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Did The Creative Class Really Save Your City? Probably Not

New research proves what many have claimed for decades: Not everyone benefits when the artisanal picklers and latte drinkers come a-calling.

If you live in a large American city, odds are you reside within a few minutes of a gentrifying neighborhood, and odds are you have a strong opinion about it. The idea that gentrification ultimately benefits all wage-earners has long been a mainstay of popular thinking on urban planning, perpetuated by figures like Richard Florida, whose 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class argues that gentrification leads to all-around gains for city dwellers.

But a growing body of writing—both scientific and ethnographic—is chipping away at that assumption. In January, a pair of Crown Heights journalists published a compelling investigation of efforts by new and old residents to sustain a sense of community in the face of rapid gentrification. The story was shared almost 4,000 times on Facebook. And last week, Grist published a strong rebuttal of Florida’s ideas told through the lens of Oakland, where rising housing prices and upscale amenities have done little to alleviate poverty and crime. Writer Susie Cagle brings an ancillary issue to the table, wondering whether the dissolution of strong community ties could negatively affect residents in face of crises like earthquakes and hurricanes:

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it was the local, grassroots social infrastructure that dug much of New York City out of disaster while FEMA, the Red Cross, and other large operations scrambled.

Likewise, in Oakland, the community banded together when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake sent an elevated freeway crumbling to the ground, killing 42 people. Local residents pulled the injured from the wreckage and supported one another in the aftermath.

Today, the West Oakland neighborhood where the freeway collapsed is dense with artist lofts, condo construction, and empty, foreclosed homes of the people who couldn’t keep up. Many of those homes have been bought up by investors who either rent them out at inflated prices, or leave them empty, waiting for the real estate market to make it worth their while to rehab and resell.

The so-called "urban renaissance" brings some great sandwiches and microbrews, and I love bike lanes as much as anyone, but the creative class is not a solution for creating community in the face of crisis.

Even Florida himself has published new research refuting the simplistic notion that gentrification "trickles down" to benefit lower classes. In January, Florida and his team unveiled a study that reveals a deafening truth: While creative class workers clustered in cities enjoy increased income despite increased housing costs, service and blue-collar workers in the same neighborhoods experience the inverse, a "rising tide" of rent increases without the raises that come with it for most creative economy workers. Florida also made mention of the "well-being inequality," which describes what happens when creative class workers are willing to pay more to live in neighborhoods with better food, entertainment, and jobs. Lower-wage workers can’t shell out to live near those amenities, and are relegated to lower-quality neighborhoods farther from the city.

So no—not everyone wins when a neighborhood gentrifies. The question is what approach (if any) should be taken to mitigate the process. I think many people see gentrification as the natural course of the market, and likewise feel that interfering with it is akin to stopping a lion from taking its prey. But that misconception is also being challenged, by policymakers and community advocates alike. Grassroots organizing has had some success, according to some. In Crown Heights, a group of old and new residents have formed Crown Heights Assembly, an "Occupy-inspired" group to resist predatory housing companies. In Oakland, a similar group called Respect Our City is hoping to do the same.

Cagle will have an in-depth story on that movement within the next few days—look out for it on Grist.

[Illustration: Shutterstock]