Gentrification and Resistance: Racial Projects in the Neoliberal Order.
Driven by privatization and profit-centered objectives, neoliberalism is premised on the social subordination of particular groups and increasingly facilitated by punitive practices and policies. Although the neoliberal order maintains forms of social and racial containment (Eick 2006), a set of hegemonic discourses and ideologies privatize social problems such as poverty and mass incarceration, masking them as accumulations of individual actions rather than products of a confining social structure. Racially coded narratives produce fear, suspicion, and antipathy toward poor people of color and blame them (i.e., the "Black culture") for their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system or the blighted state of the neighborhoods they inhabit. Accordingly, such ideologies normalize the racially disparate outcomes of state-supported contemporary projects that generate profit for private actors.
The present case study focuses on a gentrification conflict in Edgewood Park (1)--a predominately Black, working-class neighborhood in a prominent mid-Atlantic city--and explores how racially coded narratives about gentrification's potential for neighborhood improvement serve to rationalize and normalize the resultant subordination of long-time residents. At the same time, this case study highlights how local activists problematize the social suffering of marginalized residents in their neighborhood and challenge the racist, exclusionary nature of the redevelopment they experience. Omi and Winant's (2014) racial formation theory provides important analytic tools for understanding the dialectical relationship between racial oppression and anti-racist resistance in this era of neoliberal confinements. Specifically, this theory explains how the convergence of racial meanings and concrete structural impacts (e.g., racially disparate resource allocation) occur through various racial projects--"attempts to both shape the ways in which social structures are racially signified and the ways that racial meanings are embedded in social structures" (Omi & Winant 2014, 125). Racial projects vie for hegemonic status; some projects produce or maintain racial oppression, whereas others resist racist practices and structures of domination (Omi & Winant 2014). In other words, although racist structures and significations are deeply entrenched in US society, racial formation theory posits that ordinary people hold the power to challenge and potentially destabilize them, allowing for the simultaneous exploration of the racism implicated in gentrification--among other neoliberal projects--and the agency of those afflicted as they cultivate strategies of resistance. The present analysis reveals parallels between combating racial inequality in the present moment and in the epochs preceding neoliberalism--noting challenges that have long impeded collective action by marginalized actors--at the same time as it accentuates how the color-blind neoliberal ideologies of our time present new barriers to resistance.
In the first section I describe the history of localized racial projects to contextualize my case study; I then conceptualize gentrification as a racial project and scrutinize the strategies that enable exclusionary development. Moreover, I explore how gentrification is made hegemonic in a fashion quite similar to neoliberal carceral projects--namely, by way of color-blind rhetoric and historical narratives that stigmatize and criminalize poor people of color. In the following sections I explore how a grassroots advocacy group, the Community Organizers of Edgewood Park (COEP), cultivates a distinct racial project to resist the confining and disruptive impacts of exclusionary redevelopment in its neighborhood. COEP is a small multiracial organization (2) of longtime and newer residents of Edgewood Park that came together in 2012 to mobilize their neighbors to challenge "exclusionary development." (3) In response to its activities, COEP has encountered significant backlash. Proponents of profitable redevelopment have attempted to impede the efforts of COEP by denouncing their racist, classist, and sexist foundations. As Mayer (2007, 91) notes, "neoliberalism has in many ways created a more hostile environment for progressive urban movements." Yet instead of experiencing defeat, COEP activists are emboldened by such hostility and cite examples of how these attacks mobilized further activism.
I draw from interviews conducted with COEP activists (4) and social media content (produced by COEP, other Edgewood Park residents, and local developers) to demonstrate how local activism against gentrification is a taxing struggle, but one that holds the promise of empowering individuals to resist even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. In conclusion, I argue that gentrification and resistance against it must be situated within the broader struggle against the racialized social suffering caused by neoliberalism.
Racial Projects in Edgewood Park: A Brief History
Historical accounts of Edgewood Park reveal that the neighborhood has been characterized by racial conflict since the Great Migration. As Pattillo (2013) notes, the increased population of African Americans in northern cities solidified the color line in the early 1900s. Indeed, African Americans migrating from the South in the 1930s were met with great hostility by whites (Herbert & Brown 2006, Massey & Denton 1993). Just as Black migrants were seeking to escape Jim Crow segregation in the South, white people in Edgewood Park and neighboring communities violently guarded racial boundaries in public spaces such as theaters and parks.
