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This text is by Michael Stone-Richards in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

Thoughts Propaedeutic to Talking about Gentrification, or, The Coruscant Effect

Michael Stone-Richards


There are a tremendous number of people who would like to leave [the city] and go to the suburbs. They are really running away because they feel that their lives are a constant misery to them. The poor would like to leave also but they know they can’t, so they call the others s.o.b.s for running away. Those who go to the suburbs are leaving a horror behind. Yet we know that as long as they just see themselves as escaping, eventually the suburbs come to the same end.

James and Grace Lee Boggs with Freddy and Lyman Payne, “Community” from Conversations in Maine: Exploring our Nation’s Future (South End Press Collective, 1978)

The key link in a perpetual slum is that too many people move out of it too fast – and in the meantime dream of getting out.

Jane Jacobs, “Unslumming and Slumming” from The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961)

To this day there isn’t a Dutch who wouldn’t die to save Amsterdam. Do you think any New Yorker today would die for New York, or a Detroiter for Detroit?

James and Grace Lee Boggs with Freddy and Lyman Payne, “Community” from Conversations in Maine: Exploring our Nation’s Future (South End Press Collective, 1978)


The German eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, the period of the development of that distinctively German concept of Bildung – formation, education, spiritual development – saw the emergence of the bourgeois idea, as a variant of the aristocratic Grand Tour, that in order to  be cultivated, to be fully aware of one’s capacities in the ethical, aesthetic, as well as psychological spheres, one had, in a profound sense, to become alienated from oneself, before, eventually, re-covering oneself at a higher level of synthesis which does not simply leave behind but subsumes and transforms the traces and structures of one’s past, of one’s spiritual past, that is, not one’s ordinary social past. Readers of European philosophy and poetics will recognize in this formulation the distinctively Hegelian concept of Aufhebung – made more recently available to contemporary thought through Derrida’s translation as la relève1- one of the most untranslatable of Hegelian terms but which can be translated in a working way as elevation (or lifting up) with subsuming, as well as conservation and negation. The image par excellence of this set of contradictory movements, that is, movement at once psychological and informingly cultural, where, that is, the experience of movement is not to be understood as personal (Erlebnisse) but as structural (Erfahrung), came to be that of the journey or voyage, in particular the journey to foreign or strange lands – this is not the land of the so-called “other” – as part of one’s very being, that difference must be incorporated into identity. It was to capture the strangeness and power of this ideal of transforming cultivation – that to become oneself one must in some sense experience oneself as foreign, strange – that the late Antoine Berman, one of the leading thinkers and theorists of translation, titled his greatest work L’Épreuve de l’étranger (Gallimard, 1984): the experience, the ordeal of the foreign, the foreigner, the foreign place, the stranger, or the strange place.2 We no longer have the Grand Tour – the world has long been getting smaller in every sense of the word – and the idea of Bildung did not survive even World War I, but the journey or voyage as experience and image of transformative growth is still currently available, however etiolated. Of course, it cannot be to New York, or San Francisco that one journeys, or the South West, or even, any longer Appalachia – let’s say that Alan Lomax has not left much. Enter the City within our midst, the City as world-historical phenomenon (Fordism, say) and the collapse of the idea of order represented by the profound undoing of the achievements of this world-historical City. Detroit is such a City, a City that could well have joined T.S. Eliot’s roll call of undone civilizational cities from The Waste Land (The Criterion and The Dial, 1922)–

Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

With the turn away from the other, as world economies converge, little remains that can be considered exotic or other, after all, and the concomitant turn away from the objectification built-in to the lenses of the Western camera for capturing the so-called other, Detroit (place, idea, function) has become the locus of the new journey or voyage of spiritual development and critical cultural awareness (again, where the development in the person is not to be understood as strictly personal but structural), the focus of the meme, the Hamlet-like pointing: Here lies Capitalism, we knew it well, a Thing of infinite forms and appetites, and there, dear Friend, lay the many victims of its voracious needs, and yonder lay the skeleton, the ruins of the once handsome bodies given up in lotus dreams to this Great Beast. All true of course, in its own way. Almost at random, Rebecca Solnit:

North of Eight Mile, the mostly white suburbs seem conventional, and they may face the same doom as much of conventional suburban America if sprawl and auto-based civilization die off with oil shortages and economic decline. South of Eight Mile, though, Detroit is racing to a far less predictable future.

