Gentrification in the City, Gentrification in the Left

Since the open publishing of Seattle Socialist Alternative and the Black Lives Matter Movement last week, I’ve received quite a lot of much appreciated support from, in particular, activists in Seattle, Outside Agitators 206 participants, as well as both current and former members of Socialist Alternative nationally. A small minority of responses were negative, much of it with little in the way of direct refutation or critique towards the piece of writing. However sifting through what was often toxic and emotionally driven language, a small number of issues could be identified. Criticism was made that the piece on OA206 was too specific, too focused on one organization within a larger movement, and ultimately, that the document in itself was not presenting a clear strategy. Additional negative feedback pointed at the unverifiable nature of the critiques I made, due to being based on internal discussions and individual comments. While I disagree with the honesty of these points, as ignoring the stated original intention of the document as an internal one, and made in the context of a debate specifically around OA206, I would also like to take up these points. This is true that my writing thus far as individual pieces does not present a clear strategy, however future writing and development on strategy is planned. In it’s current absence, to more immediately concretely respond to my detractors, I now upload the full, underacted version of Capital’s Image of Seattle. The below document is about seven pages, originally written with four purposes. One, to introduce the concept of the “suburbanization of poverty” to Socialist Alternative as a national phenomenon. Two, to detail what that process meant for Seattle. Three, argue for a particular analysis around gentrification and the suburbanization of poverty. And four, to present how the positions taken by Socialist Alternative’s leadership ran counter to fully understanding and fully taking up that analysis. Capital’s Image in Seattle has been available on this blog since September 8th, however with its public release a number of paragraphs critical towards Socialist Alternative were struck. These criticisms, now restored, are primarily centered on public statements, as well as a City Council vote taken by Kshama Sawant. By speaking more to the public activity of Socialist Alternative, these now open criticisms begin to show a more full picture of the very real impact the analysis and strategy, or lack their of, SA has.

Capital’s Image of Seattle


Summary: This discussion document uses Seattle as a case study to look at the phenomenon of the “suburbanization of poverty” and the changing class and racial composition of American urban areas. In conjunction with this is a critique of a number of points that have arisen in the Seattle branches, which demonstrate a willful ignorance towards the reality of this new phase of US Capitalism, and the necessity to have a strategic orientation towards oppressed and hyper-exploited sectors of the working class. This should also be read as an invitation for similar studies to be conducted of of other metropolitan areas where our branches do work.

The 2007 global economic crisis carried devastating consequences for poor and working people across the United States. While Detroit is now an ugly icon of vulture Capitalism and its wholesale pillaging of a city’s culture and value, other cities share in a similar experience of a large-scale abandonment of investment. Baltimore, Flint, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and many others have suffered immense economic declines which the 2007 crash exacerbated. This is a result of the shift from industrial to service-sector economies within the United States, as much production has been shifted overseas.

The capital recomposition that has occurred globally since the 1970’s, alongside the development of new technologies, has led to greater class inequality. This inequality is reflected geographically as well, as the cities which have better weathered the ongoing economic turmoil have been those which have substantial information technology and science industries- Seattle, San Jose, San Francisco, Austin- and the investment that comes along with that.

Under a sub-heading of “The face of urban landscape is transformed,” an article from the hardly progressive USA Today reads:

As well-heeled tech workers flock in, local economies are revitalized, and the face of the urban landscape is transformed. Those employees spend their paychecks on everything from designer hoodies to restaurant dinners. Apartments are built to house them. And the taxes they and their employers pay help balance municipal budgets, fund redevelopment projects and pay for a range of amenities.

‘Areas with a faster-growing tech sector tend to have faster-growing non-tech employment, as well,’ Mandel said. Nationwide, private-sector non-tech wage and salary employment rose 5.4% from 2009 to 2013. But in the 10 large U.S. counties where growth of tech jobs had the biggest economic impact, non-tech jobs rose 10%, almost twice that rate, according to Mandel’s preliminary analysis.

