Portside aims to provide varied material of interest to people on the left that will help them to interpret the world, and to change it.
There is really no way to think about cities today without talking about displacements, and over the past few generations, gentrification has emerged as a broadly familiar frame for understanding the explosive changes that are disfiguring cities across the planet.
Gentrification has become so ubiquitous and commonplace that many of us are resigned to capital’s inevitable capture of the best parts of every city. We all see the gentrifications around us. We know what it smells like. We instinctually know which neighbourhoods are vulnerable. The neoliberal city is a vampiric city and we have all become inured to its feeding habits. But I am convinced that the dominant languages being invoked to theorize gentrification today fall short: they are necessary but not sufficient. Understanding urban displacements today requires a more nuanced engagement with racialized rationalities than is currently circulating in most gentrification literatures.
We Have to Talk About Race
In many places, patterns of classic rent-gap gentrification are easily visible: capital and wealthier homebuyers identify profit potential in particular neighborhoods and leverage their privilege to push lower-income residents out. This is what so many people recognize immediately and name as gentrification, and presume to be inexorable: successful, vibrant communities are always vulnerable to predatory capital. But understanding the contours of the forces that are deforming essentially every urban region today requires more than a class analysis of capitalist land speculation. We have to talk about race. And we have to do it in the context ongoing colonial narratives.
Cities today are being defined by racialized patterns of displacement and occupation, and tracing those genealogies is essential to fighting back. To my eyes, most critiques of gentrification paddle along shallowly, unwilling to see contemporary urban patterns as newer renditions of larger historicized rationalities. This tendency has rendered so much anti-gentrification writing and activism susceptible to easy, depoliticized evocations of “the commons,” a stance that glosses over the racialized displacement and colonial accumulation that virtually every city is built on.
Today we are witnessing new urban articulations of much older stories of white supremacy. The great cities of the world have always been funded by pillage: built on stolen Indigenous land, funded by the colonial theft of wealth, constructed by slave labor, financed by ongoing speculation and profiteering. Every city in the world is defined by accumulation: the aggregation of wealth and resources in centers of power and control. In the midst of an era of unprecedented urbanization, that accumulation insists on displacement: capital rushes in and the rest of us can get the hell out of the way.
You know this story. It’s so tiresomely familiar. You have seen displacement in every city you’ve ever been to. You know that gentrification is convulsing every city you care about. You know so many people who have been forced to move, so many neighborhoods that don’t feel anything like the places you used to love. But gentrification is taking on another new(ish) vector, and the last decade has seen a new dominant form of racialized displacement emerge: one that might be called peripheralization. Across the planet new patterns of urban restructuring are inscribing themselves with ferocity. It is both evident to the everyday eye and statistically verifiable: urban cores are being acceleratingly dominated by waves of upscale residents and residences, investment properties, spectactularist touristic forays and all the social, cultural and architectural infrastructures that serve them.
In cities from Santiago to Seoul to Sofia and everywhere in between, new urbanist planning and recently carved circuits of capital driven by financialization and servicization are reshaping central districts and premium core neighborhoods, making them more attractive, more liveable and more vibrant. Those armed with financial firepower are being convinced en masse to embrace urban cores: agile real estate, developer and marketing interests, and new occupying forms of capital — encouraged and greased by progressive urban planning — are re-occupying cities with startling effects.
The sheer speed of this urban restructuring is aggressively pushing increasing numbers of less-privileged urban residents to the margins of cities, further and further away from the urban cores, where social marginalization is exacerbated by physical isolation and dispersal. It is not happening, of course, at the same velocity or in the same patterns everywhere — every city evinces its own peculiarities and tendencies — but in so many cities across the planet there is a stark phenomenon unfolding: a peripheralization that is accelerating and augmenting racialized forms of segregation.
This radical reshaping of inner and outer cities has a close relationship with the rapid suburbanization of poverty and thus a commensurate racialization of much of suburbia and the peripheries of urban areas. Speaking of the US, the Black Displacement Project says: “The proportion of the black population living in the biggest city of a given metropolitan area decreased in all twenty of the nation’s largest metro areas in the past decade.”
