Neil Smith, Geography PhD from Johns Hopkins University, is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center department of CUNY. He studied under David Harvey, so he shares a Marxian perspective of political economy, urban social theory, space, nature-culture, and history and theory of geography. He examines globalization and consequent uneven development at the local and global scales.
In The New Urban Frontier, Smith confronts the term “frontier” and demythologizes the use of it and “pioneer” in contemporary American (and global) development. He views gentrification as a decidedly bad thing, the “product of political economic shifts in local and global markets” (92), which has been vigorously undertaken by production-side, capital interests since the 1960s. These revanchist (from the French revanche, “revenge”) city interests are aggressively re-taking the city, regenerating it, cleansing it, and re-infusing it with middle-class standards.
This gentrification process takes place at the frontiers between improving and disinvested communities. It “infects working class communities, displaces poor households, and converts whole neighborhoods into bourgeois enclaves” (17). Smith proposes the rent gap as the functional tool. Producers (e.g. builders, developers, landlords, mortgage lenders, government agencies, real estate agents, etc.) use the “disparity between potential ground rent level and actual ground rent capitalized under present land use” (67) as the justification for their development.
This is an economically, not culturally, driven process of collective social action — proponents call it “urban renaissance” — manifests in distinctly uneven development patterns. These local contingencies are also global: they reflect the implications of global capital flows and are becoming standardized (with local flavorings, of course) all over the world.
Things to note:
- governments are active agents of gentrification (recall Logan & Molotch, 2007)
- current residents are in Catch-22 positions: they like seeing their neighborhoods improve and thus welcome investmentyet they will be promptly priced out once improvements are completed
- gentrification flows up unnaturally, against filtering down (see Zukin, 2010)
- “degentrification” will likely not happen
“…we can expect a deepening villainization of working-class, minority, homeless, and many immigrant residents of the city, through interlocking streams of violence, drugs, and crime” (230).
Finally, an interesting point about the arts: its role in gentrification has been no accident. Per Deutsche and Ryan (1984), it “has been constructed with the aid of the entire apparatus of the establishment (as cited on 18-19). Some have remained progressive political agents, but some avant-garde artists have behaved as “brokers” (19) between the culture industry and artistic hopefuls. “Good art and good locations become fused. And good location means money” (20).