It’s Not All Cafes and Hipsters: What We’re Wrong About Gentrification | Leslie Kern

OOn a trip to Mexico City, a bus tour takes me through neighborhoods full of cool cafes, stylish wine bars, and stylish twenty-somethings. Starbucks are surprisingly thick on the floor. When I ask my Spanish teacher about these areas, he rolls his eyes and rubs his thumb and fingers: a universal sign for overpriced and full of unpleasant people.

You don’t have to be a gentrification researcher (although I am) to read these signs and immediately understand what’s going on here. Gentrification feels, sounds and sounds familiar wherever you go: young hipsters transforming neighborhoods to a remarkably seamless global code of taste and style.

As accurate as this narrative may seem, the story we tell ourselves about the changing face of our downtown neighborhoods is far too basic. Vilifying the markers of gentrification is not enough to get to the root of the problem – and believe me, it’s not as simple as pouring coffee – and lacks useful ideas for countering the larger forces at play that have brought artisan donuts to your community.

It is true that we can identify gentrification through certain styles and places of consumption. It’s been that way since the slow slide of a “rising” neighborhood was first noticed and named in North London in the 1960s. Since then, the likes of gentrifiers – from what they relate to what they eat – sparked endless comments. Their preferences have been seen as harbingers of doom for minority working-class communities in cities around the world.

Sites that appear to embody these changes are easy targets. The now closed Cereal Killer cafe in east London is an example. Seen as a sign of all that has happened or could go wrong in this low-income, predominantly minority ethnic community, the supplier of overpriced breakfast cereals has been targeted by protesters, vandals and graffiti artists who warned of a gentrification takeover. We love to hate these spaces and their seemingly oblivious owners. After all, they’re putting a face to what appears to be an insurmountable problem caused by distant forces.

But the question we should be asking is whether closing a cafe will prevent gentrification. The answer is no, although we recognize that places like this play a role. Today, however, the cultural capital of the avocado toast class pales in comparison to the might of the billion-dollar multinational real estate investment and development industries – and their government partners – who now control our cities and neighborhoods, as well as their potential for social and economic transformation.

If we really want to push back against gentrification, we misdirect our energies by focusing mostly on superficial markers of taste. They are little more than symptoms of far more disruptive forms of urban change that enrich the few at the expense of the many. The destruction or “regeneration” induced by the social housing market is one of these forms; the development of luxury skyscrapers is another. Large-scale eviction processes, accelerated by the end of pandemic-era protections, openly promote gentrification, especially in minority neighborhoods. The rise of short-term rentals through platforms such as Airbnb is helping to push housing prices beyond the reach of even the middle classes.

These processes are driven by the search for new ways to generate capital and wealth from urban space. The developers, speculators, and investment firms pushing these changes are able to do so because of government policy that not only allows, but often actively encourages, such developments. Whether through tax incentives, rezoning, or government-directed “revitalization” programs, the state facilitates gentrification on many levels.

When your business owner tries to evict you so the units in your building can be upgraded to luxury suites, a nearby cafe serving a £6 flat white certainly adds insult to injury. Don’t get me wrong, coffee is part of the problem: it capitalizes on and attracts the kind of changes that could be about to kick you out of your community for good. However, the seeds that created the conditions for this cafe to take root were planted long before it even opened its doors, by actors with enormous power. In other words, that expensive cafe certainly doesn’t help you, but neither is it the entity that “renovates” you.

Feel free to protest the cafe, but your energy might be better placed in organizing your building’s tenants to fight against unjust evictions. This lesson applies more broadly to the fight against gentrification. For all of us worried about the changes in our communities that displace long-time residents, social housing tenants, seniors, immigrants, youth and many others, we need to be strategic and focused in our fight. That means not letting governments and corporations get away with bulldozing (literally and figuratively) our cities, while we’re distracted by sky-high breakfast foods.

Admittedly, redirecting our attention to Goliaths — in fact, multiple Goliaths — is daunting. However, one of the reasons these groups are successful with their agenda of remaking the city for profit, not for people, is that we have come to accept the story that creeping capitalist interests cannot be defeated, or even slow down. But resistance is possible. This can come from rent strikes, squatter movements, and the growth of community-led development models, such as community land trusts and housing co-operatives. We can push governments to use the regulatory tools at their disposal: eviction bans, rent stabilization, community benefits ordinances, zoning and taxation.

No need to love your neighborhood’s newest vegan bistro-pub, but let’s remember to focus on the infamous agents who play behind the hip facades. These powerful forces are dismantling people’s ability to live and thrive in our cities today. A different future is possible, but only if we demand it and demand it from the right people.

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