Why are men driving the conversation about the future of our neighborhoods?
“I know that it’s people like me that started this shit show,” wrote tech worker Chris Tacy in a 2013 essay. “I was part of the gentrification that started the whole trend of startups being centered in this neighborhood. I sold a company at the height of the dot-com boom and I did my part to turn San Francisco into the playground for the rich and educated that it’s become.”
In the short, pointed piece “Douchebags like you are ruining San Francisco,” which was eventually syndicated to Gawker’s Valleywag site and widely shared, Tacy chastises fellow members of his startup community for not integrating with the longtime residents in the city’s Mission District. He then offers his personally tested advice for not being such an awful human being. Or maybe not being so damn conspicuous about being such an awful human being:
I’ve had to start working hard to dress, look and act like I do not work in tech or startups when I’m out and about in the ‘hood. This way people still smile at me in the bodega, I still get to exchange jokes with folks waiting in line. I get to be treated like a human—not a fucking asshole.
It was a seminal entry for a new type of urban narrative: the self-aware gentrifier.
Over the past five years, as the cost of living in cities has skyrocketed, the movement of self-aware gentrifiers into neighborhoods historically occupied by lower-income residents, people of color, and immigrants has created a market for gentrification advice. Guides have been published on how to “properly” gentrify places like New York City and Oakland. There are tips for avoiding the “gentrification trap,” a gentrifier calculator that displays your impact like a carbon footprint, and the eventual admission that there’s really no way not to be a gentrifier. There is even a differentiation between a “gentrifying hipster” and “douchebag gentrifier,” according to the University of California at Berkeley American Studies professor Michael Mark Cohen’s method of classifying those who gentrify in search of affordability and community, rather than for pure profit.
As the “sorry for gentrifying” essay has become a trope through which to examine our changing neighborhoods, four new books out this year use the self-aware gentrifier as a narrator to explore the new brand of inequality in our cities. The books also add another conceit that goes beyond advice: Because the author, as well as the people reading, have been complicit in creating this disparity, now we—author, audience—need to actively do something to fix the problem.
“What role do individual residents play in shaping the process of gentrification,” is how The New Republic succinctly sums up the phenomenon, “and what responsibility do more affluent new residents bear toward those displaced?”
I eagerly consumed these new books, hoping for some insight into how my own city of Los Angeles was changing. But I was about four-fifths of the way through them when I looked at the stack of books on my nightstand and realized I had spent the better part of a month being lectured on gentrification by male gentrifiers.
Not only are these four books by men, they’re largely about men. According to the books themselves, the factors that have contributed to gentrification—displacement of marginalized communities, systemically ingrained racism, unequitable housing policy—have been largely implemented by powerful men over the last century.
It’s no secret that the lack of gender diversity is an issue for the architecture and development world. It’s also an issue for elected officials who initiate policy: Among U.S. cities with populations of over 30,000, only 20 percent of mayors are women. A 2015 report by the American Planning Association not only notes the lack of gender diversity in urban planning careers—the field is 42 percent female—but also the fact that women are more likely to be affected by urban affordability issues: Up to three-quarters of households living in public housing are solely headed by females.
It turns out that the absence of women from the conversation about how cities have been made, and remade, over the last 50 years has directly fed their wealth disparity and urban displacement.
The idea that moving into a new city or neighborhood can become an activist intervention is the common thread that runs through these four new books by self-aware gentrifiers. This is not the time for quietly assimilating, per Chris Tacy’s 2013 recommendation for his tech industry friends. Instead, new residents must take action on behalf of their new neighbors—ostensibly to prevent less self-aware gentrifiers from infiltrating their blocks.
Although their titles don’t include the word gentrification, these actions are addressed from a macro perspective in author Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It and Richard V. Reeves’s Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It. Florida’s advice is exceptionally timely because his previous books have been accused of exacerbating inequality in big U.S. cities—helping to lure those tech workers to San Francisco, for example. Right down to their parallel “what to do about it” titles, both these books offer solutions from one gentrifier to another that read like guidebooks to help assuage urban-dweller guilt. (Don’t worry if you’re not sure which type of gentrifier you are; the advice is similar whether you’re a member of Florida’s Creative Class or one of Reeves’s Dream Hoarders.)