As techie ranks swell and the overall economy expands at a faster pace, demand for shelter heats up. That leaves more and more people priced out of the housing market.

‘There are more bars, restaurant and museums,’ said Stanford University economist Rebecca Diamond, who has studied economic inequality in cities with large numbers of highly paid, college-educated workers. ‘But these cities are so expensive that all these great things are going to the high-skilled worker.’”(Zuckerman)

What does it mean to say that “the face of urban landscape is transformed”? Capital, Marxist geographer David Harvey wrote, “represents itself in the form of a physical landscape created in its own image…it builds a physical landscape appropriate to its own condition at a particular moment in time.”(Harvey) As “God created Man in His image”, so too does the “invisible hand of the Market” create the built environment in it’s own.

The “image” of Seattle is changing with the changing needs and character of Capital. A process of gentrification and displacement has been underway in Seattle for decades, and has only increased in speed since the 2007 market crash and Amazon’s announcement of its office consolidation in the South Lake Union neighborhood the same year.

The engine of this certainly a variety of factors, the importance of the Port of Seattle to trade with China, Boeing’s factories, but above all the primary factory in the city’s transformation has been the tech industry. “Seattle ranks in the top five cities nationally among advanced technology employment hubs for year over year rent increases; an average of 9.2% between February 2013 and February 2014.”(Creager and Peninger)

With an unemployment rate hovering around a six-year low,(Ellis) “economists observe that Seattle’s economy has weathered the recession better than other metropolitan areas because of strengths in multiple industries, such as science, aerospace and technology. In turn, the success of these industries attracts highly-skilled workers to the region – workers who can afford higher-priced housing”(“TOD That Is Healthy, Green, and Just”)

The planned destruction of the 89% non-white occupied Yesler Terrace public housing development, just south of Capitol Hill, into “mixed-income” housing and a four-acre tech industry corporate campus, provides a stark example of the difference between the Seattle of yesterday, and that of tomorrow.

Gentrification in Seattle is also heavily tied to the new modes of public transit, and new forms of urban development under the name “Transit Oriented Development.” Light Rail construction has had an immensely negative effect on many poor neighborhoods in Seattle’s diverse South End, where land values around Light Rail stations have gone up “over fifty percent since 2005. Particular pockets have increased exponentially; for example, land value around Othello station (located in Rainier Valley) increased 513 percent between 2004 and 2011.” These value hikes are made visible, and are exacerbated, by new condominium developments sold far out of reach of the communities being displaced.(Halstrom)

Of course, this disproportionately impacts some populations over others. “Rainier Valley encompasses the few Seattle neighborhoods in which people of color form the majority of residents and is considered by many to be one of the most diverse zip codes in the country. People of color make up 77% of all Rainier Valley residents while in the rest of Seattle, people of color make up only 26% of all residents.” “Thirty-nine percent (39%) of all Rainier Valley residents earn under $30,000 a year, compared to 16% of all people in Seattle. Eighteen percent (18%) of all residents in the Valley live in poverty. However, economic hardship falls disproportionately on people of color, with 20% living under the poverty threshold, compared to 11% of white people.” (“TOD That Is Healthy, Green, and Just”)

Transit-Oriented Development was not created to benefit the working class, but rather to herald in there displacement. In fact, “before the light rail investment, no private developer had built a multifamily residential building in [Ranier Valley] since 1974.” As Puget Sound Sage, a union-backed non-profit, puts it “Although we were unable to measure changes to household income over the last decade at the neighborhood level, there is a high likelihood that the increase in property values presages new people with greater means moving near station areas. Where local governments throughout the US have put light rail into existing urban areas, rising property values have also coincided with an increase in average household income.” (“TOD That Is Healthy, Green, and Just”)

The murder of Oscar Giron-Perez cannot be separated from the Sound Transit Light Rail. The 23-year young man was escorted off the Light Rail for fare evasion between Stadium and SoDo Stations, the stops directly south of the Downtown grid. These stops are where transit enforcement is regularly conducted, the effect being those who do not or cannot pay are not given access to the main metropolitan areas of the city.

