it’s an indelible monument to their loved ones’ pain.) This month, city workers will finally begin the installation of a new barrier, a grey netting that will blend into the water without obscuring the view. Officials hope it will finally reduce suicide rates on the deadly bridge.
In the late 1950s, a thriving Mexican-American neighborhood was bulldozed to build Dodgers Stadium. Not far away, a half a century later, that same process continues, except the process now has name: gentrification. The socio-economic forces of gentrification are creating activists everywhere from Queens to London. At Newsweek, Alexander Nazaryan reports from the front line in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, where activists are fighting art galleries, which they believe are the first wave of gentrification and real estate redevelopment that lead to the inevitable the predictable displacement of people of color. This process is called “artwashing.” In this historically Latino community, where 89% of residents rent and 5% have college degrees, activists havedrawn a line in the Los Angeles sand, and if some of them get squeezed out, they will do so with their voices carrying news of this problem to the world.
The above process is known as artwashing, which has come to widely describe displacement efforts in which the artistic community is tacitly complicit. The term appears to have first been used in mainstream media in 2014 by Feargus O’Sullivan of The Atlantic, in an article about a tower in once-destitute East London that had been redeveloped for high-paying tenants. They were being enticed, in part, by suggestions that they wouldn’t be gentrifiers but, rather, original members of a new artistic community. “The artist community’s short-term occupancy is being used for a classic profit-driven regeneration maneuver,” O’Sullivan wrote. He labeled the process “artwashing.”
Yet for many the notion of artwashing is no less urban myth than alligators in the sewers of New York. Several studies have concluded that art galleries do not displace low-income residents, but Defend Boyle Heights and the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD, pronounced “bad”) don’t care about academic urbanists’ peer-reviewed studies. They know the galleries are a cancer that must be eradicated, for they are “enemies of the people,” as Luna called them. “I want these galleries to get the fuck out of Boyle Heights,” he said, finally managing a bite of food.
The course of chemotherapy recommended by Defend Boyle Heights is relentlessly aggressive. Someone shot a potato gun at the attendees of an art show, and someone spray-painted “Fuck white art” on the walls of several galleries. Like the Battle of Stalingrad, this is a furiously contested, block-by-block affair. Both sides have suffered painful losses: the closure of Carnitas Michoacan #3, a 33-year-old eatery beloved for its nachos, the shuttering of PSSST, one of the Anderson Street galleries.
Food trends always say something about the cultural moment in which they burst onto our collective consciousness, and Nashville’s beloved hot chicken is no exception. At The Ringer, Danny Chau recounts three days enjoying the addictive pain of cayenne-coated fried chicken, while also exploring a history of racial tension and the changing vibe of the neighborhoods that gave America its Bourdain-approved, spicy food of the moment.
Hot chicken has become one of the biggest national food trends of the last few years, but I didn’t come to Nashville to Columbus a dish that has existed for nearly a century. I did come to see, from the source, why America’s fascination with hot chicken is exploding at this particular moment. As recently as 10 years ago, hot chicken wasn’t a universally acknowledged dish, even in its birthplace. For the majority of its existence, it was largely contained within the predominantly black East Nashville neighborhoods that created it, kept out of view under the shroud of lawful segregation.
Prince’s old location was close to the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry performed for more than three decades. Its late-night hours were perfect for performers, and early adopters like Country Music Hall of Famer George Morgan helped build a devout following. But in the segregation era, to get their fix, they had to walk through a side door. Prince’s was operated like a white establishment in reverse: blacks order in front, whites out back.
Even after desegregation, hot chicken remained hidden in plain sight for much of Nashville, due to what Purcell described as “comfort” on both sides of the racial divide.