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No Sleep Till (We’re) Brooklyn

People have recently taken to calling the city in which I live “the Brooklyn of Canada” a compliment well suited to an era in which everything seems to point to something else. In this case, the city of Hamilton, Ontario, points not to the city of Brooklyn, per se, but to a state of transition, since Brooklyn is praised by the selfsame people not for any of its specific attributes, but for the “ability” to “remake itself”. “Brooklyn” is shorthand for a Heraclitian state of continual flux and change, positive traits in a commercial capitalist society. A “Brooklyn” is not limited by tradition or permanence. The past imposes no burden on the present.

My city is being coaxed into a similar transitional state by people who hope it will soon evoke Brooklyn’s continual fluidity. Here, the burden of the past was largely removed by the “dynamism” of mature industrial capitalism: US Steel flowed away. What will save us, so it is claimed, is the “vitality” of newcomers, who are not limited by any local tradition or permanence. The city has thus spent hundreds of millions of dollars on transportation, sporting festivals, and arts festivals to promote itself as a site of becoming rather than being, a city on the move. Some have used the term “Brooklynization” as a pejorative, but it could be worse: people used to call this city the “armpit of Canada”.

[Here’s an irony for you: the people who oppose this flight away from tradition and permanence are called, by critics, “left wing liberals”. Presumably then the people who are uncomfortable with tradition and permanence would be called “right wing conservatives”.]

The city council now dedicates much of its time and resources to acting as a sort of advertising firm, “promoting” the city. The slogan that has proven most popular is “Art is the New Steel”. This points to the fact that Hamilton once produced the majority of steel used in Canada; the smelting process was responsible for the “armpit” smell in the east end. We have since begun to deindustrialize, or more specifically, US Steel, which bought the struggling Canadian company Stelco, has ceased operations here and recently sued the federal government for the right to leave without honoring any of their commitments to the now-retired steelworkers. The slogan “Art is the New Steel” therefore suggests that artists will be the new steelworkers, driving the local economy. It certainly does not suggest that steelworkers will be the new artists and there are no plans whatsoever to retrain former welders in conceptual art. It is, as of yet, unclear, just what is supposed to be the new pension.

As it happens, artists act more as the first missionaries of gentrification: they are the ones who come first and win over the local population before the colonialists arrive. While their aspirations sometimes overlap with those colonists, they often only do so marginally, and artists tend to have a deep ambivalence about the process. In the case of our city, what is most striking is how often this process, whether we call it “revitalization”, “growth”, or “gentrification” aims at about attracting wealthy outsiders and their money to settle here from elsewhere (usually Toronto) and fix up the place. As with most colonies, the assumption is that the locals weren’t going to do anything significant with the place anyway, lacking cultural capital and, usually unmentioned, being shut out of the same lines of credit. But, the salient feature of gentrification is that it is only tangentially, if at all, a process of boosting the value of an area’s culture and directly about increasing the value of its real estate. Home prices have increased dramatically; local art still sells very cheaply.

A Historical Note

What is happening here has happened across North America and particularly in cities to the South. First, a bit of background. It has been said that America was born in the country and moved to the cities. The transformation of a predominantly agrarian society with the cultural traditions of the rural heartland to an urban, industrial, and commercial society, which took place in roughly the period from the 1880s to the outbreak of World War I, was the greatest demographic shift in American history. The city gathered them. It gathered together those who worked, those who sold, those who invested, those who managed, those who attended to all of these, and those who observed and communicated what was happening. The majority was those who labored and the city was organized around them. Where once they were men who also sold the products of their labor, now there were men who sold those products and those who worked sold the labor to those men who sold. Their experience of the world was thus altered: what the city imposed was not a quality, but a quantity and a volume. It was an intensity- the city added experiences, multiplied them; populism in politics was rooted in the misconception that urbanization subtracted traditions, but in fact the cultural traditions were still there in the din. In the cities, new populations were simply laid atop older ones: the usual work of generations now measured in years, and sometimes months. For the people who experienced industrialization, the World Wars seemed a crescendo of all that was happening.

The cities began emptying out after the World Wars as the factories started leaving those cities and highways rushed to greet them. A new city was laid over the old one. Many people still remained but the things they sold were multiplied and altered. Those who fled escaped the overwhelming quantity for repose in specificity- of values, ideas, people, etc. They fled aesthetics. This was the second greatest demographic shift in American history. Meanwhile, the cities gathered their children who traded specificity for quantity of experiences. Aesthetics and the people who sought new aesthetics ruled the new city. Those who committed crimes also flourished and crime became an aesthetic. The balance between the aestheticizing observers and the criminals held sway and kept away many who only dimly realized that these were often the same people. The culture of the cities radiated outwards to suburbia, filling an aesthetic void. Oswald Spengler once contended that world history was the history of cities. New Yorker Susan Sontag, similarly, said that her America was the America of the cities; the rest was flyover. In popular culture, the cities came to represent innocence, the cities experience.

