Towards an Infrastructural Theory of Gentrification

15 Oct

Summary: It is my suggestion, that a more adequate, “blaming-free” analysis of gentrification requires another conception of the city – a conception, which includes the networked infrastructural and material aspects of city life, as for example Stephen Graham (2009) and Ash Amin (2012) do. Such conceptions are interesting, because they question agency as being one-sidedly human: a theoretical fruitfulness, which I will demonstrate with Jane Bennett’s assemblage theory (Bennett 2005).

Introduction: Gentrification in the Age of the Infrastructural Turn

Across western cities, the cityscape and its demography have been changing dramatically within recent decades. Gentrification has become the buzzword to describe these changes and is widely discussed in academia: as hot as the first movers’ districts. Theoretically, gentrification is often conceived as a result of political decisions, economic forces or a matter of first movers’ fashioning urban districts. Hence, Matthias Bernt writes that gentrification “… emerged as a result of political interventions made by actual actors” (Bernt 2012:3058), whereas others see fashion as the prime mover: “Though they usually do little to bring them into existence, New York public officials bask in the fame creative districts enjoy.” (Braslow & Zukin 2011:133). While these approaches are undoubtedly important, the receptions of them often lead to a public blaming of somebody: the stupid politicians, the evil investors, the hipsters, the hordes following them or even the poor, although the real culprit is yet to be appointed. These analyses are furthermore largely ignorant of the material components of city life. This is no coincidence. As Susan Star points out: “Study a city and neglect its sewers and power supplies… and you miss essential aspects of distributional justice and planning power.” (Star 1999:379). I have thus been asking myself, if the tendency of blaming is related to the lack of material analyses within gentrification literature?

It is my suggestion, that a more adequate, “blaming-free” analysis of gentrification requires another conception of the city – a conception, which includes the networked infrastructural and material aspects of city life, as for example Stephen Graham (2009) and Ash Amin (2012) do. Such conceptions are interesting, because they question agency as being one-sidedly human: a theoretical fruitfulness, which I will demonstrate with Jane Bennett’s assemblage theory (Bennett 2005).

Although it won’t make urban politics an easier task, when you state that: “Nobody is really in charge of infrastructure” (Star 1999:382), I do believe, that a more thorough understanding of the relations between humans and things is required in order to develop a socially just urban politics. As Colin McFarlane writes: “Attending to the role of materialities can provide insight into how urban inequality is produced.” (McFarlane 2011:217). The truth about the urban culprit might be hidden in the sewers.

If urban theory indeed has taken an “infrastructural turn” (Graham 2009:10), this turn is yet to turn up in the gentrification debates. I therefore seek, by making the urban infrastructures’ significance plausible, to make the theoretical outlines for an analysis of gentrification, which includes infrastructure and materiality as active “non-human” agents of the social (Graham 2009:11). I thus ask to what extent and in what ways gentrification can be conceived as an infrastructural phenomenon, and how such a conceptualization may prove useful in the political approaching of the socially just city.

 

The City as an Assemblage: Redefining the Meaning of the Social

The conceptions of fashion and politics in the above mentioned gentrification studies are both keen to point to specific human causes as to why gentrification happens and whose fault it is. This is a question of agency, a matter we must address, if we want to dismantle or supplement such narrow-minded perspectives. Here I think the assemblage theory, as respectively developed and applied by Bennett (2005) and McFarlane (2011), offers an interesting idea of what urban processes consist of, because it, by linking humanity and materiality in the analysis of the social, refines our understanding of agency.

To Bennett, the great problem of social science is that it, in its quest for defining the relationship between structure and agency, has neglected the non-human aspects of social life. Following Bruno Latour and Gilles Deleuze, she suggests that we should look at society as networks – or assemblages – consisting of both human and non-human actants (Bennett 2005:446). This materialist ontology is a radical break with many a philosophy; not only because it strictly abandons the concept of causality, but because it suggests that a thing can “act”, insofar as human agency always is distributed across a wide range of actants in an “open-ended whole.” (ibid.:447).

Thus, the city (or neighbourhood) is not only a set of human practices, which facilitate certain developments. Rather, it is an assemblage consisting of pavements, shops, humans (hipsters, losers, Turks, investors, shopkeepers), dogs, dog shit, trees, cars, street lights etc. and connected through roads, pipelines, sewers, railroads, internet connections, discourses, norms and more. This “definition” of a city fosters necessarily a quite different idea of gentrification: Instead of understanding the agency in the gentrification process as either political forces playing monopoly with the city or a Bourdieu-like field of hordes chasing the first movers, an assemblage inspired analysis seeks to implement these forces into the conception of a larger network, which does also consist of non-human actants: “… political change is not a function of humans alone.” (ibid.:454). Humans, although invoking another sort of agency than things, are always in “an intricate dance with nonhumans.” (ibid.). Henceforth, we shouldn’t look for specific causes to events, as every event has an innumerable set of actants:

“In fact, what makes the event happen is precisely the contingent coming together – the crystallization – of a set of elements… anything could touch off the crystallization process – a sound, a last straw, a shoe, a blackout, a human intention.” (ibid.:460)

Rather than ‘why?’ the question should be ‘under which circumstances?’. Hence, the assemblage theory would not state that politics or fashion discourses cannot be very strong actants, when speaking of gentrification, but that it is inadequate to focus one-sidedly on these phenomena as causes. This approach opens up a materially informed analysis and affects in addition the question of blaming as well, as it refuses to point to whose fault it is that the poor are pushed out of their homes and the districts’ atmospheres and meanings altered.

