Uptown girl

She’s been living in her uptown world

I bet she’s never had a backstreet guy

I bet her momma never told her why

(Billy Joel, ‘Uptown Girl’, 1983)


In the five decades since Ruth Glass (1964) coined the term ‘gentrification’ to describe the transformation of a city’s working class area into one of middle-class residence and consumption, her concept has expanded from individual enterprise, whittling away at the edges of London, into an industry of the financial elite, multinational corporations and government that is radically reconfiguring cities across the globe. This essay will frame the city as a physical representation of economic practise and, therefore, gentrification as the spatial manifestation of neoliberalism. Recent trends of state-led gentrification, augmented with ‘social mix’ policies, will be examined as neoliberal logics, paving the way for the re-colonisation of the city by those ‘successful’ within the market, at the expense of those who have ‘failed’. Finally, the potential for a just, equitable and ethical city will be discussed along with who has the right to access it.

A city is not an arbitrary formation; much like a tree seeks nutrients, the city sends out tendrils and branches in search of capital, becoming a manifestation of the economy. During the industrial revolution, the wealthy ceded the city to smog-belching factories and the workers employed in them; deindustrialisation, coupled with the middle-class lust for suburbia, left these communities, built to service the manufacturing industry, to decay (Newman & Wyly, 2006; Harvey, 2014, p. 54). Following the resurgence of the city as the centre of the new global economy, these forgotten neighbourhoods are now experiencing economic re-investment (Newman & Wyly, 2006). However, reinvestment is not happening entirely for the benefit of the incumbent residents but is largely the triumphant return of the rich to the city at the expense of the poor (Ward, 2008), as state-led gentrification, nourished by neoliberal orthodoxies, displaces the disadvantaged from their homes and communities.

Neoliberalism has restructured economic, social and cultural practices across the globe and, through gentrification, has remade the physical city as well. Predicated on free enterprise, competition, deregulation, the dismantling of the public sector and the primacy of the individual over the collective, neoliberalism has expanded in an almost uncontested manner for forty years (Hamilton, 2003). Gentrification, as an extension of these neoliberal logics, acts an organic movement of economic, human and social capital back into disinvested areas (Smith, 1996). However, state-led gentrification and its accompanying haemorrhage of public goods into private hands is a different beast, weaving gentrification more tightly with the fabric of neoliberalism (Wyly & Hammel, 2005).

State-led gentrification, in the guise of ‘urban renewal’ is comprehensively remaking public infrastructure into consumption hubs, luxury dwellings, cultural facilities, recreation and leisure spaces (Smith, 2002, p. 443), razing housing once provided for the stability of the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Former public housing estates in London (Davidson, 2010; Butler, 2003; Lees, 2014) and Sydney (Darcy, 2010; Morris, 2016; Saulwick, 2016; Smith, 2016) are offered up to private enterprise and demolished, making way for ‘social mixing’ precincts whereby the incumbent population will benefit from the mentorship and economic clout of their new upper and middle-class neighbours (Freeman, 2006). Social Mixing as an ‘elixir’ (ibid, p. 164) for disadvantaged populations is a mirage of neoliberal logics, ignoring the multiple causes of urban deprivations, situating the blame for disadvantage within the individual, and disguising the effects on incumbent communities within the façade of urban beautification.

These public/private partnerships are championed to improve deteriorated neighbourhoods, benefiting incumbent residents and the city (Freeman, 2006, p. 169) as long absent capital, opportunities and services are transplanted into the community (Slater, 2012), ‘de-concentrating’ poverty and strengthening the ‘social tissue’ (Lees, 2008, p 2452; Darcy, 2010). According to social mixing proponents, as the middle and upper classes re-colonise neighbourhoods they bring not only their economic capital, but their social and cultural capital – introducing middle-class work ethics, behaviours and values (August, 2014). In his 2011 paean to gentrification, Duany (2011), describes this phenomenon as a “rising tide that lifts all boats” (p. 37); the concept patronisingly clear: injecting the middle class into poor neighbourhoods will create a new moral order (Lees, 2014, 150), helping the poor and disadvantaged rise into the middle class like a phoenix from the ashes of their derelict slum.