In How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, Peter Moskowitz writes about growing up in Greenwich Village, where he scowled at the new residents gentrifying his street. But when he returns to New York City years later, he’s priced out of his old block. He moves to places like Bedford-Stuyvesant, becoming the gentrifier himself. While he admits to a life of privilege—“I’m also a gentrifier, and I come from a family of gentrifiers”—and even though he is known to “enjoy fancy coffee,” he is angry about the presence of new coffee shops, bike lanes, glass towers, and John Varvatos boutiques, which he says lead to displacement of longtime residents. He, too, offers a plan to stop the John Varvatos-ing of your neighborhood.
Gentrifier, a co-written effort by John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill, takes a slightly different approach, and one that was most enjoyable to read. It’s a more nuanced take on what it means to join an existing community—a topic that’s been explored here at Curbed as well—and buoyed by the hopeful thought that there is a way to be a “better gentrifier.” In a way, Gentrifier is the most self-aware of the four books, addressing the hypocritical nature of gentrifiers talking gentrification, but humanizing the issue with the three authors’ raw, vulnerable personal accounts of building lives in a city. And yes, they have their own tips for preserving the cities that predate their arrival.
Sure, women do figure into the books; there’s the requisite chapter on Jane Jacobs, cameos by community organizers and housing advocates (women are always relegated to these roles), and anecdotes featuring the authors’ own wives and partners. A handful of women—like Sharon Zukin, whose book Naked City was one of the first to address gentrification in New York City, and Saskia Sassen, a sociologist and expert in urban migration—are reliably and repeatedly quoted across the manuscripts. But as I flipped through the books again, I was dismayed to discover that nearly all the studies cited are by men. Almost all of the experts interviewed are men. (It should be noted that two of the books offer at least slightly different perspectives: Moskowitz is gay, and Hill is African American.)
As I zoomed out and looked at my own media diet on the topic, it got worse. Much of the content I consume daily about city-making is written and distributed by men (including all but two of the articles and books I’ve linked to above). I see it at the conferences I attend. On the panels I participate in. In the Facebook groups I join. Even at the meetings where the decisions about neighborhoods are being made.
The irony is shattering. A group of very white, very loud men have confirmed that they are, indeed, the problem when it comes to our cities, and now the conversation about how to fix them is mostly being conducted by very white, very loud men—who happen to be very active on social media.
The word ‘gentrifier’ was coined by a woman, a sociologist named Ruth Glass who was trying to describe a phenomenon she witnessed in a 1964 London neighborhood. The working-class immigrant neighborhood of Islington was suddenly overrun with creative young professionals who took a shine to the densely built, affordable community.
But the term “gentrification” itself is a bit of a misnomer. In British culture, the “gentry” were one level below the nobles, the wealthy landowners. The people Glass observed colonizing these neighborhoods weren’t necessarily rich property owners. The people who were moving into gentrifying neighborhoods were the intellectuals: the artists, the writers, the scholars. They were, if we want to use Cohen’s phrasing, the hipsters, not the douchebags.
For the first time, the city was being examined and interpreted and documented as an entity in itself. It was during that period in the 1960s that urbanism emerged as a field of study, and most of the people writing about cities were gentrifiers, as were the people physically changing them—the designers, the developers, and the policymakers.
Kristen Jeffers and Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, who host the podcast Third Wave Urbanism, have broken down U.S. urbanist action into three distinct waves, starting with this first wave in the 1960s, right around the time Glass defined gentrification. Urbanists of this wave protected the built environment by forming preservationist groups and fighting back against auto-dependent infrastructure. The second wave saw prescripted “branded” movements meant to improve cities. These are likely familiar names—New Urbanism, Market Urbanism, Placemaking, Strong Towns, Triumph of the City, Happy City, Smart Cities, Smarter Cities, even Richard Florida’s Creative Class—representing largely male-driven enterprises meant to sell big urban ideas.
So even if the first wave urbanists might have halted a planned freeway or redevelopment project, the second wave of branded movements often neglected or erased existing grassroots neighborhood movements, creating the conditions that led to urban inequality, says Jeffers, author of the book A Black Urbanist and the blog The Black Urbanist. “All these different ‘urbanisms’ have existed separately and simultaneously with the first wave and no one was paying attention.”
