And Now For Something Completely Different

It’s always interesting when an issue reveals your own ideological bias. Here in the U.S., my social-democratic instincts often make me feel like a closet European. Yet I rarely feel more American than I do in Germany. We spent a month in Deutschland this past summer, visiting old haunts from the five years I lived there, two-plus decades ago. In Berlin we shared an apartment, rented through Airbnb, with another American couple and their kids. The place was gorgeous, a second-floor flat in a repurposed industrial building, with a vast living room, four bedrooms, two baths, state-of-the-art kitchen, and outdoor rooftop garden overlooking a quaint cobblestone courtyard. We paid $1800 for the week, or about $125 per couple per night. We were thrilled.

When my old friends Vojta and Elke came over for dinner, they marveled at the place as well. But their admiration was tinged with skepticism. “Naja,” Vojta ribbed me, “noch eine luxus Ferienwohnung für die reiche Amerikaner.”

Another expensive vacation apartment for the rich Americans.

Vojta grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia, and as friends a quarter-century ago we enjoyed kidding each other about our disparate ideological upbringings. I’d call him the alt-Kommunist, he’d call me der grosse Kapitalist. As Vojta and Elke saw it, the apartment we were renting represented an unacceptable shunting of resources away from the workaday citizens of Berlin, who lacked affordable housing, and into the hands of the owner and investor class. My German friends considered it wrong for investors to develop expensive vacation homes in the city center while actual Berliners increasingly had to opt for the outskirts.

In fact, that day I had talked about this very issue with Stephan, the owner of the apartment complex. Stephan was a genial guy who together with his partner had bought the building when it was a disused wreck and invested time, effort and capital in restoring it. He explained to me that the city of Berlin was now trying to shut him down, along with many other vacation apartments, in order to claim his apartments for city residents.

And what about all the time and money he had put into the place? I asked. “Das ist ihnen egal,” he said. They don’t care about that.

The issue sparked a lively dinner-table conversation that night, revealing basic differences between the Germans and the Americans. Here was Vojta, summing up his view of Stephan and others like him: “They come in, buy up properties, fix them up, make them beautiful – then rent them out to tourists and make a lot of money from it.”

To which our American friend Sue said, “And that’s a bad thing?”

I asked Vojta, what about Stephan’s investment? He had put a lot of money, and years of work, into making this dream happen. Vojta waved the point away. “He can make that back in a year. He’s getting three or even four times the rent he’d get on the local market.” Es ist reine Geldmacherei, he said, dismissively – it’s just pure moneymaking.

“And that’s a bad thing?” Sue said again.

Did Vojta and Elke really want to deploy the law to forbid Stephan from using these apartments as he chose to? He owned them, after all. Vojta just shrugged. Ownership clearly was not the magical concept to him that it apparently was to us. Nor was he charmed by the notion that Stephan had seen an opportunity and made it happen, and so deserved the reward for his risk. What did we want, Vojta asked -- a city where only investors and tourists could afford the best places, and normal people couldn’t afford to live there?

Now it was our turn to shrug. That’s life, we said. Take Manhattan, for instance. Who among us could afford that? Nobody. But what are you gonna do? It’s money and market, supply and demand.

I’m simplifying attitudes a bit, but there was a fundamental difference. Our German friends viewed market realities as political decisions amenable to change – in fact, crying out for change -- in order to boost the common good. We Americans were considerably more inclined to see those market realities as natural processes, interfered with at risk both to individual liberty and to the overall vigor of the economy. Could you really prevent people from seeing opportunities and making something out of them? Would you really want to try, by passing a law? Just take Stephan’s apartment complex away from him and give it to someone else?

To the Americans in the room, such moves smacked of crude collectivism. Wasn’t that why Vojta had fled Czechoslovakia in the first place? To the Germans, meanwhile, our view reflected a craven fatalism regarding the power of wealth to have its way.

Gentrification is a crucible where class, power, wealth and community mix with ever-combustible potential. The topic forces you to reckon with your own instinctive political sympathies. My first take on the quandaries of gentrification came when I spent a year in Washington, D.C. in the late 1980s. We lived just over the city line in Prince George’s County, and driving into the city on Rhode Island Avenue we’d pass through Logan Circle with its elegant old homes, many of them in disrepair. It looked forlorn and beaten down – a place that had seen better times. But it had good bones. It had all sorts of potential.

We met a young couple who had bought one of those elegant brownstones and were busy bringing that potential to life. Scraping together what money they had, and borrowing more, they had fixed the place up, pumping hundreds of hours of their own sweat equity into the project. What came out of it was a sparkling gem of architectural restoration.

And, for them, a bucket of grief. The neighborhood residents, they told us, hated them. They received nasty looks and comments, and their home had suffered small acts of vandalism – their trash dumped out in their front garden, a broken window pane, that kind of thing. My reaction at the time couldn’t have been more sympathetic. You come in, you improve things, and you get a kick in the teeth. Nice.

I understand now that the reality is more complicated. The fact that “improvement” is not an unalloyed good – that it has its downside -- is manifest in the rampant gentrification we have seen in cities across America and the repeated dispossession of classes of people priced out of their own neighborhoods. In the absence of widespread affordable housing initiatives, such displacements loom as doubly damaging.

 

Gentrification has a mindset. Consider the terms I used to describe Logan Circle. Forlorn and beaten down. A place that had seen better times. Good bones. All sorts of potential. These are loaded terms. Yes, they describe reality, but they do so in ways that privilege a particular approach to that reality -- and use of it. The couple who transformed the house in Logan Circle were first-wave gentrifiers, and I was instinctively sympathetic to them and hostile to those opposing them. Whether I understood it or not, these sympathies allied me with one faction in a political conflict over change, community and ownership. Those neighbors tipping over the couple’s garbage cans were protesting a vision of the neighborhood’s future that excluded them. And, sure enough, a quarter-century later, that future has come to pass. A quick scan of a real-estate page shows many of the residences in the $1million and up category. And here is what none other than Airbnb says about Logan Circle today: “Regal D.C. blends with upstart attitudes in Logan Circle, a neighborhood as equally known for its stately architecture as it is for its hip cafes and trendy specialty stores. This neighborhood’s two historic districts boast some of the city’s most sought-after nocturnal hotspots, including one of DC’s most beloved beer bars.”

The gentrification quandary repeats itself over and over again in the U.S. You can pick your locale and your story. Here’s one from the recent news, describing the conflict playing out in a section of LA, long a bastion of Mexican immigrants, where several upscale new art galleries have had their openings marred by protestors hurling potatoes or beer bottles; one gallery was spraypainted with “Fuck White Art”– an act of vandalism that is being investigated as a hate crime. What’s being expressed in these protests is not hatred of art per se, of even of race, but rather vehement resistance to the galleries as harbingers of a coming gentrification, and all that it represents.

This is a knotty issue, a tangle of competing interests and perspectives. If you are someone like me, the process by which dilapidated buildings and blocks are made lovely again is hard not to see as inherently beneficial. But for whom? That’s the question Vojta was insistently putting before us in Berlin. The Germans themselves, a century ago and more, formulated the problem in their conception of the perpetual struggle of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft – the enclosure of community, with its group identity and strong bonds of loyalty, versus the open sphere of society, where interactions based on commerce, law and the free play of interests prevail. How to assess gentrification within the never-ending tumult of American mobility, the rising and falling fortunes of individuals and groups? For my part, I’ve learned to push back against my own bias, and try to understand that a gleamingly restored building, a pretty garden, and the imprimatur of Airbnb may not be the be-all and end-all of civic good.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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