Tuesday, December 02, 2014

When the "creative class" gets displaced

If you live in Houston, then by now you might be aware of local writer Anis Shivani ominously-titled jeremiad, How Oligarchs Destroyed a Major American City.

I originally saw the article last week, when a friend of mine posted it on Facebook. Shivani rails against the what he sees as the unyielding march of corporate-driven inner-west-Houston gentrification, which is changing the character of the city and is forcing him to leave his pleasant apartment on tree-lined Steel Street, near the corner of Kirby and West Alabama and only a few blocks away from the mansions of River Oaks. "Houston has transmogrified into a city ruled by a brutal strain of neoliberalism," Shivani laments. "It took only a few short years for developers to displace the original population of the central neighborhoods, while converting the core city into an exclusive playland for the rich."

The first time I read the article, I was sympathetic to his plight, not only because I also rent in a nice part of town (and therefore live with the fear that the landlord will sell this property out from underneath me at any moment), but also because some of the recent development occurring on the west side of downtown truly is ugly schlock that drives up rents for everybody, makes traffic worse, and will likely sit vacant and deteriorating after the next oil bust occurs. I also felt, however, that Shivani's understanding of the economic forces behind his predicament was rather naive. Houston, after all, is a developer-friendly city. It's been that way since the Allen Brothers founded it, and it's the reason why it has such laughably weak historic preservation codes and why it's the largest city in the nation without zoning.

But after giving the article a second, closer look, I realized something: Shivani's not naive. He's whiny, entitled, illogical and generally clueless. As the Houston Press's Angelica Leicht explains in a must-read critique:
Shivani starts right off by saying that the desirability of Steel Street has made him and his neighbors victims of the leveraging of urban space. 

"My neighbors and I are currently being affected by what I consider the most monstrous example of gentrification in Houston," he says. "My neighbors on Steel Street -- at the Kirby and Alabama intersection, arguably the single most desirable location in Houston -- and I have become victims of the grotesque leveraging of urban space by those who falsely assert that the market alone decide outcomes." (Emphasis added.)

But while this argument may work for Shivani, it's hard for us to equate "victims of the grotesque leveraging of urban space" with folks affluent enough to live on the corner of West Alabama and Kirby. 

What Shivani also fails to note is that the area of Upper Kirby has not been any sort of "urban space" since the 1980s, when the average person could afford to live there. Still, Shivani insists that gentrification is taking over the area, and he cites the rising rents -- which, remarkably enough, he compares to those in New York City -- and corporate indifference as having stamped out the area's intimacy.

He even goes so far as to note the changing face of Montrose in the early 2000s as a prime example of a neighborhood surviving a residential change without being gentrified.

"Artists, writers and eccentrics from around the country descended in droves in the 2000s to take advantage of Houston's livability. They flocked to the legendary 'gayborhood' of Montrose and brought other neighborhoods around downtown to life," Shivani says. "I called Houston in those halcyon years 'Austin-plus' because it had a lot of the capital's aesthetic attractions in addition to remarkable diversity and friendliness."

There's a problem with Shivani's Montrose logic, though. While the author may believe that the influx of creatives into Montrose was a positive change, free from the displacement of residents, he's merely reframing the gentrification that took place in the city's now formerly gay area during that time.
The same people Shivani claims were just taking advantage of the area's livability were responsible for the gentrification of that area, a process after which many of the residents in the once-affordable neighborhood had been forced out. What happened in Montrose was the same type of injustice the writer is complaining about, yet he appears oblivious to that.
Shivani then detours into a tinfoil-hat non-sequitur about Memorial Park: he decries the fact that so many of the trees there were "supposedly killed" by the drought, but suggests that the trees were actually destroyed as an "excuse to 'redevelop'." He calls the recently-unveiled Memorial Park master plan a "boondoggle" that is intended to "take down pristine ecological systems and rebuild them for commercial ends," even though the entire purpose of the master plan is to restore a portion of the park to its original, coastal-prairie-like condition so that it can better sustain the ravages of future droughts.

Things get even more bizarre from there, as Shivani singles out the closure of a mediocre Tex-Mex restaurant as proof of the corporate oligarchy's destruction of his neighborhood and its character. Back to Angelica Leicht:
But as misguided as Shivani's arguments are up to this point, they get downright weird when he uses Taco Milagro, which used to sit at the corner of Westheimer and Kirby, as an example of the hazards of gentrification. 

"Taco Milagro, at the intersection of Kirby and Westheimer, used to be a lively public-private space. The food was very healthy and people from all over the city danced the night away and congregated on the large patio. But at the gateway to River Oaks, with condominiums going up all around, this open space was unacceptable, so Taco Milagro suddenly shut down," he says.