The third wave has been more organic—the normalization of positive urban elements, says Johnston-Zimmerman, who is an urban anthropologist at THINK.urban. “Riding a bike, creating access to public space, equity in housing issues, a better understanding of gentrification, all coming into the mainstream.” The third wave also has been an opportunity for more inclusiveness and accessibility, says Jeffers, but even as social media allows for a wider array of voices to join the discussion, those voices still tend to be predominantly male. “This conversation has been lacking in having women’s voices amplified—it’s not like they aren’t there, but it’s hard to be heard.”
“The bottom line is that gentrification has always been about redevelopment and has never not been political,” says Lisa Schweitzer, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. It falls into a particularly male-dominant sweet spot, she says: “Male dominance in real estate, male dominance in development, and male dominance in politics.”
Schweitzer has seen that dominance carry over to the urbanist discourse, where she’s witnessed a type of “mansplaining”—a term inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s influential 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me”—about cities. Schweitzer addressed this issue head-on in a blog post entitled “The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room”:
The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows Things. About Cities. And how they work.
The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room knows that cities run like little clockworks, and that if People Would Just Do As He Says, cities and every service, space, or interaction in them would be So Much Better;
The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room spends a lot of time on the internet sending dumb wimmins and Joel Kotkin emails and tweets that start out with “Actually…Teh Facts Are…” that usually involve cherrypicked statistics he got from Another Smart Boy Urbanist.
There’s also a pointed passage about gentrification:
The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room wants to reassure people that gentrification is merely a figment of people’s imaginations;
The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room wants people to understand that gentrification is not as serious a problem as Some People make it out to be;
The Smartest Boy Urbanist in the Room is white, but he really Gets It, you know?
Schweitzer has a few theories on why women are getting drowned out by Smartest Boy Urbanists. Women often want to engage in a conversation that centers around identity, which in an urban context means building cities that are more equitable for all residents. When women do raise questions as part of this identity dialogue, Schweitzer says they routinely get called out for their dissenting positions—a phenomenon she has eloquently named “Shut up, bitch” urban politics.
The other factor is the emergence of a very strong pro-density contingent which has dominated the conversation in many cities. “These are people who are very single-minded in an agenda that includes more housing, more development, and more infill,” she says. Taking a stand on urban issues often means adopting this polarizing, zero-sum position—BUILD MOAR HOUSING—and any nuance on particular issues gets drowned out, says Schweitzer. “There’s no real space between a NIMBY and a person who wants to have some control over their environment.”
Jeffers and Johnston-Zimmerman, who devoted an episode of their podcast to “Sexism in the City,” agree that a shift is needed in urbanist thinking that is grounded not in the merits of development, but in how a city serves its residents.
Johnston-Zimmerman recently launched Women-Led Cities and the hashtag #urbanistwomenatwork to track women’s voices in the urban discussion. She envisions groups forming across the country—Women-Led Chicago, Women-Led Seattle—focused on putting women into positions of civic leadership, getting more women and people of color into placemaking fields, and encouraging events like the recent Untokening conference that addressed diversity in urban mobility.
Schweitzer, who spent the summer interviewing anti-displacement advocates for a book, received such a heated response to her Smartest Boy Urbanist post that she wrote a follow up guide: “How to sit down, for those who need a little help.” This reads a bit differently than the usual “what to do about it” city-making rhetoric. Example: “When somebody who experiences injustice and oppression speaks about how to change it, sit down and listen to them.”
Last month, YIMBYtown convened 400 urbanists at an art space in downtown Oakland to address solutions to the housing shortages cities are facing. It was a high-profile gathering for a fast-growing movement that has drawn criticism—including accusations of being pro-gentrification—for its tactics.
The YIMBYs (that’s ‘Yes In My Backyard’) have become the most visible urbanism group in many cities—in San Francisco they have organized into a political party with a platform. They also face some extraordinary challenges. The movement is, self-admittedly, made up of predominantly white millennials, the most self-aware of the self-aware gentrifiers. But because they work with market-rate developers to build more affordable housing, YIMBYs get tied to an industry of “old white dudes,” says Kieryn Darkwater, the organizer of the YIMBYtown event. “The developer industry is completely separate from the YIMBY movement—but they build the housing. A lot of us would love to see more social housing and for the need for private development to go away, but that’s not a reality. That’s why a lot of conversations that we’ve been having involve changing the laws.”
