REPORT

Gentrification to violence: the anti-gentrification tipping point is imminent

By Lewis G. Parker

When moving to a new city apartment, it’s essential to check a few things before signing the contract. Make sure the gas and electricity are working, obviously. You’ll want to ensure the big glass wardrobes won’t fall on top of you when you open them and that there’s a nice bicycle-workshop café nearby. Oh, and that the neighbours aren’t using their apartment for storing volatile explosive devices.

That’s the nightmare that became reality for actor Dustin Hoffman while he was living in the newly gentrified Greenwich Village area of New York in 1970.

Hoffman was unaware of his neighbours’ political affiliations during his tenure in the three-storey townhouse, which he shared with his wife. But the folks two doors down were members of Weather Underground, a radical leftist organisation who were using the house as a bomb-making facility. The house belonged to one of the members’ fathers, a music industry executive. On the morning of March 6, a heap of dynamite intended for a dance at a U.S. Army base accidentally exploded, killing three, injuring two, and only narrowly avoiding the star of Midnight Cowboy.

It isn’t hard to imagine domestic terrorists recreating this scene nowadays, only with the seemingly more banal forces of gentrification as their motive. In fact, recent events and a convincing body of academic study show that it’s probably a matter of when, rather than if.

GETTING MESSY

Landscapes are becoming ever more dominated by chain stores, corporatized lifestyle hangouts, and monstrous new apartment blocks often so expensive that many of the professionals they were designed for can’t afford them, let alone the poor communities being evicted to make way for them, as is happening on a frightening scale in London. In Berlin, rich interlopers to the previously blue-collar Prenzlauer Berg district are confronted with graffiti that states “Shoot Swabians” or “Swabians Out!”

Photo via The Conterforce/Indybay

In the last few months anti-gentrification protesters have started picking on individuals and small businesses. Recently in the Bay Area, a flash mob singled out Anthony Levandowski, an engineer working on Google Street View and Google’s driverless car project, blocking his driveway and distributing a menacing pamphlet to his neighbours, declaring war on tech giants—and their employees.

The activists call themselves “the Counterforce” after a group of rebels in Thomas Pynchon’s dystopian novel Gravity’s Rainbow, and often reference a quote from the author: “Dialectically, some counterforce would have had to arise.” Their pamphlet claims the Counterforce has been conducting surveillance on Levandowski—who apparently wears Google Glass to work and therefore, from the activists’ perspective, deserves everything he’s got coming to him—and warns of the dystopian future Google is steamrolling towards.

“People like Levandowski are gentrifying neighbourhoods, flooding the market with noxious commodities, and creating the future for an unimaginable totalitarianism,” the flier states. “This is the evil that we stake our lives against.”

Tech shuttles are one of the few easily recognisable drivers of gentrification

While nobody has yet thrown themselves in front of a racehorse (or a moving vehicle), San Francisco’s anti-gentrification mobs have been disrupting the bus service. Activists have recently started blocking the private shuttles put on by Google, Facebook, Apple, and other tech giants for their employees.

They’re furious that private companies pay as little as $1 per bus per stop, while a single person’s fare costs $2 on the city bus. But there’s more to it than getting a cheap ride. Since gentrification is often so hard to pinpoint—and therefore fight—tech shuttles are one of the few easily recognisable drivers of gentrification.

In her 2013 research paper, Alexandra Goldman of the University of California Berkeley discovered that rents are skyrocketing not just across certain cool areas, such as the Mission District, but demand is highest within the half-mile radius of the bus stops used by tech shuttles. Homes in this area can attract a further 20-percent premium on top of the existing price hikes. That’s because, as the McGuire estate agent website states, for new employees moving to the city, “[a] 10 minute walk to a shuttle is their primary housing objective.”

Tech company employees have not yet been targeted in London, although protesters recently held a rally outside an independent champagne bar in Brixton, south London, where Lambeth council is reportedly evicting lifelong tenants to make way for salaried professionals from the technology, media, and financial industries.

The residents fighting eviction have tried to barricade themselves into their terraced houses and flats, although their spirited resistance is proving futile. Even in terms of publicity, comedy protests outside a champagne bar receive almost as much attention from the mainstream media as the evictions themselves, which are hardly reported outside of the left-wing press and local blogs.

When I reported the issue of gentrification for Dazed & Confused, it was noted by pithy Internet commenters that many of the people protesting with banners that said “Yuppies Out!” looked suspiciously like bourgeois carpet baggers. I’d say only a small minority were from art school, but the movement clearly has an image problem.