It is a remarkable city now, one in which the clock seems to be running backward as its buildings disappear and its population and economy decline. The second time I visited Detroit I tried to stay at the Pontchartrain, but the lobby was bisected by drywall, the mural seemed doomed, and the whole place was under some form of remodeling that resembled ruin, with puddles in the lobby and holes in the walls, few staff people, fewer guests, and strange grinding noises at odd hours.3

And the focus of this cultural exemplarity, the stalking horse for the Great Beast, has become of late Gentrification. Enter, again, almost at random, one Nick Jaina, also on his journey or voyage of self-realization to Detroit, who makes the link between the City in which the clock seems to be running backwards – and he will even quote Solnit – and gentrification:

If you spend any time at all in Detroit, you will invariably start talking about gentrification. It is a subject lurking in every city in America, but in Detroit it is laid bare to shocking degree, like a patient who has been out on the operating table. But what are we talking about when we talk about gentrification? It’s a word that is usually said as an epithet, as though we were talking about a cancer eating away at our authentic neighborhoods. […] In her book about the drastic changes in the city of San Francisco, author Rebecca Solnit writes, “Gentrification is just the fin above the water. Below is the rest of the shark: a new American economy in which most of us will be poorer, a few will be far richer, and everything will be faster, more homogenous and more controlled or controllable.” I spin these words around in my mind as I drive around Detroit.4

What indeed are we talking about when we talk about gentrification? Gentrification is not, and cannot be, an economy in which “everything will be faster, more homogeneous and more controlled and controllable.” That is plain silly. The name for that process, which has been anticipated for more than two hundred years from Joseph de Maistre (aristocratic Counter-Enlightenment) to Max Weber (one of the founding figures of sociology) is modernity – it is Weber who gives us the most powerful image for the structural compulsion built into this process, namely, the iron-cage of modernity. (Edward Snowden’s revelations do indeed demonstrate how far we are technologically along the path of being “more controlled and controllable,” but that is not gentrification.) Guy Debord’s La Société du spectacle (Buchet-Chastel, 1967), is in many ways nothing more than an illustration of this thinking of what is sometimes called the convergence thesis of modernity when it opens its very first thesis: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail […].”5 Wherever modern conditions of production prevail there is modernity and all that is entailed thereby – this is why Burkean Conservatives (sometimes called Red Tories) and Anarchists can agree in their critique of late modernity, but gentrification is not and cannot be the problem. It is but a symptom of the problem. (Poverty, not gentrification, is by far the more compelling problem. For every neighborhood that has undergone gentrification in the United States hundreds have remained mired in or sunk further into poverty.6)  One of the most accessible – and telling – images of the bureaucratic, convergent thesis of modernity is to be found in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1997) in the form of the Imperial City, that is, the Capital of the Empire, namely, Coruscant. Coruscant is one city and that city also coincides with one planet. We do not need Star Wars to be a great film to see how it embodies the technologically driven processes – tending to homogenization - whereby all social relations will be expressive of configurations of Power.7 This is the Coruscant Effect. It is called Modernity.

Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption, a by-product of the circulation of commodities, is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal. The economic organization of visits to different places is already in itself the guarantee of their equivalence. The same modernization that removed time from the voyage also removed from it the reality of space.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Black and Red, 1970), thesis 168.


