This Land Is Whose Land?
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:
- Anti-displacement work has to be very cautious in invoking “the commons” as an all-purpose antidote for the neoliberal city. It is a deceptively malleable term that all-too-often flattens out subjectivities into one beige-colored “commonality,” absent difference or history. “The commons” all too often fails claims of justice. Any talk of commonality has to account for incommensurability, for difference, and recognize the layered histories of violence and dispossession that are soaked in any soil. Claiming “commonality” cannot paper over or actively deny historicity. Invoking the commons doesn’t wipe the slate clean. We do not all have, nor do we all deserve, equal access to any piece of land. Any claim to or for a commons has to first address expulsions: that is, the commons has to be predicated on rematriation and reparations.
- All urban activists should reject every shitty argument that tries to pin the blame for unaffordable cities on “foreigners.” There is a set of dangerous and cowardly arguments that are circulating, claiming that it is “foreigners” or “offshore money” that is the real cause of the housing crises gripping so many cities. This is absolutely untrue. The problem with our housing markets is that they are markets, turning land and homes into property on which to speculate and profit. The real or imagined ethnic or national background of any particular buyer makes no difference. The causes of our current crises are speculation, profiteering off shelter, governments in default of obligations to ensure affordable rental housing, and policy regimes that consistently privilege the most wealthy among us. Do not invoke veiled xenophobia in the guise of concern for inequality.
- Creative resistance asks that we question any easy valorizations of home ownership. Turning land into property is at the heart of desultory neoliberal land politics, and widespread home ownership is nothing to wish for. As Matt Desmond has put it, speaking of the US: “The owner-renter divide is as salient as any other in this nation, and this divide is a historical result of statecraft designed to protect and promote inequality.” The dream of a nation of homeowners is a nightmare of deepening cycles of inequality, commodification of every nook and cranny of our lives, and the relentless fetishization of property. Security of tenure can be achieved in all kinds of ways and imaginative policy wedded to aggressive non-market politics can achieve the security and independence that ownership claims while disavowing profiteering from land. The policy instruments are well known and easily understood: Georgist land taxes, co-operative housing, shared and limited equity arrangements, community land trusts, municipally-socialized housing and much else are all policy tools and initiatives that are widely available and widely understood. What is lacking is political will and power.
- It is vital to respect that every neighborhood has its own unique contours and histories. Take time to understand them and listen carefully to the voices there, even if they are voices you are not familiar or comfortable with. Seek out and listen to elders especially. And even more especially elders whose voices have been marginalized. All too often new arrivals to a place show up with all kinds of ambitious energy and fail to heed the warnings they should have seen all around them. I am absolutely guilty of this: all my fist-in-the air activist pretentions combined with youthful white-boy arrogance has certainly done damage that I had no idea I was doing. When I first arrived in the neighborhood we have rented in for the past 25 years, I was all piss-and-vinegar and ready to organize. I have instigated all kinds of initiatives and projects, large and small in a community I still love, and while many, even most of my efforts have been successful in various ways, many of the repercussions have proven complexly mixed. In the context of capitalist property markets anything that “improves” a neighborhood — makes it funner, funkier, more vibrant, safer, better serviced — may also make it vulnerable to capital. If our activism and organizing is to be effective long-term and legitimately resist displacement, let’s listen carefully to those who are already in place.
- Most of us, and white people most especially, need to be more alert to our privileges. This too, of course is something I have far-too-often been blind to, despite all my pretentious intentions. But do not let self-reflection become self-absorption: paralysis is not useful. Fight through that shit, and keep asking who is speaking for whom, who is not being heard, where your voice resonates. Think hard about when and how you speak, and when and how you listen. Anti-gentrification all too often fails to ask deeper questions about who deserves to be on what land, and on what basis.
- Paying attention and listening to what is already in place is most critical in the case of settlers. Gentrification and urban displacements are always closely tied to deeper racializations and always bound up with colonial logics — and in our case here in North America — settler-colonial rationalities. Listening to what and who is already here always means listening to indigenous voices. Find ways to hear Indigenous speakers, activists and scholars. Take time, and then more time, to hear what Indigenous resistances to colonization are saying and learn how your organizing can begin there. Our resistance to gentrification has to be informed by and be a tool to support Indigenous land rematriations and colonial reparations: you cannot have a legitimate resistance to displacement without foregrounding originary land theft.
- I believe that the political energy to resist displacement has to lie outside the state and the exhaustion of organizing through political parties. Be suspicious of any statist claims, but not dogmatically so. A real diversity of tactics has to enact a flexible series of commitments that is willing to embrace everything from direct action to conventional political organizing. Do not get bound up in tiresome state vs. non-state posturing. Fidelity to place and neighbors — human and other-than — requires an agile and imaginative politics that is willing to try, and fail, and try again. The contours of effective resistance are always shifting: so be flexible in response, and do not fear trying anything.
- And finally, I’d suggest that the best resistances to displacement require simultaneous criticality and construction. There has to be a constant push-pull relationship to organizing, and the answers to predatory capitalist property relations cannot be simple nostalgia. Fighting back against displacement is bound up with thinking and constructing real alternatives. To my mind, those alternatives always return to non-market relationships with land — and those exist, have existed, and can surely exist again in every corner of the planet. Domination — delivered via colonial and/or capitalist rationalities — is not fate, but it is on us to articulate and build something else. Thinking and working outside the market is both really hard, and not at all.
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.