Notes on Marcuse’s Blog #46 – The Ethics of Gentrification, Social and Personal

This piece was first published on Disturbanism, 19 May 2014.


A Nimby anti-gentrification graffiti, Bänschstraße 54, Berlin-Friedrichshain (photo: Hisham Ashkar, 2014)

In a recent blogpost dated 8 April 2014, and titled “The Ethics of Gentrification, Social and Personal,” Peter Marcuse advanced some measures on how to deal with the ethical problem of gentrification, on both level, societal and individual. His blogspot should not be read as an academic piece, but rather it is a bridging between research and activism. It is when a researcher uses his/her knowledge and expertise to propose some solutions for certain urban or social problems.

In what follows, i will discuss and comment Marcuse’s proposal. This discussion does not take into account the previous, and numerous, writings by Marcuse on this subject, but treats his blogpost as an independent piece, since readers does not always goes through an author previous works in order to grasp his/her full interpretation and understanding of the subject.

But before going further into his suggestions, I would like to address four points, that i consider essential: 1) the gentrification context, that his proposal is targeting, 2) the need for precision from prominent researchers, 3) the definition of gentrification, and 4) gentrification and social classes. The first two points will be dealt together in the first note.

Note #1: on the context of gentrification, and the role of prominent researchers

Marcuse did not specify which geographical location he is dealing with, but the reader can assume that it’s the United States, and more specifically certain cases in New York City. However, and as it is the case with prominent researchers, their works are quoted, copied, and disseminated by other researchers worldwide, and -unfortunately- applied to other contexts, regardless if they fit these other contexts or not.

Contexts of gentrification vary a lot, and that according to several factors and dimensions, from social, to political, to economic, to normative. This last element is very important in shaping the development of gentrification, since this urban transformation usually develops according to the regulations and rules in place. For example, in Beirut where urban planning regulations presents little restrictions, gentrification is based on the demolition of old buildings, and the construction of upscale high-rises. A case which can not take place in Paris, where there are stricter rules protecting urban heritage, and there is a ban on new buildings over seven storeys high.

Prominent researchers by not specifying that their concepts or suggestions are related to certain particular context, gives the impression that their writings transcend boundaries, and thus indirectly helping the erroneous interpretations by other researchers.

Furthermore, and what i noticed from my research on gentrification, which is an anglo-saxon dominated field study, is that many anglo-saxon researchers sees and reads gentrification, wherever it is happening in the world, from an anglo-saxon perspective, and then try to implement their local concepts on other cases in the world.

Note #2: on the definition of gentrification

Marcuse did not clarify what gentrification is, but he stated that “the undesirable consequences of the displacement caused by gentrification are by now well established.”

Gentrification might appear as an obvious and accepted concept, but in fact it is not, either among researchers or non-researchers (for example in Berlin, the popular discourse identifies it with the raise in rent.) And maybe because of the lack of this concordance, that most researchers, when they write on gentrification, they keep on referring to Ruth Glass first identification of the term in 1964. And here is the widely quoted passage, from Glass’ London: Aspects of Change:[1]

One by one, many of the working-class neighbourhoods of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences. Larger Victorian houses, downgraded in an earlier or recent period—which were used as lodging houses or were otherwise in multiple occupation—have been upgraded once again…. Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.

From this we can deduce that gentrification has two defining elements: 1) a change in the population, where the current population is displaced by a wealthier and different one, and 2) an upgrade of the space, either through renovation or reconstruction.

My preferred definition is the one given by Eric Clark:[2]

Gentrification is a process involving a change in the population of land-users such that the new users are of a higher socio-economic status than the previous users, together with an associated change in the built environment through a reinvestment in fixed capital.

So why the emphasis on the definition? Simply because before addressing an issue, we need to have a clear idea of it.

Marcuse wrote that displacement is caused by gentrification.[3] I can understand his approach as a way to refute the arguments of those who deny this fact. But still, from an academic and activism point of view, wouldn’t be stronger and more accurate to say that displacement is not caused by, but rather is an integral part of gentrification?

A defining component of a concept cannot be its consequence.

