The Symbolic Violence of Gentrification, Part I

Re-contextualizing urban renewal

In an essay published in five parts, Stefano Rumi, a student in Isaac Reed’s Sociology of Power course at University of Virginia, will lay out a critique of gentrification, identify its ideological underpinnings, and analyze what it would take to produce an alternative. Below is the introduction.

“There is no alternative.”

–Popular 1980s political slogan attributed to the Thatcher administration in England.

Since its conception as a distinct sociological phenomenon in 1964, gentrification has become a hot button issue in cities across the United States and the world, spawning a veritable field of academic debates over its nature, merits, and repercussions. As a terminology, gentrification has been used by many scholars to identify a variety of unique but interrelated trends in urban renewal, leading to some semantic uncertainty as to what “gentrification” exactly is. Despite (or perhaps because of) this uncertainty, gentrification has quietly mutated into a globalized logic of urban renewal permeating cities of all shapes and sizes, celebrated by private developers and public officials alike who declare that “there is no alternative.” Yet inherent to gentrification, or the “gentry”-fication of cities is a perpetuation of economic inequality and unequal access to the city by the marginalized poor, whose neighborhoods and communities are re-appropriated for a powerful group of newcomers.

In this five-part series, I explore gentrification through a cultural and theoretical lens and challenge notions that gentrification is a beneficial and inevitable. I build off Neil Smith and Loretta Lees (N. Smith 2002; Lees, Slater, Wyly 2008) to define gentrification as the investment of private capital into previously disinvested working-class or vacant areas of a city that transforms the built and social environment and excludes or displaces original residents in favor of wealthier newcomers.

I focus on the process of gentrification as the movement of capital as a mode of investment into urban neighborhoods to commodify space, avoiding complex debates over the causes and effects of gentrification, as well as theoretical considerations over the nature of gentrifiers themselves. While such a framework simplifies the unique nuances of gentrification in each city, it permits us to clearly examine the ubiquitous role of state and capital in all gentrifying cities. It also emphasizes the experience of gentrification by the gentrified, rather than the gentrifiers, a woefully underdeveloped lacuna within gentrification debates. This focus on displaced and marginalized populations within the city raises fundamental questions of equity and equality in 21st century American society. Combined with an examination of the role of the state in facilitating these new forms of socio-spatial inequality, this interpretation of urban redevelopment has deep ramifications for our understanding of racial inequality and class discrimination today.

I also suggest (along with Harvey 1989, N. Smith 2002, Wyly and Hammel 2005, and others) that gentrification is part of a larger post-Fordist, neoliberal re-structuring of cities by private and public capital investments. From the tell-tale hipster coffee shop to multi-billion-dollar development projects, gentrification is fundamentally reshaping the built environment of the city and the social environment that resides within its neighborhoods. New patterns of spatial and social arrangement are emerging as cities recover and reconfigure in response to the decline of Fordist industry from urban cores in the mid 20th century (Marcuse 1997). Among these fundamental restructurings is the new logic of displacement as a mechanism of expansion and redevelopment and the domination of public life by the private market (Marcuse 1993), solidifying the domination of capital in post-Fordist cities (Marcuse and Van Kempen 1997).

This post-Fordist restructuring of cities through private capital is facilitated through new patterns of public capital investment by the neoliberal state to privatize public space and “prime” neighborhoods ripe for gentrification. Public capital is increasingly deployed to increase the attractiveness of potentially gentrifiable space for the private market to redevelop. Implicit in the neoliberal logic of privatization is the desirability and necessity of new private capital investments to revitalize and improve urban neighborhoods, regardless of its human costs. In addition, the privatization of public sector responsibilities, such as public space and public security, as well as the increased role of private sector agents in dictating patterns of urban redevelopment has fostered gentrification as the dominant tool of revitalization and re-appropriation in the post-Fordist city. In particular, the creation and maintenance of public space for the wealthy raises serious concerns over the exclusion of the poor in the social and spatial environment of the city.

Gentrification scholars have thus far debated and illuminated the material violence committed by the state in privatizing land and displacing residents and local businesses through gentrification, as well as the unaffordability of gentrified space to former residents. I expand this discussion of material violence to argue that gentrifiers enact what Pierre Bourdieu conceptualizes as symbolic violence as laid out in Distinction (Bourdieu 1984)The habitus for new spaces of consumption and the imposition of “legitimate” culture and gentrifier-centric forms of leisure and consumption upon previously occupied space is direct symbolic violence against the gentrified. The internalization (and occasional celebration) of the necessity of gentrification by the dominated who resign themselves to displacement and marginalization, as well as gentrifiers who see displacement as necessary for their interests, is an essential part of the legitimation of gentrification itself.

Underlying gentrification and new patterns of capital reinvestment in the city is the dogmatic belief of the state in the necessity of gentrification and the displacement of the poor for some “greater good.” I incorporate Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptualization of neoliberalism as doxa in my examination of gentrification (Bourdieu 1998a). The entrenchment of neoliberalism as an “inevitable truth about the social world” precludes any debates against gentrification and the neoliberal privatization of the state’s responsibilities, including urban renewal. As doxa, neoliberalism also shapes the habitus of gentrifiers and the gentrified, who accept gentrification as a social inevitability, upholding its symbolic violence against the dominated. This ideology is codified through the state’s actions, such as zoning regulations, property tax increases, developer grants, and public-private partnerships like Business Improvement Districts (BID’s), which constitute a doxa of city management shaped by neoliberal philosophy. These initiatives are represented as ideal compromises between all stakeholders in the city, yet transfer power over public space to private interests looking to rapidly gentrify the city at the expense of current residents. This collusion excludes all other options for equitable renewal as exterior to the relationship between state and capital and therefore heretical. This tacit collusion between the state and capital to redevelop cities and re-appropriate socio-spatial landscapes of culture is another larger form of symbolic violence deeply embedded in the contradictions of neoliberal state philosophy.

This series examines broader processes of gentrification and outlines how Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic power can re-conceptualize our understanding of gentrification within a cultural theory framework of inequality, something that has been missing from gentrification debates. I draw on Henri Lefebvre’s conception of the “right to the city” to guide my exploration of the intended and unintended consequences of gentrification, and the ramifications of urban renewal on creating a just and equitable city. I also answer Pierre Bourdieu’s call to academics, whose responsibility is “to bring to light mechanisms of domination otherwise unnoticed, and experiences of subjugation which might have otherwise persisted beyond limits of verbalization.” (Bourdieu et al 1999) In conceptualizing gentrification fundamentally as violence, I aim to steer future gentrification debates away from agnostic discussion into clear acknowledgement of the stark issues of inequality and segregation plaguing gentrifying cities today.

Stefano Rumi studies Sociology and Social Entrepreneurship as a Jefferson Scholar and Echols Scholar at the University of Virginia. He has recently taught Housing and Urban Poverty, a semester-long undergraduate seminar course at the University of Virginia. Stefano is a 2017 Clinton Global Initiative U Scholar and a 2014 U.S. Presidential Scholar, one of the nation’s highest honors for students.

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