Many lament the loss of a city’s historically gay neighborhood to the forces of gentrification. Less often do they question the role those gayborhoods play in cities’ wide-ranging redevelopment strategies. Decades before middle-class transplants found themselves unable to afford the astronomical rents in, say, the Castro or Greenwich Village, those neighborhoods’ previous residents—many of them LGBTQ themselves—were similarly priced out.
There are real and valid reasons why queer people (at least those who are able to) leave the suburbs in search of a new city to call home. But there’s this idea I’ve heard from other LGBTQ people, particularly other white gay men, that the marginalization we’ve faced somehow overrides our role in the displacement of low-income communities and communities of color.
Peter Moskowitz's book, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, out today with Nation Books, aims to complicate the mainstream conversation about gentrification—which, he argues, focuses too much on individual actions and aesthetic observations and rarely illuminates how the process works on a structural level. Stories about the next “it” neighborhood, with its fancy coffee shops and dubiously legitimate monocle trends, might make for a fun Sunday read, but they obscure the decades of top-down, concerted efforts that make that “it” neighborhood trendy in the first place.
I had a feeling Moskowitz would be willing to complicate the narrative of the gayborhood, too. I recently spoke with Moskowitz over the phone about his new book and the many different roles that LGBTQ people play in the gentrification process. The following Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity. (And full disclosure: Peter and I used to date and have known each other for about eight years. We also co-parent a dog, even though I’m kind of a deadbeat dogdad.)
What made you want to write about gentrification?
I grew up in New York City, in the West Village. The Village felt like a very idyllic neighborhood. There was a mix of different people, different stores. When I came back home from college, I came back to a neighborhood that I didn’t recognize. I was like, “What the fuck happened?”
What the fuck had happened?
The Chinese food places we’d always gone to had closed down. Half the pizza places had closed. The video store where my older brother worked had closed. Everything had been replaced by, like, a bank or a Duane Reade or a restaurant with $30 entrées. The people in my neighborhood had also changed. The apartments were now worth millions of dollars. I couldn’t afford to rent an apartment there, so I moved to Brooklyn where rents were cheaper.
There, I found myself on the other side of the equation. Locals in my new neighborhood gave me the same looks on the street that I gave the people moving into the Village. I wondered how I could be on both sides of this process, and I wanted to know more. So I reported in four different cities—New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York—to find out what the actual forces at play are when gentrification occurs.
What are those forces? How does your book go beyond the whole white-hipster-coffee-shop narrative?
I present gentrification as a top-down governmental strategy to redevelop cities in order to increase a city’s tax base. Infrastructure, public housing—almost everything required to make a city run is funded through property and sales tax in the United States. So the fewer rich people there are in a city, the harder it is for that city to maintain itself. Local governments are trying to woo rich people—rich white people—into their neighborhoods, which displaces low-income people and people of color for the sake of profit.
They don’t call it “displacement.” They call it “redevelopment.” They call it “revitalization.”
A city government might decide to allow a corporation to bulldoze low-income housing to build luxury apartments, displacing the pre-existing residents. But they don’t call it “displacement.” They call it “redevelopment.” They call it “revitalization.”
A lot of cities specifically target LGBTQ people—or at least rich gay people—in their efforts to lure in new residents. Detroit even proposed creating a gayborhood to do that. Your book mostly talks about LGBTQ people on an implicit level, so I was hoping to ask you more directly: How do LGBTQ people factor into the process of gentrification?
There are LGBTQ people who are gentrifiers. There are LGBTQ people who are [victims of gentrification]. The dividing line falls on race and income, which are inextricable in this country. A lot of our current gayborhoods were formed by people who fled the suburbs back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They fled for legit reasons, but it’s important to recognize the role that power played in that process. Whiteness gave a lot of them the power to flee the suburbs, just like whiteness gave their parents government subsidies to flee cities a generation earlier.
Would you say white gay people benefit from gentrification?
Whether or not white gays benefit from gentrification is irrelevant. They’re still complicit in the process. In an ideal world, the gayborhood could exist without displacing poor people and people of color. But cities, at least right now, are a zero-sum game, often at the expense of poor queers and trans people of color.
Cities are capitalistic entities, and gayness—especially white gayness—has been increasingly assimilated into capitalism, into power. That allows some LGBTQ people to become the powerful class that the state, by way of the police, was set up to protect. Police are not here to protect everyone, just those in power, and the more you assimilate into power the more you benefit from their protection.
Cities are capitalistic entities, and gayness—especially white gayness—has been increasingly assimilated into capitalism, into power.
Like on Christopher Street in New York, there are always cop cars and flood lights. Talk to the white bar owners, and they’ll say that the police are there to protect gay people—especially after Orlando. But that protection leads to the policing of black and brown LGBTQ people—trans people in particular—which means that the neighborhood is actually less safe for them. They’re policed out of the spaces they formed communities around while places for moneyed white gays continue to flourish under that protection.
Anecdotally, I’ve heard white gay men—who, like myself, moved to New York from the suburbs—say things like, “I’m not a gentrifier. I’m gay.” As if their source of marginalization cancels out their source of power. What would you say to that?
Gayness does not trump whiteness, and it does not trump other privileges. That’s just intersectionality, you know? Gay people who are able to work high-paying jobs and get married and buy real estate can consolidate their wealth in a way that gives them power. Let’s say they buy an apartment building in the West Village and convert it into a single-family home. The same low-income black and Latinx LGBTQ people who are getting policed out of Christopher Street cannot transfer communal resources into capitalist resources like housing in that way. That leaves them especially vulnerable to gentrification as they don’t have a “legitimate” claim to the neighborhood.
Gay bars are often talked about as safe spaces, but, like you just pointed out, not all of these spaces are safe for all gay people—much less all LGBTQ people. Where does that leave the gay bar, a historical site for revolution, in the age of gentrification?
It’s hard for a bar to become a place of communal liberation in the later stages of gentrification. These are for-profit spaces that have to sell X number of drinks every Y hours to pay their insanely high rent. Because of that, the owners have less incentive to give space for radical causes or anything that doesn’t recoup that loss. You have to start thinking of ways to build community outside of existing capitalist structures.
Join local anti-racist organizations—people have been fighting overpricing for decades. Be conscious of the dynamics you’re feeding into when you move to a new city. Gather groups of friends to talk about what you, as gentrifiers, can do to better your neighborhood. Even small collective actions can have a huge impact. We have to be thinking outside of the box, outside of history.
Stonewall won’t house another revolutionary event. Stonewall is a pro-cop bar.