A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

GENTRIFICATION BLUES: Does It All Come Down To Class?

By Paul Smart

gen•tri•fi•ca•tion: the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.

As a longtime resident of the Hudson Valley, and New York State, I’ve grown to know gentrification from various perspectives. I’ve been an urban pioneer, an exurban trailblazer, a small town trumpeter, and one who’s felt economically, socially, and emotionally displaced by later generations of gentrifiers.

I’ve also come to see this time of year as the perfect time for considering just how all these forces converge, affect us, and can be better managed. On the surface, there’s the fact that this is also Black History Month, a time when consideration of emancipation, civil rights struggles, and cultural achievements need tempering by acknowledgement of the ravages that economic displacement has had on our nation and its ideals. Deeper down, there’s the fact that National Bullying Awareness Day occurs this month; what better time to consider how one person’s dream achievements can bluntly end another’s?

Gentrification as a term and topic of academic study dates back to British sociologist Ruth Glass’s use of the term in a 1964 study of changes in her native London. But gentrification as a real thing, she found, could be traced back—in her study—to Roman Britain, when whole neighborhoods were taken over for wealthy landowners’ villas.

There’s been argument about the good of neighbhorhood revitalization versus the evils of displacement ever since Glass’s first papers were circulated. Moreover, revolutions and much political thought, let alone most of the fields of sociology and economics, have grown out of the older dialectic set in place by the building of those urban villas two thousand plus years ago.

Here in the Hudson Valley, discussion of gentrification has tended to be tied to analysis of previous attempts at urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s that saw the urban core of many of our small cities destroyed as new highways, project developments, suburbs, and then malls were built as a means of engineering better futures for all. Lynn Woods, a top local journalist, has made a point traveling the area leading discussions after screenings of the film she made with Stephen Blauweiss, Lost Rondout: A Tale of Urban Removal. She started research for a similar project about Newburgh only to lose hope that her efforts would see meaningful results.

Meanwhile, the once infamous City of Hudson marveled when their 2010 Census results showed a loss of population; turns out it was fueled by an influx of homeowners without children buying up the city’s formerly blighted homes. Kingston and Beacon saw surges in ex-Brooklynites throughout its various neighborhoods, while the minority populations—and blighted reputations—of Poughkeepsie, Monticello, and Mount Vernon soared. People have to move somewhere.

Much has been written about gentrification in the last half-century. One of the key thinkers is a sociologist at City College in New York, Sharon Zukin, whose books Loft Living (1980) and, more recently, Naked City (2010) set her up as something of an opponent of the urban views of Jane Jacobs, whose influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities blamed planners and the planning profession for destroying healthy, functional neighborhoods through forced urban renewal programs and for generally inflicting a “Great Blight of Dullness.”

Zukin has posited that planners have never been powerful enough to reshape cities; she sees a far greater problem in the ways that capital in the form of banks, insurance companies, and development funds choose where to place funds. Better than planning, or community action, Zukin feels that urban renewal needs to address inequity, which she feels can only happen with the help of government.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important laws are, zoning laws, rent controls, commercial rent controls,” she has written. ”Stronger zoning laws encourage a mix of housing, factories, stores, and schools… but I do not support more permanent rent controls to ensure a mix of poorer and richer tenants, of successful businesses and start-ups.”

Simultaneously, Sharon Zukin has led a global push against the gentrifying mantra that the “creative class” and their tastes and social preferences drive successful urban renewal, an idea that germinated from, her first book about lofts and their effects in shifting use of post-industrial urban neighborhoods. “A city only survives on the basis of diversity and different classes of people, all working, and it’s necessary for local government to make sure there is space for everybody in the city,” she now writes. 

Similarly, she has noted how a more recent push among gentrifying sorts to search out “the authentic” has resulted in authenticity becoming a commodity rather than a value, which has led to “authenticity” being “used as a lever of cultural power for a group to claim space and take it away from others without direct confrontation, with the help of the state and elected officials and the persuasion of the media and consumer culture.”

The results Zukin and other modern sociologists and urban geographers point to include the experience of cities from San Francisco, New York, Paris, and London to an increasing number of fast-changing Hudson Valley metro areas, and even some of our more rural villages and towns in the Hudson Valley.

Which in the end begs for something more than theories of movement, and that biggest of modern bugaboos—especially here in America: the question of class, and ways to protect the integrity people feel in their communities.

I know my own history, in this light. When I first moved from Alaska to New York City, I had no idea what was what and chose to live way Uptown in an area that has yet to even hear the word “gentrify,” instead of the Lower East Side. I later moved farther down Manhattan, those being days when one could do that, before ending up on the Lower East Side, first, and then pre-gentrified Brooklyn. From whence I moved Upstate around the same time that a whole slew of other New Yorkers I came to know also moved to the Catskills.

Ensconced in the Hudson Valley, gentrification wasn’t much of a major concern for years. Reports were written throughout the late 1980s and 1990s about the high percentage of second homes in the Catskills. Woodstock and New Paltz stretched their demographic profiles into Olive, Rosendale, and Phoenicia. Northern Dutchess County took off. Personally, I moved to Catskill and my wife got involved in community-building arts projects. We both noted the changes occurring in Hudson, across the river, as well as in Athens just up the road.

Eventually, we moved to an old neighborhood in Albany where our kid was in school, telling friends it was still Hudson Valley, just a bit further to the north. There we realized what an ungentrified city could still look like – diverse, old, personable, activist, and not lacking for higher elements of street crime. But also filled with community-driven innovations, from a local funding entity that called itself “Money Game” to city departments keyed to involvement in all aspects of their community’s needs.

This winter a number of us who own homes in our neighborhood have started paying a bit too much to a coalition of homeless guys from the shelter who chipped in together to buy a snowblower to keep the sidewalks clean. Call it a means of maintaining the community ecosystem.

As for that old bugaboo, class, I can’t help but be reminded of my shifting attitudes towards one of its most rigid form in the form of India’s caste system. Before I ever went to South Asia, I was certain caste was bad, anti-humanist. But then, when there, I realized it was a means of providing a basis of self-worth for all classes. Now, reading about how an increasingly fluid economy is shifting Indian traditions, and housing patterns, caste is being newly portrayed as a catalyst for stabilizing communities. 

But then I think of the great 1983 book by Paul Fussell, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, that’s recently been brought up by a host of serious social thinkers. One of that work’s fundamental points is how rigid, though invisible, America’s own caste system is. “We’re pretty well stuck for life in the class we’re raised in,” is one of Fussell’s key takeaways, along with the rise of a bohemian-like “X-person” class that could move between and beyond the other nine levels (Top Out-of-Sight, Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, High Proletarian, Mid-Proletarian, Low Proletarian, Destitute, Bottom Out-of-Sight…all determined more by tastes than wealth).

Turns out, more recent takes on Fussell’s book have found, that “X-persons” now rule, given the ways they’ll invade the spaces of other classes, especially those below them. Bill Bishop, in his The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, points out what’s happening as people cluster to minimize contact with other classes, even while claiming diversity based on the roots of the new places they’re moving into.

Where does it all lead to? How do we truly diversify a community, a city neighborhood, when our culture pushes us in another direction, from the schools our kids attend to the places we shop?

It’s all a study we need to continue delving into. Even when it involves truly uncomfortable topics, such as class. And even castes.