Reflections on How to Kill a City by Peter Moskowitz| Part I

In his opening remarks, Peter Moskowitz lays out an utopian village where urban living allows everyone to thrive. He then plunges deep into the causes of its collapse.

Raised in the West Village of New York City, the neighborhood bears little resemblance to the streets he called home as a child. Yet, this very community was once heralded as an example of how a city could flourish with little government intervention. Peaceful streets lined with small businesses (the owners also serving as an unpaid neighborhood watch team, allowing children to walk safely to school, ‘unsupervised’) and a diversity of inhabitants, both economically and racially.

That West Village is no more. An average one-bedroom apartment now runs for about $4,000 a month. And I’m not talking about a sprawling, high-ceilinged fortress; these apartments are the size of a closet here in Indy, respectively. And those small businesses? They’re gone. Ritzy chains have taken their place. It is indeed “a funhouse of its former self” as Moskowtiz writes (page 2).

How did such a drastic change happen? That is the basis of Moskowitz’s book. The answer isn’t simple. And to unpack it, he will take us through four cities – New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco and New York City – to show how different cities gentrify in different ways. Yet despite each city’s uniqueness, there is a process that repeats itself:

  1. “A few ‘pioneering’ gentrifiers move into the neighborhood”;
  2. A “rush” of more follow;
  3. Then come the corporations, who see economic opportunity where once there was little;
  4. And finally, the area becomes completely run by “top-down” economics (pg. 6).

That all made sense to me. Additionally, it made those initial gentrifiers seem powerful. And I was one of them, having moved to New York City with my sights set on creative pursuits. Powerful, however, is the last characteristic I’d use describing myself. Now, I am white, and my privilege isn’t lost on me. But I wasn’t a Wall Street broker or a high-powered attorney. I lived paycheck to paycheck in a really expensive city. When my rent got too high, I moved out to Brooklyn, just like Moskowtiz. All my creative friends did.

But gentrification cannot be simplified to individual acts. It is “about systemic violence based on decades of racist housing policy in the United States that has denied people of color, especially black people, access to the same kinds of housing, and therefore the same levels of wealth, as white Americans” (pg. 5).

So, yes, I play a part in gentrification. What can I change so that I am a part of the solution and not the problem?

Moskowtiz cites a precursor stage to the ones listed above. A phase zero, wherein a municipality opens itself up to gentrification through zoning, tax breaks, and branding power. This happens behind closed doors in city halls.

So I guess my first question is, how do we open those doors?

Sound interesting? Mark your calendar for Sunday, May 21st. At 1:00 we’ll be discussing the book as part of our monthly book club (RSVP HERE).

how to kill a city peter moskowitz

We will also have a Skype conversation with author Peter Moskowitz on June 22nd, 6pm at Kheprw Institute (RSVP HERE).