However, Edgewood Park was prospering and relatively integrated until the race riots of the 1960s, which led to a substantial flight of whites and local businesses, and thus to the devaluation of the neighborhood. Mainstream descriptions of white flight often neglect to contextualize the racial tensions and oppressive conditions that spurred the riots of the late 1960s, or to note the calculated efforts (by politicians, public officials, and real estate agents, among others) to cultivate fear and antipathy toward African Americans in that epoch (Alexander 2010). As is common in portrayals of inner-city locales, Edgewood Park's "decline" is framed as a product of the drugs, crime, and violence prevalent between the late 1960s and the 1990s. Although there is no denying that drug epidemics and violent crime have impaired cities, more should be said about the devastation generated by white flight and community divestment. Indeed, as institutions and people with resources flee a neighborhood, this often becomes a site of concentrated poverty, which impels infrastructure deterioration and an increase in crime, among other social issues (Wilson 1987). Moreover, it is crucial to acknowledge how a network of discriminatory housing-related practices (e.g. explicitly racial zoning policies, restrictive covenants, real estate agent discrimination, etc.) functioned to contain and subordinate Black Americans in inner-city neighborhoods without the resources enjoyed by white suburbia.
Indeed, it is useful to consider how this narrow version of history is used to craft a racialized narrative about how blight came to be--one that silences the challenges Black Americans endured in urban neighborhoods for generations. A critical reading of history has demonstrated how deliberate policies and practices have created economic havoc in Black neighborhoods (e.g., Alexander 2010, Steiner 2001); however, the dominant discourse ignores the roots of structural deprivation and places culpability on Black individuals' assumed cultural deficiencies for the state of dilapidated inner-city neighborhoods. In so doing, these portrayals bolster beliefs that through their renewal projects, real estate developers are rescuing neighborhoods from disorderly, careless, and criminal residents, when in fact they are only intensifying struggles for long-time residents who must cope with rising rents, taxes, ramped up surveillance, and the threat of displacement. Those coping with the hardships brought on by gentrification often internalize the blame casted by the myths developers espouse, as will be discussed below.
Gentrification as a Neoliberal Racial Project
Neoliberalism emerged in opposition to redistributive, anti-poverty struggles and was "premised on racial resentment" (Omi & Winant 2014, 214) following the civil rights gains of the 1960s. If President Johnson's war on poverty had emphasized the structural roots of poverty and the government's aptitude to address them (Brauer 1982), the contemporary ideological foundations for neoliberalism dismiss notions of structural inequality (e.g., systemic racism) and in turn individualize social disparities, denying any need for government intervention (Giroux 2008). As Prince (2014, 33) writes, "blaming the vulnerable or turning a blind eye toward their predicaments is part and parcel to neoliberal ideology." Indeed, under the neoliberal mantra of personal responsibility, virtue and worth are measured in terms of a capitalist logic: Poverty is equated with laziness and criminality, and marginalized populations are painted as undeserving, precluded from empathy or protection, and penalized (Cacho 2012, Cahill 2006, Reese et al. 2010). Accordingly, gentrification's harmful effects on people of color are attributed to individual-level deficiencies, whereas neoliberal urban redevelopment efforts are framed as "entrepreneurial, market-oriented economic development beneficial to all social groups" (Mele 2013, 601).
Attending to gentrification as a racial project illuminates how negative, racialized representations of urban communities facilitate capital accumulation for the elite at the expense of the most marginalized residents. As Millington (2011, 14) writes, "It is not possible to reorganise social urban structures without engaging either explicitly or implicitly in 'racial' signification." Indeed, although widespread color-blind perspectives assert otherwise, race has perpetually been a crucial factor in the organization of cities (Massey& Denton 1993); the marginalization of poor people of color is fundamental to the underpinnings and repercussions of contemporary urban redevelopment practices (Mele 2013). Similar to mass incarceration, among other carceral projects, gentrification reproduces racial inequality while its architects and beneficiaries (e.g. real estate developers, the state, and the middle and upper class) deny that race has any significance, allowing the racialized outcomes of exclusionary development to appear natural and race neutral.
A look at demographic data, however, reveals that the consequences of redevelopment in Edgewood Park are not race neutral. Although Edgewood Park is still predominately Black, the Black population has been in decline since 2000, while the white population has been increasing significantly. Once an affordable place to live, Edgewood Park now present rents that surpass the median rent of the city, and census data suggest that residing in the neighborhood is no longer within reach of the average Black family. Gentrification-induced displacement is not a new phenomenon for many Edgewood Park residents, who were pushed there from previously redeveloped neighborhoods closer to downtown. Now it is Edgewood Park that is experiencing rapid gentrification, and again poor and low-income residents (predominately people of color) are facing the threat of displacement. Public and private actors propelling gentrification discursively frame it as a way to promote diversity, but research has not found strong evidence for claims that profitable development counters racial segregation or promotes "social mixing" (Lees 2008). Instead, these efforts enhance the social suffering of poor residents, who are often displaced from their communities and confined to more marginal neighborhoods once their precincts are "upgraded."