Results of these processes are the exportation of Seattle’s poor, and primarily black and brown, populations to the suburbs, as well the flow of working class immigration and migration not being directed towards Seattle, but instead towards neighboring areas of Kent, Renton, and SeaTac. While the poverty rate of Seattle at 14.2% is above that of the suburbs, 11%, this looks to be changing. The number of students on a Free of Reduced Lunch program has gone up 23.1% in the suburbs, 13.5% for the city. Suburban unemployment more than doubled between 2007 and 2010. Overall suburban population has increased 15.4%, 7.1% in-city.(Kneebone and Williams, “Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA Metro Area Profile”) Numerically the suburbs already account for the clear majority of the Seattle metropolitan area’s impoverished- 67.6%.(Kneebone and Williams, “Suburban Poverty Metrics 2012”)

Seattle has long been the most or among the few most diverse places in the state and many people probably believe it still is. But according to the 2010 census Seattle has been displaced by dozens of places in its own region! It has become slightly more diverse, as suburban cities, mainly but not only to the south have become markedly more diverse. Many might also think eastern Washington, with its increasing Latino population, must be highly diverse. But no, the hotbed of diversity is from the southern part of Seattle, through south King County, to and beyond Tacoma…The top six most diverse places are just beyond the city of Seattle, and their diversity is amazingly high. In Pierce County a belt of high diversity extends from Fife and the Puyallup reservation across south Tacoma to Lakewood, Parkland, Spanaway and Ft.Lewis-McChord. this is truly a remarkable transformation.”“The main story from the (2010) census findings is the continued gentrification of Seattle, with displacement of minorities and the less affluent out of the center of the city, especially to south King county and Pierce county. The city core is becoming whiter, while the edges and suburbs, north and east as well as south are becoming far more diverse.” (Morrill)

Ferguson, Missouri offers a wake-up call, as an example of newly formed surban poverty. “In Ferguson in 2000, none of the neighborhoods had hit that 20 percent poverty rate. By the end of the 2000s, almost every census tract met or exceeded that poverty rate. That’s a really rapid change in a really short time” Changing poverty rates are tied to the changing racial makeup of the city, once a majority white area, Ferguson is now two-thirds black. “Suburban locales from the outskirts of Atlanta to Colorado Springs have seen similar trends. The number of poor people living in impoverished U.S. suburbs has more than doubled since 2000, comparing to a 50 percent rise in cities. More than one-third of the 46 million Americans in poverty now live in suburbs.” (Olorunnipa and Campbell)

This presentation shouldn’t merely be read as trivial statistics, but as a call for strategy. What is demanded of all revolutionaries is theoretical awareness, and practical action along that understanding. Concretely, for the Seattle organization, this means a radical reorientation towards the South End and it’s suburbs. However lessons from this document can, and should, be generalized as many facts- such as the suburbanization of poverty- are not exclusive truths to the Seattle area, but instead is just one case among many across the country. The idea that poverty is unchangingly primarily centralized in urban cores and neighborhoods is patently antiquated.

Kshama Sawant’s June 23rd vote in favor of up-zoning the South End Mount Baker neighborhood around the Light Rail station is a result of this marked lack of theory or practice around the reality of the most oppressed and marginalized peoples of the greater Seattle area. One defense I received to this vote, from an aid of Kshama’s, was that “gentrification would happen either way.” This echoes the sentiment of hopelessness by Seattle’s only black mayor, Norm Rice, when at a 2006 Central District community forum he said “I’m concerned and I am frustrated because I don’t know what the alternatives [to gentrification] are.” Hopelessness in this instance, from both our Council aid as well as the former Mayor, communicates the confusion we often confront from those who wish the world were better, but cannot imagine how change could occur within the context of market laws and constraints.(McGee Jr)

