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BPR Interviews: Peter Moscowitz

Peter Moscowitz is an author and journalist from New York City. He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, VICE, Slate, and Al Jazeera America. In addition, he is the author of How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight For the Neighborhood. Peter is also the co-founder of Study Hall, a media collaborative with over 1,000 members.   

How to Kill a City analyzes gentrification in four cities: New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Detroit. Why did you choose these four cities, and how were their processes of gentrification similar and different?

I chose them because, to me, they represented the four distinct stages of gentrification that researchers have talked about for several decades. The first stage is bottom-up gentrification, where white people, artists, and hipsters move into the city, buy property, and “fix it up.” The second stage is a continuation of that, but more of a “yuppification” of things. The third and fourth stages are more top-down, with corporations and banks doing it on their own. So, for me, Detroit represented phase one, New Orleans phase two, New York phase three, and San Francisco phase four. What I ended up discovering, though, is that the bottom-up phases of gentrification don’t really exist anymore. Gentrification now is nearly always state-sponsored and done in tandem with the state and corporations.

New Orleans was really important to focus on, because Hurricane Katrina showed this caricatured version of how gentrification works. The city and the state used it as an opportunity to enact racist housing policies that would essentially remove as many poor black people from the city as possible and make the city whiter and richer. It can sound like a conspiracy, but it is very well-documented—the governor at the time said it took the “storm of a lifetime to create the opportunity of a lifetime.” Then she went about closing down public schools and turning them into charter schools. Every public housing project was demolished, even though very few of them were damaged by the storm, and they were replaced by for-profit housing. Today, New Orleans’ population is back to pre-storm levels, but there are approximately 100,000 fewer black people living in the city. It was essentially a story of attempted ethnic cleansing. While it was more extreme there than in the other cities, it showed how purposeful this process is—it’s not just the random wills of a bunch of white hipsters moving somewhere, it’s about the state doing this on purpose.

Are there any policies that city, state, or federal governments can take on to help slow gentrification?

The biggest solution is universal rent control. The only reason that New York isn’t as expensive as San Francisco, and the reason it has maintained a larger percentage of its black population, is that New York has stringent rent control laws. Unfortunately, they’re not universal, but they’ve been very effective in their limited capacity. Every time I say this people ask, “what about more realistic solutions?” My answer is, simply, that there aren’t any. New York has been trying those more realistic solutions—Mayor Bill de Blasio does inclusionary zoning, and he has hired some lawyers to represent low income tenants if they’re being evicted—but gentrification is obviously not anywhere near stopping in New York. This is a huge problem that requires ambitious political thinking to solve.

How do you think framing gentrification in terms of prosperity or safety affects discussions around it?
I’ve gotten a lot less guarded with the way I describe things, because the more I research this stuff, the more willing I am to say that this is about blatant racism. When you see how this is discussed, like that it “makes the neighborhood safer?” Safer for whom? For black people who live in that neighborhood and are now being overpoliced, is it safer for them? New York always brags about drops in crime, that the city is the safest it’s ever been. But if you actually look at the areas surrounding New York where a lot of low-income people have had to move, crime rates and drug addiction and all the things you associate with “urban decay” have moved out there. Gentrification is not a solution to any of those large social issues. It’s just a way to make neighborhoods “safer” and more accessible to a certain class of people.

What do you see as the future of American cities?
If they’re not all underwater? I think we’re going to continue seeing a kind of economic sorting on a very large scale. I think New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco will continue to become these kinds of jewel-box luxuries that many cannot afford, that are essentially just a museum to wealth. They’ll still need poor people to be the nannies and garbagemen for those people, but I don’t see them not being gentrified anytime soon. Instead, I see the middle class moving to places like Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Detroit.