In the language of social mix, it is not just the neighbourhoods that are devalued but the people who dwell within them, the middle class framed as ‘normal’ and incumbent residents as ‘deviant’. Debates centre around ‘revitalisation’, ‘revalorisation’ and ‘regeneration’, the hidden message being: these landscapes are currently de vitalised,  de valorised and de generate (Slater, 2014). Incumbent communities are ‘failed’ communities, not because they lack social bonds or values but economic productivity – the complexities of a community condensed into the simplicity of a market (Wyly & Hammel, 2005). Likewise, the positioning of middle-class urbanity and civility as a tincture for the disadvantaged (Delanty, 2000) reeks of neoliberal ‘responsibilisation’ (Rose, 2004, p. 74) and self-reliance, positioning disadvantage, not as an outcome of multiple structural factors, but as a choice, with lack of success seen to be a moral failure (Doney, McGuirk & Mee, 2013; Marston, 2000, pp. 350-367). Advocates for social mixing discount that the new, wealthier residents – although keen to invest their economic capital in an area – are often unwilling to invest their social capital (August 2014; Butler, 2003). The differing life worlds of the two communities rarely intersect, with incumbent residents effectively constructed out of their neighbourhoods, contextually detached from the ‘improvements’ (Davidson, 2010, p. 538). Even if social mix policy has genuinely inclusive intentions, the acceleration of market pressures and disappearance of the former socio-cultural fabric of the community inspires displacement (Betancur, 2002; Wyly & Hammel, 2005). The message is clear: residents are given the opportunity to adapt and learn, becoming good neoliberal subjects – failing this, they will be cleansed from the area.

Displacement is rarely considered relevant to policy makers, or champions of gentrification. Conveniently, accurate measurement of displacement is notoriously difficult (Marcuse, 1985; Atkinson, 2003), and reliance on statistical data over qualitative analysis makes displacement seem a non-issue (Slater, 2012). However, with 4-5000 public tenants expunged from Waterloo and Redfern – where existing public housing is to be replaced with luxury apartments – and their potential return timetabled in decades (Smith, 2016), displacement appears to be policy bedrock, with existing communities broken and scattered amongst the outer suburbs (Betancur, 2002; Randolph & Tice, 2014, p. 385). Moreover, despite obligations to include affordable housing in rebuilds, it is hardly guaranteed, as evidenced in Waterloo, with its removal of these provisions from the initial stages of the development (Saulwick, 2016); London, where ‘viability assessments’ are used to limit housing options that will impact profits (Wainwright, 2015; Lees, 2014) and consistent community objection to affordability programmes (Burke, 2017). This ‘accumulation by dispossession’ has been likened to colonisation (Harvey, 2003, p. 122) or ‘Revanchism’ (Smith, 1996), a vengeful retaking of lands once ceded.  Duany’s (2001) aforementioned “rising tide” that “lifts all boats” (p.37) is more accurately described by Slater (2014) as a “tsunami that wrecks most ships” (p. 524) as the poor are swept from the revanchist city.

The neoliberal economy is terraforming cities from crumbling industrial hubs to sites of luxury housing, consumption, leisure and recreation, but who has the right to access this city? Long has the city been a representation of the economy, but perhaps the city should be a representation of who we want to be as a people (Harvey, 2012). Cities are not physical structures but products of human vision (Knox & Pierce, 2010, pp. 3-4), therefore, cities as playgrounds for the elite (Freeman, 2006) represent neoliberalism’s poverty of imagination (Slater, 2014). A right to the city is not just the right to consume what the city has to offer, but the right to produce the city, to enjoy its intrinsic value (Marcuse, 2012) –  and the right to be valued intrinsically. If ‘place’ is central to human culture, and people’s social, political and economic relationships are geographically embedded (Pacione, 2009, p. 23) then, the restoration of the city should mean more than just restoration of dilapidated housing stock but the restoration of a socially just politics, a politics bound in ethics and not just a gesture to the market (Marcuse, 1998; 2016). Solutions can be found through effective community mobilisation, disincentivising the removal of investment from neighbourhoods, government investment in poor areas and protective zoning (Freeman, 2006; Shaw, 2008; Marcuse, 1985). By removing the binaries of ‘blight’ and ‘prosperity’ when valuing neighbourhoods (Slater, 2014) and understanding that a home is a symbol of the self, and not just an asset (Wilson, 2008; Lees, 2008) we can encourage a vision of a wider, more vibrant and diverse city for all (Atkinson, 2006).

Gentrification, in the five decades since the term was coined, has mutated from an urban oddity into the cornerstone of municipal policy. This essay has discussed gentrification as an extension of neoliberal logics, and that the modern city, as a physical representation of economic discourse, is therefore an extension of neoliberalism. Arguing that gentrification is ultimately the spatial manifestation of neoliberalism, this essay has examined the trend of state-led gentrification, augmented with social mix policies, and exposed it as a neoliberal mirage, heralding the re-colonisation of the city by the rich, re-claiming turf once ceded to the poor during industrialisation. Finally, the Right to the City has been discussed and potential steps to encourage a diverse, vibrant and meaningful metropolis and ameliorate the possibility that it may just become a playground for the rich.



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