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What We’re Talking About Is What We’re Not Talking About

“If the pain of displacement is not a central component of what we are dealing with in studying gentrification—indeed, is not what brings us to the subject in the first place—we are not just missing one factor in a multi-factorial equation; we are missing the central point that needs to be addressed.”

These are the words of Peter Marcuse, the acclaimed planner, lawyer, and professor emeritus of urban planning at Columbia University, whose work in the study of urban development over the past several decades has sought to turn the conversation from one about technical systematic arrangements to one that deals with issues of justice and equality.

The words were in response to a series of articles in which two prominent researchers, Tom Slater and Chris Hamnett, faced off over academic approaches to the study of gentrification. But they are a poignant and decisive reminder of where many conversations about gentrification go wrong—namely, that we forget why we started talking about it in the first place.

As such, they seem an appropriate place to start the conversation around issues of affordability and gentrification in Berlin. After all, the last thing we want to do is make the same mistakes that others have in the past. Just as important as figuring out where to start is figuring out where not to start.

According to Tom Slater, the unabashedly subjective professor of human geography at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of what was hailed as the first textbook on the subject, Gentrification (mildly critiqued in the academic world for its brazen antigentrification agenda), the seemingly obvious and easiest place to start the conversation—the “why” and “what”—is precisely the wrong approach.

In “The Eviction of Critical Perspectives from Gentrification Research,” a 2006 article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Slater starkly criticizes the academic world for shifting the conversation about gentrification not only from a critical and disapproving one to a more celebratory one, but also to a conversation that revolves more around the gentrifiers than the gentrified.

“The perception is no longer about rent increases, landlord harassment and working-class displacement, but rather street-level spectacles, trendy bars and cafes, i-Pods, social diversity and funky clothing outlets,” he writes, noting that two research trends have led the charge in this shift.

The first, he says, is treating the situation “as if the middle classes are the only characters occupying the stage of the gentrification, with the working-class backstage, both perennial understudies and perennially understudied. This is particularly disappointing, for middle-class gentrifiers are, of course, only one part of a much larger story.”

He writes: “There is next to nothing published on the experiences of non-gentrifying groups living in the neighbourhoods into which the much-researched cosmopolitan middle classes are arriving en masse.”

The second trend, he writes, “is the infatuation with how to define the process, and whether we should remain faithful to Ruth Glass’s (1964) coinage.”

In short, we have become so fixated on studying the causes of gentrification and squabbling over how it should be defined that we forget the reason we ever started talking about it in the first place—the effects.

Though Slater puts forward three reasons that these trends have come into existence, one of them I find particularly interesting and relevant: that displacement is, for many, a nearly impossibly unquantifiable and unapproachable phenomenon.

“Displacement is and always will be vital to an understanding of gentrification, in terms of retaining definitional coherence and of retaining a critical perspective on the process,” he writes. But, as researchers like Rowland Atkinson have remarked, the task of quantifying displacement is akin to “measuring the invisible.” Slater quotes Kathe Newman and Elvin Wyly, writing: “In short, it is difficult to find people who have been displaced, particularly if those people are poor. . . . By definition, displaced residents have disappeared from the very places where researchers and census-takers go to look for them.”

In other words, the story of gentrification in Berlin and elsewhere will not be told in numbers. The numbers don’t exist. This is perhaps one of the reasons that politicians so often struggle even to begin to tackle the issue of gentrification and displacement—policy as we know it today is largely built around data, not anecdotes.

But I don’t believe that the qualitative is inconsequential or trival; if the numbers aren’t there, there needs to be another compelling way to tell the story. Which means I need more help from Berliners than I thought I might to find certain answers.

Where are the Berliners going who can no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods they have previously been in—who have already been pushed out? Are you one of these people, or do you know anyone who would be willing to help me, and hopefully others, learn how their lives have been affected?

Photo: -lucky cat- via Flickr.

  • ber

    Berlin Bezirksämter don’t register the reasons why people move and therefore hard numbers don’t seem to exist. But there are indicators such as income statistics. Andrej Holm wrote about it here:

    If you overlay those movements with a map of changes in the mietspiegel (overview of rent prices in Berlin) the effects become clearer.

  • Holger

    Hello Christine,
    I think, I am a typical victim of gentrification.
    I have time to write you because I am as good as in pension.
    I am (just) living not far away from the Guggenheim-Lab and the cultur center “Pfefferberg”.
    I was moved to “Prenzlauer Berg” 15 years ago.
    I got a “social appartment” because of my  physical handicap.
    Now, it is no social appartment any more and the rent is rising by 20 % every second year.
    In 2 or 3 years, I can not pay the rent any more and I have to move again.
    I am afraid of loosing
    – my friends, who help me often practical  (They are living not far away)
    – my mobility (with the line “U 2” I am just mobil in whole Berlin)
    – the shopping center at the other side of the street
    – the elevator (It is important for me) 
    – the street full with life (Schönhauser Allee)
    I can not invest in my appartment or repair because I know I have to go in some years.
    Neighbours are already moved – but where shell I go to? 
    Where can you live central at a reasonable price? 
    I don´t know.
    Have a wonderful time in Berlin,

    • Christine McLaren

      Hi Holger,

      Thanks very much for sharing your story. I’d love to chat with you further if you’re open to it. If you are, please e-mail me at (Ich spreche auch Deutsch uebrings, also Sie koennen gern auf Deutsch schreiben, wenn Sie wollen.) 

      Thanks again, and talk to you soon I hope,

  • Rkeil

    Small correction: Slater’s article appeared in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

    • Christine McLaren

      Thank you! Fixed!