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Solimar Research

Death by Gentrification: Review of 'How to Kill a City'

Josh Stephens on
May 28, 2017

A few weeks ago, Richard Florida assured me and a roomful of other journalists that “not everything is a neoliberal plot.” Tell it to Peter Moskowitz. 

Florida’s ideas about attracting the “creative class” may have been over-hyped. But Moskowitz, a freelance political journalist and avowed opponent of pretty much everything Florida stands for, is dangerous. He’s not dangerous in the cool way, as an idealistic guy who wants to stick it to the Man. He’s actually dangerous. If his new book-cum-conspiracy theory, How to Kill a City, enjoys wields any influence, people are going to suffer. They are the very people whom Moskowitz champions. 

Gentrification, by which Moskowitz refers to a range of urban crises that he considers, not unreasonably, to be violent, discriminatory, and unjust, is the most vivid and surely most emotionally fraught of the great urban challenges that American cities face. Moskowitz discusses the issue passionately and urgently -- and totally disingenuously.   

It would be hard to write about gentrification without discussing San Francisco or New York City, which Moskowitz does. Moskowitz could have told similar, generic stories from many other cities – including pretty much every city in coastal California. His big insight in what is, admittedly, a readable, provocative rant, was to include two poignant counterpoints: New Orleans and Detroit.

Gentrification in San Francisco and New York has been discussed many times, as Latino residents in the Mission have been pushed out by tech workers and as hipsters and yuppies have taken over Brooklyn. Moskowitz brings nothing new to these stories. His descriptions of gentrification are often parodies of themselves: “upscale food co-op and art spaces; there're also new queer bars, organic juice joints, an expensive coffee shops and brunch spots,” he writes, referring to New Orleans.

Things get interesting in the sections covering New Orleans and Detroit. How can economically depressed cities whose populations have cratered also be gentrified?

Moskowitz posits that even the apparent successes of post-bankruptcy Detroit and post-Katrina New Orleans come with heavy prices. Tens of thousands of native New Orleanians, many of them African-American, fled after Hurricane Katrina and never came back. New, inauthentic businesses serving a bourgeois clientele have sprung up. “Restaurants and rents many can't afford…and even pothole repair become signposts for displacement and cultural loss,” he writes. 

Detroit, he contends, has effectively shed 142 of its 150 square miles. City government, aided and directed by billionaire Dan Snyder, has decided to focus on the city most promising 7.2 square miles clustered around downtown. That’s where the proverbial yoga studios are going in. Otherwise, a vast plain of vacant lots, dark streetlamps, and abject poverty fans out in all directions. 

***

In each of these cases, Moskowitz trolls the streets looking for villains. Sometimes it’s Snyder. Sometimes it's New Orleans developer Pres Kabacoff. Sometimes it’s tech, and sometimes it’s finance. Sometimes, Moskowitz indicts himself and his fellow urban 20-somethings, for being “pioneers” in places where people have lived contentedly for generations.

But, over and over again, Moskowitz blames capital. Capital wants to boot grandmothers out of their homes. Capital wants $4 coffees. Capital wants exposed brick. Capital runs roughshod over communities on its endless quest for profit. Capital sent white people to the suburbs, and capital is reeling them back in.

Moskowitz seems astonished by the most basic principles of economics. Referring to economist Neil Smith, he writes, "Smith realized that ….if you wanted to find a neighborhood that would gentrify next, all you have to do was figure out…the place where buildings could be bought cheap and made more expensive.”

In other words, “buy low, sell high.”

Things get particularly weird when Moskowitz, who unapologetically favors a welfare state, tries to discuss municipal finance. He rightly decries white flight, which decimated cities’ coffers. And yet, he excoriates Detroit and New Orleans for daring to re-attract high-income, taxpaying residents.

And he chides San Francisco, writing, “the city doesn't need to keep attracting rich people,” as if anyone needs prodding to move to San Francisco. In fact, San Francisco’s prosperity is about as organic as it gets. In studying San Francisco, Michael Storper found that deliberate economic development policies generally amount to absolutely nothing. Young people move to San Francisco because they like it.