Because the normalization of neoliberal redevelopment depends on the denial of structural inequality, it involves erasing the violent racism of the recent past from collective memory and cultivating capitalist growth without regard for how practices like gentrification will affect populations who have long experienced the effects of oppression (Mele 2013). In a time and a country in which overtly racist practices are technically illegal and socially unacceptable, neoliberal strategies that further racial inequality depend on color-blind ideologies as a source of legitimacy. Color-blindness--"the racial common sense and desideratum of our time" (Omi & Winant 2014, 256; emphasis in the original)--serves as a semantic and ideological tool to mask the racially disparate outcomes of neoliberal policies and practices. In this way, neoliberalism and color-blind racial ideologies are mutually reinforcing and fundamental to constructing and rationalizing racial projects such as gentrification. Indeed, these broader racial projects work concomitantly "to legitimize and normalize the fragmented, unequal city" (Mele 2013, 612).
The Role of the Neoliberal State
During the war on poverty, the government created and expanded legislation that supported the poor in acquiring affordable housing (e.g., through the Housing and Urban Development program). Under neoliberalism, given the retrenchment of federal funds to cities, local governments cannot afford to curtail profitable development; therefore, lucrative development projects are generally supported by the state, despite the harms they might create for established residents. Because affordable housing is not profitable for real estate markets, developers work to constrain it--and are often supported by the neoliberal state in doing so. Developers and other capitalist elites often hold considerable political power and are able to orient policy in accord with their interests, further marginalizing the poor and working class (Wacquant 2008). Indeed, we must account for the "shifting role of the state from provider of social support for lower-income populations to supplier of business services and amenities for middle-and upper-class urbanites--among them the cleansing of the built environment and the streets from the physical and human detritus wrought by economic deregulation and welfare retrenchment" (Wacquant 2008, 198). This "cleansing" can be observed in efforts to ramp up policing and surveillance as a way to attract the middle class to a gentrifying neighborhood, as will be addressed below. One common government-steered practice to promote gentrification entails providing tax abatements for new urban home-seekers. The city in which Edgewood Park is located, for example, has enacted an abatement that certifies that taxes for new homebuyers will not increase for ten years. At the same time, established residents are hit with enormous tax increases as their homes rapidly double or triple in value. One COEP activist, Mitsy, who recently purchased a home in Edgewood Park, knows that the tax abatement benefits her, but she is critical of the racial politics at play. She highlights the ways in which gentrification preserves white privilege:
My taxes are [low] and people on my block's taxes are [increasing] because I'm living on the block now. My young whiteness and homeownership adds "value" to the block, which means [my neighbors'] houses are more valuable, which means they pay more taxes. But I'm paying really, really low taxes and I will for the next 10 years ... I can't give [the tax abatement] back, but I think it's really regressive.
Two other anti-gentrification activists I interviewed, who were directly affected by the threat of displacement, also expressed their concerns regarding tax increases. Calvin, a young Black COEP activist who grew up witnessing the disinvestment of Edgewood Park, explained that he was initially excited to see new development. However, he has since recognized how redevelopment is largely disadvantageous to his community. Calvin described sitting with his mother after she received notice of the significant increases in her property taxes:
We both sat there crying. Like, how do we pay for this? We don't come from means, you know? I see my neighbors are dealing with this, family members in [this city] are dealing with this, and it was this moment with my mother. Like do they want [her] out on the street? It was just this realization [of] unfairness.
Calvin told me that he felt "angry" and "hurt ... like we, the long-term members of this neighborhood, aren't wanted." Miss Candace, a 74-year-old African American activist who was born and raised near Edgewood Park, expressed a similar sentiment. She is retired and on a fixed income, and thus considerably affected by soaring taxes; she does not believe she can keep her home of 44 years. Miss Candace felt that local government figures consistently disregarded the long-time residents of Edgewood Park and were engaged in "political games" with the developers. As these two African American residents with strong ties to the Edgewood Park community observe the influx of luxury condos, chic cafes, gastropubs, and affluent whites who can afford to patronize them, they must confront the reality that they will likely be pushed out of their community and forced to seek housing elsewhere.
Racialized Tactics Enabling Gentrification
Tax abatements are but one of the practices encouraging gentrification in US cities. In the sections below I highlight additional racialized strategies that facilitate exclusionary development projects.The first strategy is integral to a range of neoliberal projects of confinement: criminalization and securitization. A racialized discourse about neighborhood crime and disorder is utilized to promote punitive practices (such as ramped-up policing and heightened surveillance techniques), which are championed by real estate developers as making communities safer and therefore more appealing to well-off white people. These practices alienate people of color who experience increased scrutiny from law enforcement and community watch groups (Lowe et al. 2017). As Camp (2016, 142) argues, such strategies reflect the combination of "vengeful security politics with the elite desire for reclaiming space from aggrieved communities," as developers and public officials appeal to "moral panics about race, crime, and law and order to justify the restructuring of space in the interest of capital and the state."
