by Winifred Curran

One of my great pleasures as a parent is introducing my children to the urban wonders that I love. I could not have been prouder of my children’s pure joy in admiring the New York City skyline by ferry, their appreciation of the architecture of the Guggenheim museum, or their fascination with the history of the working waterfront as presented by the Brooklyn Historical Society in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn. I have brought them on many an urban expedition with me: in Chicago, where we live, in New York City, where I am from, in Toronto and Dublin, where I have brought them on research trips. And yet, often, these excursions that I take them on are painful, as I see the ways in which the places that I love have become almost unrecognizable to me over time. This is not mere nostalgia. It is rather a reflection of the frustrations and exhaustion that accompany my chosen profession as an urban geographer who works on contesting gentrification.

It’s no great mystery as to why I am interested in gentrification. I am a native of Brooklyn. I became an urban geographer because I am fascinated by the way that cities change and want to understand why. Many people think geography is simply memorizing places on a map. That would be a very boring occupation. I am a geographer because the discipline is the study of why things happen where they do. For someone concerned with cities, it is impossible to ignore that fact that in the cities where I have lived, gentrification is the way that the city is changing. I understand gentrification as the process through which previously disinvested neighborhoods are physically upgraded, attracting higher income users and resulting in the displacement of working-class residents. Displacement is central to the experience of gentrification.

I remember the blackout of 1977 in New York City that led to violence in the most disinvested neighborhoods of Brooklyn, though for me, as a child, it meant getting to have melting ice cream for breakfast. Decades later, a friend— a Caribbean man from one of those neighborhoods, Bushwick— breathlessly called me one day in the early 2000s to tell me that he had seen, like, four white people on the way to the train that morning, in a neighborhood in which, for decades, there would have been none. When I go back to New York now, the buzz-worthy new restaurants and bars inevitably turn out to be in Bushwick. How does that happen?

This same question infused my research in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. In 2000, I read an article about the ongoing strike by union longshoremen at Williamsburg’s Domino Sugar factory. I wondered how it was that an “old-school” industry like sugar refining could survive on the Brooklyn waterfront in a neighborhood that was then, as it continues to be to some extent, a mecca for hipsters. The answer, I discovered, was that it doesn’t. The Domino plant was closed in 2004, in concert with a systematic rezoning of the waterfront, which rezoned much of the area from manufacturing to mixed-use zoning that allowed for high-density residential construction on the waterfront in towers up to 30 stories tall. This rezoning resulted in the displacement of a number of local manufacturers, whose industrial aesthetic may have been valued, but whose actual work was not. There was nothing natural about this process. Years of community meetings had shown a local desire to maintain the industrial, working-class character of the neighborhood. But policymakers decided manufacturing was “obsolete” and then actively worked to make that obsolescence real through rezonings and harassment of industrial businesses. Their strategies included regular citations for minor building infractions and strict parking regulation enforcement, not to mention their involvement in the systematic decline in the supply of affordable housing for an industrial work force that often walked to work. 

The Domino Sugar factory building is now part of a larger redevelopment project with towers reaching up to 55-stories that, when completed, will add 2,800 housing units as well as office and retail space to the area. A new park is meant to “honor” the industrial history of the site by incorporating syrup tanks and gantry cranes, but this tribute replicates the narrative that industry was long dead, when, in fact, it was actively pushed out.

That is the problem with the story we are often told about gentrification, that it is the inevitable result of a natural process of urban change. Cities are always changing; that is inevitable, and indeed, one of the things we love so much about them. But the way that change happens is the result of specific decisions made by people at a variety of scales, from national governments and global financial investors to local policymakers, developers, and individual neighbors. When it comes to gentrification, these decisions are often undemocratic and in direct contradiction to what existing urban residents want.

That was my experience not only in the Williamsburg example mentioned above but in Pilsen, a rapidly gentrifying Mexican neighborhood in Chicago where I have been teaching and doing research for 15 years. I have seen the city and developers engage in profoundly undemocratic strategies such as planting (and even paying) supporters to attend community meetings, not publicizing community meetings, making threats, insulting community members, and maintaining a complete lack of transparency in the decision-making process. An example: Years ago, in response to a community referendum that passed with 95% of the vote, the alderman in Pilsen established a zoning board made up of representatives from community organizations and long-term residents to review requests for zoning changes. The first project to come before the board, later known as Chantico Lofts, was denied. In response, the alderman disbanded the zoning board and invited only his allies to join the reformed body. The alderman approved the change, so it then went before the zoning committee of the City Council. At this meeting, when my colleague testified against the development, he was told by an alderman, “We dictate the rules. We write the rules and you don’t answer me. We tell you… And you are not going to ask me any questions. We are going to tell you now.” [i]

On another project to develop 287 units of housing on the site of what had been a fruit wholesaler, a long-term resident who testified to her concern with displacement was told by the Vice Chair of the Chicago Plan Commission, “It clearly is gentrification, and it does push people out of their homes, and it does hurt people…But you know what it is? It’s progress, and that’s what’s happening.”[ii]

How can we have an open and honest conversation about the future of the city and who the city is for when this is the approach? Developers and policymakers act as though gentrification is an inevitable dictate of the global market in which cities must participate in order to thrive. Communities have been presented with the false choice between gentrification or concentrated poverty. There are other options. We can imagine and build a better city that works for everyone. The community, so often idealized in the discourse but ignored in the practice of gentrification, needs to be heard and valued. I have had the privilege of working with committed activists who are passionate, creative, and sophisticated. They are also exhausted with having to fight these battles again and again, with having to justify their existence, their right to the city.

This is what I see when I show my children the cities I love. I see the history of struggle, the legacy of racist discrimination, of redlining, of systematic disinvestment, of unequal access to resources. I see the new residents who know nothing of that history. I miss the matzo factory and the hardware store and the bakery and the shoe repair that were forced out. And I cannot imagine why we need another Walgreens and luxury condo in their place. But I know we can do better.

[i] City Council of Chicago Committee on Zoning. 2005. Excerpt of Proceedings in Re: Application 14606 25th Ward. June 23. Lo Verde Reporting Service: 143.

[ii] Chicago Plan Commission. 2006. RE: Matters submitted in accordance with the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection ordinance and/or the Chicago Zoning Ordinance. A proposed residential business planned development submitted by 18th and Peoria, LLC for the property commonly known as 1600-1799 South Peoria; 829-931 West 16th Street; 832-930 West 18th Street, 1600-1624 South Newberry Street. Transcribed report of proceedings. Accurate Reporting Service. February 16.

Winifred Curran, Associate Professor of DePaul University's College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences is pictured in a studio portrait Monday, Feb. 9, 2015.
Winifred Curran (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)

Dr. Winifred Curran is an associate professor of geography at DePaul University. Her research focuses on understanding the effects of gentrification on the urban landscape, looking at labor, policing, environmental gentrification, and the gendering of urban policy. She is the author of Gender and Gentrification (Routledge 2018) and co-editor, with Trina Hamilton, of Just Green Enough: Urban Development and Environmental Gentrification (Routledge 2018). Her work has appeared in Urban Studies, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Environment and Planning A, Urban Geography, and Local Environment. She was a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project, with op-eds published in The New York Times, Daily Beast, and The Conversation. She received her PhD from Clark University.

SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 5  · May 2019
Header image by london road