A trio of academics attempt an engaging and instructive experiment with their recently published book, Gentrifier (University of Toronto Press, 2017). Through their own lives, John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill explore and challenge the ideas and parameters of gentrification.
Although the suburbs are anything but dead, an increasing number of Americans are choosing an urban life. Many cities (and historic streetcar suburbs) provide residents with walkable neighborhoods. More Americans want to step out their front doors and walk to a grocer, a cafe, or maybe even a movie theater. Meanwhile, Americans are rediscovering the needs and joys of community. These are encouraging, positive trends.
However, a renewed desire for urban living places pressure on cities’ housing markets. This leads to changes in the urban fabric and built environment. Boosters call this progress. Critics call it gentrification. A great debate concerning gentrification rages among activists, politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and everyday citizens in many improving cities and those poised for a rebound.
Unfortunately, much of the discussion remains cast in simplistic, black-and-white terms (This malady besets our entire political discourse). Thankfully, Gentrifier attempts to change this dynamic. Schlichtman, Patch, and Hill present refreshing arguments: they posit that gentrification is a tangled, nuanced phenomenon and that nearly every urban resident plays a role within its movements.
The authors chronicle their own personal and professional lives in different neighborhoods and cities and analyze how their actions and choices correspond to their philosophies and politics. Instead of seeing facile and pure comparisons, the authors discovered that their decisions and lives were complex and sometimes contradictory.
For example, Schlichtman intended to raise his mixed-race family in an African-American community in the South Side of Chicago, partially as a social statement. However, the immediate needs of his family–good schools, safe streets, home equity–led him and his wife to purchase a condominium in a different section of the city. The other authors reveal similar anecdotes.
Structurally, Gentrifier weaves together personal stories with dense, theoretical discussions. This format marks a bold choice for academics. However, the book is not directed at the casual, educated reader: it is for the specialist.
Gentrification sits at the forefront of the public imagination in America’s desirable cities and urban areas. If crafted for a general reading public, Gentrifier would likely make a real impact on the current gentrification debate. Still, any reader interested in the topic should give the book a chance.