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Saturday, October 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: Conspiracy thinking, nostalgia don’t solve gentrification

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes opinions for the Spokesman-Review. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes opinions for the Spokesman-Review. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

According to author P.E. Moskowitz, “gentrification is not an accident … it’s a purposeful set of actions to turn cities from communities into commodities.” Moskowitz was featured in a forum a week ago sponsored by Councilwoman Kate Burke on “Growing the Better Way” to discuss gentrification in Spokane.

Gentrification is a relatively new word in urban planning circles, coined in 1964 by British sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the evolutionary process of growing a city. It is rarely used in a positive sense, usually laid as a guilt trip on new residents in revitalized urban neighborhoods.

You see it at work where Kendall Yards meets the West Central neighborhood on Bridge Avenue. The contrast between the north and south sides of the street is jarring. Kendall Yards has attracted middle-class families, raised the value of neighboring properties, and increased the city’s tax base to pay for services and amenities for all. But lower-income residents fear being priced out of the neighborhood by higher taxes and higher rents, or by the sale of rental properties into a hot real estate market.

Gentrification also describes the renovation of abandoned industrial buildings into housing, or the demolition of 1960s rancher homes abutting Manito Golf Course to be replaced with larger and higher priced homes. Gonzaga University’s expansion into the Logan neighborhood is a form of gentrification. Expanding transit and improving parks are good, and also fall under the label. Gentrification describes the development of downtown Spokane Falls from site of an annual multitribe fishing camp to a collection of wood frame cabins to the urban core it is today. It’s how cities have always organically grown, one use and user supplanting another.

That doesn’t mean the supplanted don’t have legitimate concerns. Addressing those concerns requires understanding what’s driving the development.

Burke invited Moskowitz to lecture on the motivation and research behind his book “How To Kill a City – Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood.” Moskowitz grew up in Brooklyn on a block that once housed a mix of low-rise residential and industrial uses, including a garage for garbage trucks. Moskowitz nostalgically recalled the smell of rotting garbage wafting through his bedroom window as part of his childhood.

The aroma was what made it an affordable neighborhood for his parents. In his book, Moskowitz identified de-industrialization of cities as one driver of gentrification. Move out the garbage trucks and the neighborhood becomes more desirable to live in. More desirable demands a higher price as more people want to live there. Higher property values mean greater revenues for the city to provide services. It also means people who need cheaper places to live are displaced. These are the dilemmas of growth and have been for millennia. Recognizing the evolutionary dynamic is a useful place to start a discussion.

But Moskowitz was sure it’s more sinister. He doesn’t trust government to solve the dilemma, and called on the people to seize the invisible levers of power to wrest control of government from politicians and real estate moguls. He denied gentrification is the result of individual decisions about highest and best use of private property and put the blame on a century of back-room conspiracies and public policies encouraging economic development at the expense of neighborhoods. He semi-jokingly called for an economic crash as the best way to stop gentrification.

Moskowitz proposed heavily regulated or publicly owned housing as the solution, calling on more government as the solution to a problem he blames on government. His book defines gentrification as “systemic violence based on decades of racist housing policy,” and complains, “American cities are now forced to rely completely on their tax base to pay for basic services” while being vague on exactly who else should be paying.

Conspiracy thinking isn’t useful and it’s usually wrong. Every policy has the potential for unintended consequences. Zoning to separate garbage handling facilities from residential areas weren’t adopted to force poor people out of their neighborhoods. That may have been the result, but not the intent.

Childhood nostalgia for the way a neighborhood used to be is a poor guide for how a neighborhood should be today. There is no rational case for denying access to transit, parks and odorless summer nights just to keep the rent low. Or for demanding rent be kept low when the value is higher, without recognizing the cost and the unintended consequences.

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