The Present Moment

The cities further deindustrialized with the trade agreements of the last three decades, bolstered by the dominant ideology of our time: neoliberalism. The cities became a problem to be fixed, a potentiality instead of an intensity. Gentrification is driven by a sense of dissatisfaction, of problems waiting to be solved, the push-pull of attraction and repulsion that the French call ressentiment. The problem with the cities is held to be cultural. The problem was held to be criminal, which is itself held to be cultural. The problem was not seen as psychological, which would have implied something constant about human nature, even as crime and psychopathology arose in the suburbs and cities alike. What was unique to the cities was crime as an aesthetic and a calling. The aesthetic, anyway, was easily disseminated. The calling/occupational nature of crime suggested, moreover, that the problem was economic all along. The word is used to mean many things, so let’s define “economic” as describing the ways that people make money, as occupational. Whereas once the formal economy consisted predominantly of those who labored, now it was predominantly those who serviced, invested, and observed. Crime was driven out. The energy of the city became passive and self-referential. It only exported aesthetics. The suburbs are now imposed upon the cities. The cities are suburbanizing. One expects crime to flourish in the suburbs as the cities are overpoliced.

Gentrification is driven by a sense of lack. Last year, I attended a survey conducted at the local university to explore what things evoke “vibrancy” in the minds of the average person. Funded by the city, local researchers filmed city streets from drone helicopters, and we looked at those films and various pictures to see what amenities most evoked a vibrant neighborhood. The word was never clearly defined, yet the study seemed aimed at defining it for city planners. Things like art galleries, flower planters, parks, bicycle lanes, and cafes were called to our attention in terms of their visual and sound aesthetics and, presumably, the city would be encouraged to invest in those that scored highest. What was most evident was the simultaneous importance and vagueness of the question. The university was taking part in the process of marketing the city in the sense of making it more attractive to visitors as well as what is, in marketing, now called the “managed experience” of living here.

Another aspect of managing this experience has, not surprisingly, been increased police presence in the “hip” neighborhoods of our downtown. A platoon of bicycle officers, known rather grandiosely as the “action squad” now regularly patrols areas that were once subject to benign neglect and the city has instituted a program to ticket panhandlers for being a nuisance, although none of the tickets are actually paid. A handful of homeless shelters that are located downtown have been scheduled to be moved elsewhere. This suggests one difference between gentrification and previous demographic shifts in cities. Previously, one population after another was laid atop the previous one and they struggled to adjust to one another. It’s interesting to note that one thing the various ethnic groups living in Greenwich Village in the 1920s had in common was a dislike for the Bohemians moving there! In the case of gentrification, however, it is understood by both the critics and advocates that the process involves displacement, or replacing one population with another- a sort of economic cleansing. City governments and investors seek a population with greater wealth to invest, newcomers seek the cultural aura and intensified experiences of city life, and longtime residents hope to get a piece of the action before their rent increases.

Artists remain ambivalent at best about this process. While posters have appeared across our city calling on resisters of gentrification to “Steal All the New Art”, they were clearly created by artists and printmakers; in other words, the very “creatives” that the city hopes to attract in order to spur investment. Recently, a group of real estate agents invited “outside developers” to a “VIP invitation only” event to discuss what they could do to remake a particularly run down part of our city, where houses can be bought cheap and replaced with condos. They were greeted by local Bohemians, who pelted them with coffee and trash.

In Berlin, 3,500 anti-gentrification “leftists” recently clashed with police over the development of a low-income housing block. Like so many other processes that affect us now- globalization, privatization, downsizing, etc- gentrification is held to be inevitable and beneficial by those who promote it- almost a force of nature. Likewise, it has amounted primarily to a redistribution of wealth upwards.

Bohemias

Using the older term, Bohemians tend to be a population on the move, cultural gypsies. Bohemias are best understood as temporary outposts that have sprung into being in various cities since their spontaneous inception in Paris at the 1833 staging of Victor Hugo’s play Hermani, which turned into a near riot. Like the missionaries of old, Bohemians recognize that they are only nominally the intended beneficiaries of gentrification. Western imperialism was, in name, carried out in the name of God, but worked to relocate surplus populations and underexploited sources of wealth, first metals and then agricultural products.

The metaphor breaks down, however, when we look to the long term. The newcomers, one imagines, exploit existing cultural and aesthetic resources in the city, but also replace them with their own aesthetics- speakeasies become cafes, cheap art galleries become trendy bars, and local hangouts become tourist destinations. Quantity of experience becomes specificity of experience, reflecting the upper middle class, college educated, white, bourgeois experience of the world. The Bohemians, seeking an expanded horizon of ideas and experiences, look elsewhere. Eventually, the cultural resources that were mined, dry up, and the cities become suburbs of somewhere else that is neither fixed nor temporary.

