At the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues, in an area some refer to as the heart of Brooklyn, stands the Barclays Center, a world-class sports and entertainment arena. As the preeminent symbol of the “new” Brooklyn—memoralizing its rise from a gritty outerborough to an international brand, cultural hub, and real estate juggernaut—the nearly eight-year-old facility is both widely celebrated and reviled. For many developers, politicians, and local sports fans, it represents the dawn of a new golden era. The return of major professional sports, this time in the form of the Brooklyn Nets franchise, has bestowed a brand of hometown pride unseen since baseball’s Dodgers left amidst de-industrialization, disinvestment, and white flight. For many activists, community leaders, and longtime residents, however, the arena represents the death rattle of Brooklyn’s homegrown authenticity. By their and many others’ accounts, the arrival of a billion-dollar arena has portended the triumph of global capital over local communities and culture.
For many years, the exclusionary restructuring of urban space we know as “gentrification” has been a source of broad concern. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, its scope and scale have accelerated at an unprecedented speed. No longer limited to rehabilitation of distressed housing by middle- and upper-middle-class residents, it frequently entails construction of luxury condominiums, chain stores, high-end boutiques, and corporate entertainment and tourism venues. These changes have been backed by massive influxes of private and increasingly global capital from developers and investors. They have also been promoted by municipal governments, which have shifted their role from market regulator to market facilitator.“In order to more fully comprehend the roots and reverberations of these dynamics, scholars of gentrification and urban restructuring more broadly have tended to analyze them primarily in terms of class power and inequality.”
This climate has contributed to a staggering rise in the cost of living in cities across the United States, deepening longstanding crises of racial and economic segregation. It has also escalated numerous forms of precarity facing already marginalized people, including housing insecurity, unaffordability, and homelessness. In order to more fully comprehend the roots and reverberations of these dynamics, scholars of gentrification and urban restructuring more broadly have tended to analyze them primarily in terms of class power and inequality. Valuable insights have emerged from analysis of the class politics of neoliberalism and how its attendant policies of privatization, deregulation, and austerity shape the contours of urban redevelopment. In many areas of society, such measures have devastated poor and working-class communities and widened already-staggering levels of income and wealth inequality.
As gentrification has spread deeper into majority-minority neighborhoods, the racial dimensions of these changes have only become more apparent. Such dynamics are the focus of my research in Brooklyn, which explores how local Black communities have navigated social, cultural, and economic transformations associated with the borough’s rising profile. Here and across the urban United States, areas in which racially discriminatory housing and economic policies have concentrated Black residents and places which have long been condemned as blighted and unsuitable for capital investment have become prime targets for redevelopment through increased private investment. Rather than address the enduring and oft-expressed needs of existing Black, poor, and other marginalized communities, such efforts at “revitalization” have tended to prime their neighborhoods for whiter and more affluent residents and consumers.
The Barclays Center is located at the symbolic and literal nexus of these shifts, where a booming downtown business and civic district and first-wave gentrified neighborhoods border one of the largest contiguous Black communities in the United States. Gentrification’s speedy and vicious uprooting of longtime residents, erasure of local histories, and destruction of social networks and community institutions raises questions about the fundamental inequalities of capitalist property markets. Compounded by Black residents’ disproportionate experiences with eviction, foreclosure, hyperpolicing, subprime lending, and property theft and seizure, among other racialized forms of displacement and destabilization, such trends also illuminate vulnerabilities and power imbalances that cannot be explained by class alone.“Naming the power and persistence of structural racism in determining who has the right to the city and on what terms underscores the interlocking nature of racial and spatial politics and processes.”
Fully understanding gentrification’s causes and consequences requires engagement with the indelible imprint of race and structural racism on the organization of urban space and society. Here, I discuss racial-spatial ideologies and policies through and against which gentrification is taking place. I then highlight colorblind frames commonly used to understand and explain gentrification, shedding light on how they reproduce racial distinctions and stratification while mobilizing discourses of race-neutrality and multicultural inclusion. Finally, I consider how activists in Brooklyn and beyond are re-centering demands for racial equity amidst battles for housing and economic justice. Naming the power and persistence of structural racism in determining who has the right to the city and on what terms underscores the interlocking nature of racial and spatial politics and processes. The exclusionary restructuring of urban space sheds light on the nature of the contemporary fragility of Black communities and has implications that extend far beyond a single borough.
