Gentrifier: A Book Review

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.

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Slouching Toward Bethlehem: American Barbarism

“The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them … Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

Thus spoke Sir Winston Churchill about the special, vital place of arts and culture in the national life. Churchill was a staunch defender of the values and accomplishments of Western Civilization: liberal democracy, the rule of law, a vibrant press, and the fine arts. As noted in a past post, Churchill was a respected author and an artist of some talent. Ironically enough, President Trump names Churchill as one of his historical and political heroes.

Is this our current moment? If so, we’re failing to answer the call. Poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1917 (Courtesy of Library of Congress).

Certain figures within the Trump administration subscribe to the theory that a declining Western world is under attack by militant Islam and a reinvigorated China. For a moment, let’s presume that this idea is true. If American and Western civilization are besieged and endangered, shouldn’t we study, promote, and cherish what makes us unique, essential, and daresay superior? Namely, our history, our culture, and our art. These images and stories can empower and inspire us to struggle and fight for our people, our nation, and our way of life.

During the darkest days of World War II, the forerunner to the Arts Council of England was founded in Great Britain to promote British culture in 1940. While consumed by the Allied war efforts and preparing for America’s inevitable entry into the conflict, Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. in March 1941. Clearly, art and culture matter, even in wartime.

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Jersey City and America: Will We Ever Value Culture?

This past Sunday, I drove around Jersey City with the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy to survey homes, businesses, and assorted properties redeveloped in an aesthetically- and historically-minded fashion over the past year. Jersey City’s bounty of interesting, beautiful buildings astounded me. These treasures exist well beyond the sanctioned historic districts and the increasing affluent downtown.

Well south of Journal Square, in a notorious, crime-ridden pocket of the city, I walked along a three-block street of lovely, red-brick row homes with ornate cornices and tall front stoops. While some houses cried for a loving hand to restore them to their past glory, other homes were well-maintained with small front gardens and freshly painted iron gates. If Jersey City continues to be a residential choice, all the homes will receive much-deserved attention and care.

Jersey City’s neighborhoods hold former fraternal lodges, mothballed warehouses, hulking industrial structures, and the past homes of prominent, yet oft-forgotten physicians, businessmen, attorneys, and politicians. These spaces carry the spirit and essence of history. Unfortunately, walking through Jersey City, one would barely know it.

Parodi Cigar Company factory, Jersey City, New Jersey (Photograph by author). Another forgotten or underutilized treasure in the city.

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