The problem with gentrification

Depending on your way of looking, urban transformations can be appreciated either as intense controversies or as black boxes labeled under the label of gentrification. Although at the beginning gentrification looks like a controversy itself, the debates around this concept seem is getting cold and shaped as a not official agreement (Hammet, 1991) between the ones who believe gentrification is produced by the market supply and the others who think that it is the result of the market demand.

The discussions about 1. the nature of the gentrifying agent, about 2. how to approach, methodologically, this problem and 3. about what to look: whether the particular movements of capital through the rent gap theory or the social restructuring through the changes in the way of consuming, are getting attenuated and melted in a solidified and theoretical determinism from economy. The proportions of this mixture depend on the intentions of each researcher.

From this perspective, culture, public institutions and, in general, social groups are participating in a secondary level as attenuators and energizers of the gentrification process (Checa-Artasu, 2011). Their role seems to be subordinated to a superior intention that, like a kind of invisible hand, from the market, is regulating and controlling the whole transformation process.

In this way, gentrification as a black box can be used as a foolproof recipe in almost any urban context: a poor neighborhood —either industrial or residential— is gentrified through complex real estate marketing maneuvers benefitting big investors and speculators, stripping and evicting the old residents. The particularities of every single place are used only as a landscape for setting and decorating any specific situation.

So, due to the relativist point of view of the Action Network Theory (ANT), as well as because of its interest on understanding the social as a kind of relationship, instead of as a specific domain (Latour, 2005), it is not possible to conceive gentrification as a solid entity. It means that we can not use this concept as a concrete and delimited thing for explaining how the complex changes and transformation of our contemporary reality.

If urban places are a never ended product,  —in a permanent collective construction—our task as urban researchers should be to describe how that continuous assemblage is produced. For doing that we need to “go into the contents not for presenting [an urban place] as a product, but for showing how this product is elaborated and in that way concentrating us on the practices of [those who are participating in its assemblage].” (Tirado & Domènech 2005, 4. Own translation)

That is the reason why doing research using ANT is extremely slow. We have to walk over unstable terrains where nothing can be taken for granted and everything should be explained. Coming back to the proposal of understanding the social as a kind of relationship and through following different trajectories across three different stories, I pretend to present with this work, first, how this entanglement was produced. And second, how this assemblage generated, among other things, a complex process of urban transformation that is bigger than the limited and deterministic explanations used from the economic point of view for explaining those kinds of situations.

The first story is an attempt for locating the process to observe in a specific space. It will be about the history of Williamsburg, specifically of the Northside, and focusing on the breaking points of this location. The second one will follow the trajectory of the bohemian. We will go from the Latin quarter in Paris, in the Second French Empire, to the blocks full of industrial buildings of the north of Williamsburg. We will also make a stop in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 80s and the postwar countercultural explosion. 

Finally, the third story will focus on the encounter between both the bohemian and the bourgeois trajectory and their later relationship and implications with/in the transformation of the Northside. Then, we will come back to the first story for adjusting our focus on the emergence of that relationship (that thing that some people could understand in a quick way as gentrification) in order to try —as Deleuze and Guattari proposed (1987) and Callén and others are pointing (2001)— to establish a law for each particular case.