One of the most common arguments for gentrification—you’re less likely to be stabbed

In the Bay Area, however, anti-gentrification sentiment is so widespread that the Washington 8 waterfront development was recently heavily defeated in a referendum. It was kicked out by such a clear majority (over 60 percent) that, given San Francisco’s diverse population, the proposal for more waterfront living was rejected by the upwardly mobile.

“The battle always seems to be framed as rich, young techies versus poor people who have lived in the city for forever,” noted Aaron Sankin, a former San Francisco reporter for the Huffington Post and current Daily Dot contributor.

“But it’s not just poor people who are getting forced out. There has also been an enormous flood of middle-class families out of the city who simply can’t afford to raise kids in the most expensive place in America.”

A study by Lance Freeman of Columbia University claims redevelopment is good for the long-standing residents, even though Freeman himself set out to prove the opposite. While the price of rent invariably rises, in most communities the people who have lived there longest are often homeowners, who aren’t susceptible to rent hikes. They tend to benefit economically and even culturally—if they’re fans of second-hand bicycles and gastro restaurants, that is.

Although one of the most common arguments for gentrification—you’re less likely to be stabbed—turns out only to be true if the area remains economically diverse, according to a Dr. John Roman of Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “Just as we cannot arrest our way out of crime problems,” says Dr Roman, “we also cannot economically segregate and isolate our way out them either.”

While the Counterforce in San Francisco was dismissed by one of Anthony Levandowski’s neighbours as “regular old Berkeley behaviour,” it may not be so laughable, or implausible, to talk of anti-gentrification violence—or even “terrorism”—on the streets of a major Western city.

It’s already happening elsewhere: In Istanbul, a protest against the redevelopment of Gezi Park into a shopping mall evolved into violent clashes that put Turkey on the cusp of revolution. In Brazil, national protests have flared up where members of the Black Bloc anarchist group joined thousands of others in violently attacking banks and bus depots, first in anger at a relatively small rise in bus fares. The violent protests have increasingly become about urban inequality and a government that favours big-money interests, such as FIFA and property developers, over its citizens.

“The city is being gentrified,” said protester Liv Nicolsky Lagerblad de Oliveira, 23, who was pepper-sprayed by a policeman and arrested in Rio De Janeiro during a rally.

“The poor can no longer afford to live in some favelas and the elite is taking their place. The cost of life is increasing and the increase in bus fare was just the last straw.”

From a Western perspective, things sure look gnarly in those developing nations, where mobs set fire to bus stations over what amounts to a 10 cent fare rise. But in Spain, which at least came into the financial crisis as developed nation, we discovered there is a tipping point at which a Western civilised country breaks into violence over urban planning policy. That point can be found when rent rises, and local governments prioritize the interests of property developers and the wealthy urban elite.

It isn’t too hard to join the dots, as Neil Smith did when plotting the disaster of gentrification for New York in the 1980s. His book, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, describes how, by allowing New York City to be homogenised into an enormous wealth zone, the government was essentially lighting its own bonfire to social harmony. Allowing the poor to be priced out of their homes led to tension at first, then the Tompkins Square Park riots, where demonstrators held banners that said, “Gentrification is Class War.”

In the U.S., U.K., and other parts of Western Europe, the tipping point doesn’t seem to be too far into the future. While cities have always changed and certain areas have found themselves being more expensive, as Neil Smith says, today’s steamrollers are a different beast altogether to the gentrifying forces of the past.

They were fuelled by an anger at being exploited and alienated in a consumer society

“The big perspective is that gentrification has changed tremendously since the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Smith says. “It’s really a systemic class-remaking of city neighbourhoods. It’s driven by many of the same forces, especially the profitable use of land. But it’s about creating entire environments: employment, recreation, environmental conditions.”

You may be wondering, if the tipping point is imminent, where are the examples of gentrification-fuelled violence in major Western cities?

In 2005, a group of radical activists in Grand Rapids, Mich., set fire to an apartment block and threatened more acts of terrorism if an area wasn’t returned to its working-class roots. In 2010, a white, formerly middle-class American, Joseph Stack, flew a plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas, accompanied by a lengthy suicide note ideologically similar to the Counterforce flyer. Stack’s plea was widely dismissed in the mainstream media, but it expressed many anti-government ideas shared by the Occupy movement and the Tea Party. While the 2010 London riots were opportunistic, they were fuelled by an anger at being exploited and alienated in a consumer society whose goods—and even basic amenities—were becoming unaffordable, a point conceded even the elite’s normally unsympathetic commentators.

If another Weather Underground-style incident occurs—planned this time—we’ll certainly be horrified. But should we really be surprised?