Infrastructural and Material Actants in Gentrification Processes

I now wish to ask, how things are co-acting with the human actants: What does the intricate dance with non-humans look like, when a neighbourhood is gentrified? As the very analysis of materiality’s role in gentrification is a larger question, I will just point to some examples of infrastructure and things in Berlin, which may be thought as acting upon and with humans, in order to make the outlines for a more thorough analysis. I will point to three factors, which can be identified as examples of material dependency: Accessibility, Awareness and Symbolic piracy of the privileged.

Accessibility

If we take an infrastructural look on the critical places of gentrification in Berlin, the presence of good public transport is interesting: Kottbusser Tor, Warschauer Straße, Mehringdamm and Hermannplatz are for example all U-bahn stations, which connect to two lines and at the same time popular among students, tourists and artists. Furthermore, one could think of the area, where Neukölln stops being trendy: just around Hermannstraße Station, the terminal station of U8. This should be no surprise: Both students and tourists are extremely dependent upon public transport, and it doesn’t seem unlikely, that they (being among the first gentrifiers) should choose to live and go out in easy accessible areas. Likewise, places to park one’s car could gain increased importance, as richer people begin to move in. Furthermore, we could think of the presence of other infrastructure (fast internet connections, shops or services that people request, good roads, bicycle roads etc.), as actants that make it plausible that certain people will go there, simply because the areas are better integrated with the rest of the city. It seems likely, that the infrastructural possibility of getting into a deprived neighbourhood easily is what prevents it from staying isolated and deprived and thus makes it vulnerable to the inflow of new residents.

 

Awareness

Besides accessibility, we might think of the event of spreading the word about a trendy neighbourhood, which we could call awareness. This does not simply just happen, but relies on a number of actants and technologies. As Amin shows, the internet  helps to sustain and mediate social worlds where “new spaces of interaction coexist, overlap and even shape each other.” (Amin 2011:17). Blogs, guides and newspapers on the internet are for example all sites, which help people to get aware of cool places. One may read about a new café in Neukölln, or simply that Neukölln is the new Kreuzberg, in a guide long before a friend lets you know. As Zukin and Braslow show, this has also been the case in New York, where certain neighbourhoods might had been differently gentrified, had in not been for the internet (Braslow & Zukin 2011:136). We could also think of blogs like ‘westberlin.tumblr.com’, which shows wonderful pictures of the “authentic” Berlin before the fall of the Wall. Such content may also speed up the process, as it proliferates a nostalgic longing towards authenticity, making people want to go to the “unspoiled” places. The internet is thus an actant or a set of networked actants, which speed up the gentrification process.

Symbolic Piracy of the Privileged: Fighting Weak Aesthetics with Stronger Ones

The districts being gentrified are always relatively economically and symbolically deprived. Empty houses, places, things and symbols, which few find interesting – perhaps not even the people living there – suddenly become cool in the eyes of the first mover. We can thus conceive the deprived neighbourhood as a “fashion vacuum”: The places and things are free to be “worked with”, in order to create an identity embedded in specific places and atmospheres, as described by Redfern:

“Architecture that had previously been regarded as uninteresting and derivative suddenly became attractive. The buildings and the locations themselves had not changed: the gentrifiers’ ability to use them to make statements about themselves had.” (Redfern 2003:2360).

These events rest on the very falling apart and “uncoolness” of things, which eventually do become cool by adding new symbols and things. The Club-mate and the racing bike are probably among the gentrifier’s best weapons and are actants just like the soldier’s sword, when he beheads an unarmed peasant: he couldn’t do it without! Hence, the phenomenologically present aesthetics, symbols, moods and atmospheres of a neighbourhood may have a lot of significance as actants, when speaking of the identity and meaning of living there, because (collective) identities require materialities and places (e.g. Ladd 1998:214, Amin 2011:22-24, 29). Although it is against the idea of AbouMaliq Simone’s notion of piracy, which is used to describe the much deprived people’s re-use of abandoned buildings, I think of gentrification as symbolic piracy of the privileged, because this identification with a new neighbourhood involves the “symbolic theft” of “broken” things: “[T]hese new uses rely on the very appearance of falling apart.” (Simone 2006:359). Like in Simone’s case, the deprived neighbourhoods are also “power vacuums” to the extent, that they are not yet incorporated into mainstream fashion discourses and subjects to intensive urban planning (Simone 2006:358).

Things need to fall apart materially and symbolically in order to “bare” themself for a broader public. The gentrification of Neukölln is not merely a “theft” of apartments. The alternative use of an urban wasteland is, somewhat unintentionally of course, the materially subsidized theft and alteration of a situated identity, made by people from more privileged positions than those living there.

