Itinerance is Not a Sin

It’s the beginning of the school year, so I’ve been sadly neglecting my little blog in favor of, well, schoolwork and a new internship.That being said, I missed an opportunity a few weeks ago to write on an issue that’s near and dear to my heart (and indeed, core to the mission of this blog), so hopefully this post will get me back on track a little.

It’s easy to make fun of the anti-gentrification politics of the progressive Left. They tend to come out in nearly incomprehensible social-activist jargon that contradicts the movement’s claim to populism. They tend to come out of ivory-tower academic circles that many Americans can’t relate to. But–as someone who identifies with progressivism, although not with this breed of of the Left–I think these politics, these ideas, matter. And some of them are really, really terrible.

Lisa Gray-Garcia’s August 11th piece in Truthout titled “Decolonization and Gentrification: Confronting the Gentrifier in All of Us” is one of those terrible ideas. Amidst a stream of anti-displacement rhetoric, some of it vaguely reasonable and some of it absurdly over the top, Gray-Garcia gives us this gem of anti-gentrification logic:

If we want to stop the high-speed gentrification, maybe we should do it ourselves. Maybe we should do what I teach students at PeopleSkool at POOR Magazine: to de-gentrify you must go back home. To decriminalize, you must set up systems of accountability and community care-giving. To stop displacement, you must stop seeking out places that are “fun,” “trendy,” exciting or convenient, but rather stay in your cities and towns of origin, embracing the comfortable rooms that your parents have or had for you. Stop ghettoizing your elders and hiring people to take care of your children and grandparents – do it yourselves.

That’s right: for one Lisa Gray-Garcia, the solution to gentrification is to do what many non-gentrifying Millenials find themselves forced to do these days: stay home indefinitely.

I’m not going to take down Gray-Garcia’s article point-for-point, because that would be silly. It also wouldn’t really be in keeping with what I want to say here. Gray-Garcia’s piece is remarkable not because it represents not a mainstream piece of leftist anti-gentrification politics, but the logic of those politics taken to its logical extreme. It’s an argument with three core tenets:

  1. Mobility of populations in a capitalist society must inevitably result in large-scale displacement
  2. The solution is to restrict, rather than accommodate, that movement
  3. Public policy and individual ethics should support restrictions on movement rather than system- or institutional- level integration of existing and new populations.

As such, lefty “solutions” to the gentrification and affordability crisis–which, in a limited number of cities in this country, is a very real, very serious thing!–tend to focus on protecting existing populations rather than trying to find a way to accommodate growth and population mobility. Policies like rent control, building moratoriums, and even inclusive zoning primarily or exclusively benefit people who already live in the area, and thereby leave newcomers of all social classes out in the cold, sometimes literally.

Classically-leaning economists will gleefully point out that these policies typically result in depression of new housing supply, and therefore rising housing prices as the rich inevitably and invariably buy their way into places they want to be, despite the best intentions of policymakers. I think that’s more or less correct. But my concern is more philosophical. Exceptionally high mobility has long been a defining characteristic of the American workforce. And even though it’s been falling recently, our workforce mobility is much higher than in most other Western countries. Why, exactly, is the anti-gentrification Left engaged in a war on worker mobility? Are not the most vulnerable populations the ones most likely to be forced into migration for economic reasons? And if mobility is the cause of gentrification and displacement, why do we think restricting it will work even as gentrification has accelerated at the same time as mobility has declined?

And there’s one thing about mobility that, I think, the Left’s solutions just don’t take into account. Despite the decline, it’s not going away–and it’s not always voluntary. Last year Cap’n Transit had a thoughtful post identifying “Five migrations in gentrification,” and it’s worth looking at the Cap’n’s categories as a way of thinking about how to cope with gentrification. Several of them do indeed represent optional flows, people using their economic privilege to insert themselves back into the city life that they or their parents or grandparents had abandoned decades ago. But I’m most intrigued by the Cap’n’s last category:

There’s a fifth migration that I think doesn’t get enough attention: the small city exiles. These are people who are not the best or the brightest, or complete misfits, but they’re pretty bright, mildly kinky or noticeably nonconformist. Or maybe they can’t drive because they’re blind or epileptic (I learned about this last one from Sally Flocks), or they just don’t want to. Eighty years ago they’d have been pretty happy in Rochester or Knoxville or Omaha or San Luis Obispo: reasonably normal, functioning members of society, with enough peers to have a stimulating intellectual and artistic fellowship.