The closing of an upscale taco place, which once sat in an upscale strip center with an upscale cigar bar, is not what gentrification looks like, but again, Shivani seems oblivious to that. 

The entire premise of that argument -- the downfall of a Thursday night hot spot with overpriced margaritas, which was never a bastion of inner-city living -- is so entirely privileged that it's laughable, and furthermore, it just doesn't work.
The further you get into the article, in fact, the more you realize that Shivani probably doesn't understand what true gentrification really is.
Shivani never once sells us on the supposed gentrification of Upper Kirby in his article, even with all those words. What he does sell us on, though, is how privileged he is. It's a point that is driven home when Shivani inexplicably tries to differentiate himself from poor welfare recipients.

"We're not homeless, we're not welfare recipients, we're the backbone of Houston, tens of thousands of hardworking residents who put the city in the position of promoting itself as a cultural destination in the first place," he says. "We ride bikes or walk; we loyally support local establishments; we love our neighborhoods and treasure them, yet we are the ones whose lives are destroyed."

In saying this, Shivani seems blissfully unaware that such examples -- bike lanes, a vibrant local business scene -- are luxuries that many longtime residents of gentrified areas only get to enjoy right before they're priced out of their homes.
Which begs the question: how long was the Steel Street apartment complex Shivani's "home," anyway? His bio says that he has lived in Houston for two decades. Has he lived in that complex the entire time? If so, he's been paying rent (and assuming the risks that come with renting, such as being forced to relocate on short notice) the entire time. Sure, buying property is expensive, and people don't always have the financial wherewithal to do it (I'm trying to get to that place right now). But think how much equity he'd have in an actual house by now, if he had brought something like a Montrose bungalow 15 or 20 years ago, when prices were still affordable and before the corporate oligarchs began their onslaught into "the single most desirable location in Houston." The same goes for some of Shivani's displaced neighbors: a guy with a law degree from UT who has lived there for 40 years, and another man who has lived there for 30.

Ironically, when Shivani speaks of some of his displaced neighbors, he unwittingly describes what gentrification truly is:
Mark (a University of Houston graduate student in literature) and his yoga-teaching wife Lisa also grew a vegetable garden; they have since reluctantly departed to east Houston, the reservoir du jour for the displaced.
In other words, educated, upwardly-mobile members of the "creative class" who have moved to the east side of downtown, where homes are still affordable, and are in turn probably displacing some truly low-income family. This is what is known as real gentrification.

Towards the end of his rant, Shivani suggests some "basic initiatives in the spirit of developing a more progressive urban policy" that Houston should consider. Among them:
An arbitration committee should provide a mechanism for future disputes between neighborhoods and developers, to reduce the power of developers working through the planning commission. The planning commission's arbitrary powers should be severely curtailed.
The planning commission's powers are not "arbitrary." They are carefully delineated by city ordinance and state law. Shivani is utterly ignorant of what powers municipal planning commissions in this state have and do not have, as specified by Texas Local Government Code. And then this:
Rents should be regulated in central districts to retain the kind of people who create urban vitality. A plan should be set in place to make aesthetically appealing housing available at modest cost in historic neighborhoods, in order to counter renewed segregation.
Yes. Rent control to "create urban vitality."Because Shivani is a "creative" who "keeps things real," and therefore the rest of us need to subsidize his rent so he can continue to live in the nicest part of Houston. If Shivani thinks that initiatives such as these would ever fly in a place like Houston, he is simply divorced from reality.

Of course, the purpose of his polemic is not to open up a dialogue about how to reform urban redevelopment efforts in Houston; it's simply an article designed to elicit sympathy and outrage from coastal elites who are just as privileged as Shivani and whose opinion of Houston as a soulless redneck hellhole in the middle of flyover country (even though they've never actually set foot in this city) needs to be reinforced. This is why his screed was published by left-leaning outlets like Alternet and Salon.

Those of us who actually live here, however, know better. Leicht, one last time:
The injustice of the redevelopment of Steel Street -- if "injustice" is what you really want to call it -- is hardly interchangeable with actual gentrification. In cases of true gentrification, the displaced aren't allotted options, and they are certainly not allowed a forum like Alternet to air their grievances. 

Just ask some of the original residents of the East End or Oak Forest, where gentrification is actually happening. You might not find too many of them commenting on Shivani's article or blogging in solidarity, though. Perhaps they're too busy working and trying to find a rent that's feasible for their low-income, welfare-recipient asses to care.
There's also a good discussion about this article on Swamplot, although Shivani himself seems to think that those who comment there are merely "boosters locked into the developers' myopic viewpoint." Which makes me wonder if maybe he's just trolling everyone.

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