In other words, the state of flux that we call “Brooklyn”, the river that is never the same place twice, is replaced by the unchanging specificity that we call cultural decadence. The protean quality that is sought in certain places and times should point to the vague longing behind gentrification: we want this place to become something else, what specifically is unclear. What one might expect to develop are cities with the unspecific nowhere quality of the airport: layovers on route to a forever delayed somewhere else.


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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84 thoughts on “No Sleep Till (We’re) Brooklyn

  1. An interesting post, I can’t tell if you thing gentrification is benign, malign, both or neither. I’ve always disliked gentrification both as a term and as a critique. Are places permitted to change? They are obviously permitted to change for the worse, perhaps primarily because no one in our countries has the power or resources to prevent abandonment or dereliction of properties. Is it possible for a neighborhood to develop or improve without it being decried as gentrification though? Paradoxically what is best to be done about gentrification? Has there been a housing policy anywhere short of nationalization of housing that truly bars the rich from a desirable area instead of just screwing over the poor (always) and middle income newcomers (usually)? None of the common suspects (rend control, building restrictions, tight draconian zoning) that leap to mind qualify.

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    • Right after, 911 Colson Whitehead had an interesting essay in the Times about how NYC is frozen in Amber at the moment you move there.

      I suspect that this is true for lots of places. I can clearly imagine NYC and Brooklyn from when I lived there and note the changes when I go back.

      I suspect people can do the same for other cities and what often seems to disappear are low margin but ordinary businesses.

      People take gentrification as saying “I am not wanted. I am not courted to. The only people wanted are those with more money and more expensive tastes. Why can’t their be a neighborhood for anarchist squarer punks who don’t want to clean up for office jobs?”

      Or my family has lived in this neighborhood for four generations and now we are being replaced by flighty young people with made up jobs!! The old bar now serves craft beer and expensive cocktails!

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      • It’s universal for everywhere of course. I get the same feeling when I visit the island. There was a government pier that was kind of crumbling but huge when I was a kid. It’s a shattered ruin now and when I first saw it I felt like I’d had a knife in the heart. The fisheries was gone, there was no reason for the government to maintain those piers, but there it was, a childhood edifice in shattered ruin.

        It’s just magnified for NY because NY is the center of the universe and so much money and media voice is focused around it. Plus NY is ancient as North American cities go and has little room to grow and so much encrusted (literally) history slowing it down.

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      • The flighty young people were always there and they do have actual jobs — serving craft beer and cocktails. The issue to me is why tending bar or waiting tables is somehow not an “actual” job. Maybe it isn’t the climax of one’s career, but then again maybe one doesn’t define oneself in terms of professional achievement (preferring, say, parenthood or academia or artistic expression) and a job is the way one pays for the other parts of one’s life.

        I mean, yes, “I’m really a painter; I’m just waiting tables to make money to pay my rent” is a very Bohemian sort of thing to say, and only one step removed from “I’m really an actor, I’m just tending bar here until I get discovered,” but if the painter-who-waits-on-tables thinks “I’m living the dream right now” that’s a bit different than the actor-who-tends-bar who thinks “I’m right on the verge of living the dream.”

        So the question is a) how much money are these kinds of folks going to make waiting tables, tending bar, etc., and b) how much money do they need to sustain these kinds of existences?

        I took a field trip to DTLA over the weekend and there on the east part of downtown were, right on top of one another, fancy-schmantzy luxury apartments for DWP’s (divorced white professionals), BoHo businesses like the craft brewery we were there to sample and kiddie-friendly ceramics studios, traditional ethnic restaurants and gift stores (a select few of which had block-long lines of twentysomething white-and-Asian people with a wide spectrum of grooming habits and skin art), and skid row denizens living through horrid urban poverty and questionable mental health.

        I suppose this sort of juxtaposition of upper class, middle class, BoHo class, and shocking urban poverty is not exactly new to people in our more venerable eastern urban centers. Seeing the gentrification of DTLA penetrate to the neighborhoods were the very most awful urban poverty is found felt… well, sort of third-world. And there I was, putting money into the gentrification engine by drinking the craft beer, and I still don’t know if I was doing something good or bad by doing that.

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        • By flightly young person, I was thinking a tech worker who talks in corporate buzzwords and about how is start-up will totally disrupt the home heating oil market.

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          • Such a person is actually nothing new at all. The jargon is different, the pace is maybe faster, and the arenas of competition aren’t necessarily manufacturing anymore, but “I’m going to do something so amazing that it changes how the market for [product/service] works right out from under you, and thus eat your lunch” has been around for at least as long as industrialization.

