How to Kill a City

I’m a 31 year old university educated professional woman who cannot afford to buy a house in the city I live in.

Tear down houses in my city cost upwards of $1 million.

Peter Moskowitz’s How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighbourhood felt really personal to me.

Moskowitz grew up in the West Village of NYC. When he went home after college he noticed that the neighbourhood as he’d known it didn’t exist anymore. His favourite pizza place was a fancy grocery store; the queer scene on Christopher Street had been “policed into blandness”; and housing had been converted into pricey condos.

He quickly realizes that he exists on both sides of the gentrification phenomenon: those residents who no longer recognize the neighbourhood they call home and, as he looks for more affordable accommodations with amenities nearby, he becomes a colonizer of someone else’s original neighbourhood.

city

Moskowitz’s experience inspire him to start looking at how gentrification shapes where we live. He examines the policies and events that have caused gentrification to take place on a scale never seen before. He travels to New Orleans where 15+ years after Katrina, 100,000 African-Americans who called the city home still haven’t been able to return; Detroit where the city’s bankruptcy created a blank slate for the city to encourage investors to look at the city as a way to make money, not community; San Francisco where vestiges of the old neighbourhood have all but disappeared to make room for Silicon Valley bajillionaires forcing everyone else to look for home along the BART commuter system; and back to New York, where gentrification is in hyper-drive, making it basically impossible for regular people to call it home.

Along the way, he looks at suburbs and how they were created in the first place, how suburban living has created a desire in young people to get away and live in cities; how racist policies helped shape the communities we now live in; how cities are run as businesses now, instead of a hub that makes community services possible.

This little book, just 218 pages, packs a huge punch. It made me angry and nostalgic and sad and embarrassed and angry again. Moskowitz doesn’t just look at what’s already happened and shrug his shoulders either. Having talked to however many people affected by gentrification in all these places, he’s mad as hell. He closes with a list of things that we can all be doing to stop gentrification before it destroys all our neighbourhoods.

I’d love it if all city officials had to read this book, anyone in government really.

But it’d be a great start if we all did. Look out for it in March.

15 thoughts on “How to Kill a City

  1. Looks like a great book! I was forced out of the real estate market in Vancouver and that’s how I ended up on my tiny island! It worked out well for me, sort of, but obviously isn’t an option for everyone.

  2. Oh, interesting. I have a degree in planning (never used, except for those few early years of my journalism career when I was a reporter for a magazine called Planning) and we were taught that gentrification was a good thing. Obviously that’s no longer the case in the sense that it completely prices people out of the area. We have a problem in London where property is bought as an investment by non-British citizens, who may never actually live in the property and don’t bother to rent it out, so there’s a whole load of ultra-expensive “ghost” properties and apartments, while Londoners struggle to find rental property they can afford. Successive governments have failed to sort this issue out.

    • I know! I used to think that too! Like “oh that’s an up and coming area” not thinking about those who already lived there who now maybe couldn’t afford to stay.
      So I live in Vancouver (a suburb of) and we have the same problem as London. The City recently started taxing those foreign buyers which has cooled things off considerably. And they’re still talking about fining/taxing those foreign owners who leave their properties vacant. There are so many people who want to live here who can’t find rentals, it’s a huge problem. So big that some companies who have set up here (because we’re so talented) have trouble keeping their staff. They move to places where cost of living isn’t so high.
      I think actually London and Vancouver are the two housing markets at the highest risk of bursting.

  3. Where do you live?! It sounds like where I lived for the last 8 yrs until moving to the suburbs – NYC. Even wealthy by most standards people can’t really afford to live in NYC anymore. But, at the same time, it’s nice that the East Village isn’t a druggie mecca anymore (like it was in the 80’s/early 90’s). It’s a tough balance. This sounds like an interesting read.

    • Vancouver! Well, about 20 minutes away from the center but it’s all called Metro Vancouver. We’re looking at moving about an hour outside of the city so that we can afford a townhouse. A single family dwelling is just not ever going to happen for us here!
      A tough balance for sure! But when you read about how these things happened…not exactly accidental.

  4. This sounds like an interesting and important read. Books that I can feel a personal connection with are the best, but sometimes the most heart-wrenching reads, and I can certainly see why you would connect based on your own situation. I appreciate your review.

  5. It’s the same story here in LA sadly. You definitely need two incomes (two people living in a one bedroom together) to be able to save enough for a home deposit, and even then it’s difficult. The gentrification aspect of the book interest me – it’s a huge issue in LA and though I enjoy the product of gentrification, of course it’s a complex process that is very problematic for the existing residents of neighborhoods that are being redeveloped.

    • It’s almost impossible for any one family to purchase a home, double income or no. My husband and I each make decent money – the best we can hope for is a townhouse an hour+ outside of the city centre.
      The amenities are great! But the cost of it is something that I’m thinking about more and more and I’m not convinced they are worth it.

  6. This topic is so my thing! I took a history grad class called “Black Detroit,” during which we discussed “white flight” and the great migration from south to north to get better jobs and avoid horrific violence done to black Americans. A guy named General (I can’t remember his last name) came and discussed the golden days of automotive factory work (you could get fired at one plant, walk across the street, and get hired at another) and how water in Detroit is now so expensive no one can afford it.

    I also just finished a book by Jonathan Kozol about families in poverty in New York City. The book concludes with descriptions of how even the Bronx is getting gentrified, and the families that were moved there by the government are now pushed out because they can’t afford their own homes.

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