Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents, by Matthew L. Schuerman

Richard J. Williams praises a complex even-handed analysis of what has happened to our cities  

February 6, 2020
San Francisco
Source: Getty

Gentrification has been great business for property people – and lately for academics, mainly in the social sciences. It isn’t by any means a new topic. The term was coined in 1964 by Ruth Glass, a German-born British sociologist, to describe changes she observed in the London of that time. Sharon Zukin’s groundbreaking study of gentrification in lower Manhattan, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (1982), is based on work done in the 1970s. To my mind, gentrification really went academically mainstream after the 2008 financial crash, when cities worldwide became unassailable as centres of financial power – and, as superstar economist Thomas Piketty explained to us, the rate of return on capital outstripped economic growth (or as he put it, g). In those conditions, gentrification was the business to be in. The Guardian’s Cities section, which has just announced its demise, has been almost entirely about gentrification in its six-year existence.

As the subtitle of Matthew Schuerman’s very readable book indicates, gentrification is divisive. For most if not all academics in the gentrification business, it is something to be stopped, and their work is a form of activism. The objections are widely understood: housing markets in which housing has become a luxury commodity; the destruction of social housing; and displacement. The problem is especially acute in the world’s richest cities, with San Francisco and London being particularly egregious examples.

Schuerman’s book is a journalistic narrative, based on extensive interviews with both players and victims in the field of gentrification. It accepts gentrification as a fact of life (“gentrification is neither good nor bad”), and its judgements are cautious. History is good at telling us what not to do, the author writes, rather than what we should do, and all we know about the future is that “it will be different”. These conclusions may be too bland for some readers, but they shouldn’t be put off: this is an intimate study of gentrification in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco over nearly 70 years. What is good about it is partly that long view. What is also good is the moral complexity: almost everyone in the story believes they are doing the right thing, even when in retrospect they’re clearly not.

In its treatment of Chicago and New York, the book reminds us how precarious their futures were in the 1970s. What seems inevitable now was science fiction at the time. And Schuerman is particularly strong on the lived experience of gentrification, and what it feels like to be displaced (the account of San Francisco’s Mission District is a great read). The wreckage of both gentrification and solutions to the gentrification problem litter every page; if nothing else, this is a story of unintended consequences.

The section on San Francisco and the tech industry in the early 2000s is especially good: nobody here emerges well, with conservation lobbies, tech firms’ busing solutions and ineffectual government conspiring to produce an unliveable city out of what was one of the world’s most eminently liveable ones. How much intelligence and capital there is in that place, and how misdirected it has been. But there is perhaps hope in Schuerman’s conclusion that “Gentrification will not last forever.”

Richard J. Williams is professor of contemporary visual cultures at the University of Edinburgh. His most recent book is Why Cities Look the Way They Do (2019).

Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents
By Matthew L. Schuerman
University of Chicago Press, 320pp, £23.00
ISBN 9780226476261
Published 6 December 2019

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