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              • When they were producing things — actually manufacturing — they eventually had to go outside the city entirely. Cars, planes, an enormous range of electric and electronic gadgets — the costs associated with doing that kind of production in the city proper simply got too high. Eg, Silicon Valley was about manufacturing integrated circuits, not just designing them, and even back then San Francisco real estate was far too pricey for facilities on that scale.

                Today, design and manufacture can be more easily separated. Write the Facebook software in one place, deploy it on massive server farms elsewhere. Design the iPhone in Cupertino, manufacture it in China. This has reached far, far down the scale involved. When I needed a small custom circuit board for a hobby project, I did the design in my home office, e-mailed the necessary files to an address, and ten days later got very well done boards in a padded envelope in the mail.

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        • Until the mid-20th century, being a waiter or bar tender was considered a full time job rather than a part time for somebody in the arts trying to make loose change or something. Restaurants would prefer middle age or older men with a respectful but not too intimate persona as servers. Think of the wait staff at a very old-fashioned steakhouse or bar to get an idea of what the ideal was. The change towards younger and more attractive waiters who behaved in a more intimate or flirtatious attitude was a post-World War II innovation.

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          • Hell, I still prefer older servers. God, how I hate “i’m X and I’ll be taking care of you”.

            I don’t care about your name. Do you job and be in the background. Keep the water and wine glasses filled. Run that little crumb scoop around and respond when I look you in the eye by coming over and inquiring. That get’s you a nice fat tip.

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        • Why feel bad about it? It’s your damn money to do with as you please, and buying craft brew in a cute downtown brewpub is a far more benign hobby that many others.

          The disputes about housing tend to cover the same ground, so I guess I’ll toss in my piece, to wit:

          Given the vast disparities in wealth in this country, it is simply not possible to achieve perfect consensus on dense urban planning policy. There are too many different values and too gross disparities in wealth for everyone to get what they want. (This is really what the folks at LGM are complaining about, with a legitimate overlay about straight racism in housing policy.)

          For example, San Francisco is largely built out. Substantially increasing density by building up presents its own challenges because (a) earthquakes and (b) assembling lots large enough for a tower ain’t easy, and (c) there’s a lot more to urban policy than rezoning when it comes to adding people, like infrastructure (water, sewer, traffic, cops, schools, libraries, parks, firemen, public transportation etc. etc.)

          So, with the population largely fixed and demand for housing increasing, up go the prices. And with higher prices, off go people to their elected officials to insist on the repeal of the laws of economics. Which they will try to do with varying degrees of success — rent control, low-income housing allowances, improved public transportation to allow poorer workers to live farther away, etc.

          Putting aside the problems of supply and demand for housing stock, we also have the issue of addressing the desires of a class of people who already live there to spend their massive new fortunes. Over a large enough area commercial leases will turn over fairly regularly. As between a bodega that serves the (departing) poorer residents, and the trendy brewpub serving the (incoming) richer residents, it’s not too hard to figure out what the landowner’s going to do.

          And with higher commercial rents, off go people to their elected officials once again seeking the repeal of the laws of economics. Which the officials will try to do with varying degrees of success — historic district designations, public shaming of landlords, etc.

          At this point, I need to point out that the political activism isn’t wrong. Zoning and land use planning decisions are classic powers of local government and people should absolutely feel free to advocate for the preservation of their way of life. (And to disclose a personal interest, I live quite close to the ocean in a height-restricted zone. I’d be more than a little cranky if my neighbors got the height changed and started building higher than me.)

          Money may equal speech, but it doesn’t equal votes. Even in the face of rising housing prices and commercial rents there are still a number of things a public agency can do to respect the desires of their constituents and preserve the particular feel of a community.

          One final point: the nature of work is changing. Manufacturing jobs are never coming back in great numbers absent massive and really unpleasant changes in the global economy. If there’s no good job to be found at the plant, smart and ambitious people will go to cities. Anchor cities like New York and LA have had good times and bad, but at least for the next several years, I only see increased demand (and conflict) for urban spaces.

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          • San Francisco is the same size as Paris but has well under half the population. Your right that a lot of it is built out but the building is really inefficient. Some of the non-tourist parts of San Francisco resemble suburban neighborhoods complete with detached single family homes and lawns. Even the urban parts of San Francisco have very low buildings rather of one to three stories. Replacing them four to six stories apartment buildings could create much more residential space and still not be Manhattan.

            A quick Wikipedia search shows that Rufus’ Hamilton controls a little over 430 square miles with 88 of those squares miles being built up city. The population is about 520,000. This makes the population density of the built up part around 6,000 people per square miles. This is dense by North American standards but it is nothing by world standards. Even if you limit building to the part already built up, you still have room for millions of more people with certain development choices.