[Since originally writing this document, it later came to my attention that less than a week following Sawant’s vote on the upzone Jess Spear wrote to the Seattle Weekly on rent control. She raised concern, amongst many things, that: “Developers are buying up land, lobbying the city to allow for increased heights, and getting handouts subsidized by taxpayers – but what they are building are expensive, posh apartments that few workers in the city can afford”]

This confusion is rooted in the analyses and character of our organization. As a very on-point article in The Atlantic stated: “If perplexed whites want help understanding the present unrest in Ferguson, nearly all will need to travel well beyond their current social circles.” The equivalent exists in all cities, finding solutions to gentrification would require entering into the circles of the oppressed. This quote was in the context of an article looking into the phenomenon of white exclusivity in social networks. “(S)ocial networks of whites are a remarkable 93 percent white… In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).” (Jones)

Online separation mirrors neighborhood separation. “The average white person in metropolitan American lives in a neighborhood that is 75% white. Despite a substantial shift of minorities from cities to suburbs, these groups have often not gained access to largely white neighborhoods. For example a typical African American lives in a neighborhood that is only 35% white (not much different from 1940) and as much as 45% black.”(Logan and Stults)

The confusion, or perplexity, of our organization to the reality of gentrification leads to responses which miss the point, if there is any at all. The leadership determined that no statement should be published on the police murder of Oscar Giron-Perez, in spite of one being prepared. A central reason for this was an apparent gun was drawn by Oscar. However this was in the context of a number of factors, including the deep fear of deportation Oscar faced as an undocumented worker raised in the United States, although born on the “wrong” side of a border. Having watched the video of the tragedy, as well as speaking to eyewitnesses, it is clear that in no way Oscar intended to pull a gun on an officer from the first moment. Of course, weapon or not, it is the role of revolutionaries to stand with people like Oscar Giron-Perez, and explain the daily fear that people of color face from state violence. We should not stand by while Oscar Giron-Perez is demonized as a criminal.

A July 28th editorial submitted to The Stranger newspaper’s website by Jess Spear is another case of mistaken analysis. In putting forward a case for rent control, it used an image of Seattle which does not exist. The article itself was mostly buoyed by statistics of a single neighborhood. “We’re told it’s because there still aren’t enough units. The demand is high, the supply is low, ergo the price will rise—just simple economics. Yet the biggest increase in rents was seen in Ballard, where the supply doubled over the last six years and the vacancy rate is highest in the city. The if you build it, they will come (and rent will fall) ethic is lining the pockets of wealthy developers, but hasn’t helped the priced-out majority of Seattle area renters.”(Spear)

Hardly in 2014 could it be argued that rising property values are a result of solely speculation or a market out of control. The Puget Sound market rental vacancy rate is around 3.6%, a number unseen in 25 years. Seattle’s rate has certainly risen in the past year, but only to match that of the region’s average. (Cooper)

The Spear rent control editorial paints a completely wrong picture of what is occurring in Seattle, while also fittingly uses the state of a majority white North End neighborhood to make its case. As described above, Seattle has hit record low vacancy rates as of late. While Ballard may run contrary to that, to base an argument for rent control on a partial picture helps nobody. In fact, it is counter-productive. The incorrect impression one gets from the piece is that the housing market is out of control, that “wealthy developers” are speculating and inflating the value of the housing stock, and that “Seattle urgently needs to stabilize rents.”(Spear)

Unfortunately the Seattle market is working just fine, from the point of view of the Capitalists. Yes, there is an increasing flow of foreign investment from China to Germany into the Seattle housing market- but due to the relative safety of the investment, not due to volatile gambling. At the moment in fact, rather than a glut of housing stock, the opposite exists:

More sellers listed their homes for sale during July compared to a year ago, but brokers with Northwest Multiple Listing Service say inventory remains “well below” what is considered to be a balanced market… ‘Inventory levels are still the main concern in many areas,’ remarked MLS director George Moorhead, designated broker and owner of Bentley Properties in Bothell. He said buyers complain ‘there just isn’t enough to look at, then when something great does come up there are multiple offers.’ Unlike many previous years, Moorhead said ‘this year, we have seen weeks of aggressive activity.’

