Urban Social Justice: the Gentrification Debate

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Question: “The contemporary city is being made into an unjust space”, discuss.

The contemporary city is a complex and ever developing organism that maintains a level of influence in the world that has never been seen before. Major cities such as New York, London and Tokyo are global command centers for the world’s economy and have direct and indirect influences on just about everyone engaged in the world society. However despite all the leaps and bounds that cities have made as far as growth and power, there are more micro-level social and economic issues that have been exacerbated by this progression. The essence of the city has and always will be the people that inhabit it; how they live, work and interact should be the primary focus of any urban environment. Gentrification, social and economic stratification and even unjust organization of space are some of the most pressing problems that many cities are facing. Interestingly enough, depending on whom you ask, you could get an extremely positive or negative view on the direction that the contemporary city is headed. In the mid-twentieth century a number of different factors lead to large-scale migration of middle-class white people in America from the inner city to the suburbs. Some dubbed this the “white flight” and was caused by a combination of social, economic and spatial influences. Following WWII there was a surplus of housing demand and large-scale suburban development quickly ensued. When coupled with the creation of President Eisenhower’s Federal Interstate Highway and the introduction of GI loans, owning a house in the suburbs became both convenient and affordable. On top of this many middle-class whites were feeling pressured from the increasing minority and immigrant population and felt that the suburbs would be a “safer” place to raise children. Real-estate developers pushed the image of the “American Dream” as owning a house with a front lawn out in the safe and peaceful suburbs. On top of that the city was openly painted as a haven of criminal activity and squalor.

Ironically, today people have fallen out of love with the classic idea of the American Dream and there is a “back to the city” movement where many young suburbanites are making the move back to different urban centers as from the suburban neighborhoods they grew up in. The new generation’s desire to be ever more “connected” and “in tune” with the unique social dynamics and increased exposure that occurs in modern cities has increased the attractiveness of urban life. However, while this influx of middle-class or as Richard Florida has labeled, the “creative class” professionals may seem harmless enough, there are some serious direct and indirect social/economic consequences that have occurred with this change in demographic.

Gentrification is a hot button term that over the years has been given many different descriptions. Merriam-Webster Dictionary simple defines Gentrification as: “The process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents”. While this definition is effective in its simplicity, what gentrification actually translates to within a community is something that has been continuously debated. Economists, sociologists and urban theorists alike have all try to tackle the task of, both quantifiably and qualitatively, assessing the issue of gentrification. However, due to the laxity of the term and the scope of the area of interest different people’s analyses have yielded different findings.

One of the most heavily debated tenants of gentrification is the issue of displacement. Displacement is the process by which can most readily be defined by the process through which residents are directly or indirectly forced out of their homes and have to move to another location outside of their neighborhood. However, as with anything regarding gentrification, the cause and the prevalence...
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