And the matter is not only academic accuracy, but also it is the way how a subject is approached and understood, that also underlines the methods to deal with it (be it in academia or in activism.) Considering eviction as caused by leads to address the consequences of gentrification. But considering eviction as an integral part leads to address gentrification itself.

Note #3: on gentrification and social classes

Apart from referring to Glass’ coinage, the second (and only) accord among gentrification researchers, is that it is a class based study.[4] Interestingly, Leftist and Marxist researchers put in tension the middle class and the working class,[5] which is more a Weberian concept than Marxist, and/or it is closer to the American and British understanding of social structure. Not to mention that even if they treated it from a Marxist understanding they fall in the trap of the classic Marxists definitions (students as middle class, or a classic interpretation of the working class.) Anyway, the issue of social classes in gentrification studies is a broader topic than to be addressed in depth in this post.

In his blogpost, Marcuse does the same, he considers middle income people are replacing working class/lower income.

However, gentrification is not a tension between these two groups only. In many cases a working class was replaced by a different and wealthier working class, or as it is the case with super gentrification, a bourgeoisie was replaced by a different and wealthier bourgeoisie.

The situation is more complex than what (traditional) Marxist researchers are trying to depict.

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In his blogpost, Marcuse proposes several measures and specific guidelines on “how to address such displacement to obtain a more social and ethically just result.” He admits that his suggestions “are not likely to be easily or fully implemented in any private economy in the near future.” Nevertheless, he considers that efforts to implement them, might help decision making on residential real-estates to move from the market to the public sector, which he considers “more democratic (even if with severe limits).”

And here I agree with his broader thought. Removing housing sector from the speculative equations of the market is the ultimate goal, not only to deal with gentrification, but also with the issues of the right to the city, the right to housing, and the right to choose where to live and where to dwell. However, some of his propositions raise questions on their pertinence, and on their ability to lead to the end he is envisioning.

Marcuse first wrote on the social level, and then on the personal level. I’ll start my notes in a reverse order to his.

Note #4: on considering researchers as middle class, and as gentrifiers

For his individual ethical measures, Marcuse addresses one specific group: young researchers studying gentrification. From his post, we can deduce that these researchers are either still students, or just finished their studies and have working contracts with university.

It is interesting that Marcuse considers them as middle class. While this can be true in the context of the nineteenth century, nowadays, students and researchers come from different social-class background, and with a wide income disparity. And if individuals practice the same profession, it does not lead to their belonging to same social class. For example, there is a difference between a free-lance architect, and a self-employed architect who own his small office, which is different from an architect employed in an architecture firm, and the architect who manage the firm, and the architect who owns the firm. We can argue, that these architects belongs to different social classes, and that based on their relation to the means of production, as well as to their income.

Some of the researchers moving to working class neighbourhoods, might in fact have lower income than many residents of this neighbourhood. It can be argued that these young researchers act as initiators of gentrification, similar to artists[6] or to single mothers,[7] however this is not sufficient to label them as homogeneous group, nor as gentrifiers.

Note #5: on turning researchers into activists

Marcuse singles out young researchers, in a clear attempt to raise the awareness of, and to mobilize his primary and direct audience. He is pushing them to become activists, furthermore, he delineates to them which path of activism they should follow:

The ethical obligation of young researchers studying gentrification does impose other ethical obligations on them that indeed require careful attention, and whose pursuit will contribute more to curing the ills of gentrification than their choice of where to live. That is the obligation to draw conclusions from their own research, and as they learn more of the injustice that gentrification causes, to become actively engaged in the fight against it, to use their research skills to spread recognition of those injustices, to help formulate and implement the kinds of measures suggested under Transformative Ethical Societal Measures above. That’s the hard-core ethical course confronting them.

A critical researcher-activist has to question are these the best measures, or the most suitable ones for gentrification cases?

Second, while i do not object on the researcher-activist approach, there is a need for a close cooperation between these researchers and other anti-gentrification activists, especially that Marcuse considers the former as gentrifiers, in other terms, they are among whose contributing to the unfortunate situation of the victims of gentrification.

No one knows best, and fights better for, a cause more than those directly subjected to its consequences.