Here is where it would be useful to take a closer look at the original introduction and use of the term gentrification.  The name of Ruth Glass (1912 – 1990), a distinguished British sociologist of German descent, has come to be identified with one thing, at least in the larger population of readers and thinkers on urban questions, namely, the coinage of the term gentrification. That she wrote widely and innovatively on black, West Indian immigration into England – especially London – on housing, and had an effect on government policy is largely ignored, and this is a pity as her work on migration would help see her comments on the phenomenon that she named so felicitously as gentrification in a larger structural context, namely the bureaucratic and economic forces of modernization (modernity) as these are driven by demographic factors. Though there is much significant work on the sociology and morphology of the city there is a curious moralism in much of the contemporary conversation and discourse about and around the morphological and cultural processes that many insist in calling gentrification as a value-laden term. Not infrequently, but not commonly, either, the writer or discussant at a panel will allude to or even quote Ruth Glass’s coinage of the term gentrification, but rarely is the full context given. Here is how Glass, in her introduction to London: Aspects of Change (MacGibbon & Kee, 1964), introduces the descriptive term for a set of underlying urban processes especially notable in cities of the scale and complexity of London:

One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes – upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages – two rooms up and two down – have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residencies. Larger Victorian houses, down-graded in an earlier or recent period – which were used as lodging houses or were otherwise in multiple occupation – have been upgraded once again. Nowadays, many of these house are being sub-divided into costly flats or “houselets” (in terms of the new real estate snob jargon). The current social status and value of such dwellings are frequently in inverse relation to their size, and in any case enormously inflated by comparison with previous levels in their neighbourhoods.8

And this is where most people stop. Glass, however, continues, taking in the question of working class displacement,9 using the quasi-military, quasi-pathological language of diagnosis (“the invasion has since spread”), but far more compelling is her attention to the structural dimension of the process as a function of the competition for space:

Once this process of “gentrification” starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed. There is very little left of the poorer enclaves of Hampstead and Chelsea: in those boroughs, the upper-middle class take-over was consolidated some time ago. The invasion has since spread to Islington, Paddington, North Kensington - even  to the “shady” parts of Notting Hill – to Battersea, and to several other districts, north and south of the river. […] And this is an inevitable development, in view of the demographic, economic and political pressures to which London, and especially Central London, has been subjected

Competition for space has become more and more intense in London [and the] competition for space thus produced is bound to get out of hand, and lead to a spiral of land value, if it is neither anticipated nor controlled. And this is precisely what has happened.10

Thus Ruth Glass in 1964. And the phenomenon diagnosed by Glass is not something that any government on its own can stop. Nothing short of a revolution or an unexpected change in the very conception of symbolic form11 – why we act as we do according to implicit values and beliefs – could make a difference to this process. Only an abject voluntarism could think otherwise. This does not mean that the process must be accepted as a done deal, rather it means that a lucid analysis of the phenomenon should make clear the depth and magnitude of the required response for which few are truly prepared, all the more so when it becomes apparent that capitalism as understood by Adam Smith no longer exists, that the form of contemporary economic thought – its symbolic form - neo-liberalism is not in any meaningful sense capitalism. (Here, and not for the first time, reactionaries and liberals are at one in a shared ignorance.)