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          • San Francisco is built out? Maybe in terms of how built up the established actors who own sfr’s there want it be then sure but in terms of how much more dense housing can be practically and safely built and serviced then it’s not remotely built out.

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            • Lee and North:

              Yes, if you ignore the voters, the Due Process clause on takings, the traffic impacts associated with substantial additional population and a dozen other significant impacts, and also magically make a substantial new water supply appear,

              then yes, you can add density to SF. (or Los Angeles)

              Then again, if we assume a space ladder, we can colonize the Moon.

              There’s a concept in urban planning called ‘path dependence’. Aka “you can’t get there from here”. Choices made decades ago constrain our ability to remake the future.

              Libertarians: Republicans who want to smoke pot and fish up someone else’s equity.

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              • Yes, we’ve been over this. If you continue to sell the water* to farmers for pennies to grow alfalfa in the desert to fill shipping containers to China instead of selling it to cities for dollars to grow then there isn’t enough water. If you allow the established actors to block development** who want their neighborhood to remain low traffic single family residences where the rent they can charge increases 25% a year and no one who has the temerity to live between them and the sea is allowed to build a building that obstructs their view. If you grant those things then you can’t build more.

                But as a structural, infrastructural, safety and technical question San Francisco is not remotely approaching built out.

                *And yes I understand that the western states byzantine water rights systems are the product of centuries of wrangling and precedent and it’d be the height of hubris to suggest they are anything but the optimal system for allocating water even though their outputs are knee slappingly bad.
                **And yes I grant that if you don’t give a crap about newcomers or poor people then the current system works great for the people who own properties there right now and it’s thus highly rational for them to oppose change.

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                • So, that’s a yes, let’s ignore the voters and the law?

                  I keep reading that the most efficient system of government is a benevolent dictatorship. That sounded true up to about 20 or so, then I grew up. Dictatorship is simply about prioritizing the values of the dictator and his cohort above everyone else. Before I embrace your values, you need to persuade both of the substantive merit of your preferred policies over those of others, and of the procedural merit of allowing you (collectively) to decide in lieu of those currently making those decisions.

                  You’ve got a long way to go on both points.

                  (btw, government doesn’t “sell” water any more than it sells sidewalk space. You may wish that water be allocated solely on the basis of ability to pay. But that’s a value choice, not an economic law.)

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                  • Oh I never said I thought some dictator should come in and sweep the voters and law aside. To be clear I have no vested interest at all in how California allocates water or how it builds (or doesn’t build) housing. I merely objected to your assertion that San Francisco is built out; it is most assuredly not. If the legal barriers to construction were lifted or eased those leagues of single family houses would be consolidated into larger denser housing in pretty prompt order, roads would be widened, infrastructure deepened and water diverted. That the established interests defend a legal tangle that prevents this doesn’t change the fact that San Francisco could be considerably more densely built and populated. It’s been done in other parts of the globe fare more earthquake and weather prone than California (though evidently less politics prone).
                    I dare say that it’s happening now, slowly. Perhaps it’ll always crawl along through the red tape, perhaps at some point the electoral weight will break the entrenched status quos. California’s ruralia regions doesn’t have that many votes compared to its urban cores after all. Who knows.

                    As to the voters and the law, well the law can change and as for the former? I doubt they’d choose the aesthetic desires of the property owning minority and the wealthy farming periphery over their own housing interests were the issue put to them clearly. That’s probably why all of it is so heavily obfuscated.

                    (I grant your point on “sell” call it allocate then. But from an outsider perspective setting legalisms aside surely you can admit that pouring all that water into the desert to grow grass to pack shipping crates instead of allocating more of it to the teeming thirsty cities is a suboptimal outcome no?)

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                    • I don’t disagree much with what you wrote. But I think that you’re underestimating the degree to which big cities are path-dependent on past decisions. Widening roads means condemnation. Assembling larger parcels means a very powerful developer lobby. Building new infrastructure means having agreement on how to pay for it. None of this things are impossible, but the very fact that it’s not happening more in the Bay Area is a sign as to just how hard it is to build a coalition for upzoning.

                      The optimality of water supply allocation is a very hard issue. Ag water at least grows food. (Beef, I’ve read, is substantially cheaper than it would otherwise be but for the alfalfa grown in California.) Muni water goes to water lawns. Also, billions has been invested into creating a particular infrastructure and the promises and pricing that went into that system are not easily changed.

                      Much like the current design of Los Angeles or San Francisco, the current design (both of infrastructure and of laws) of the water supply system in California is not one that anyone would recreate today. But here we are, and so we need to do the best with what we have.

                      Reflecting Sir Thomas More, there’s not much appetite by any player in the system (ag or urban, north or south) to take a hatchet and cut down the entire old legal system. You never know when your erstwhile allies may use their newfound powers on you! Instead, they prefer incremental changes to the law that slowly build additional flexibility into the system.

