Cities in Flux

Cities in Flux

by Cities Project Research Crew

This fall, Threshold Magazine is working with friends to produce a series of writings on the changing landscapes of four major Southern cities: Atlanta, Austin, Houston, and Nashville. We hope that the economy of these cities will help us understand the larger movement of capital and how this movement is transforming the South.  Throughout the summer, we’ve studied existing political economic theories of gentrification and the crisis of 2008 in order to shape our research. This paper summarizes and analyses existing theory and puts forward some preliminary ideas for our specific research. We hope for wide engagement of the ideas presented here.

 

A picture of “gentrification”

Somewhere in Atlanta, Georgia: Immediately surrounding the park, once beautiful two-story bungalows are in various stages of decay and repair. You can hear the sound of power tools and construction workers from next door as a white woman in jogging clothes, pushing a $300 dollar stroller, emerges from her renovated home,. She stops to say hello to her neighbor– he’s just pulling out of his driveway in his Prius, headed to drop the kids off at their private school on his way to work downtown. They complain to each other about the local kids cutting through their grass on the way home from school and worry if what they heard last night were gunshots. They wonder if they should report the broken down car in the empty lot down the block that serves as a home for an unsheltered couple. They’re grateful that more developers are taking interest in their neighborhood. They hope the new bike trails will be completed this year.

Just a block away, residents are served eviction notices. Their collapsing apartment building has been bought up by a developer– they have one month to get out. The meager vouchers they’ve been offered for relocation do nothing to solve the problem of where they will go. A woman in a bank uniform looks at For Rent postings in the paper on the bus to work. She’s running late again– even if the trains had been running on time, the bus never is. She worries about the quality of the school district when she moves her family. She wonders how long it will take her to get to work. She hopes she can find an affordable place in the city.

…[T]his idea that whiteness equals gentrification, a recurring discourse among leftists and nonprofits, is mistaken in its assumptions, misunderstood in its consequences, and ultimately void of meaning.

So goes the modern story of Atlanta, and, arguably, the story of the city. Southern cities are undergoing an inversion of demographics. In Atlanta, poor, mostly Black residents are being forced out as wealthier, whiter, residents buy up properties to renovate. In Southwest cities, such as Austin and Houston, this binary becomes a three-way, with Latino and Mexican residents being forced to move as well. This is the process of “gentrification.” But any good analysis cannot stop at demographics.

While it’s true that the appearance of gentrification cannot be separated from the essence of the transformation of space, popular anti-gentrification sentiment does not get to the heart of the matter. There’s a need to take a closer look at the redevelopment of cities.

 

Real development

Existing gentrification theory among some in the radical left seeks to move the discourse away from appearances and towards material situations. In an examination of Oakland, California, a Bay of Rage  article speaks of the “reorganization of space by power.” In their analysis of existing popular gentrification theory the authors posit a separation of gentrification and its appearance- whitening of an area.  They suggest this idea that whiteness equals gentrification, a recurring discourse among leftists and nonprofits, is mistaken in its assumptions, misunderstood in its consequences, and ultimately void of meaning.

In other words, gentrification discourse begins and ends with the apparent changes of an area. You can move from the image of a white woman with a stroller to a demographic reality of an increasing percentage of white residents. This will only get us so far, as they elaborate:.

[..]More pertinent to the questions of development and gentrification, it cannot be said that every white person has the same class values and interests. Many of the recent migrants to Oakland [..] can be said to carry a particular set of middle class values that is more of a contribution to the development (in the pejorative sense) of the neighborhood than their race. These values–a concern for property values, an antipathy to street life, homeownership, civic-mindedness, complicity with the policing apparatus, interest in urban beautification, etc.–provide the social conditions for the development of a neighborhood. These values are held across race lines. While often true, the equivocation of these values with white gentrifiers can obscure or occlude other dynamics.

Even more important than the values that new white residents might bring with them is those residents’ actual social relations. In other words, an increase in white homeownership is fundamentally distinct from an increase in white renters.

When reframing the discussion of gentrification in terms of enemies of the class, it can be clearer the role developers, government officials, and individuals protecting their interests play in our communities, from the property managers, to private security, to the cops.

This is not to imply that the process of gentrification is indistinguishable regardless of race and class. Gentrification of Black neighborhoods by new Black residents can and does exist. However, a Black property owner flipping homes on the south side to sale to middle-class Black families is distinct from major firms buying up abandoned warehouses to turn into lofts for tech workers and artists.

Bay of Rage goes on to suggest a focus on the objective conditions and social relations that drive “development” as key.  Knowing the forces driving development schemes and specifically identifying them to build resistance among the class is a concrete strategy.