Exit, Voice, Loyalty, and Conflict, or, Albert O. Hirschman meets Markus Miessen

There is another way of considering gentrification in light of the work of the great American social scientist of German descent Albert O. Hirschman (1915-2012), all the more so as there is scarce reason to believe that there is a revolution in the offing. For brevity’s sake I shall offer here only the briefest of outlines. In 1970 Hirschman published one of his most famous works, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Harvard University Press, 1970). Hirschman wanted to understand how certain organizations, institutions, states entered stages of (often) irreversible decline – we can find our own examples: schools, neighborhoods, etc. First, there is “The availability to consumers of the exit option, and their frequent resort to it [which] are characteristic of ‘normal’ (non-perfect) competition.”12 For Hirschman the exit option is a function in any relatively free, open society with some degree of economic openness. When a school begins to deteriorate, or when a district enters decline, or a company, Who uses the exit option? asks Hirschman. The very people whose voice (their vote, their presence) would make a difference had they stayed: the most well-informed, the most vocal, the most knowledgeable, the most informed by the institutional memory, the most aware of the working of bureaucracy and attendant politics – think, say, of the exit of the African American middle class from the lower East Side of Detroit when restricted covenants were found to be unconstitutional in 1948.13 (This exit, more than anything else, is the social basis for the form of the Heidelberg Project.) With exit goes loyalty – to a place, a site, an institution, or a state. For voice is effective not only in a procedural way but affectively, too, and to this extent voice (and being heard) is an important aspect of building communities (plural) of interest. With this exit the rate of decline will increase. Gentrification, in one important sense, is the re-entry of voice to a given place, albeit to a place now marked by conflict. Conflict, for Hirschman, in a famous lecture he delivered in post-Berlin Wall Germany in 1989, is not necessarily a bad thing (it is certainly not avoidable), for social conflict can lead to definition, to clarity, indeed, social conflict is a function of pluralism (many voices) and we should not be attempting to create an oppressive uniformity of “community.” Speaking to a German audience taken with American communitarian theory, Hirschman draws upon the work of Helmuth Dubiel and Marcel Gauchet to explore the ways in which social conflicts “produce themselves the valuable ties that hold modern democratic societies together and provide them with the strength and cohesion they need.”14 Coming from a supposedly radical perspective, one informed by Chantal Mouffe’s Schmitt inspired critique of liberal democracy, a contemporary cultural practitioner such as Markus Miessen, deeply opposed to what he takes to be the pieties of Social Practice, takes as axiomatic the inevitability of conflict, opening his essay on “Collaboration and the Conflictual” by saying that “Any form of participation is already a form of conflict. In order to participate in a given environment or situation, one needs to understand the forces of conflict that act upon that environment,” adding further that “When participation becomes conflict, conflict becomes space.”15 For Miessen, Spatial Practice, predicated on the implicit recognition of conflict – not Social Practice – is the methodology for investigating and pursuing questions of spatial justice. This is what Miessen and his collaborators would say of gentrification: it is the making visible through conflict of the underlying problem, and to the extent that it is part of a crisis – a crisis in representation to be more precise, not only an economic crisis – it is so as a means of working through the question of value – ethical, political and even, at certain levels, anthropological value. There are conflicts that contribute to justice and even cohesion in societies, but no argument about social justice can begin with any notion of prior ownership as the basis of the claim to justice. This very idea of prior ownership is itself part of the problem.


To ask again the question, What indeed are we talking about when we talk about gentrification? In one sense, much talk about gentrification is a form of displacement anxiety in the absence of any readily agreed upon language for framing – still less resolving – questions of spatial and social justice. In another sense, however, talk about gentrification when linked to certain critical accounts of social conflict can be read symptomally not only as the need for a new anthropology but for signs of what such an anthropology – that is, symbolic form – might be like, for this symptomal problem cannot be definitively approached as part of the system of which it is the symptom; cannot, indeed, be meaningfully approached until, as a culture, we have re-formulated and answered the question, What is the purpose of wealth? There can be no fundamentally new conception of Power until we have re-thought our dominant symbolic forms, but more than hints are available and here is one – on which I conclude – from the contemporary German thinker, Peter Sloterdijk, reading the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke – from which the title of his book You Must change Your Life is taken (Polity Press, 2012)16-

[here are] the spiritual chances which still fascinate us as the higher and highest possibilities of human beings: these include a non-economic definition of wealth, a non-aristocratic definition of the noble, a non-athletic definition of high achievement, a non-dominatory definition of “above”, a non-ascetic definition of perfection, a non-military definition of bravery and a non-bigoted definition of wisdom and fidelity.17


1 Derrida’s American translators leave the term untranslated.

2 Cf. Antoine Berman, L’Épreuve de l’étranger: Culture et traduction dans l’Allemagne romantique (Paris: Gallimard, 1984).

3 Rebecca Solnit, “Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the post-American Landscape,” Harper’s Magazine (July 2007), http://harpers.org/archive/2007/07/detroit-arcadia/.  Accessed 4-3-15.

4 Nick Jaina, “You don’t understand Detroit: Touring the Frontier,” Transmission, 2.5 (2015), http://transmission.satellitepress.org/VOLUME/002/ISSUE/005/essay/understand/. Accessed 4-3-15. My emphasis.

5 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (1967), trans. by Black and Red (Detroit: Black and Red, 1983), thesis 1.

