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Review of How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood by

How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood

by P.E. Moskowitz

This is a great example of a book I probably wouldn’t have picked up solely on my own recognizance. However, it’s the January pick for the Rad Roopa Book Club, and I was intrigued. Well, actually, I wanted to know how to kill a city, should the need ever arise. That’s what P.E. Moskowitz covers in this aptly named book—though I get the feeling they are more interested in fighting against gentrification, and I suppose that’s a good thing.

Part geographical rumination, part political manifesto, How to Kill a City is a tour through four major American cities and how gentrification has come for each of them. Moskowitz begins in New Orleans, examining how state and local officials used the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina as an excuse to enact policy that would encourage gentrification, development, and attract “the right sort” (read: white people) to the city. From there they take us to Detroit, which has been hollowed out by recession and foreclosure. Next up, San Francisco, where the tech bubble has priced millennials out of owning houses some of them grew up in. Finally, Moskowitz’s milieu of New York City, which has waged a decades-long campaign of gentrification across multiple boroughs.

Along the way, Moskowitz explores what gentrification is, according to various sources, how it begins, and the forces that drive it. Their thesis is simple: gentrification is a local effect, but the cause is national and even global, so the solutions have to be a similar combination of these levels of community and government. Boots-on-the-ground activists are essential but if fighting by themselves are in for a losing battle. Rather, Moskowitz points out the need for policy change that recognizes how gentrification works and especially how it affects marginalized and vulnerable groups.

I’ll demonstrate with one example from the book: real estate development. In many cities (I know this is true here in Canada, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver), housing prices are on the rise because developers or other wealthy owners buy up houses, condos, and apartments and then leave them vacant for most of the year. And the ones that are occupied are leased, often without rent control. As a result, people are being priced out of their homes in the cities, putting pressure on them to move to suburbs—and without robust public transit into the city from the suburbs, people often have trouble affording to even work in the city.

As I read, I pondered how gentrification manifests in my own city of Thunder Bay. It’s a tough one, because I can tell it is operation, but I don’t think it’s as evident as it is in larger cities. Thunder Bay’s commercial districts tend to be dense and clustered, and while there are residential neighbourhoods that abut them, we have a lot less urban infill at the moment. We’ve always had a lot of chain and department stores, with local businesses eternally clinging to life as we lurch from one economic hardship to another. So it was challenging for me to apply Moskowitz’s teachings to my own city—something to think about, and perhaps watch out for.

Then again maybe, as Moskowitz themself reflects, maybe I am a gentrifier. I fit the economic demographic of being a white, middle-class, white-collar worker … but again, the neighbourhood is what I struggle with. I’m in a more expensive yet still heterogeneous area of town, heavily residential yet one where walking barely two blocks can put me among houses that are hundreds of thousands of dollars’ difference in value to my own.

Although How to Kill a City acknowledges outright the links between gentrification and racism, I would have liked to see more discussion of colonialism in this book. After all, the land American cities are built on is stolen from the Indigenous nations who predate European contact. The first European settlers were, in a sense, the original gentrifiers, and I think it’s worth examining how present-day settlers like myself benefit from our privilege even if we are not personally in the midst of a present moment of gentrification.

Similarly, while not quite in the scope of the book, How to Kill a City got me thinking about gentrification in Europe. Moskowitz briefly mentions London, where gentrification as a term was coined. So it’s not a phenomenon unique to North America by any means. Yet I wonder how conditions in Europe—differences in population and transport density, differences in culture, as well as states with a heavier lean towards socialism—change the face of gentrification. Again, something to think about.

That’s about where I come down on this book: it gives me a lot to think about. It’s firm and opinionated without being strident, yet it also admits different points of view—Moskowitz interviews developers and other gentrifiers who emphatically endorse what they are doing in these cities, and then Moskowitz presents the points of view of activists and those who oppose gentrification, with whom they clearly sympathize more. Still, I appreciate the attempt to explore this issue from different angles.

Gentrification is ultimately about space, and space does not have to be limited to the physical. I’ve seen people discuss the gentrification of online spaces as well. So I like how this book has me thinking about our relationship with space, physical or not, and especially how I move through it as a white person. I’m thinking about relationality, how I relate to these spaces, to the people and objects within them, and how these things in turn relate back to me.

How to Kill a City is a concrete and careful look at an important contemporary issue. While there is room for more breadth and depth than is on offer here, this book feels like a good starting point on a journey to unpacking one’s own role in gentrification and learning about how policy influences gentrification throughout North America.


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