Like the racial project of mass incarceration, gentrification physically displaces Black and Brown bodies at a disproportionate rate; however, displacement occurs in cultural and political spheres as well. Indeed, the gentrification conflict in Edgewood Park illuminates how the erasure of an established community through neighborhood rebranding and the exclusion of long-time residents' voices are crucial for promoting and safeguarding neoliberal redevelopment. Below I address these strategies and how they expose the confining dynamics of neoliberal racism.
Criminalizing and Securitizing Edgewood Park
Similar to carceral operations, gentrification tends to involve intensified practices of social control that target and criminalize poor people and disproportionately affect racial minorities (Dalakoglou 2012, Ferrell 1997, Reese et al. 2010). Politicians and elite private actors have long manipulated public fears about crime and urban disarray for the advancement of personal and political goals (Gottschalk 2009). Through Nixon's war on crime and Reagan's war on drugs, entrepreneurs profiting from the prison-industrial complex have benefitted from a tough-on-crime rhetoric and law-andorder approach that still remain instrumental in the present (Desmond & Emirbayer 2010).
Indeed, stereotypical images of African Americans (e.g., as dangerous criminals, sexual predators, and welfare queens) have been used to capitalize on white people's fears and sustain racial ghettoization and segregation in the past (Collins 2004), and they remain crucial today to rationalize urban development under the facade of neighborhood safety. As David Wilson (2007, 84) writes, adverse representations of marginalized populations "offer a sense of rationality for the public to forget the plight of these people and spaces but never to forget the sense of them as a persistent city problem." Indeed, proponents of gentrification (implicitly or not) often construct long-time residents as "civic-damaging outcasts" or "potential violators of the collectivity's socio-moral and economic integrity" (ibid., 6).
Gentrification is a clear exemplification of the hyper-punitiveness that characterizes neoliberalism more broadly (Herbert & Brown 2006), and broken windows policing, increased surveillance techniques, and zero tolerance policies, among other punitive practices, are routinely used to promote gentrification (Camp 2016). Although neighborhood safety is widely desirable by people of all racial and economic backgrounds, in gentrifying neighborhoods "the line between acceptable and censurable behavior often shifts" (Chaskin & Joseph 2015, 159). The conduct monitored and patterns of social control in urban communities undergoing gentrification are clearly influenced by white middle-class norms and interests (Smith 2001). Indeed, punitive practices often target non-criminal acts and minor offenses such as loitering, sleeping in public, and selling loose cigarettes, among other behaviors considered distasteful to the new middle-class residents. Scholars and activists have referred to these measures as forms of social cleansing designed to purge undesirables and appease the concerns of gentrifiers (Cahill 2006, Eick 2006, Millingon 2011, Raco 2003). As was the case during the war on drugs, this heightened surveillance creates hostile environments for non-white residents, who may experience harassment or an intensified suspicion of unlawful activity (Betancur 2002, Cahill 2006). As Cacho (2012,5) cogently observes, "as targets of regulation and containment they are deemed deserving of discipline and punishment but not worthy of protection."
There are no clear empirical data demonstrating that gentrification has crime-reducing effects, despite the claims of its proponents (Papachristos et al. 2011). Indeed, Edgewood Park developers criticized local government figures for being soft on crime and suggested that gentrification is leading to lower crime rates. They took measures to signal that their redevelopment projects were increasing safety in the neighborhood--for example, by installing ample security cameras on the streets of Edgewood Park. Moreover, there are now multiple community watch organizations in Edgewood
Park--predominately comprised of new white residents--that focus on reporting crime and quality-of-life issues to the police. Their members use social media (e.g., Facebook groups and message boards) to address their concerns about "suspicious" individuals. In their research on a community watch group, Lowe and colleagues (2017) find that posts about suspicious individuals disproportionately focus on people of color and suggest the criminal nature of Black individuals' behavior (even when it is not illegal), thus perpetuating the construction of Black men as criminals. Instead of recognizing the social suffering experienced by poor residents of color in their gentrifying neighborhood, these Edgewood Park community watch groups focus solely on crime concerns, grievances about disorderly residents (e.g., people playing loud music), and the need for enhanced surveillance. Some long-time residents of color understand the increased securitization (such as the installation of surveillance cameras) as an initiative to placate the white newcomers' concerns about Black criminals and recreate the image of the neighborhood.