Mike Gain, CEO and president of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Northwest Real Estate, also commented on supply. ‘Although the housing inventory locally is up slightly, we just don’t have enough of the right inventory in the right neighborhoods to satisfy the demand. Our inventory today in King County is under 1.9 months’ supply,” he lamented, noting that’s well below the normal level of 5-to-6 months. ‘the lack of supply leads to multiple offers and many properties selling for above their list prices.’”(“Western Washington Housing Market in ‘Recovery Mode’ but Some Brokers Say It’s Still Not at Full Potential”)

Cognitive dissonance, perplexity, exists internally, between the city that we organizationally interact with, and the city as it actually is. The draft US Perspectives document is a national document which indicates that this series of local issues is also present on a higher level. In explaining how San Francisco could gain a $15/hr minimum wage law, with very little struggle, the document reads that “San Francisco is experiencing an economic boom compared to the rest of the country; this means that big business there is more willing to grant concessions.” The implication is that SF is unique, and not one among many cities- such as Seattle- to be experiencing an economic boom. However, this is false. Seattle as well as many cities in addition to San Francisco have seen “recoveries” since the onset of the Great Recession. While this may cut across the mythos that has been spun on the Seattle 15 Now campaign, in regards to being a struggle completely against the direction of American capital and its representatives, it is a factor.

Of course, economic growth does not continue in perpetuity. The Seattle housing market could certainly peak out, or the Chinese economy could take a dive, which would have huge repercussions specifically for Seattle, a shift in national interest rate policies upwards could create negative reverberations, etc. However the fact that the world changes from day to day should not rob us of our ability to analyze and act, and the world of Seattle has very much changed.

If we wish to truly be an organization which isn’t separated from the conditions, experiences, movements, and organizations of the oppressed and working class, then perplexity is ill-fitting. Not only ill-fitting, but it is an unfortunate reflection of the organization’s racial composition as a white-dominated group. A persistent electoral focus on the increasingly white and affluent 43rd District of Seattle, including the Capitol Hill neighborhood, does little to correct this. Instead, it repeats the failings of the Kshama Sawant City Council campaign. Yes, failings can happen alongside successes.

During that campaign, the Seattle Executive Committee put together a General Election Campaign Plan. That plan, in early draft forms, contained only two lines tepidly referencing the need to organize and orientate towards people of color and Seattle’s South End. However, the version which was distributed to members stripped those few words. I had written at the time in a minority statement that “(f)lowing from a lack of a critical mind, the Seattle Executive Committee dropped the references to the South End, in favor of geographical, social, and race-neutral language. This is dangerous.” “The Seattle Executive Committee’s draft General Election Campaign Plan seemingly puts (each) question of geographical orientation, targets, goals, messaging, possibilities of winning, historical context etc., in it’s own distinct category, analyzed separately and supposedly even-handedly from the others. However, what is needed is clarity on the implications of each of these questions to the others. Instead, the document wavers in many sections in it’s politics.” In light of the last year, I stand by that statement.

We have wavered on the gentrification of Ranier Valley, we have wavered on the death of Oscar Giron-Perez, and we have wavered in being unabashed partisans of the most oppressed. In the instances of the SEC’s Campaign Plan, as well as the case of Oscar Giron-Perez, the Seattle leadership did address, on a limited scale, race and gentrification. However on both counts, statements went unpublished and cut out. Conscious decisions have been made to not address race, to not stand with these communities. Instead, with these communities we should be standing shoulder to shoulder. One protesting resident of Missouri spoke to local media with the Ferguson QuikTrip convenience store still burning behind him. He described what he saw happening around him:

“I was out here, standing side by side with the community… We got a taste of what fighting back means, in St. Louis- the last state to abolish slavery. Do they think they still have power over certain things? … When you stop their flow of income… they organize. ‘We’re going to eat, and you’re going to starve.’ Gentrification: Put you in a certain neighborhood by yourself, and see you starve in a proper way. It’s not going to happen in St. Louis.” (“Protester Justifies the Looting in Ferguson”)

Nor should gentrification happen in Seattle, or Jackson, or Austin, or Detroit, or New York, or Oakland, or anywhere. The struggle against class society must and will take on racial politics (as well as the politics of all those oppressed), Socialists should not just prepared, but leaders in developing such a politics. To seek out a role of vanguard of our class demands of us deep roots in those communities moving into struggle. Our analyses, to be worth any ink, can only ever be unclouded, self-critical, and honest.

Sous les Pavés la Plage”

Cooper, Darcy. “Dupre + Scott’s Four-Year Rental Market Forecast | Seattle Rental Group Blog.” N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2014.
Creager, Kurt, and Paul Peninger. “Seattle Workforce Housing.” May 2014: n. pag. Print.
Ellis, Timothy. “Seattle Unemployment at 6-Year Low in June.” Seattle Bubble. N.p., 24 July 2014. Web. 24 July 2014.
Halstrom, Loren. “On The Wrong Track: Light Rail’s Introduction To The Rainier Valley 
Systematically Excludes Miniorities And The Poor.” The Modern American Summer (2013): 54–58. Print.
Harvey, David. “The Urban Process Under Capitalism.” The International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 2 (1978): 101–131. Print.
Jones, Robert P. “Self-Segregation: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson.” The Atlantic. N.p., 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 22 Aug. 2014.
Kneebone, Elizabeth, and Jane Williams. “Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA Metro Area Profile.” n. pag. Print.
---. “Suburban Poverty Metrics 2012.” n. pag. Print.
Logan, John R, and Brian J Stults. “The Persistence of Segregation in the Metropolis: New Findings from the 2010 Census.” 24 Mar. 2011: n. pag. Print.
McGee Jr, Henry W. “Gentrification, Integration or Displacement?: The Seattle Story.” N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014.
Morrill, Richard. “Stories from the 2010 Census: Race and Ethnic Change in Washington State.” newgeography. N.p., 5 May 2011. Web. 21 Aug. 2014.
Olorunnipa, Toluse, and Elizabeth Campbell. “Ferguson Unrest Shows Poverty Grows Fastest in Suburbs.” Bloomberg. N.p., 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 19 Aug. 2014.
Protester Justifies the Looting in Ferguson.” FOX2, 11 Aug. 2014. Television.
Spear, Jess. “The Rent Is Too Damn High, Let’s Get It Under Control.” The Stranger SLOG 28 July 2014. Web.
TOD That Is Healthy, Green, and Just.” Puget Sound Sage n. Print.
Western Washington Housing Market in ‘Recovery Mode’ but Some Brokers Say It’s Still Not at Full Potential.” Northwest Multiple Listing Service. N.p., 6 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 Aug. 2014.
Zuckerman, Sam. “Sizzling Tech Economy Is Fueling Urban Renaissance.” USA Today 3 Aug. 2014. Web. 5 Aug. 2014.

2 thoughts on “Gentrification in the City, Gentrification in the Left

  1. Pingback: What is happening to our cities? | oaklandsocialist

  2. What [ADMIN EDIT: the author] describes above applying a very acute Materialist analysis is going on and has been for a long, long time in San Francisco and Brooklyn. Vacancy rates increase *along* with rent increases. This is not a problem specific to Puget Sound but also many major cities where *all* development is along the hipster gentrification development model (which, BTW, was actually worked out in the early 1980s in San Francisco when the bankers/real-estate developers *envisioned* a City san-working class/POC and made it happen…).

    Well done [author], I’m going to send this around.

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