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                      • That may be, but with regards to water California strikes me as well suited to get hatchety. You have simple popular voting that passes constitutional initiatives. Get enough long nasty droughts (which seems increasingly likely) and the alfalfa farmers are going to be out on their asses. A cleverly enough worded initiative could even leave the federal and other state compacts relatively unscathed while taking all the water the urban areas would want. Millions of voters pissed about their water bill are going to outweigh the interests of thousands of inland farmers or heck, maybe the central valley will just fall into its own pumped out aquifer without a trace. That’d be an end to that.

                        Sure, upbuilding is hard, maybe they won’t build roads; build it dense enough and everyone will walk around or maybe the self driving car will arrive in which case the road capacity will increase by a factor of ten. But up-building would eventually produce a productive different which is more than one can say for the other proposed solutions like doing nothing, or economically illiterate answers like rent control and its ilk. I think the odds are tilted in favor of your stasis there though, developers aren’t photogenic and mass economic literacy would probably be needed to get an electoral movement for up-building which strikes me as… unlikely.

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                        • Oh sure, Westlands is its own worst enemy and drought is a growing issue. So I agree that the time is ripe for an activist organization to try for a sweeping ballot measure …

                          that ends up in court for a decade or more.

                          Burt’s a far better constitutional lawyer than I am, so I’ll defer to him, but it seems to me that an initiative which simply dissolves certain kinds of water rights may raise 5th Amendment takings issues. The smarter course of action would be to put all water rights under the jurisdiction of a state agency and subject to a permitting and recording process but even that would raise issues for me about a regulatory taking. (Interference with reasonable investment-backed expectations and all that.)

                          (Note: That agency exists. It’s the State Water Resources Control Board. It’s problem, besides being grossly understaffed, is that it has no jurisdiction over the exercise of certain water rights, especially groundwater.)

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                          • If it reached that point I suspect they’d just keep passing initiatives until the issue broke their way. Or the farmers, seeing the writing on the wall, would cut a deal. At its most fundamental politics turn on what the preponderance of the people in a polity consistently desire and the wests’ urban areas overwhelmingly outnumber the farmers who currently use the majority of the water. That ain’t a stable equilibrium.

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    • There are also debates about what it means to change for the better. Who gets to decide what is better? Why do they get to decide? We often take something expensive and describe it as better. Is produce at Whole Foods necessarily better than from a small indie grocery or is it just more expensive and in a well-staged setting?

      i think Film Forum is better than a multiplex. Many would disagree strongly.

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      • It’s such a feisty debate because what we’re talking about: neighborhood character and the like, isn’t something any one person decides. It’s a penumbra that radiates out from the ownership of many individual private pieces of property: homes. Who decides? Ultimately the people who own and the people who want to buy (and have the wherewithal to buy) those homes. Who should decide? There’s the rub. The renters, the squatters, the passers through, the business owners, the activists, the elected politicians, the transients, the students everyone wants a say.

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        • Something like 70 percent of SF rents. NYC seems to be around the same percentage.

          I imagine a lot of the say ends up being with the property owners and politicians are seen as serving the property owners even if said owners are absentee instead of their constituents. Or you have battles between constituents who rent but want different things.

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          • Well yes, because the property owners are paying the taxes directly though the renters are admittedly paying the taxes indirectly as part of their rents*.
            But yeah it’s crazily complicated to say the least. One thing you can be sure, everyone wants a say but nobody wants to pay.

            *With the exception of those in rent controlled units who’re effectively squatting and paying for fish all.

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        • The part I think you’re missing is the public policy piece. The perception in many places is that local governments are putting their fingers on the scale in various ways (zoning laws, eminent domain, etc.) in favor of the monied interests. If it was purely organic I think the anti-gentrificaton side would have a much weaker argument.

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          • Well moneyed interests has a variety of definitions. In a lot of places the finger being put on the scale, especially regarding zoning, is in favor of the less moneyed (but still moneyed) interests against the more moneyed interests. In SF for instance it’s the upper middle-class home owners who’ll lay down in the street to block up-zoning and the like whereas their opponents are wildly rich developers. Rich vs rich so to speak. The poor, as per usual, get little say except for those either of the side manipulate as useful idiots.

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              • Absolutely, that’s how they win. The developers have more money but the local owners have more votes and more connections (and also they can spin a story that hoodwinks the poor onto their side as well).

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          • What North said. Many of the monied interests want to restrict development so their property value remains high. This is why the build it crowd likes to take about exclusionary zoning in the suburbs. By having so many restrictions on house size, house type, and lot size you can make sure that affordable housing does not get built. Certain types of rent control can give renters NIMBY interests in building housing. Nobody wants a free for all because that is how you get slums.