Neighborhood Rebranding and Community Erasure
In fact, this increase in formal social control is crucial to a broader strategy of rebranding of neighborhoods that have negative reputations. Rebranding for gentrification also tends to entail the construction of new private amenities--typically, businesses desired by a more affluent clientele (e.g., cafes and bars) that signal "the existence arrival and dominance of the middle class" (Millington 2011, 122). It is not uncommon for such rebranding efforts to be accompanied by the renaming of a neighborhood, which can be understood as a tactic to annihilate a neighborhood's history (Hartman 2002, Mirabal 2009). In the early 2000s, a prominent developer took the liberty of renaming a large section of Edgewood Park "Asbury."Now, many newer residents refer to the community as Asbury, which reinforces a sense that the old Edgewood Park is in decline and a new neighborhood culture is emerging.
Amy, a white activist and Edgewood Park resident, described "the invention of Asbury" as a marketing ploy that is "highly offensive to the longtime residents."Tara, a long-time Black resident, likewise expressed how insulting and frustrating this unannounced renaming of the neighborhood was:
I don't like when people come and try to take over a neighborhood like there weren't people there already--pulling that Christopher Columbus sh*t ... Why does the neighborhood have to be renamed? It has a name already! And what is Asbury? Who is Asbury? I don't know anything about that. It's been Edgewood Park since my dad was a little boy and he's 71, and probably since before that ... probably when my grandparents were younger. I don't know why it's necessary to change it.
The chief developer in Edgewood Park, Colin Brooks, (3) owner of CVB Realty, has furthered rebranding efforts in the neighborhood by building large, lavish homes and using his political connections to bypass or change zoning board regulations regarding the size limitations of new construction. Brooks and affiliates have also contested the construction and preservation of affordable housing units. They have endeavored to transform the neighborhood on an aesthetic and cultural level--for example, by establishing amenities that are appealing to well-off (majority white) newcomers, such as trendy gastropubs, instead of the amenities that established residents have long sought (e.g., a recreation center and a grocery store). These development practices indicate to long-time Black residents that the newcomers' interests are prioritized while theirs are disregarded.
Displacement due to rising costs may be the most extreme consequence of gentrification, but cultural transformation also has critical implications for people of color. As Prince (2014, 12) notes, "for many African Americans, gentrification means' not belonging' in areas that were once commonly known or frequently traversed." Along these lines, Burke (2012) demonstrates how gentrification entails the reproduction of white habitus (6) in racially diverse spaces, and other research has clarified that gentrification tends to create white spaces where people of color feel unwelcome and stigmatized (Anderson 2015). Scholars (just like Tara, cited above) have drawn parallels between gentrification and colonialism, as gentrification involves the cultural privileging of whiteness and the transformation of urban neighborhoods according to the aesthetic preferences of the white middle class (Atkinson & Bridge 2005, Millington 2011). Fliers were also posted around Edgewood Park comparing the local gentrification to colonialism (see Figure 1 on next page).
In 1966, the US government encouraged the engagement of low-income urban residents in the planning processes for their neighborhoods through a specific initiative, the Model Cities program, which provided funding for community-based planning programs. Although the program generated optimism regarding the prospects for community empowerment, it was dismantled alongside other Great Society programs by Nixon (Angotti & Marcuse 2008). In contrast to such intentional inclusivity, neoliberal projects thrive on the social exclusion of the poor. In addition to physical and social/ cultural displacement, political displacement (Martin 2007) is likewise key to gentrification, as the voices, concerns, and desires of long-time residents are often overshadowed by those crafting a new, capital-sustaining and-attracting image for the neighborhood. Because of the aforementioned rebranding efforts and developers' blatant disregard for the concerns of long-time residents--in addition to other issues that will be discussed below--Brooks and his associates are widely recognized among those critical of gentrification for taking an aggressive, exclusionary, "steam-roller" approach to redeveloping Edgewood Park. Indeed, established Edgewood Park residents feel frustrated by the lack of opportunities to provide input in decision making regarding the development of Edgewood Park (for example, many residents were aggravated by the developers' renaming of the neighborhood without their knowledge). Long-time resident Tara explained how community members were generally not informed about the meetings ahead of time: "I think that's by design," Tara noted, "I think that's intentional." Another resident, writing on a public social media thread, articulated that the local developers demonstrated a total disregard and lack of respect for the long-time residents of Edgewood Park, noting: "They lie and say they are inclusive ... but they make so many changes that affect us all without our input." In line with this sentiment, COEP's website points out that local developers have dismissed and circumvented community input processes for decisions regarding zoning and land use. As these activists note, democratic participation in decision making is not in the developers' interests, as this might facilitate more equitable development that they cannot profit from. COEP has endeavored to publicly problematize the exclusive nature of Edgewood Park's development to generate resistance against gentrification and its racial repercussions.