The Politics of the Infrastructure: Re-assembling as Critique

What do we learn from the examined examples? We learn that gentrifiers are highly dependent upon infrastructure and materiality in gentrifying a neighbourhood. This is what McFarlane refers to, when he states:

“[U]rban infrastructure – can, of course, be captured, structured, and storied more effectively and with greater influence by particular actors or processes than by others.” (McFarlane 2011:208).

How can we respond to this acknowledgement politically? A danger, when conceptualizing events as materially dependent assemblages, is to depoliticize the problem completely, as a result of the fact that nobody is to be held exclusively responsible (Bennett 2005:464). The reluctance to speak of causes does however not necessarily have to invoke a depoliticizing, as McFarlane (2011) demonstrates. He thus states: “Assemblage thinking diversifies the range of agents and causes of urban inequality, while potentially multiplying the spaces of critical intervention.” (McFarlane 2011:219). In the assembling of a phenomenon lies the possibility for the re-assembling of it (ibid.:211). This means that power, although nobody is completely in charge of the infrastructure or assemblage, isn’t necessarily distributed equally across it (Bennett 2005:445). Assembling a problematic phenomenon is thus a means of unveiling power relations, as infrastructure “materializes and often reinforces existing sets of power relations within urban societies.” (McFarlane & Rutherford 2008:365), “put people in place … [and]… motivate particular elite groups to mobilize power over others in order to reach their goals.” (ibid.:366). What we might learn from an infrastructurally informed analysis of gentrification is thus, that gentrification isn’t caused or controlled by a specific actant, but that some indeed are taking advantage of infrastructural actants. This is exactly what my sketched analysis points to: U-bahn systems, virtually mediated worlds and aesthetic symbols are all examples of things, which sustain and reinforce uneven power relations between the city’s affluent and deprived. I believe that a politics of gentrification should be examining the (re-)production of such power relations. Although there of course are many examples of middleclass moralized sanitizing urban policies, which could easily be halted, I am quite certain, that a more exhaustive analysis than the one presented here is needed. This can provide the “blaming-free” foundations, on which urban politics can rely.

Conclusion: A Call for Methods

Neo-liberal capitalism and its gentrification actors (politicians, hipsters, hordes and investors) may indeed be important actants in gentrification, but my outlines suggest, that they are certainly not the only ones. They are merely among the origins of the phenomenon, whose regulation would be easier, if we stopped blaming a little handful of actants, and instead considered the infrastructural practices of gentrification as a way of exercising power.

As Star explains, studying infrastructure is not merely a theoretical problem, but rather a methodological challenge (Star 1999:379, 384). Because it “by definition” is invisible, and thus not phenomenologically easily studied, the task for the critical urban sociologist is to develop methods, which could empirically test theoretical sketches as those I have set forth. We need methods for “unblackboxing” (Graham 2009:18) and “going backstage” (Star 1999:385). This is not easily done, as the idea of the assemblage is difficult to operationalize empirically. An analysis of gentrification from an infrastructural perspective may have to include large data materials, probably of both quantitative and qualitative character. To understand how urban infrastructures interfere with the changing of urban districts’ demographics is however crucial, if we are to address the underlying problems in a political intelligent way.

References

Amin, Ash 2012: Land of Strangers. Polity. 1-34.

Bennett, Jane 2005: “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout.” Public Culture 17(3): 445-465.

Bernt, Matthias 2012: “The ‘double movements’ of Neighbourhood Change. Gentrification and Public Policy in Harlem and Prenzlauer Berg.” Urban Studies 49(14): 3045-3062.

Braslow, Laura & Zukin, Sharon 2011: “The life cycle of New York’s creative districts. Reflections on the unanticipated consequences of unplanned cultural zones.” City, Culture and Society 2: 131-140.

Graham, Stephen 2009: Disrupted Cities: When infrastructure Fails. Routledge, 1-26.

Ladd, Brian 1998: Ghosts of Berlin. The University of Chicago Press, 175-215.

McFarlane, Colin and Rutherford, Jonathan 2008: “Political Infrastructures: Governing and Experiencing the Fabric of the City”. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32(2): 363-374.

McFarlane, Colin 2011: “Assemblage and Critical Urban Praxis: Part One.” City 15(2): 204-224.

Redfern, P. A. 2003: “What makes Gentrification ‘Gentrification’?” Urban Studies 40(12): 2351-2366.

Simone, AbouMaliq 2006: “Pirate Towns: Reworking Social and Symbolic Infrastructures in Johannesburg and Douala.” Urban Studies 43(2): 357-370.

Star, Susan Leigh 1999: “Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43(3): 377-391.

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2 Responses to “Towards an Infrastructural Theory of Gentrification”

  1. Huib Ernste April 18, 2015 at 3:42 pm #

    I would like to get in contact with the author of this entry. Where do I find contact details?

    • adamcold April 19, 2015 at 9:29 pm #

      Hello Huib! Thank you for your interest. My email is: adamcold@gmail.com. Best regards, Adam

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