Today, those towns have hardly any jobs at all, especially within walking distance of downtown, shopping and services are sprawled out across the area, and transit between them is inconvenient. With this fragmentation, they can barely sustain a monthly open mike or an Indian restaurant, let alone a poetry slam or a regional Thai place. Our heroes – somewhat large fish in not-so-large ponds – see the grim desperation in the faces of their older neighbors and head to the bigger cities, where there are more opportunities, not just for jobs but for dinner after 8PM.

Certainly, there is an element of choice and privilege in the migration from small cities to large, especially as the Cap’n has framed it; after all, it is largely the best and brightest of those smaller areas who move away. But it’s not all about privilege, and there are, of course, messy areas where choice and need blend together.

And the question of movement from smaller cities to larger ones is a very personal one for me. I grew up largely in New Haven (population about 130,000 in 2010), and I now live in Albany (just under 100,000). I’m in Albany because my partner got exceptionally lucky, and got a wonderful, challenging, well-paying job here with New York State right out of college. But I’m eight months away from graduating from grad school, and after that what happens? Albany is small, there aren’t a lot of jobs in planning, and unless I get stunningly lucky we’ll be looking to move on because of the area’s limited economic opportunities. There are upsides to that, of course; Albany doesn’t fit many of our needs socially or culturally, and as wonderful as it is, it can feel constricting at times. It’s likely that we wouldn’t be here for a hugely long time even if I do find a job.

Certainly, I’ll be leaning on my education and relative economic privilege as I look for a job, here or elsewhere. But how much of that is actually my choice? And what of the people who live here, but have fewer educational credentials or marketable skills? Though I don’t know of any research on it, I’d bet that the rise of the two-career household is no small part of the migration from smaller cities to larger ones. As limited as economic opportunities are for one in Albany, imagine how hard it is to fill two careers, especially in specialized fields, as the new economy increasingly demands. And if the situation is frustrating in Albany, it’s worse in Utica and Rochester and Syracuse and Binghamton and Buffalo and Dayton and Rockford and Des Moines and Milwaukee.

And that’s (the largest part of) why I support system-level, not protectionist, solutions to the gentrification and affordability crisis. Because there are no other options. In his classic of thoughtful Millenial urbanism, “There’s Basically No Way Not to Be a Gentrifier,” Daniel Kay Hertz wrote that systemic forces, and primarily our country’s dysfunctional approach to housing policy, are largely responsible for what we call gentrification,

And [that is] why none of your personal decisions about where or how to live will have any effect on gentrification. Being considerate to your neighbors might make you a good person, but I’d like to suggest that you have another kind of responsibility: to be aware of these underlying systemic processes and use what social and political power you have to change them.

It is (or should be) rare to accuse the contemporary Left of ignoring social, structural, and institutional forces in favor of personalized jeremiads, but that seems to be sadly where we are in terms of urban, housing, and neighborhood policy. Lisa Gray-Garcia may not be representative of the broader Left conversation on these issues, but her extremism does point to the failures of the Left’s conventional wisdom on the topic. Her solution–and the solutions of the current urban Left–is, in the end, no solution at all, as the ongoing escalation of urban housing prices so obviously demonstrates. The Left is often accused of not having ideas about how to solve the urban housing crisis, but that’s not exactly accurate. There are ideas. Those ideas just don’t quite make it all the way to the status of solutions. We need better ideas, and we need to make sure their first principle is inclusion of all who need.