Constructing an Anti-Racist Project against Exclusionary Development
Racial formation theory allow us to explore how individual and collective actions can contest oppression and advance racial equality (Omi &, Winant 2014). In Dark Ghetto, Clark (1965) describes how people living in ghettoized neighborhoods often internalize notions of inferiority and see their predicaments as a result of personal deficiencies, which leads to self-blame and a range of demobilizing emotions. However, Clark (1965, 54) emphasizes the "harnessable power to effect profound social change in the generally repressed rage of the alienated," arguing that communities can be mobilized as they come to understand their hardships in the context of structural injustices. Although Clark wrote Dark Ghetto over 50 years ago, his analysis resonates with the findings of COEP activists, who report that their canvassing efforts revealed sentiments of hopelessness and fatalism among neighbors who understood the threat of displacement as a personal problem or a reflection of their own shortcomings. Although COEP activists, like Clark, acknowledge that these collective emotions can be a barrier to organizing, they too assert that such affective dynamics can be transformed to mobilize disempowered and marginalized communities.
Indeed, a crucial element in the construction of COEP's anti-racist project involves retracting legitimacy from the neutral, color-blind development frame by highlighting the structural and racialized nature of gentrification. COEP activists primarily use canvassing as an opportunity to talk with neighbors about how gentrification is affecting them personally and to connect residents' personal issues to the systemic roots and racial politics of gentrification. By sharing their critical, race-centered analyses of gentrification through personal interaction and social media, COEP activists work to politicize and empower their neighbors to recognize and stand up against gentrification's racist and classist nature. As COEP activist Gregory explained:
People, especially African Americans, have been beat down by the system to such a degree that no one feels like [they] are worth anything or have any power. So empowering people to recognize there [are] systemic reasons [for what they experience] can have real, powerful effects.
COEP activists accentuate the role of race in the past and current restructuring of Edgewood Park; on their website, they highlight the racial history of the neighborhood, noting that after white flight and decades of divestment, the neighborhood is only experiencing reinvestment because it is now considered desirable by white middle-class people. Moreover, COEP calls direct attention to the racially coded narratives about "improving" the neighborhood and the ways developers evoke stereotypes of long-time Black residents (such as language and images depicting them as welfare queens, criminals, parasites, or takers) as part of their broader agenda to promote fear and resentment toward those who do not fit the image of the Edgewood Park they seek to construct. They emphasize that these racist and classist depictions are intentionally designed to cultivate a shared ideology among white newcomers and foster an "us vs. them" mentality that justifies the displacement of long-time African American residents. COEP also addresses such issues at their community meetings and structures many of their events with a specific focus on race. (7)
COEP's largest event was a community march held on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and attended by 150-200 people, organized to advocate for working-class needs and to protest the "profit-over-people" development of their neighborhood. In describing the 1963 March on Washington, Clark (1965) writes about its morale-boosting impact for alienated African Americans, noting that although it was not necessarily a mechanism of concrete social transformation, the gathering of 250,000 people demonstrated that there was pervasive support for social change. Clark (1965, 201) describes the "general air of festive acceptance of the rightness of the cause, unquestioned faith that justice would eventually prevail" during the march--a portrayal quite similar to that of COEP activists in recounting their march. Though their march was localized and much smaller in scale, the activists I interviewed suggested that the event clarified for many that the hardships and grievances in their gentrifying neighborhood were widespread--that the challenges long-time residents were facing did not denote personal shortcomings, but rather a shared struggle linked to deep inequalities. COEP's march was largely pronounced a huge success, as it transformed emotions of fear, resentment, and hopelessness into profound sentiments of pride, solidarity, and hope that invigorated Edgewood Park residents could build "people power" to resist exclusionary development.
As noted above, Edgewood Park residents have felt excluded from local decision-making processes and unable to affect the tide of gentrification. Accordingly, COEP activists have accentuated the importance of giving their neighbors a voice and demanding that their concerns be heard. When canvassing, they encouraged their neighbors to sign petitions and attend zoning board meetings to protest specific development projects. Activists have instigated several successful campaigns against CVB Realty, which according to COEP activist Andrea "gave people fuel" to keep fighting. In Calvin's words: "When the developer got his zoning power denied, people power did that. That's amazing to me. I know we can [do this]. So that's what keeps me going." Indeed, just as Clark emphasized in 1965, concrete triumphs propelled by mobilized community power can nurture marginalized people's self-confidence and collective sentiments of community effectiveness.
Pro-Gentrification Hostility and Backlash
In writing about the results of the March on Washington, Clark (1965, 202) emphasizes that it also mobilized counteraction, noting that "white backlash ... became a part of the colloquial language within the year immediately following the march." Though not as violent as the backlash in the 1960s, COEP too encountered repercussions for organizing their march, as CVB affiliates and other pro-gentrification figures attempted to impede and minimize anti-gentrification activism. In a public forum, a developer identified as a close CVB Realty ally wrote that Edgewood Park's community organization consists of "poor Black people" who are simply against prosperity. This same individual posted an entry on his real estate blog containing vulgar statements about COEP activists as well as a facetious meme meant to mock COEP's anti-gentrification discourse that reads:
When we take over your neighborhood the only thing you'll be able to afford is the bullet to kill yourself with. Gentrification: It's worse than gun violence, drug abuse, adult illiteracy, or [this city] ignoring your block for the past 35 years. Combined. The ground where your children play will soon turn into a Starbucks unless you ACT NOW.
