I didn’t want to put the word “gentrification” in the title, because I think it is a term that is often misused and that maybe we run the risk of overusing it. When we call any new development a sign of “gentrification,” we should also do the hard work of saying how the urban “growth” is disadvantaging current residents (including the homeless), businesses, and the life and spirit of business or residential districts. If I do not do that, then I think I will lose people who either don’t understand the processes of gentrification or don’t care, and I will be making an unreflectively harsh condemnation of business trends in a downtown I work in but don’t currently live in nor plan to live in. Maybe this is a cry for help (I want to understand!), but as much as I like buzzwords, I want to find a more specific language to address any injustice and bring about every liberation in our cities.
That said, here are some words, expressed in singeing satire, from the French author Honoré de Balzac in his 1846 novel La Cousine Bette, of whom and of which I have written elsewhere. Eighteen forty-six. Not even a translator could make this up!
“To paint a picture of this neighborhood, whose houses were filled by industrials without industries, by dangerous iron-workers, by indigents freed from perilous jobs, it should be noted that the landlords would not dare venture in to reclaim their rent and could not find lawyers willing to expel their insolvent tenants.
“In this moment, Speculation…will without doubt modify the population because in Paris, the trowel is more civilizing than we think! In building elegant and beautiful high-class homes, surrounding them with pavement and boutiques, Speculation eliminates, by the price of rent, the squatters, the renters of unfurnished homes, and the worst tenants. In this way the neighborhoods get rid of their decaying populations and its hovels where the police never set foot unless required by justice….The elegant pedestrian…would be surprised to find, in these blighted streets, the aristocracy rubbing shoulders with lowly Bohemians.”
Earlier in the novel, describing another neighborhood, the author comments on “the intimate alliance between misery and splendor.” I think he saw the agony of the problem, but sadly I do not think he had a vision for renewing his Paris and saving its people.
Let’s do better! Let’s support what works. Let’s cultivate hope. Let’s restore our cities and our people.