In this case, these researchers, unless they are directly affected by gentrification, have to be at the service and assistance of those suffering from it.

Note #6: on the community based approach

No doubt, social measures and guidelines are more important and effective than individual ones. Marcuse lists four measures and ten guidelines, nearly half of them are community oriented.

I would like first to question the notion of community in an urban area. I would more understand it in a rural setting, or in the context of these utopian settlements and colonies, one century ago (Marcuse’s proposal for shared kitchens resonate best with the latter.) I do not refute the existence of community, but i put in doubt its pertinence, maybe aside of urban ghettos.

Community as it is understood in Marcuse post is geographically bounded. However, the revolution in transport and communication liberated to a great extent social ties from its geographic limits. In a context of a neighbourhood, we can talk of a community, but also of several communities, additionally we should not ignore that a significant part of the residents, neither would like to be identified with this community, nor are interested in social ties in their direct surroundings.

Moreover, the community and territorial oriented measures leads to the strengthening of this community control over this space -something that Marcuse advocates- and that with all the positive as well negative effects. It bears the risk of enclosure and exclusion, of a territory-based self-centered self-interests policies. An example of this risk is best illustrated with the image attached to this article: “Gentrification not in my backyard.” So if it is in someone else’s backyard, will it be ok then?

If Marcuse is proposing to de-ghettoise rich areas, his measures risks to sur-ghettoise working class neighbourhoods.

Not to forget, that a community control, even with the most democratic measures, means the hegemony of the dominant group(s) in the neighbourhood, over the residents who oppose it/them, or those who do not identify with this community. To caricaturize a bit, in 2010, and after the Italian government transferred much power to local authorities, some of the latter used these powers to impose measures such as banning miniskirts, sandcastles or kissing in cars.

In its extreme, and on a national level, community control can be identified with nationalism.

Increasing community control leads to further defragmentation of the city, it also might infringe non-community members’ rights. If we oppose the power of market to reshape or control neighbourhoods, the solution won’t be to replace it by a territorial control.

Urban places are not frozen entities in time, they were and are subject to permanent transformation. Communities and social ties are not perpetual too, they can even mutate faster than the space. The best measures are those who take into account the rights to the city, of the neighbourhood residents, the would-be residents, as well the users of the space.

Note #7: on proposing measures that already proved their limits

Among Marcuse’s suggestions to strengthen community are what I like to name as positive discrimination. Maybe the best to illustrate that, is his guideline number 4:

4. For any action whatsoever, community control is key, and not for every community, but for those serving residents based on need — i.e. limited community control where it’s a high income exclusionary community, according to general principles for community goals, outlawing exclusion.

Note that due to the dash, “outlawing exclusion” is understood for high income exclusionary communities only. Or is it a typo? In case it is a typo, and “outlawing exclusion” applies to all communities, how can that fit with the selective process of the new would-be residents in working class neighbourhoods?

Regardless of this, and of that it is a reading of the city as segregated entities, positive discrimination has already showed its limits.

While positive discrimination have to be understood as a temporal and transitional phase, usually in the cases where it was implemented, it had -until now- a lasting character, and with many doubts on its efficiencies. Did positive discrimination, in the case of women or black people, alleviated their situations? Or was it just beneficial for few selective people from these two groups? Some might argue that it is better that few than nothing, but the fact is that its results haven’t affected the whole group (be it women or black people or other groups.) I cannot but note that the situation of Afro-americans, in the aftermath of the US civil war,[8] was much better than today. While for sure this gap is not due to the positive discrimination (or affirmative action) policy, but this shows the limit of this approach, in comparison to an era where Afro-americans were granted some sort of equal rights to white people, prior to the public and private actions that curbed these rights later.

Another issue is when trying to implement these guidelines: How to define the criterias? Who to accept or reject in this community? Furthermore, what if this community prospered? Will it be subject to restrictions then?

Positive discrimination should be read as it is: it is positive, but still it is a discrimination.

The objective has to be Justice and Rights, and I can’t see how a discrimination be it positive or negative can achieve this aim.