Additionally, photos of anti-gentrification activists have been posted on real estate blogs accompanied by racist stereotypes and degrading comments--such as a photo of a 74-year-old African American woman from COEP posted with a racist and sexualizing comment ridiculing her appearance. Activists also reported experiencing intimidation tactics. When Amy, an Edgewood Park resident, created a petition against a C VB development project on her block, Brooks tracked her IP address, located where she worked, and called her supervisor to encourage disciplinary action against Amy for using her work computer for these purposes. Amy believes that Brooks contacted her workplace because he wanted to "create that feeling of 'I can get you, I know where you live, I know what you do.'" Furthermore, she considered this an intimidation tactic to prevent her from testifying against CVB Realty's development plans at impending zoning board meetings. COEP activists described experiencing other scare tactics--such as being followed, being threatened with lawsuits, and having their addresses and photos posted online.
In multiple blogposts, actors with ties to local development conglomerates portray COEP as irrational (e.g., by referring to its members as "misguided communists") and ridicule individual activists. Other posts and anonymous comments assert that long-time Edgewood Park residents are incapable of taking care of their neighborhood and are hostile toward the individuals who want to "improve" it. On social media platforms, (self-identified) newer residents of Edgewood Park have often referred to COEP as "anti-white people," or "racists" who are "protesting because white people are moving to the neighborhood." As Bonilla-Silva (2010) notes, the shield of colorblindness allows whites to claim that they experience reverse racism when racial matters surface.
Some online posts by developers and their allies directly criminalize anti-gentrification activists; one real estate blog, for example, posted a COEP activist's arrest record (for a minor charge) to discredit him and undermine his moral standing. In line with such criminalization, COEP activists believe they were framed for an act of vandalism on the morning of their community march. After security cameras captured footage of a man throwing a brick through the CVB Realty Company's window, Brooks informed local news reporters of the incident and suggested that COEP was responsible. According to an informant, Brooks paid that individual to throw the brick through the window as a scheme to frame COEP and detract attention from the march. Moreover, one of Brooks's main associates purchased a new website just 90 minutes after the incident occurred and titled it "Edgewood Park criminals," using the site to depict COEP activists as degenerates.
The backlash these anti-gentrification activists experienced reflects the great lengths stakeholders go to protect the profitable project of gentrification when they feel it is under attack. Although these intimidation tactics were a source of anxiety for COEP activists, they did not short-circuit their work. In retrospect, activists explained that they perceived these personal attacks as evidence that COEP was having an impact; thus, the hostility they experienced ultimately emboldened them. Moreover, it generated material that COEP could repurpose to benefit its mobilization efforts and bolster outside support for its anti-racist project. As COEP activists canvassed to discuss neighborhood issues, they shared examples of the developers' "dirty work" to mobilize outrage and support.
COEP also used its website to publicly expose vivid examples of the use of intimidation tactics and racist and sexist characterizations of activists by pro-gentrification figures. Prior research has demonstrated that the Internet can serve as a powerful tool for activists to draw attention to social suffering, disrupt hegemonic misunderstandings of racial minorities' struggles, and build networks of support (e.g., Rapp et al. 2009). Indeed, COEP utilizes its website and social media to underscore the exploitative rhetoric and practices of Edgewood Park developers, and, more generally, the racialized violence of displacement. According to the activists I interviewed, their website and social media pages (in addition to face-to-face conversations) were successful in mobilizing outrage and encouraging other Edgewood Park residents to join the struggle. Nonetheless, it is exceedingly challenging for ordinary people to resist the powerful forces promoting gentrification. COEP activists have not halted the gentrification of Edgewood Park, but they have been successful in hindering specific development plans by mobilizing sizable numbers of their neighbors to speak out against CVB Realty's proposals at zoning board meetings.
The concept of neoliberal confinement denotes an array of profitable policies, practices, and institutions that trap marginalized populations behind iron bars and in ghettoized communities (among other adverse spaces) and that intensify social suffering via surveillance, police violence, and displacement (among other means of subordination). In this article, I have attempted to demonstrate the nexus between gentrification and mechanisms of carcerality and to demonstrate how resistance against mass incarceration and gentrification are very much part of the same struggle for racial justice. Color-blind discourse and neoliberal ideals are apparatuses well suited for enabling mass incarceration (Alexander 2010); similarly, in the context of gentrification, they reproduce racist perceptions of Black criminality and disorder that justify practices such as intensified policing and social control, community erasure and rebranding, the exclusion of long-time residents' voices, and displacement. Exploring gentrification as a racial project in the context of neoliberal confinements clarifies the ways in which the profiteers of gentrification--like the profiteers of the prison industrial complex--benefit immensely from social and racial domination and intensify the precarity of marginalized populations in urban spaces.
