Gentrification seems to be coming for us all. Cities around the world are seeing astounding increases in rental and purchasing prices. There are several reasons for this, including poor city planning, an increase of people moving to urban locations, and the popularity of using real estate as an investment. At the Filmfest Hamburg 2017, there were two films which addressed the issues of gentrification is vastly different ways: I am Gentrification: Confessions of a Scoundrel by Swiss filmmaker Thomas Haemmerli, and Citizen Jane: Battle for the City directed by Matt Tyrnauer.
Haemmerli’s I am Gentrification does a pretty decent job of laying down the varying causes of gentrification from his perspective of what he saw in Zurich growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In his youth, he was a member of the radical left, occupying houses and trying to prevent gentrification, but as he grew older, came into his money, and realized that he could own multiple properties, he suddenly came to conclusion that we are all afraid of nothing. Gentrification, in his opinion, is the result xenophobia and antiquarianism. We should all live in massive high rises in tiny apartments, not be beholden to the architectural beauty of the past. He says all of this as if it is funny, as he goes on to joke about how he is the dreaded gentrification, owning apartments in Switzerland, Mexico, Brazil, and Georgia (the country, not the state). The thing is, it isn’t a joke. While Haemmerli laughs and off-handedly mentions his inheritance and privilege, gentrification continues to be a serious issue for millions around the globe. It is leading to the cultural destruction of minority neighborhoods, the inflation of prices well beyond the ability of locals to be able to pay, and in some cities, has led to near empty city centers because the property is all owned by foreign investors who have no interest in ever living in or renting out the flats they have purchased. To say that everyone should move into tiny apartments in high-rises, while he gloats about his beautiful, spacious and mostly empty flats that he owns around the globe is out-of-touch in the extreme.
Interestingly enough, in Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, many of the concepts Haemmerli purports to be the solutions to gentrification are specifically mentioned to be the cause of community collapse and the rise of ghettoization of the inner-city poor. Citizen Jane takes us back to the 1950s in New York City, a time when 1.5 million people were urbanizing every week and where city planner Robert Moses came out with an idea to make the city automobile friendly. Moses and other progressive planners of the period believed the way of the future was to move people out of their tenement houses (so-called “slum clearance”) and into modern high rises. His first great construction was the Cross-Bronx Expressway, a masterful piece of destruction which divided the Bronx in two, bringing devastation to the once thriving community. His next plan? Clearing out Greenwich Village and creating the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Enter Jane Jacobs, a journalist whose understanding of cities and the way they work was integral to leading the fight against these sweeping changes. She understood that cities aren’t about buildings, they are about people and that the major problem with these tower blocks being built was that they went against the culture of community in cities where places and people mutually support and supplement one another. In New York she saw a thriving sidewalk culture, where people watched and took care of their communities. This culture was destroyed in high-rises which were artificially created and in no way met the needs or wants of the people. Jane Jacobs was extremely successful in her fight against Robert Moses, blocking his plans to clear Greenwich Village and the building of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Her books on urban culture such as The Death and Life of Great American Cities helped bring about our current understanding of urban renewal in the face of gentrification.
Obviously, there are no easy solutions to these problems, but to try and satirize the situation and belittle it as Haemmerli has done in his film is frankly insulting to anyone who has suffered the ill-effects of gentrification. In his “satire” he not only has attempted to silence the suffering of millions globally by throwing around patronizing rhetoric such as xenophobia and antiquarianism, but he also showed his ignorance by ignoring the significant impact the problem has primarily on minority and poor populations which he clearly has no concept or understanding of. Perhaps before he so proudly announces his role as a gentrifier, he should look at the real impact he is making on underprivileged communities around the world.