Another measure, proposed by Marcuse, that already showed its limits, is the construction of mixed income housing. I’ll stay brief on this topic, and just point that, within the current politico-economic context, and on many instances mixed income housing are used to foster gentrification,[9] and usually the main beneficiary, from these projects, are real-estate developers.[10] Mixed income housing is another example of a solution that targets results rather than causes, and i do have doubts on the sustainability of this approach within the context of the ever increasing income disparity.

Note #8: on widening the scope of struggle

Some of Marcuse’s suggestions i find highly valuable and essential. Such as “Public education advancing critical understanding” or “Heavy anti-speculation taxes.” However, other measures seems hard to be implemented on the local level only. For example:

Encouraging rising incomes of existing residents through general economic policies and community economic development is a longer-time but more fundamental solution.

The key in that sentence is “general economic policies.” And the target should not be “existing residents” only, but the general population. Moreover, rising incomes is a tricky term. In fact, and since the end of the direct convertibility of the US dollar to gold, during Nixon administration, we are facing an ever increasing inflation. Thus, any profit from raising incomes might soon be eroded. The issue is not raising incomes, but rather sharing the wealth.

Another clue in Marcuse’s suggestions, mentioned prior in this paragraph, is that they go beyond the neighbourhood boundary. And in my opinion, here is the main point in Marcuse blogpost: Actions have to be varied and broad.

Gentrification has to be viewed in a larger scope: the neoliberal restructuring of urban space. According to Harvey, geographical shifts and restructurings offer capitalism “all kinds of possibilities […] to stave off crises, sustain accumulation, and modify class struggle.”[11]

Marcuse aims to take “housing out of the market.” But how can this be achieved in a market driven economy, and where the housing sector provides considerable financial profits to a significant part of this economy? The obvious answer would be to confront this system. Any measure short of confronting the politico-economic system risks to have, at best, a short term success.

And how to confront it? Through varying and broadening the actions. Moreover, through joining forces with other causes facing this system. Otherwise, the anti-gentrification struggle is at risk of falling into the trap of sectorialism or Nimby-ism.

The community based approach is a local answer to a local problem. But the powers behind gentrification transcend the local level. Any response to gentrification needs to do the same.

At the end, i would like to propose three principles to address the issue of gentrification:

      1. Gentrification varies according the contexts. So no general measures can be applied everywhere. Every specific case needs its specific measures.
      2. The efficient way to deal with results/consequences is to target the causes. It may not bear fruits on the short term, but i argue that on the long run it is the most effective.
      3. To widen the struggle. Gentrification is mainly the result of capitalistic logic and dynamics, so the best way to confront gentrification is to join effort with other causes, and to confront the politico-economic system as a whole.


1. Glass R. (1964) London: Aspects of Change. London: Centre for Urban Studies.

2. Clark E. (2005) “The Order and Simplicity of Gentrification: A Political Challenge.” In: Atkinson R. and Bridge G. (eds) Gentrification in a Global Context: The new urban colonialism. London: Routledge. pp. 261-9.

3. A significant part of researchers have the same approach to this issue as Marcuse’s.

4. Wyly E. and Hammel D. ( 2001 ) “Gentrification, housing policy, the new context of urban redevelopment.” In: Fox Gotham K. (ed.) Research in Urban Sociology , vol. 6: Critical Perspectives on Urban Redevelopment. London : Elsevier. pp. 211-76.

5. Among the latest researchers to do so, we can cite: Clerval A. (2013) Paris sans le peuple – La gentrification de la capitale. Paris: La Découverte.

6. Ley D. (2003) “Artists, aestheticisation and the field of gentrification.” In: Urban Studies, 40(12). pp. 2527-2544.

7. Rose D. (1984) “Rethinking gentrification: beyond the uneven development of marxist urban theory.” In: Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 2(1). pp. 47-74.

8. For more on this issue, please check: Zinn H. (1980) A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row.

9. Hackworth J. and Smith N. (2001) “The changing state of gentrification.” In: Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 92. pp. 464–77.

10. Ellickson R. C. (2010) “The False Promise of the Mixed-Income Housing Project.” In: UCLA Law Review, 57. pp. 983-1021.

11. Harvey D. (2001) Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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