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            • I’ve never advocated for a free for all, and I’m personally very conflicted on the subject. I can’t speak to the realities of SF but you and are acknowledging that there can be an arbitrariness to this process. We had a thread a few months ago discussing a situation where (if I recall correctly) a city was using zoning to force a mechanic’s shop out if an area where the city was pushing urban renewal. That’s the sort of thing that bothers me.

              Now I agree that restrictons trying to preserve the character of a neighborhood at some given point in history can also be arbitrary and I tend to oppose them. That doesn’t mean I have to love the idea of people’s homes and livelihoods being subject to whether developers can get their guy on the city council (or strong NIMBYism frustrating needed changes for that matter). From a policy perspective I’m sympathetic to safety rules (it makes sense not to have chemical plants next to residential homes) but less so to zoning that seems designed to keep who is perceived as the wrong type of people out or bring the good type of people in.

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              • Sure, but the thing, the stinky unhappy thing, is that zoning? The vast majority of zoning is used more for the latter than the former. Chemical plants, tanneries, those kinds of businesses have things they want/need in their environs (highway and train access, industrial drainage, cheap land prices) and those are not usually things you find aplenty in residential areas. It doesn’t take a lot of zoning to keep big dangerous businesses out of desirable expensive living areas; they don’t want to be in those areas anyhow, the cost of the land would never match up. But keeping people out of an area that’s highly desirable to live in? That takes a lot and that’s what most of the zoning we have does.

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                • To keep out undesirable land uses you just need to make distinctions between industrial, commercial, and residential. Its very bright line. When your keeping suburbs exclusive than you get into housing styles, single family homes over apartments or townhouses, set back, and lot size requirements along with height limitations and anything else the city counsel can think of.

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                • I think we may be talking passed each other. To the extent anyone buys a piece of property at market value (no government intervention, favors, greasing of the wheels, etc.) and does what they want with it, I have no objection.

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        • Several months ago, a certain blogger at LGM posted a rant on gentrification one day and how it is bad because it is driving working class people of color out of their neighborhoods. The next day the blogger ranted on how white people are evil for living in the suburbs and not in the cities and sending their kids to public schools in the cities. It was the best example of the tails I win, heads you loose part of social justice.

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      • Is produce at Whole Foods necessarily better than from a small indie grocery or is it just more expensive and in a well-staged setting?

        Depending on the indie grocery in question, Whole Foods might not be more expensive and might even be cheaper. In Big City, within about 1 mile of where I live, there are three indie stores with HUGELY expensive food, much more expensive than Whole Foods. There are a couple more indie stores where things are cheaper and on a par with the non-Whole Foods corporate grocery store.

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          • There might be some (for me, anecdotal) truth to that. Most of the local inexpensive “indies” I’m thinking of are “ethnic” in some way and usually cater to a certain type of cuisine or palate, even though they often have other foods.

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            • Yep. There is a large Asian shopping complex near where I live. Grocery store, liquor store, optometrist, bakery, auto repair, restaurants. It’s all asian and owned by asians as far as I know. One assumes that gives them leverage. And the parking lot is ALWAYS FULL whenever I go there, so it’s quite popular.

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        • Speaking for my household only, Whole Foods has a better variety of apples and the varieties of apples that they do get there are better tasting than the ones we get at the King Soopers or the Safeway.

          As in I tried to buy apples from those latter two because I didn’t want to drive all the way to Whole Foods and I got complaints about how the apples weren’t as good this week for some reason.

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          • Whole foods waxes their apples.
            I prefer local apples — we’re in Johnny Appleseed’s backyard, and they’re good eatin’. (well, not literally Johnny Appleseed’s apples, those were always for cider).

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          • Is it weird to say I miss King Soopers? Of all the things to get nostalgic for, an otherwise unremarkable grocery chain store is kind of strange, I think. Still, I miss it, and when I visit my family, it’s nice to go there.

            As for your point, I find Whole Foods to be overall better in quality than the chain stores I frequent and the indie’s I don’t. If there were one closer to where I live, I’d go there more often. But it would be too expensive for me to go there on a regular basis.

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    • It’s ambivalent by design. I can’t tell if it’s benign, malignant or neither. On the one hand, I love the idea of my artist friends suddenly being cool, instead of seen as coming from a “cultural wasteland”. On the other hand, the city has been insistent that this is about attracting outsiders to come develop the place, as opposed to empowering the people who already live here, who have many great ideas but can’t access the same economic incentives. I know wealthy restaurateurs who can get matching funds from the city to open a restaurant here. Local chefs? Not so much.

      If the rising tide were to raise all boats, I think a whole lot of us would be gentrification boosters. Right now, it looks more like the carpetbaggers are being lifted.