Most astoundingly, Moskowitz does not — as far as I could tell — make a single mention in his 200-plus pages of jobs. He implies that low-income residents must not, under any circumstances, try to glean the prosperity that surrounds them. Moskowitz cannot conceive — or refuses to admit — that the growth he so decries could benefit the very people whom he champions.

In fact, that’s exactly what happens. Enrico Moretti’s research, among others, suggests that incomes rise at all levels when anchor industries prosper in an urban area. Plenty of other research shows that people of modest means are typically better off in prospering neighborhoods. Obviously gentrification is a function of wealth. But that doesn’t mean that only the newcomers can reap the benefits. Yet Moskowitz implies that incumbent residents ought to simply sneer at Apple and revile the coffee shop rather than, maybe, submit a job application to them. 

Meanwhile, rents keep rising.

He mentions housing scarcely more often than he does jobs, and only then to promote subsidized affordable housing. Never mind the fact that, at least in New York and the Bay Area, it’s the lack of housing supply (both market rate and subsidized) that drives up prices and drives out residents who can’t afford those prices. Capital salivates when restrictive zoning, which typically has little to do with Goldman Sachs and much to do with incumbent homeowners, drives up real estate values. 

And if you really want to talk about capital, maybe you want to talk about the $27 trillion embedded in homeownership. You’d also have to talk about the market distortions of $134 billion annual mortgage tax write-off (as Pulitzer Prize winner Matthew Desmond is doing) and, in some cases, inequitable tax burdens that favor wealthier homeowners (looking at you, Prop. 13).

(Even so, Venice Beach, Silver Lake, and most of San Francisco did not gentrify because of building booms. Those neighborhoods are built out and have very little new development. Meanwhile, in the most capital-heavy neighborhood in Los Angeles, South Park, almost no one has been directly displaced because most of the new construction is taking place on parking lots.)

***

It would be one thing if How to Kill a City was merely an ideological rant. The problem is, it’s an ideological rant in the guise of journalism. And it’s a lousy piece of journalism. 

Whenever Moskowitz wants to make a point about the hardships faced by urban residents, he calls up an anecdote or a firsthand observation. That’s fine. But whenever he wants to demonize a developer, a company, or a city government, he unleashes conjecture and half-baked assertions.

I speak to public officials – mayors, planning directors, city council members – almost every day; they’re pretty accessible. And yet, he doesn’t even try to empathize with the challenge of, say, operating a city when 39 percent of its residents live in poverty. He never asks developers what their margins are or why they want to build high-priced “luxury” housing. He never assesses the challenges of running a city in the face of onerous and anti-urban state and federal regulations.

Moskowitz’s apparent refusal to interview his opponents speak to his entirely unappealing tendency to not merely disagree with his opponents but rather to dehumanize them. I submit that dismissing developers as “capital” and public officials as toadies rather than collaborating with them is just as insidious as “capital’s" supposed disregard for people. If Moskowitz cannot acknowledge that there are people behind these financial decisions and that they might— however unenlightened they may be — have autonomy and even good intentions, he cheapens his discourse and undermines his claim to the moral high ground.

Meanwhile, he makes claims like, “Gentrification...is today most often sponsored by the state and other powerful institutions,” or he says that it’s a “strategy” — meaning a purposeful, coordinated effort. He even goes so far as to imply that cities deliberately destroyed themselves so that, 40 years later, they could be gentrified: “Truly equitable geographies would be largely un-gentrifiable ones. So first, geographies have to be made unequal.”

For such a grand plan, you’d think there’d be plenty of evidence that an eager crusader could dig up. And yet, Moskowitz presents little more than conjecture, supposition, and righteous indignation.

How to Kill a City has moments of clarity. Moskowitz isn’t wrong about the effects of gentrification, even if he misunderstands the causes. He cogently describes the ravages of suburbanization in the latter half of the 20th century. He puts blame more or less where it belongs: on federal policies that promoted suburbanization while obliterating cities through urban renewal. And he expresses solidarity with people who grew up in the suburbs and roundabout sympathy with their desire to be “gentrifiers”: 

This desire to escape the suburbs is not in and of itself a bad thing. The suburbs are a terrible way to house Americans. From a progressive urban planners perspective, an ideal world wouldn't even contain American-style suburbs…. We cannot fault the children born into suburbs for abandoning an illogical, environmentally harmful historical anomaly in favor of something much better.