It is tempting to think about this as straightforward displacement — that the poverty once emblematic of (and virtually synonymous with) inner cities in many parts of the world is being centrifugally removed and rearranged on the urban edges — to barrios, tent cities, slums, shanty towns, gecekondus, favelas, chabolas, squatter villages, banlieues — but it’s much more complicated than that. Contemporary displacement has to be understood in the context of aggressive neoliberal urban regimes. As manufacturing and industry is downsized, offshored and marginalized, urban cores are now made available to new forms of capital — and residential investment, typically via “condoization” — is by far the most profitable form, with core areas dominated by the wealthy and the low-level workers who serve them, with all the rest spun to the edges.
Saskia Sassen now speaks of “expulsions,” which I think is a usefully evocative term. The necessary result of massive accumulation in a small number of hands is that vast numbers of people are being expelled from both the physical and economic centers of wealth and privilege.
The Case of “Portlandia”
Let me give you a very specific example of what I am talking about. Consider Portland, Oregon. You’ve probably heard of it. Maybe seen the TV show, possibly visited. It’s a popular place. Portland enjoys a widespread and enviable reputation among residents, travelers, urbanists and hipsters alike. Once a gritty river city, now it is famous for its bikeability, strong transit system, neighborhood planning, eco-performativity, and energetic food and beer landscape. It consistently draws cultural and political accolades as ostensibly the best-planned city in North America: a jewel in an often-disheartening American urban landscape.
Or you might have thought about Portland after a horrific triple-stabbing and double homicide in May 2107 by an unadorned white-supremacist made headline news across the globe. The shock of that incident was exacerbated by a series of violent Trump-supporting “free-speech” rallies that were met with major Antifa resistance. Racialized turbulence once again cast an ugly spotlight on what many think of as North America’s most tolerant and liberal city.
It was this pleasant reputation that drew me to Portland in the first place. I started taking urbanist students there more than a decade ago and was immediately struck by all the things people talk about when they talk about Portland. Bars, bikes, cheap beer, music, easy transit, great neighborhoods. What’s not to like? It was only upon closer inspection that my latent suspicions spilled over into a full-fledged interrogation. On second glance, one of the first things I noticed was that Portland is really, really white. In fact, by almost any measure it is North America’s whitest city of any size, and it doesn’t take much investigation to realize that this is no accident: Portland has been — and is being — made that way.
In 1940 Portland was (incredibly) more than 98 percent white, and as more diverse populations filtered in post-WWII, the city aggressively funneled its Black population into one small neighborhood called “Albina,” via official and unofficial consortiums of administrative officials, landlords, insurers and appraisers. Black movement out of the neighborhood was severely restricted by a range of compulsions from physical violence to economic disincentives to legal restrictions. At the same time, bankers and realtors enforced segregation fearing a “destruction of value” should Black people start inhabiting other neighborhoods. By 1960 four of five Black Portlanders lived in one 2.5-square mile area of Albina and its four elementary schools were more than 90 percent Black. While Black residents were contained to this one neighborhood, they were habitually denied bank loans for homeownership or repairs via redlining, meaning the neighborhood housing stock fell into significant disrepair. Albina is the result of a classic contain-and-disinvest strategy: an ongoing, systematic withdrawal of public and private capital that led to a slow overall decline of the community.
By the late 1980s, after several generations of de facto segregation and a paucity of support, the community was down enough that in a classic rent-gap scenario it was primed for new investment. Albina was perfect for gentrification: lots of cheap housing that had fallen into disrepair but was full of promise, the community looked like a ghetto but was full of “historical charm,” and it was just across the river, very close to downtown. Young whites were ready, willing and eager — knowingly and/or ignorantly — to take advantage of the combination of historical segregation, community trauma and ongoing neighborhood disinvestment.
