I’ve recently moved. I moved from a small flat to a house to accommodate a growing family, but in order to afford to do so, we had to move out of the area we were in, to a smaller town/village nearby that has a large traveller community, a significant Nepalese diaspora and soon to be homeless service men and women once the neighbouring barracks are torn down and replaced with mock town housing. As an urban geographer I’d like to think that I’m aware of some of the nuances of urban processes including gentrification, and as such, I was acutely aware that, as a middle class, white collar academic from the heartland of Surrey, I was potentially a gentrifier of the area. In upsizing for a growing family, my situation is typical of a myriad of academics who find themselves looking for alternative accommodation on an (often) meagre income, and as a result, looking in more diverse areas of ethnic communities and/or lower social-economic class.
Am I a gentrifier? If I am, then according to this recent Atlantic Cities article, I am a hypocrite. Drawing on (but seemingly distorting the central tenant of) an informative and poignant paper by Schlichtman and Patch, this article seems to argue that the critics of the gentrification process (of which I must confess to being) are the very people that are the subject of the critiques. Having found myself in a neighbourhood with quite alien practices occurring outside my front window, the fact that I could be considered a ‘gentrifier’ is a serious concern for me.
But then again, should it be? Am I really becoming the subject of my own critiques? Well, I think not. I’ve made logical decisions based on my economic, cultural and social desires (and limitations) and this is the most appropriate place for me to live. I won’t be looking for the community to reflect my own personal socio-economic consumption patterns, and I’m not really bothered if the house prices go up because I intend to stay here for as long as I’m physically able.
More importantly however, the very notion of gentrification is not predicated upon people’s personal consumption decisions alone. The argument that students, artists and other ‘bohemians’ are early gentrifiers, canary’s in the coal mine of an area’s upcoming prosperity, is only half the story, or perhaps even less than that. And middle class people moving to lower income areas should not be chastised as hypocritical, if they themselves have been displaced by capitalistic process (akin to what Loretta Lees described as super-gentrification). The critiques of gentrification also include the structural state-led processes of property development more than individual consumption choices. The decisions of property financiers (searching for the biggest rent gap) and the urban entrepreneurial system (influenced by prevailing policies that champion cultural and ‘creative’ consumption) have far more power in the ‘locations’ of gentrification, and hence should be the focus of critique, rather than individual consumer choices.
It is our position as academics to question the status quo, and there are plenty of other instances where our actions appear to counteract our argumentations. Resistance to the increasing neoliberalisation of the academy is often something that has been voiced, yet we continue to operate within it. Is this hypocritical? No. There can still be activism within the system, Amin called it solidarity in a minor key, or to use more subversive parlance, we can use De Certeau’s idea of tactics.
So, yes, by all means lets encourage self-reflexivity in academic critique, and I certainly feel there is a lack of personal inflection in academic study (although too much and we risk narcissistic and rather myopic narratives). However, lets not deride critical engagement with processes of power in which we happen to be, or indeed choose to be embroiled. Indeed, our relative positions make such critiques all the more valid.