The YIMBY movement also prides itself on its inclusivity efforts. At YIMBYtown, “intersectional urbanism” was one of the sessions, part of a larger conversation around racial and gender diversity in cities. “The YIMBY movement is run by people who are not men,” says Darkwater, who is trans, naming three local female organizers who have risen to national prominence: Sonja Trauss, founder of SF BARF, East Bay Forward’s Victoria Fierce, and Laura Foote Clark, executive director of YIMBY Action.
All of these women, it should be noted, have been harassed, both online and offline, by anti-YIMBY demonstrators. The conference itself was protested by a group claiming these Bay Area YIMBY nonprofits are funded by tech companies hoping to build up neighborhoods for their own benefit (even though, historically, wealthy developers and tech companies have had no trouble convincing cities to do whatever the hell they want without the help of advocacy groups).
Trauss is now running for a city supervisor seat in San Francisco in an attempt to change the city’s housing policy. She has already been subjected to condescending attacks on her ideas and sexist rhetoric about her personality.
It’s disheartening that the public dialogue about our cities is largely unchanged since Jacobs’s era, when her adversary Robert Moses dismissed the group of mostly female activists working to save Washington Square Park as “a bunch of mothers.” Today, these activists may finally be coming out from behind the scenes to take on leadership positions, but you can’t hear them over the relentless mansplaining in Twitter replies and at public events.
When I think about amplifying new voices in urbanism, I often think about that Gothamist guide to not being a horrible gentrifier, written by a Park Slope native, which concluded on the somewhat glib note that “All New Yorkers are gentrifiers.” It seemed like the most inappropriate way possible to summarize the experience of millions of New Yorkers unable to pay their rent.
A response to the piece from 26-year-old Bushwick native Rosa Rivera—whose family watched its cost of living slowly rise until they were priced out of their own neighborhood—still echoes in my head:
I see the gut renovation my landlord did as soon as we moved out and feel disgusted. I see my best friends and families having to move to Cypress Hills and East New York and I am livid. I feel such an unending wave of anger and frustration. Sometimes I get off my train station on Morgan Avenue and feel suffocated by this rage when I see a sea of new faces and new businesses. I feel anger that the home that my family tried to carve out of this horrible little slice of earth called Bushwick is not mine any more. Or rather, that the fruit now ripe for picking isn’t ours.
But rather than stoking that anger with more vitriol, Rivera proposes empathy:
When I read your article today the machinery of forgiveness and understanding began to whir. You have made me realize that this horrible journey that all of us working and poor kids in this city endure is not new. That while this anger is justifiable, it’s also poisonous. It has prevented me from getting to know the new businesses and the newcomers. I see that this gentrification bullshit is going to happen no matter what, but maybe it can be done a little more humanely and a little more compassionately (on both parts).
I can’t say I’ve ever seen that kind of response on urbanist Twitter.
From Crown Heights in New York to Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, the anger of tenant unions and anti-displacement groups is routinely overshadowed by the suggestions of urban experts who believe they have a better idea for addressing local problems. But the people who have that kind of platform should consider ceding it to the people more directly affected by the issues. Instead of tips from apologetic male gentrifiers, I want to hear more stories from people like Rosa Rivera. In her own words.
Rivera’s story is from 2013, the same year Chris Tacy told his San Francisco neighbors ever-so-playfully to stop being douchebags. It was long before Black Lives Matter, and the explosion of a nationwide homelessness crisis, the election of a new president that drew three million women out into their cities in protest, and a deadly battle over the effort to remove monuments to inequality from our most prominent public spaces. We saw this problem coming five years ago and we haven’t fixed it yet. We need new ideas.
In 2015, the same year it prepared its gender equality report, the American Planning Association relaunched its diversity taskforce. The program now includes four groups focusing on planning issues that affect women, as well as LGBTQ, Latinx, and African American communities. Specific initiatives include efforts to bring underrepresented voices into the planning process and training ambassadors who can mentor future planners with diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.
This is a good start, but the change also needs to happen through local leadership—including who is empowered to elect those leaders. Even if we fantasize about cities that foster racial equity, or a matriarchal society-within-a-city, instead of our status quo of cities designed for and by men, the reality is that the shift towards just and equitable cities will only happen when a more diverse group of Americans are in positions to make policy decisions that shape our neighborhoods.
My greatest fear is that the next great urban voice is out there, proposing a different way to think about our blocks, warning us of the consequences of unchecked growth, putting forth ideas for setting our cities upon a new course—only to be drowned out in a chorus of “actuallys.”
Editor: Sara Polsky