Friday, February 29, 2008

The Future of the Urban Revolution

In the most recent issue of City & Community, Neil Smith has a stinging critique of Lance Freeman's book, There Goes the 'Hood. Smith, a devout marxian and among the most prolific scholars on gentrification, takes umbrage to the fact that Freeman supports the idea that gentrification might not be a horrible thing. Smith argues that the book is poorly researched and written and takes a few really low blows at Freeman, which include making the claim that Freeman is shilling for his employer, Columbia University by covering up Columbia's expansion plan (which I have discussed here before):

Freeman, who is employed as an urban planner by Columbia University—one of New York City's top five landlords—laughs off Harlem residents’ long-term suspicion about Columbia's encroachment into the neighborhood as an urban myth. He inexplicably omits any mention of Columbia University's plan, unveiled in 2005, to "develop" a huge swath of West Harlem over the objections of many local residents. Freeman "sees" none of this.

The first thing to mention is that it is unfair to hold Freeman accountable for something that was not present in his fieldwork. Freeman's book was published in May 2006. While early signs were evident of the West Harlem expansion, Smith himself acknowledges that the plan was not unveiled until 2005. Because of the length of time it takes to turn fieldwork into a publishable manuscript and a manuscript to a book, there is a good chance that Freeman was done with his fieldwork well before the plan was unveiled.

Perhaps more troubling, however, is the fact that Smith—who works cross-town at the CUNY Graduate Center—is somehow saying that Freeman is a shill for Columbia's expansion plan. That, somehow, because Freeman works for Columbia, he is trying to sweep these inconvenient details under the rug to protect his employer. While Freeman's account is certainly not a pull-no-punches kind of account, to insinuate that Freeman is a mouthpiece for his employer seems to me to be unfair.

While Smith is certainly a confrontational character (see, for instance, his academic debates with David Ley in the late eighties here and here), it seems like this critique was a little bit over the top. Especially for somewhat who has admitted, half-jokingly, to being a "bourgeois marxist" at a talk he gave in Ann Arbor last academic year. At the same lecture, an audience member asked Smith what he thought should be done about the strategy of spatial expansion of global capital. He wasn't sure - the best thing that he could come up with was to attempt to create co-ops in cities so that people could have a democratic stake in their own housing.

This is a noble aim. But, it is also incredibly short-sighted and fails to recognize the complexity of such issues and, particularly how they are tied to race, in the United States. Smith takes a swipe at Freeman here, too:

For Freeman, gentrification scholarship has been hijacked by an untoward focus on class, whereas in his neighborhoods, the issue is race. Once the focus is changed to race, he avers, we can see gentrification in a new register. "From the ground up," gentrification in Clinton Hill and Harlem are certainly mixed, but overall a good thing. Once we see that gentrification in these neighborhoods actually retains their blackness and that class is a minor issue, we can start to love gentrification.

In a typically orthodox marxian way, race is relegated to the "superstructural" niceties that are really class-based. Having read Freeman's book, nowhere does he say that class is not important; he does make the argument, and perhaps takes the argument too far, that class has been privileged in academic debates of gentrification more than race. Freeman, however, does something that Smith refuses to do: he tried to develop the book to be academically rigorous, publicly interesting and to develop real policy solutions that could be implemented. I will take it for granted that Smith, being the true marxist that he is, sees the capitalist state as inevitably interested solely in the demands of the corporate elite. Even so, to argue that the best thing, on a real political level, to confront gentrification is to develop co-ops so that people can feel a stake of control is neither calling the revolution or engaging with the current policy situation. Especially since the history of people owning and controlling their own property in this country is some of the most blatant and disgusting racism ever demonstrated, Bull Conner's dogs notwithstanding.

Smith does reveal some issues with Freeman's book that are worth pointing out. Freeman does not develop his methodological approach very fully. It is difficult to tell from the book how Freeman selected his interviewees. I also noticed that the book was more heavily tilted towards the "black bourgeoisie" more than the working class residents of Clinton Hill and Harlem. At the same time, however, I commend Freeman for trying to engage with a larger audience of academics and activists. And, while he does take a somewhat sanguine view of gentrification, he does not—either in his book or his widley cited academic article—argue that gentrification is an unqualified good that has no costs. He argues that inflating real estate costs due to gentrification pose a serious threat to long-time residents in neighborhoods and that gentrification can destroy the community bonds among those residents.

The real problem for me, however, is the review misses the broader aims of the book. Freeman's proposals are actually in line with a philosophy of fair redevelopment and advocates vigorously for ways to guard against the potential havoc wreaked by gentrification. Besides his policy proposals to regulate rent (and, Freeman is a strong advocate for rent controls), Freeman actually argues that the best way to promote positive urban development is through Alinsky-type organizing. If Smith can't get behind that, or even bother to mention it in his review, I'm not sure how far the marxian notion of the urban revolution is going to get.


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