In a recent interview by Detroit Free Press business writer John Gallagher, Detroit native and author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis (a must-read for anyone interested in Detroit and urban development)Thomas Sugrue stated that revitalizing the Downtown and Midtown areas of an urban center like Detroit does not necessarily lead to a revitalized city as a whole.
Using the phrase “trickle-down urbanism,” Sugrue discussed how urban theories such as Richard Florida’s “creative class” are “exaggerated,” saying:
“ They play a role in making cities more interesting for people like you and me, middle-class highly educated professionals. Look, Detroit is more interesting for a visitor now than 15 or 20 years ago for all the amenities that appeal to creative class types like me. It’s great. I have more restaurants that I want to try in Detroit and more bars that I want to go to than I can possibly visit even on several trips. But there’s not really robust evidence that unless that kind of infusion of capital and population on a large scale happens that (the creative class) is going to play a really dramatic role in remaking cities.”
For those who may be unfamiliar with the term “creative class,” it is essentially exactly what Sugrue said: middle-class highly educated professionals. Sometimes known as yuppies, sometimes referred to as hipsters, or (c) all of the above.
These are supposedly the people who are inadvertently tasked with the revitalization of urban areas who may have experienced years of disinvestment. On the prowl for cheap rent in an area that is edgy enough to impress their suburban counterparts, these are the single or recently married folks in their 20's and 30's who hang out at local bars and coffee shops, make use of local transportation (if it is available…in Detroit that is often a different story…), and most importantly bring the jobs out of the suburbs and into the city.
For the Rust Belt cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, and the plethora of other urban areas struggling to fill the massive hole left by dying industrial corps, the subtle clash between the hipster/yuppie/creative-class-member and the existing working class residents has only become more noticeable. This is probably because what some call revitalization, others may use the more provocative term of gentrification.
Ugh, what a dirty word.
Now, I like coffee and vinyl and yoga classes and bike rides. I like living in a place where I can walk to the bar and my favorite restaurant, I have a college education, and I am cheap. But I have always found issues with the creative class theory, mostly for it’s not-so-subtle elitism and it’s advocacy of, well, gentrification. Instead of integrating into the existing population, creative class advocates often act as though their members are the only way an urban area can make a comeback.
Out with the old, in with the new.
So the personal issue becomes — can young people move into an urban area without destroying the existing population? Can I, and others like me, help revitalize an urban area without becoming a card-carrying member of the creative class and my own worst nightmare?
I have been working my way through The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, and I have found myself falling in love not just with her sass, but with her careful observations of what makes urban neighborhoods lively and diverse. Though her book was written over half a century ago, her creative understanding of the difference between revitalizing and gentrifying an area still ring true. Gentrification often leads to a boom-and-bust cycle that can play out over decades, spurred by corrupt real estate investments and the fear of integrating different socio-economic classes. Revitalization happens when diverse populations, mixed-use structures, re-used and recycled buildings, and a wide range of rent prices attracting all classes are established and communally maintained.
I think that recognizing what gentrification is, what it has become, and what it can be, is a necessity for the yuppies of today to “create” any lasting changes to the urban environment.
Gentrification is only going to become a bigger issue if the value of the people (often working-class and/or minorities) who have lived in the urban areas for decades are not recognized. Because they are valuable. They have added value to their neighborhoods for years; and acting as if they are lesser simply because they are not middle class, or they don’t have a degree, or that their “creativity” has not been validated by a Fortune 500 company is only going to perpetuate the process of urban decay.
As Sugrue so wisely stated said this past week:
“ …the future of a city, if it’s going to be successful, the future of Detroit is going to be improving the everyday quality of life for residents who are living a long way from downtown and a long way from Midtown, who probably aren’t ever going to spend much time listening to techno or sipping lattes.”
Until the “creative class,” if it even exists, starts to re-evaluate their power and priorities, the future of the city looks pretty bleak.