A reply to Mouzon

Earlier this week, new urbanist starchitect and writer Steve Mouzon and I swapped words on gentrification — 140 characters at a time. Mouzon extols the lean virtues of Twitter’s platform. I find it useless for meaningful dialogue.

Mouzon and I have butted heads several times over over whether a teardown can ever be dubbed sustainable and good policy. This latest exchange involved displacement.

After many more tweets, I offered my opinion of his perspective:

He didn’t like my succinct response. I thought it was crystal clear, based on the contents of the entire thread on displacement and gentrification. I tweeted Mouzon that Twitter ain’t the place for substantive dialogue. He disagreed.

So, here I write to Steve Mouzon, not @stevemouzon. Steve, I find your positions on displacement objectionable and biased. You and many of your new urbanist colleagues want to scrape neighborhoods down to subsoil and repopulate them with pretty new “lovable” buildings in which pretty new people will live. As I and others have written, that’s pretty harsh stuff, especially since a fairly strong case may be made for place attachment by the people already living there. They already love their buildings, blocks, neighborhoods, and cities.

The literature on the economic, psychological, and physiological impacts incurred by displaced people is substantial and credible. It begins with Marc Fried’s early work — “Grieving for a Lost Home” — in Boston’s 1950s urban renewal area and it continues with Mindy Fullilove’s seminal work on root shock and serial displacement. The way you minimize displacement’s impacts and reduce the sale of a home to a simple economic transaction involving profit is facile and myopic.

The position I take is simple: Displacement is bad. Bad for individuals and bad for communities. Forcing people to move — actively via urban renewal and redevelopment or passively via economic pressures like rising property taxes — is wrong and destructive. “Displacement is rarely an isolated phenomenon, affecting only one block or even one neighborhood,” wrote the authors of the 1982 book, Displacement: How to Fight It.

You equivocate and use language to finesse displacement and gentrification’s jagged edges. Your new urbanist guru Andres Duany once wrote an elaborate rationalization for displacement, his 2001 American Enterprise essay, “Three Cheers for Gentrification.” In your world, retrofitting the suburbs is a worthwhile experiment in social engineering. In mine, it’s unconscionable. We come from different worlds and interpret cultural landscapes and ethnographic realities in diametrically opposed ways.

I don’t need to reinvent the wheel to explain why I think you are blinded by new urbanism’s almost evangelical fire. Steve, I’ll let these esteemed folks explain why I find your comments and perspective objectionable and ignorant. There are many more from which to draw but I think these will do for now:

[1] Paul Knox, Metroburbia:

In spite of its commercial appeal, new urbanism has come in for a great deal of criticism and is seen by many as jejune and meretricious. Its practitioners and advocates are portrayed as poignantly confused: an architectural derriere garde, trading on antique truisms that have been naively combined across time and space to for a New Age urbanism that is part conventional wisdom and part fuzzy poetic, resonant but meaningless New urbanists only have themselves to blame for much of the criticism: their evangelical zeal has frequently carried over into bombast and hyperbole of zealotry; or alternatively into a complacent vanity of bald-faced assertions.[1]


[2] David Harvey, “The New Urbanism and the Communitarian Trap”:

But my real worry is that the movement repeats at a fundamental level the same fallacy of the architectural and planning styles it criticizes. Put simply, does it not perpetuate the idea that the shaping of spatial order is or can be the foundation for a new moral and aesthetic order? Does it not presuppose that proper design and architectural qualities will be the saving grace not only of American cities but of social, economic, and political life in general? Few supporters of the movement would state so crude a thesis (although Kunstler come close). Yet this presumption pervades the writings of the new urbanists as a kind of subliminal subtext. The movement does not recognize that the fundamental difficulty with modernism was its persistent habit of privileging spatial forms over social processes ….

… The New Urbanism in fact connects to a facile contemporary attempt to transform large and teeming cities, so seemingly out of control, into an interlinked series of “urban villages” where, it is believed, everyone can relate in a civil and urbane fashion to everyone else.[2]

The logic of capital accumulation and class privilege, though hegemonic, can never control every nuance of urbanization (let alone the discursive and imaginary space with which thinking about the city is always associated); the intensifying contradictions of contemporary urbanization, even for the privileged (some of which are highlighted in the New Urbanism), create all sorts of interstitial spaces in which liberatory and emancipatorypossibilities can flourish. The New Urbanism identifies some of those spaces, but its conservatism, its communitarianism, and its refusal to confront the political economy of power blunt its revolutionary potential.[3]


[3] Mary Pattillo, Black on the Block:

Given its literal divisiveness and its association with dispossession and exclusion, present-day urbanists have disavowed “urban renewal” as a planning strategy. The move, however, seems more semantic than substantive. The contemporary lexicon favors words such as “renovation” and “rehab,” when referring to specific buildings, or “revitalization,” “conservation,” and “gentrification,” when speaking of entire neighborhoods. But the ghost of urban renewal is always present.[4]


[4] Tom Slater, “Unravelling False Choice Urbanism”:

Entire article addresses the fallacies, dualism, and privilege embedded in new urbanist perspectives on gentrification, displacement, etc.

The architect and urban planner Andres Duany is widely seen as the father or guru of ‘New Urbanism’, an American urban-design-can-save-us-all cult that has gone global. New Urbanists are vehemently anti-sprawl and anti-modernist, and typically demonstrate near-evangelical belief in the construction of high density mixed-use, mixed tenure settlements with a neotraditional vernacular, well served by public transport, and ‘pedestrian-friendly’ (integrated by a network of accessible streets, sidewalks, cycle paths and public spaces). All of these features, if you can afford to buy into them, are supposed to nurture a profound ‘sense of community’ that will lead to harmonious, liveable and sustainable ‘urban villages’.[5]


[5] Tom Slater, “The Eviction of Critical Perspectives from Gentrification Research”:

My purpose here is not to criticize research (or researchers) that seeks to understand the urban experiences of more advantaged social groups, and certainly not to demonize gentrifiers, whose identities are multiple and whose ambivalent politics often contradict assumptions of a group intent on booting out extant low-income groups from their neighbourhoods (Ley, 2004), but rather to point out that there is next to nothing published on the experiences of non-gentrifying groups living in the neighbourhoods into which the much-researched cosmopolitan middle classes are arriving en masse.[6]

Notes

[1] Paul L. Knox, Metroburbia, USA (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 108–109.

[2] David Harvey, “The New Urbanism and the Communitarian Trap,” Harvard Design Magazine 1, no. Spring (1997): 2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Mary E. Pattillo, Black on the Block: The Politics of Race and Class in the City, Kindle edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 7–8.

[5] Tom Slater, “Unravelling False Choice Urbanism” (presented at the Crisis-Scapes: Athens and Beyond, Athens, Greece, 2014), http://crisis-scape.net/conference/item/180-unravelling-false-choice-urbanism.

[6] Tom Slater, “The Eviction of Critical Perspectives from Gentrification Research,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 30, no. 4 (December 2006): 743.