Out with the Old

Artists are helping to revitalize Miami, but danger looms ahead

Recent artists' exhibitions such as "Making Up Carolyn" at Worm-Hole Laboratory, "The Last Show" at The House, and a flurry of articles in the media have put the issue of gentrification in the forefront of the news. (As I write this, The House is being demolished to make way for a condominium project.)

Obviously the urban fabric of Miami is changing. In spite of steep prices, more and more people are moving into condos and lofts being built throughout the city, especially in the downtown area. It's clear we're undergoing a gentrification process. Less clear is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

The answer is somewhat complex because the idea of gentrification is simultaneously denounced and defended by opposing sides of the political spectrum. Unfortunately people tend to reduce the argument to a simple "for it" or "against it." I'd like to move beyond what Elizabeth Wilson, in "The Rhetoric of Urban Space," refers to as "binary thinking." Let's examine the roots of the ideological debate.

Developers have followed artists  into downtown neighborhoods, which are being radically changed, or destroyed --as with The House (below)
Jonathan Postal
Developers have followed artists into downtown neighborhoods, which are being radically changed, or destroyed --as with The House (below)

There is a "production side" theory advocated by Neil Smith, professor of anthropology and geography at Hunter College, and a "consumption side" hypothesis espoused by Miami architect and urban planner Andres Duany, principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company.

In a 1981 paper entitled "Gentrification as a Process of Uneven Development," Smith defined gentrification as a conflict between upper and lower economic classes that gives rise to racial tensions and physical dislocation. Following World War II, the market price of land in core urban areas fell behind that of the burgeoning suburbs. Property owners and other real estate interests began to disinvest from inner-city neighborhoods, which contributed to their physical deterioration. Frequent changes of ownership became commonplace, and that discouraged financial institutions from continued investment within the inner city.

What followed, according to Smith, was "redlining," the practice of withholding loans or insurance for homes considered high risk. The South Bronx in New York and Hoboken in New Jersey are well-known horror stories: Landlords no longer collected enough rent to cover basic costs, and structures were abandoned or torched for insurance payouts. Add to this bleak picture the evaporation of jobs (owing to the suburban flight of industries, governmental tax incentives for suburbia at the expense of the inner city, and the often brutal highway policies of the Sixties), and you have a recipe for poverty, deprivation, and homelessness.

According to Smith, over time this process creates a "rent gap," which he defines as the difference between the rent commanded by a piece of inner-city land and the potential rent it could command if put to "higher and better" use. Eventually the gap grows so wide that affluent developers seize the opportunity to make profits from reinvestment and rehabilitation.

Smith's theory ends up on the left end of the political spectrum. His macro-analytic approach is valuable because it explains the basis of the rent gap in the inner city and points to the social ills it creates. Smith, however, ignores and demonizes the dynamics of the middle-class urbanites (or gentrifiers) who move back to urban centers. Additionally his theory lacks empirical data in the case of younger cities with no significant industrial past, such as Miami. (See Tom Slater's critique at members.lycos.co.uk/gentrification/whatisgent.html.)

Andres Duany is on the right side of the debate. He believes it is small-scale, middle-class entrepreneurs (instead of uncaring developers and bankers) who initiate the process of gentrification. This sector of the population rejects the cookie-cutter suburban mentality and prefers to live in the city's core.

In his 2001 paper "Three Cheers for Gentrification," Duany identifies three stages of inner-city transformation: A "spontaneous" first wave of "risk-oblivious" low-income pioneers (students, artists, gays, and other self-marginalized social groups) who discover the allure of the area. Then he sees a second wave of "risk-aware" investors, mobile enough to secure loans and therefore capable of satisfying building codes and permits "that the first wave probably ignored." These are baby boomers who "enjoy the bohemian lifestyle while holding secure jobs." This is followed by a third, "risk-averse" wave, made up of "conventional developers who thoroughly smarten up the buildings through conventional real estate operations -- physical renovation, improved maintenance, and organized security."

Seen from the point of view of the gentrifiers, I agree with Duany's phases. What I disagree with is how he dismisses the potential negative consequences for the people already renting and owning inner-city property before the third wave moves in.

According to Duany, it's very difficult to intervene "supposedly on behalf of low-income residents because urban gentrification is organic and self-fueling. Its motive force is great urbanism." I'm surprised that Duany finds "great urbanism" more relevant than social upheaval. What is worse, he opposes one against the other.

Duany follows a pessimistic and indifferent trend akin to David Rusk's "law of urban dynamics." In his 1993 book Cities Without Suburbs Rusk declares, "Ghettos can only become bigger ghettos." Or Myron Orfield's Metropolitics, in which the author proclaims, "The lack of social mortar to hold neighborhoods together ... makes economic development in extreme-poverty tracts or ghetto areas all but impossible."

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