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Out with the Old

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

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.

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."

Furthermore, Duany's diagnosis is incorrect. In fact there are examples of inner-city revitalization and reinvestment -- even gentrification -- that succeed without social displacement. Paul Grogan, in Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival, cites the South Bronx and Jersey City as areas where low-income and middle-class residents united behind nonprofit community development corporations to bring change in the form of "investment, developing or renovating property, building on assets, and generally drawing power and capital into the community rather than scaring it away."

In truth the gentrifier is neither Duany's hero nor Smith's villain. I could see myself as one of them (between the first and second wave), trying to find a decent condo apartment with interesting architecture in the center city. And even if I accepted that gentrifiers are agents of change, the important question remains: Who has the real power? The answer to that, in my opinion, is indisputable: The true powers behind gentrification are the property owners, the developers, and the commercial lenders who finance them. That's the production side, not the consumption side.

And as for the initial question -- is the gentrification of Miami a good thing or a bad thing? -- I can answer that it is neither. Miami's downtown is nearly uninhabited. We should encourage the reinvestment and revitalization now under way, and welcome the people who soon will be living there, people who will give the area a sense of city. Downtown's development will add jobs, improve infrastructure, increase tax revenues, and diminish the trend toward suburban sprawl.

This is a different story from other neighborhoods in Miami, such as Little Haiti and Little Havana, where a residential base already exists. If these residents were slowly evicted or bought out by the third wave of "risk averse" developers, the result would be bad gentrification. Why?

Because it violates a basic principle of distributive justice: Treat equals equally.

Distributive justice, or welfare capitalism, is not the antithesis of free enterprise, the true fuel of gentrification. The two can coexist productively. The problem occurs when poorly managed gentrification leads to rocketing price inflation, social disruption, and a loss in cultural diversity.

I'd like to suggest a promising paradigm that shifts away from ideology. I'm referring to the idea of "cultural capital," a term coined by sociologist Sharon Zukin in her book Loft Living, a study of the gentrification in New York City's SoHo district during the Sixties and Seventies. Gentrification for Zukin results from a combination of culture and capital that generates urban cosmopolitanism. Her account of Sixties Manhattan surprisingly resembles today's Miami.

According to Zukin, as postwar New York replaced prewar Paris as the center of culture, the art world began generating tourism revenue and bringing prestige to the city. In the Fifties, Manhattan's upper-class elite discovered that modern art could work as an important urban and economic power. A change of the urban fabric was initiated by artists themselves, who fought a war with landlords, city agencies, and zoning laws for recognition and support of their lifestyle in the city's once-derelict industrial spaces. (See Loren Goldner's view of Zukin's book, which I borrow, at home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/zukin.html.)

Thanks to the artists' perseverance, an aesthetic and economic rebirth of those vacant warehouse districts began to take shape. The "artist's loft" of the Sixties became a symbol of urbanity and consumption of culture. By the Seventies the metamorphosis was legitimized when artists won the legal right to reside in loft spaces in key sections of lower Manhattan.

Also in the Seventies, ironically, SoHo underwent Duany's third phase of gentrification. When real estate developers discovered the potential gold mine, the less prosperous among the cultural proletariat were priced out of the very area they had helped revitalize. They were forced to leave and begin the cycle anew in Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Perth Amboy. Today Brooklyn arguably has a more exciting art scene than Manhattan. Will our own Wynwood neighborhood resemble the earlier phase of Lower Manhattan's renaissance?

I find Zukin's study extremely important in the context of today's Miami because, as I've noted here (see "Art Full Life," August 21, 2003), our city's art community is so involved in and committed to the urban core. Miami artists and gallerists have helped to spark the inner-city revival by moving into distressed neighborhoods -- the Rubell Family Collection, Locust Projects, Dorsch Gallery, and Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, among others. In turn, they have attracted Art Basel, which brings sophistication and cachet to Miami.

 

On the other hand, our local renaissance can go sour if there's no plan to preserve cultural diversity and urban pluralism. How can we help foster positive redevelopment for all our communities? We need to get organized, at the municipal and neighborhood levels, and insist on creating a balance between jobs and housing. Our civic leaders should nurture the local economy while also preserving adequate housing for existing residents and providing other opportunities that will translate into neighborhood stability and vitality. Miami's business leaders need to understand that it is in their self-interest to support such efforts. As I've said, capitalism works best when it upholds ethical principles. The wisest investment is one that takes the long view, which in this case means prosperity for all.

I think we must face it: We in the art community are as much a part of Miami's gentrification as anyone else. Academic Joan Caulfield aptly put it this way: The art scene "is a kind of research and development arm of the culture industry." No wonder developers and speculators follow the artists and the galleries and the crowds they attract.

But that's nothing to feel bad about. Artists should keep doing what they do best, and join the rest of us in advocating for a renewed Miami that is smart and diverse and fair.


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