And yet, 150 pages prior, Moskowitz announces, with utter sincerity, "those words–-colonization, occupation, and genocide–-do not feel sensational. They feel like what happened (in New Orleans)." He literally considers displacement in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on par with the Holocaust. 

Sorry, dude. Not cool. 

Moskowitz’s outrage derives in part from some curious a priori assumptions about the purpose of cities. He writes:

Gentrification... is really about reorienting the purpose of cities away from being spaces that provide for the poor and middle classes and toward being spaces that generate capital for the rich….It is only in the last few decades of economic growth has become the driving force in the governing of cities, to the exclusion of every other metric of well-being.

Those things are nice, but when exactly did everyone agree on the “purpose” of cities? When were those “other metrics” agreed-upon? Does he really mean that cities today exclude every other metric? Certainly cities can, and should, provide for the poor. But as an empirical, historic matter, it is the rare city that has explicitly pledged such a purpose. Moskowitz’s outrage is thus based on a fiction of his own making. 

(Meanwhile, he accurately acknowledges the history of urban development is an "age-old, racist process of subsidizing and privileging the … the wealthy and white.” I guess the good old days weren’t so good?) 

Then there’s Moskowitz’s hypocrisy. He admits that he is one of those suburbanites who has sought greener pastures in cities. Presumably, he does so with good intentions: he enjoys living in New York City and thinks he can do good work there. And yet, by his own standards, Moskowitz is himself committing genocide. I also hate to break it to him, but he’s also committing capitalism. His publisher, Nation Books, is an imprint of publishing giant Hachette. I’m guessing that Moskowitz doesn’t write for free.

***

I get it. Capitalism is ruthless. The United States is racist. Governments, especially the feds, have betrayed the poor. Moskowitz is more than entitled to illustrate those flaws. But you know what else is flawed? Disingenuously complaining about a deadly serious matter without offering constructive, viable solutions. 

In his final chapter, Moskowitz pulls a few policy recommendations off the progressive stockpile like, “give people a say” (fine), “protect…public lands” (OK, if you have the money), “heavily regulate housing” (with what political capital?), and “implement a new New Deal” (with what funds? And in what political universe?). He generally wants “more taxes, more laws, more intervention from the federal government.” Most of all, though, he exhorts residents in threatened communities to “fight.” He doesn’t mean they should fight for something, such as more housing or more job opportunities. He essentially recommends obstruction and conflict: stronger rent control, opposition to new development, rejection of newcomers, protection of incumbent tenants, and defense of the status quo. 

Herein lies the danger of How to Kill a City: it is a deliberately antagonistic book. And there are millions of people across this country who might take it seriously. (As of this writing, it’s the number-one seller in its category on Amazon.) Moskowitz clearly doesn't believe in collaboration, compromise, or common prosperity. Meaning, he doesn't really believe in cities.

And, anyway, if you set up a "fight" between “capital” and poor people, how do you think that’s going to turn out?

As Jane Jacobs, who is infuriatingly invoked by Moskowitz’s title, told us two generations ago, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Naturally, the poor deserve their voices, loud and numerous. But this is a choir, not a battle of the bands. Any attempt to segregate or pit groups against each other is counterproductive and inherently anti-urban. 

I hate to break it to Moskowitz, but “everybody” includes rich people — as it should. That’s because the relationship between rich and poor in cities enables cities to thrive. Government needs to make sure that this relationship is equitable, productive, and symbiotic, partly by providing, and allowing, housing. This isn’t voodoo economics — this is how life works, warts and all.

And, anyhow, in a fight between "capital" and everyone else, who do you think is going to win? 

Moskowitz’s heart is undoubtedly in the right place. Every city in the world needs more equity and more justice. But fighting: that's a way to build walls, not cities. If the future of cities depends on it, then they are already dead. No conspiracy needed.

How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood
Peter Moskowitz

272 pages
Nation Books
Hardcover $26.99