Creatively Avoiding Gentrification

Editor’s Note: Continuing our retrospective on the American “sewer socialism” movement.

By Jason Sibert

Today’s city politicians have banked their municipalities’ future on gentrifying neighborhoods. Sometimes this occurs through hubs based on a particular theme: immigrants, restaurants, arts, technology or media. I have nothing against those types of neighborhoods, as I live in St. Louis’ Central West End, a restaurant district. However, neighborhoods like these tend to push out people in the lower-to-middle end of the income spectrum. Many point to the influence of urban theorist Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) on the dominant thinking in big cities in the last few decades. Florida suggested that cities should revive themselves by attracting the “creative class” – information technology and scientific workers and entrepreneurs, artists, chefs, filmmakers and motion picture workers, writers, academics, fashion designers, and other “creative types.” Do these people really represent a ‘class’, sociologically speaking?

When I first read Florida’s book, it seemed like a feel-good, tech-boom treatise.  It makes a good point in that creativity makes a positive impact on cities because it creates wealth. However, this has historically been true of urban civilization (the city-states of ancient Greece were very creative before the information age)

Radical urban theorist Peter Marcuse, a former teacher of Florida’s, said of The Rise of the Creative Class: “well written in an almost chatty style, it reads like a series of well-crafted after dinner speeches at various Chamber of Commerce dinners.” Marcuse (1928-2022), the son of radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse, advocated Marxist ideas I’m not in sympathy with (ditto for Herbert Marcuse), but he held some fascinating ideas on housing as being transformed into a commodity over the years, making the inequalities of the city even greater; social needs taking a back seat to profit, as the poor are forced to pay more for worse housing. In other words, communities are faced with the violence of displacement and gentrification, and the benefits of decent housing are only available for those who can afford it. Peter Marcuse’s book, In Defense of Housing (co-authored by David Madden), provides a good introduction to his views. Housing co-ops are a good antidote to the problems outlined by Marcuse and Madden.

The implementation of Florida’s theories led to middle-to-lower income people being gentrified out of neighborhoods in city after city. Sometimes the people who started the initial gentrification end up being gentrified out of the neighborhoods they called home. While cities should remain open to the influences of creativity, they shouldn’t engage in major cosmetic changes to attract the “creative class”, as creative people will come on their own. Florida’s ideas also lead to cities becoming less diverse. Restaurant and arts districts are wonderful, but every neighborhood does not have to make themselves into one. Similarly, every neighborhood doesn’t have to have an industrial park. Diversity has historically been one of the strong points of cities, so why not keep it that way? 

Urban theorist Joel Kotkin, an opponent of Florida, published an op-ed in 2004 titled “Sewer Socialism” (Los Angeles Times, Sept 12, 2004) that has served as an influence on my series here. He defined sewer socialism as “a back-to-basics strategy that encourages business investment and the development of healthy neighborhoods.” Kotkin gave us a picture of sewer socialism on the West coast: “in the West, it unfolded under the tutelage of business-oriented progressives who invested heavily in basic infrastructure – public education, transit, water, and power systems – to encourage commerce and improve the living conditions for at least part of the middle and working classes. In Los Angeles, cheap water was brought to a dry city to benefit citizens and businesses. Nominally nonpartisan, but mostly Republican, city leaders fostered municipal ownership of utilities and worked to prevent the Southern Pacific Railroad from dominating the city’s new port. They also zoned to create a multipolar city to avoid the pitfalls of the traditional industrial one.”

The mayoralty of Los Angeles Democratic Mayor Tom Bradley (1973-1993) represented a version of sewer socialism, as stated by Kotkin: “to some extent, a variant of sewer socialism was practiced in Los Angeles during the 1980s when Mayor Tom Bradley united labor and corporate interests. Together, they pushed for the development of a job-creating infrastructure – most notably at the airport and port complexes – that help lay the foundation for the city’s ascendancy in the 1980s as the primary US hub for Pacific Rim trade and commerce.”  Sewer socialism took a different form in the Northeast and Midwest, as stated by Kotkin: “in the more industrialized Midwest and Northeast, the progressive impulse frequently took on a proletarian coloration. In places like Bridgeport, Milwaukee and, most remarkably, New York City under Fiorello LaGuardia, reformers were openly supported by socialists and leftist labor activists. The goal of their policies was to improve basic services and infrastructure for the vast majority of citizens, not just a designated elite.”

A modern sewer socialism would respect creativity and its economic benefits, but it would concentrate on delivering services to residents in an efficient manner. It would also support various forms of organized labor, municipalizing capital-intensive services, and housing co-ops for people in the middle-to-lower end of the income spectrum. However, it would not see gentrification as an end in itself!

Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.

One thought on “Creatively Avoiding Gentrification

  1. I agree, and Bernie Sanders’ revitalization of Burlington, Vermont during his time as Mayor there is a key example of how you can revitalize a city without displacing the poor and working class.

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