A critique of development specifically, on its own and as a part of gentrification, is much more useful to the insurgent. First, it allows one to identify the enemy in much clearer terms. It identifies developers, real estate brokers and property managers as the enemy, instead of the wide hostility towards “gentrifiers.” Secondly, it suggests a particular space of activity, beyond the vagaries of “don’t move here” or “if you move here, do it right.” A critique of development suggests the organization of attack, both social and not, on development projects, real estate companies, and all of the administrators of control over the place where we live.

When reframing the discussion of gentrification in terms of enemies of the class, it can be clearer the role developers, government officials, and individuals protecting their interests play in our communities, from the property managers, to private security, to the cops. Some of the same dynamics noted by Bay of Rage in Oakland can be found in the South.  Though current material conditions and histories are different among its cities, the South is witnessing many of the pressures and contradictions of capitalism in its neoliberal form.  This is especially acute along the lines of race and immigration, where the historical Black-White dichotomy of white supremacist social relations is re-imagined (but not overturned) with the arrival of peoples from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America.  The role of gender and sexuality in the division of labor, caring work and reproduction of the class must also factor in attempts to theorize gentrification in the South.  Final considerations include examining the place of southern cities in circulation of global capital, supply chains, and industries of neoliberal capitalism, such as transportation and the “service economy.”

To understand the essence of the current movement of the reorganization of the south, we must look beyond appearances towards the larger geographical movement of capital and people.

In Atlanta, a city with powerful Black leadership in every level of local government, and a strong Black middle class, a hyper-focus on the appearance can be particularly dangerous. In some in-town neighborhoods it’s possible that Black middle class homeowners currently, and will continue to, help drive further transformation of the city. Homeowners’ and, even, renters’ valuation of property rights and individualism may trump any idea of preserving space for the current poorer residents.

As the Housing Monster reminds us, the “decay and development of neighborhoods are both automatic market processes and the result of conscious action by developers and city planners.” Often, the appearance we see in neighborhoods is actually the rise and fall of the real estate industry. “The movements of capital shape our physical environment to its needs. Whether it’s developing or decaying, the economy tends to do so at our expense.”

The erasing of cultural spaces and community histories by “timeless, placeless places,” suggests focus beyond just economic forces. These spaces are reorganized by power that cut the cultural threads that once held neighborhoods together.  They are replaced with the “cultural capital” of the yuppie or hipster classes. With the transformation of places like the west side of Atlanta, it’s possible that the memories of militant Black resistance become scattered. To be clear, we should be careful to not separate race from spatial organization. The two are intimately and intentionally linked.

 

What is a city?

David Harvey, in Rebel Cities, outlines the creation of the city. Cities were created in order to absorb or consume capital and labor surpluses. And consumption is key to the city. Capital needs people as consumers and people as producers. As capital consumes workers’ labor power to produce goods, it creates a surplus of goods; simultaneously, capital feeds off of our labor power and pays us poor wages in order to make a profit. And as more of us are thrown out of work by the creation of new technologies, capital refuses to reproduce us through fair wages, and the state guts welfare, we become increasingly unable to consume that surplus.

After World War II developers helped create suburbia to consume the surplus and left the inner cities in decay. When welfare was gutted from the 1970’s onward, reproduction was thrown back onto the class in the form of debt.  

Analyzing the modern crisis, we see that debt, or fictitious capital(1)Income from accumulated claims and legal titles to future production as according to Marx in Capital, Vol. III. For more, see Loren Goldner’s Fictitious Capital for Beginners, stepped in to both construct housing (to absorb capital and labor) and reproduce the worker (so that they could consume the constructed goods). Harvey explains:

Although much of what went into the real estate market was pure speculation, the production activity was itself an important part of the economy as a whole, with construction accounting for 7 percent of GDP, and all of the ancillaries of new products (from furnishings to cars) amounting to more than double that.

While fictitious capital can build things, it cannot promise that they will be paid for. Here lies the mystery of the housing crisis.

To understand the essence of the current movement of the reorganization of the south, we must look beyond appearances towards the larger geographical movement of capital and people.

 

Our project

In order to understand this movement, our work will need to understand race, immigration and class in the South; trace the planned and “free market” development of regions by capital and governments;  and map the resulting movement of peoples outside of and within cities.

We aim to look at four major southern cities– Atlanta, Austin, Houston, and Nashville–with a focus on particular phenomena within those cities. These cities can serve as case studies from which we can move outwards to understand the real movement of capital and transformation of space.

In the end, we hope to make some small predictions about the potential for ruptures to emerge in the South and capital’s plans to deal with the expanded crisis of social reproduction.

 

 

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Income from accumulated claims and legal titles to future production as according to Marx in Capital, Vol. III. For more, see Loren Goldner’s Fictitious Capital for Beginners
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