Gentrification: Modern Day Imperialism

Gentrification is something I am very used to. Living in Brooklyn you really can’t escape it. Brooklyn historically has the reputation of being rough; it’s where Biggie and Jay-Z are from. The streets are mean and the people are meaner. Today, Brooklyn is nothing like this. Williamsburg, Park Slope, BedStuy, Crown Heights, and other places like these all used to have a very different populous. For example, Williamsburg and Crown Heights used to be predominately Hasidic Jews; Park Slope, it used to be run by Mexican gangs; and BedStuy (the neighborhood of Biggie) used to be exclusively African American. Today, these places are populated with yuppies, hipsters, and young professionals (with their young families). There is nothing inherently wrong with (white) people moving into neighborhoods where they previously were not welcomed. The problem is that they push out the original inhabitants. As these more affluent people move into a neighborhood, they bring with them new businesses that were not there before, these new businesses bring more money into the neighborhood, which raises the property values and property taxes–long story long the people who used to live in the neighborhood cease to be able to afford to live in their neighborhood and are forced to move out. “Well, that’s just the market at work!’ you say. And you’re right, this is the natural progression of capitalism at work. Socially however, this is devastating. As the ‘riff raff’ (i.e. blacks, urban poor, working class) move out the residents of the neighborhood begin to feel ‘safer’ and the neighborhood is seen as revitalized and restored. The new residents get the street creed of living in Brooklyn without having to worry about the mean streets of Brooklyn.

Just to bring the point home: the people who lived there because they couldn’t afford living anywhere else, don’t get to reap the benefits of their neighborhood being revitalized, instead they’re forced into a different part of the city where inevitably the process will begin again. Social Inequality fosters Economic Inequality and that is exactly what is happening in Shanghai today. Ever since the Opium Wars, there has been a Western Influence in Shanghai. After the Second Opium War the British and French took control of the area on the Bund and built up industry there. Here, social inequality breeds economic inequality on a larger scale. Imperialism: the gentrification of an entire city or even country. In the eyes of the British, for example, the Chinese people were not their social equals; when they gained control of the ports in Shanghai, they employed the people and housed the people, thus creating economic inequality that solidified their place as socially inferior.

2014-06-08 17.47.04On the 24th of June, the Freeman Group went to a part of Shanghai called Jing-an Village. This community was built by the British as housing for the working classes–the people working in their factories. This village is in the heart of shanghai. Right next door is the biggest Sephora in the World (like globalization amiright?!) but the village is still inhabited by people who can’t afford to live anywhere else. This neighborhood looks like a series of alleyways. The clothing lines outside of every wndow can essentially touch the clothing line from the window across from theirs. The buildings are small, but there are a lot of people in them. Some of the apartments don’t have their own bathroom but share a bathroom with the whole building. What’s interesting about this neighborhood is that it draws in artistic creative types. Though it is not allowed (because it’s a strictly residential area) artists and small business owners who couldn’t afford the rent in a commercial area set up shop on the first floor of one of the buildings and live on the top floor. However, because of this underground development, the village is becoming a popular tourist destination. And rents are starting to increase as the popularity of the neighborhood increases. Fortunately (or unfortunately) the government put the kibosh on this commercial development and though the artists weren’t able to continue what they were doing (or were forced to really keep it secret in open defiance of the government) the people who are living in the neighborhood due to economic necessity are able to continue with their lives.

As a political science major, the role of the State in preventing gentrification is particularly interesting. The State in China has the sole authority of saying where people can and can’t develop. In the United States the market has that sole control. And As I outlined above, in the US the market propagates social inequalities, while in China the State helps to maintain some version of social equality. Just because more money is coming to an area, doesn’t mean that the State will allow it. Yes, China has it’s social problems. The division between urban and rural is just as stark as the division between white and black and the US and perhaps more decisive. That being sad, within the city the State attempts to regulate the market and in turn the people benefit. Maybe a one party system isn’t that bad?