How to Kill a City by Peter Moskowitz

In cities across America we are seeing the negative effects of gentrification and how it has the potential to destroy culture, heritage, and displace long time residents. People are being priced out of homes, forced to "drive until they qualify." This phenomenon may seem relegated to high population centers like New York City and the tech hubs in California, but it lies in struggling communities like Detroit and New Orleans as well. No city is protected from the results of increased investment and spending.

Peter Moskowitz aimed to unearth the problems surrounding gentrification in our cities in his book How to Kill a City through four case studies: New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York City. One of the first sentences of the book gets at a dilemma that many of us face, being both the gentrified and gentrifiers. As a society, we are continuously shifting, moving from city to suburb and back again. We may be the ones priced out of a neighborhood in one area, but them when we move into the next, we are pushing someone else out. Moskowitz describes it as "a losing side and a winning side in gentrification, but both sides are playing the same game, though they are not its designers." 

It is hard to pinpoint the problem of gentrification. If it were easy we could have fixed it by now, but no one individual person, company, or decision creates the negative results. The problem stems from years of racial housing policy traced back to the government programs that were designed to help Americans like FHA. While I knew about these kinds of ingrained racial policies that dictated where people could live, I did not stop to think about how the planning policies that I work with every day have that same effect.

Moskowitz explains that "a municipality opens itself up to gentrification through zoning, tax breaks, and branding power." We zone property to allow high density housing, not stopping to think about the affordable housing that will be demolished in its path. What replaces it is market rate ($1200+ units in Minneapolis) and above units. If we are going to allow for more density, we should hold developers to a standard of affordability that does not have a sunset of 15, 20, or 30 years. 

So how do we keep people in their neighborhoods and cities? How do we stop natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina from displacing thousands of native New Orleans that are unable to return to their family homes thanks to the new development that prices them out? The answer is unclear. In a session at the International Making Cities Livable Conference this week someone suggested  making our cities nice, but not too nice. If we improve the public realm too much, development will be quick to follow, snowballing until you are left with a city like New York, too expensive to live in because the richest have bought up all the condos as real estate speculation.

The closing thoughts the author offers is that he became more involved in fighting for his neighborhood in New York City and through that felt more connected to the place he lives. This is important because so often we retreat to our digital worlds and forget that real interaction has no substitute. Being involved in your city has a profound effect of changing how you view not only your place in the network, but how others fit in. Gentrification may not be ending, but I feel that the more connected we become with our neighborhoods and cities the better it will become.