6 Cf. Joe Cortright, “Lost in Place,” City Reports (2014). http://cityobservatory.org/lost-in-place/. Accessed 4-3-15. I am struck that in all the public conversations in Detroit on gentrification which I have attended I have never heard once anything that might even sound like a plausible attempt to say how one might address the fiscal and spiritual impoverishment of the majority African American public school system, or how the economics of public housing might work in relation to broader questions of social justice. And may be this should not be surprising if the truth is that it is not merely the poor who will be displaced from the city by rising property values but the educated petite bourgeoisie.

7 See Neil Smith for another social geographic version of this structural / convergence thesis of modernity: “As many urban economies in the advanced capitalist world experienced the dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs and a parallel increase in  producer services, professional employment and the expansion of the so-called  ‘FIRE’ employment (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate), their whole urban geography underwent a concomitant restructuring. Condominium and cooperative conversions in the US, tenure conversions in London and international capital investments in central-city luxury accommodations  were increasingly the residential component of a larger set of shifts that brought an office boom to London’s Canary Wharf and New York’s Battery Park City and the construction of new recreational and retail landscapes from Sydney’s Darling Harbour to Oslo’s AckerBrygge. […] In this context, gentrification became a hallmark of the emerging global city, but was equally a presence in national and regional centers that were themselves experiencing an economic, political and geographical restructuring.” Neil Smith, “A Short History of Gentrification,” in The Gentrification Debates, ed. Japonica Brown-Saracino (New York: Routledge, 2010), 35.

8 Ruth Glass, “Introduction,” London: Aspects of Change, ed. Centre for Urban Studies (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1964), xviii.

9 Cf. Maureen Dowd, “The Wasp Descendancy,” http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/31/magazine/on-washington-the-wasp-descendancy.html. Accessed 4-3-15.

10 Ruth Glass, “Introduction,” xviii-xix. My emphases.  We should also consult Jane Jacobs and  Louis Chevalier on similar processes in New York and Paris. Cf. Louis Chevalier, Les Ruines de Subure: Monmartre  de 1939 aux années 80 (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1985).

11 On the symbolic dimension of power relevant to the debates on gentrification, cf. Neil Smith, “A Short History of Gentrification,” 35-36, especially “The contest over gentrification represented a struggle not just for new and old urban spaces but for the symbolic political power to determine the urban future.” My emphases.

12 Albert O. Hirschman, “Exit,” Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), 21.

13 On Shelley v. Kraemer, cf. Thomas Sugrue, “Class, Status, and Residence: The Changing Geography of Black Detroit,” The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996, 2005), 182. On the improvement in housing conditions for African Americans between 1940-1960, cf. Sugrue, “Class, Status, and Residence,” 183; but especially see Sugrue on “An unintended consequence of the opening of Detroit’s housing market was a hardening of class divisions within black Detroit,” ibid, 188, and, “the movement of better-off blacks into Detroit’s outlying enclaves and formerly all-white neighborhoods […] set in motion a process that over the long run would leave inner-city neighborhoods increasingly bereft of institutions, businesses, and diversity.” Sugrue, ibid, 207. My emphasis. This is precisely what Hirschman means by exit, and loss of voice.

14 Albert O. Hirschman, “Social Conflicts as Pillars of Democratic Market Society,” in The Essential Hirschman, ed. Jeremy Adelman (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013), 347.

15 Markus Miessen, “Collaboration and the Conflictual,” The Nightmare of Participation (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011), 91-92, and 93. My emphasis.

16 In March of 2014, I gave a talk on my work-in-progress Care of the City for George Tysh’s  curated series of talks Evidence. During the Q&A my friend Michelle Perron suggested that I read Sloterdijk’s book. I remain grateful for the suggestion.

17 Peter Sloterdijk, You Must change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics, trans. Wieland Hoban (Malden, MA.: Polity Press, 2012), 13-14. I take fidelity here to be loyalty, and so a definition of loyalty that would not be chauvinistic or bigoted, therefore a definition not based upon ownership.

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This article is part of a series on art and gentrification organized in partnership with the University of Michigan Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design and infinite mile running from January – June 2015.
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link - issue 16: April 2015