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  2. A lot of people ignore that Brooklyn became cool again because:

    1. It is really close to Manhattan; and

    2. A lot of people were out priced of Manhattan starting as early as the 1960s or 80s depending on whom you ask. In the 60s and 80s, people discovered that you could get an old Brownstone in Park Slope or Carrol Gardens for a steal. The Village and Soho were already too pricey by 1980 for many. By the time, I graduated from college in 2002, young college grads were already looking at Brooklyn first for their apartments. Brooklyn was cooler than way uptown Manhattan hoods like Washington Heights or Inwood and offered a shorter commute.

    The problems as I see it are:

    1. The old factory jobs are not coming back;

    2. People really dislike the uncomfortable truth about how lowering housing costs is only done by building housing;

    3. The anti-gentrification and sometimes punk brigade does not run for public office. I have my doubts that they could make “we will be a cheap area with no economy” a winning message.

    4. A lot of bohemians are bourgeois in their own ways whether they admit it or not. The Bohemians of the Village did not interact with Ward Nine Italian longshore men.

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  3. I live in a relatively new high rise in an area that is slowly gentrifying.

    After moving in, they decided to build a new building next to mine and expand the garage where I park my car. My car is now parked offsite and all the metered spots around the building have been claimed by the project. One street is closed. Views (not mine) are obstructed. And a grassy play area is gone.

    Initially I was the gentrifier. Now I am the victim of gentrification. Sorta? It’s… weird…

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  4. Here’s another thing that makes me itchy about all of this- we live in a city with a large population on the knife’s edge of economic ruin. So, we have most of the cultural pathologies associated with poverty. For the most part, we all sort of live together and give each other room. I’m a live and let live type. I’m not thrilled with the middle aged day drunks, but I leave them alone and they leave me alone. We turn the blind eye.

    And then, suddenly, we’re a city “on the rise”… and lots of my neighbors start talking about how great it will be to finally “clean up” the city by getting rid of the day drunks and hookers and white trash. And it makes me think that their idea of improving our city is a lot different from my own ideas.

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    • My goodness, yes.

      I remember talking to a woman who had moved into a luxury condo on the same block as the bookstore where I worked. She was extremely upset because there was a (drunk) homeless guy who always peed on the back alley corner of the building the condos were in. I was baffled that she cared about the back of her building, stories down from where she actually lived. She literally would’ve never had to see him if she didn’t go out of her way to check up on things.

      Out loud I said something like, ‘Well, he’s been peeing on that corner for as long as I’ve worked here, so I guess he was here first.”

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    • Writing from what seems like 40 years later:
      Pittsburgh does have plenty of steel art, glass art too (we used to make plenty of glass as well).
      We have enough empty homes that gentrification doesn’t mean “you move out of the city.”

      I don’t mind people having to move — though I do sympathize with the renters, they ain’t gettin’ paid to move around town.

      My general comment is “Keep the buses rolling” and “a longer commute won’t kill anyone” (note: I live in pittsburgh. I do not know ANYONE who commutes through multiple states to get to work. Living in Scranton to commute to NYC is kinda unacceptable, imnsho).

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    • I mean, this is the gentrification debate in a nutshell, very few people including elected politicians want to say that they are the place of refuge for the homeless and the day drunks. Even liberal San Francisco would like to reduce the number of homeless camps and mentally ill on the streets,

      How many places want to be known for being okay with economic ruin and people who populate bars starting at 10 in the morning on a weekday?

      It doesn’t bring in money and makes it hard for families to stay. Most people are not part of the anti-yuppie squatting punk brigade.

      What are your ideas on improving Hamilton?

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      • It depends on what we see as needing improvement. For a lot of locals, the problem here was that we have winos and hookers and homeless people who drive down property values. At the same time, Toronto has high earning professionals who are sick of living in a housing bubble and looking to relocate at right around the same time the train line is being extended to the heart of Hamilton. So, the answer is simple: give money to developers to develop the real estate, build luxury condos, and attract professionals to live here and displace the low income people with those vices.

        From my perspective, the problem in Hamilton is there are no fishing jobs. Or, at least, very few good ones. So attracting people to live here and work an hour and a half away only fixes things in a sort of trickle down way. I’d like to see less money being funneled towards wealthy, often mob-connected, developers and more towards small business owners, like my friends, who don’t get any incentives and are often taxed, fined, and feed to the point that they’re not particularly profitable. Our city is very good at collecting fees from small businesses and giving to developers. This doesn’t improve the things I want to see improved.

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        • Well construction generally provides good jobs and once you have people with good incomes, they are going to want things to do and that provides jobs.

          I think the whole jobs thing is tricky and no one has any answers. What kind of employer is going to be attracted to an area with the winos and sex workers you mentioned?

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