Although it is exceedingly important to scrutinize the range of hardships generated by neoliberal racism, it is equally crucial to explore the ways in which individuals and movements are resisting them. The case study discussed above highlights the agency of those injured by the oppressive relations of neoliberalism and their potential for successful collective action, but it also sheds light on the heightened barriers to resisting inequality under the neoliberal order: specifically, the alignment of private and public goals in the interest of capital accumulation and the profound ideological power of neoliberalism and color-blindness in inhibiting activism against systemic injustices.
Indeed, neoliberal ideas about individualism, meritocracy, deregulation, and widespread faith in the market's propensity to certify that people get what they deserve have shaped a common sense that rationalizes and normalizes inequality, buttressing the pervasive notion that the poor are to blame for their inability to afford rising rents and taxes in gentrifying locales. As Wacquant (2008,203) observes, "the historic shift from the Keynesian state of the 1950s to the neo-Darwinist state of the fin de siecle, practicing economic liberalism at the top and punitive paternalism at the bottom, entails a sea change in the political framing of neighborhood upgrading." Development plans are framed as rational and desirable in a manner that masks the ways in which gentrification renders poor minority residents disposable (Cahill 2006). Whereas the Keynesian state expanded and implemented social protections to aid those in poverty, the neoliberal state has shifted its support toward private economic actors. Local governments depend on private agents for capital accumulation and thus take actions that bolster capitalist endeavors, while the poor are instructed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
However, although these hegemonic ideologies present significant obstacles to consciousness raising and mobilization, they are not unalterable. As Alexander (2010) suggests, all racial justice movements must challenge the color-blind consensus and clarify the racial roots of neoliberal projects such as mass incarceration. By challenging and disrupting the taken-for-granted understandings of redevelopment projects as natural and race neutral and spotlighting the racist rationalizations and injustice inherent in gentrification, COEP has mobilized an anti-racist project that has been successful in hindering exclusionary development plans.
Many advocacy organizations have formed to resist various modes of violence and confinement entangled in the broader system of neoliberal racism, such as Black Lives Matter and movements for prison reform, environmental justice, and affordable housing, among others. Like COEP, these organizations construct and disseminate counterhegemonic frames that strive to disrupt color-blind rationales for racially oppressive practices and to mobilize collective action for racial justice. For example, Sbicca and Myers (2017) conceptualize urban food disparities as racial projects and describe how food justice organizations challenge such inequity by highlighting its inextricable links to racial, political, and economic marginalization. Yet, as these scholars note, the actions of a singular food justice organization will not transform oppressive structures; therefore, they highlight the potential of alliances between groups fighting various facets of racial neoliberalism. Indeed, broader coalitions are needed, as the case of COEP demonstrates how arduous the battles against powerful proponents of the neoliberal order can be. In advocating for a mass movement to end mass incarceration, Alexander (2010,238) suggests that we must "build a new, egalitarian racial consensus reflecting a compassionate rather than punitive impulse toward poor people of color."Constructing such a public consensus and dismantling systems of racist social suffering will require coalitions and broader antiracist projects that address the manifold layers of oppression produced by neoliberal confinements.
(1.) Pseudonyms are used for all organizations, individuals, and their geographic locations to protect respondents' identities.
(2.) There are only eight core activists who attend COEP's weekly closed meetings, but the number of individuals who attend their open meetings and events is typically much larger.
(3.) COEP refers to gentrification as "exclusionary development." I use these terms interchangeably throughout the article.
(4.) A total of nine interviews were conducted in the spring of 2014.
(5.) Pseudonyms are used for the name of the developer and his realty company.
(6.) Bonilla-Silva (2010, 104) defines white habitus as "a racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites' racial taste, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters."
(7.) For example, following the reelection of President Obama, COEP held a community forum titled "Now What? Addressing the Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement." COEP, along with local Black Lives Matter activists and other racial justice organizations, also helped to facilitate the city's day of action and empowerment on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2015. Such race-focused initiatives signify COEP's commitment to building a broad anti-racist project.
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Melissa Archer Alvare *
* MELISSA ARCHER ALVARE is a PhD candidate at the University of Delaware in the Department of Sociology and Criminology. Her research focuses on racial inequalities and resistance, specifically in the contexts of gentrification and education.
Caption: Figure 1. A flier posted in Edgewood Park.
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|Author:||Alvare, Melissa Archer|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
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