A White Liberal Playground
In 1993, the City of Portland published an official community plan for Albina calling for extensive neighborhood revitalization. They enacted a series of measures intended to displace existing residents and prime the area for new investments. And it was extraordinarily effective. In 1990, just under three-quarters of Albina residents were Black. By 2010, just 20 years later, the number had fallen to less than 25 percent and by every measure, official and vernacular, has continued to drop sharply and relentlessly since. In a short generation, more than 10,000 Black people have been moved out of Albina. And it wasn’t just Black people moving out; it was whites moving in to take their place — very often literally. Within the census tract that roughly corresponds to what most people recognize as Albina, the population of residents who identify as “white-only” has shot up from 23 percent to a hair under 60 percent with commensurately dramatic gains across the economic spectrum. New businesses and community design features have arrived to serve them and property values and rents have spiraled up, with housing prices tripling and sometimes quadrupling (!) between 1990 and 2000 alone.
The Black population that was expelled from Albina overwhelmingly did not move to nicer areas. They were forced to the edges of the city, to the suburban peripheries where affordable housing was available but all the civic amenities Portland is famous for are largely lacking. More than that, Black households did not all reassemble in one area. They were scattered and dispersed, so that now there is no longer a single minority-majority neighborhood left in Portland, quite possibly the only major city in North America that can claim that. The Portland that is famous for its conviviality and cultural vibrancy is now largely the exclusive realm of well-heeled whites. It’s a phenomenon that has to be understood not as an unfortunate set of circumstances, an unforeseen confluence, or some bad luck, but as a deliberate, methodical effort.
Given the larger scope of the state’s history, this story can be no surprise. As historian and author Walidah Imarisha puts it: “Oregon has always been a white utopian experiment. These same sentiments of Oregon as a white homeland reverberate today: the idea of Portlandia is as a white liberal playground.” The state has a long and sordid history of official prejudice and discrimination towards Black, Jewish and Asian people (too long to fully document here) and of course all of that long racist history has been predicated on Indigenous land theft.
The state of Oregon was notorious for settler brutality toward indigenous residents (even in an era of widespread officially-sanctioned colonial barbarism). In 1850, the Oregon Donation Land Act forcibly removed all indigenous people and offered their land free to any white settlers, who within seven years had claimed 2.5 million acres of it including all of the current city of Portland (the city was incorporated in 1851). This is the city’s foundation.
When that maniac racist murdered people on a train, or when the alt-right aggressively assembles in the heart of the city, many people point to the national Trumpian climate of intolerance that nurtures these kinds of acts. I think this is true in many ways, but there is much more to the story. This one loathsome act, just like the ongoing dispersal of Albina’s Black population, must be understood within the context Oregon’s continuing history of racism and displacement. Portland is not some sad anomaly. I tell the story of this one city here, much too briefly, not to take gratuitous potshots at an irritatingly-smug place (OK, maybe a little), but because it is representative of what is happening to cities across the globe.
The much-lauded “great global rush to cities” that you have heard so much about — the claim that the world’s population is for the first time history more than 50 percent urban — is sort of true, but mostly obscures what is actually going on. This claim is highly dubious and requires an untenable definition of where a city starts and stops. It is true to say that we are in the midst of a ferocious period of urban growth, but the vast majority of that urban population is being located at the peripheries where the amenities that make a place a “city” are substantially lacking. And of course, it always the most marginalized, and typically racialized populations that bear the brunt of this peripheralization.
These reconstituted forms of displacement are not new: they articulate long-held urban segregationist tendencies, but the patterns are new and often surprising. Urban gentrification and displacement today demands an agile and flexible set of resistances that are willing to dig deep and consider the historical foundations that current expulsions rest on. Gentrification is not enough to describe contemporary displacements: we have to understand historical patterns of accumulation and expulsion, and squarely face the thefts — of land, bodies and capital — that have built our cities. This requires a somewhat different set of resistances than is typically invoked today. Here are a couple of entwined ideas I have on what resistance demands:
Part of this article was adapted from Matt’s book, What a City Is For (MIT, 2016). His new book (with Am Johal and Joe Sacco) is called Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: In Search of an Ecological Future. It will also be published by MIT Press in early 2018. Many thanks to Preeti Dhaliwal and Am Johal for their kind and critical readings of an earlier draft of this article.
Matt Hern lives and works in East Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories, with his partner and daughters. He has co-founded and directed many community projects and institutions including the Purple Thistle Centre, Car-Free Vancouver Day, Groundswell: Grassroots Economic Alternatives, and he is currently the co-director of 2+10 Industries.