The Death of Cities: Peter Moskowitz on Gentrification

Photo by Danielle Corcione

By: Peter Myers

The telltale signs of gentrification are easy to spot: luxury condos popping out of the ground like weeds; an influx of affluent white people into previously working-class and POC neighborhoods; sleekly branded businesses catering to these new residents. Given their visibility, it’s these signs that discussions about gentrification tend to focus on. However, they’re just a small part of a much larger story, one that began decades before that pricey tapas place replaced the bodega on your block. In How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood, journalist Peter Moskowitz gives us the long view of gentrification, from its roots in neoliberal economics and racist housing policy to its current logic of turning cities into glass-paneled citadels for the global elite.

How to Kill a City takes as its subject the history and current state of gentrification, weaving together sections of traditional reporting, historical research, and urban theory. The book is split into four main sections, each focusing on a different U.S. city. In New Orleans and Detroit, cash-strapped city governments have used disasters (Hurricane Katrina and a municipal bankruptcy, respectively) to open the floodgates to austerity and government-subsidized private development. In San Francisco and New York, surges of capital from tech and finance have made large swaths of each city unaffordable for all but the super-rich. These narratives are familiar, but what makes Moskowitz’s book unique and vital is the way it demystifies them. The flow of capital may be immaterial, but the trail it leaves is tangible. How to Kill a City puts the pieces together to show how, beginning decades ago, government officials, nonprofits, and business interests colluded to set the stage for gentrification as we know it today.  

Moskowitz refuses to attribute gentrification solely to impersonal forces, and lets us know just who the power players are. In New Orleans, it’s former governor Kathleen Blanco, developer Pres Kabacoff, and other political and business leaders. In the months and years following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Moskowitz writes, this group “privatized schools and housing, busted unions, and gave tax breaks and other incentives to anyone who would bring money to the city, with few strings attached to that investment.” In Detroit, the gentrification effort has been led by a similar junta of developers, foundations, and government officials. Among the most notable is Quicken Loans CEO, real estate baron, and “cheerleader for the new Detroit” Dan Gilbert, who has been instrumental in channeling hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks toward urban revitalization projects aimed at young, affluent white people. These tax breaks have left the vast majority of Detroit’s Black residents with scant services and crumbling infrastructure.

Although capitalism is, for Moskowitz, gentrification’s primary ideological engine, he makes explicit the role anti-Black racism and colonialism play in the process. This isn’t surprising—American history is largely a story of violence, displacement, and dispossession. But Moskowitz maps out in detail how gentrification is just the latest front in a decades-long war against poor people and people of color (especially Black people). Half a century ago, blockbusting, redlining, and other racist housing policy encouraged and subsidized white flight to the suburbs while stripping money and social services from the now majority-Black inner cities. But the suburbs are no longer a desirable place to live for many affluent whites—they have reached the plateau of their profitability, and the pendulum of economic value has swung back toward the cities. As a result, the residents who were left behind when money and social services vanished are being forced out of the very neighborhoods they were once abandoned to. The logic of capital might be what drives gentrification, but it’s a total disregard for Black life—and an inability to see Black people, particularly poor Black people, as fully human—that permits it to happen.

Moskowitz doesn’t discuss gentrification in Philly specifically, but it’s easy to spot the parallels. With developers like OCF Realty throwing buildings up across the city, the self-appointed “condo king” Allan Domb on city council, and the recent approval of a Community Reinvestment Coalition that seems designed to streamline collusion between government, nonprofits, and developers, gentrification in Philly seems to follow the same lines Moskowitz outlines. And, given rising rents and skyrocketing eviction rates in neighborhoods all over the city, there’s no sign of it slowing down any time soon.

Moskowitz doesn’t offer a quick fix for gentrification because, quite simply, there isn’t one. Nothing less than a mass movement demanding a profound shift in government policy will save U.S. cities. Those fighting against gentrification have long known this, but the portrait How to Kill a City presents makes it clear just how grim the situation is. But that can’t discourage us—it simply means the work of organizing our resistance is even more necessary, more urgent. As Moskowitz puts it on the book’s final page: “It’s time to start building.”

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