Short Circuit: Towards an Anarchist Approach to Gentrification

By Two Toronto Members

I. Defining Gentrification

No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is everywhere the same: the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success—but they appear again immediately somewhere else, and often in the immediate neighbourhood.
– Freidrich Engels, The Housing Question

Gentrification, etymologically speaking, is a relatively new word, coined in 1964 by the English Marxist sociologist Ruth Glass. Conceptually, some would claim that it has been a feature of urban life for hundreds of years. Between 1853 and 1870, for instance, the Haussmannization of Paris forced thousands of poor people from the centre of the city, where rents had traditionally been cheaper, to the urban periphery; these migrations were the forced results of structural changes Baron Haussmann had proposed to the city’s urban geography, and rapidly increasing rents. We might anachronistically consider displacements such as these an example of gentrification, but, as we will explore below, the term has some specificity and nuance that such comparisons fail to capture.

Glass came up with the term gentrification to describe the growing displacement of residents of working-class neighbourhoods in London by middle-class property buyers, often under the auspice of “urban renewal”. Much like in the United States, London witnessed a flight of monied residents from the city-centre to the suburbs following the second World War, precipitated by a boom in suburban housing stock. This boom was largely facilitated by the state: plans for the post-WWII reconstruction of London favoured the suburbs as the supposed future of the city. High demand for housing in the city-proper led policy planners to envision a city population dispersed across a wider geographical area. Financial and infrastructural incentives, like those included in the U.K.’s 1946’s New Towns Act and 1952’s New Towns Development Act, provided developers with public capital to create new suburban areas designed to contain “overflow” from crowded urban centres. This meant that many older neighbourhoods in London quickly converted to multi-occupant dwellings; as monied residents moved to the newly expanding suburbs, the demand for housing in the city decreased and became more affordable for working-class people. Like it did in many other cities, this transformation involved converting dwellings that had previously been single family houses into rooming houses or shared accommodations.[...] read more