Structural racism and the city
Urban planning and urbanization have been inextricably linked to racial and spatial dispossession throughout US history. This connection began with European settlement and Indigenous displacement and genocide, and continued with slavery and the systems of domination and extraction that evolved from it. Since then, public policies and private actions have maintained these unequal power relations by relegating people of different races to different places. In turn, they have valorized and protected spaces racialized as white while designating nonwhite spaces for neglect, exploitation, and destruction.1George Lipsitz, “The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape,” Landscape Journal 26, no. 1 (2007): 10–23. Following this foundational tenet of city- and nation-building and capitalist accumulation, the conflation of whiteness, progress, and profit remains a dominant frame for understanding elite-driven development of the built environment. It is also a powerful determinant of the unequal distribution of the benefits and burdens of gentrification and other forms of urban restructuring.
These dynamics have generated uneven physical, social, and economic geographies that are easily discernable along racial lines. They have been perpetuated through ideologies, institutions, and practices that target Black people for severe forms of racial, economic, and spatial domination. A critical set of government policies has generated upheaval most acutely felt by Black urban communities. These processes—segregation, redlining, urban renewal, planned shrinkage/catastrophic disinvestment, de-industrialization, mass criminalization, HOPE VI,2Congress created the HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) program in 1992 to revitalize the nation’s most “severely distressed” public housing. Under it, public housing authorities apply to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for funding to renovate and demolish public housing sites and to replace them with mixed-income housing. HOPE VI has come under fire for creating problems as serious as those it was intended to address, including worsening affordable housing shortages, excluding public housing residents from replacement housing, and awarding grants based on the ability of an area to generate income for the city rather than the actual state of its public housing. With such developments predominantly occupied by African American and extremely poor residents, Black and Latinx urban dwellers have been most severely impacted by the challenges of life in public housing and by the loss of housing, social networks, and other resources set in motion by HOPE VI. the foreclosure crisis, and gentrification—comprise what Mindy Thompson Fullilove and Rodrick Wallace call a “persistent policy of serial forced displacement.”3Mindy Thompson Fullilove and Rodrick Wallace, “Serial Forced Displacement in American Cities, 1916–2010,” Journal of Urban Health 88, no. 3 (2011): 381–389. This “policy” subjects affected communities to repetitive cycles of disruption and uncertainty, perpetuating power and resource imbalances that reverberate in every aspect of urban life.“For decades, racial segregation and redlining restricted Black Brooklynites’ residential options and limited their ability to secure conventional loans to buy or improve homes.”
As an expression of structural racism, serial forced displacement has directly and disproportionately heightened Black urban dwellers’ vulnerability to risk and dislocation, as well as institutional and interpersonal violence. It has undercut rich legacies of resistance, traumatized families and support networks, created barriers to wealth, and stymied political power. Such dynamics have produced devastating consequences with far-reaching and generational repercussions. This was evident, for example, when it became apparent that majority-Black Brooklyn neighborhoods were some of the city’s hardest hit during the subprime lending boom and subsequent foreclosure crisis. For decades, racial segregation and redlining restricted Black Brooklynites’ residential options and limited their ability to secure conventional loans to buy or improve homes. This systemic exclusion made them vulnerable to lenders who took advantage of the deregulated market, targeting borrowers from Black neighborhoods across income and credit levels for higher-cost and higher-risk loans than their white counterparts. Such unfavorable terms made it difficult for borrowers to repay their loans, leaving many in financial distress and leading to disproportionate levels of foreclosure: at the height of the crisis, more than one in four homeowners with subprime mortgages in Bedford-Stuyvesant/Crown Heights’s 11233 zip code lost their homes—a rate four times the national average and, at that time, the highest in the nation.
The foreclosure crisis has continued to strip equity from Black Brooklynites and their neighborhoods, rupturing communities and rendering homeownership increasingly inaccessible. Nationwide, the concentration of subprime lending and foreclosure in Black neighborhoods has widened the racial wealth gap considerably, significantly hampering Black people’s ability to accumulate and pass down assets in their families and communities. Gentrification is built upon the effects of these and prior forms of serial forced displacement. Developers and investors rely on the conditions created by racialized disinvestment and destabilization—such as depressed property values, “blight,” financial precarity, and foreclosure—as prerequisites for real estate speculation, which further heightens the marginalization of already vulnerable communities. This extraction of wealth from Black communities facilitates externally-determined neighborhood development for the profit of private real estate interests and other parts of the city.
Pro-gentrification policies frame problems of serial forced displacement as issues best addressed by private investment and affluent residents and consumers. The Barclays Center is a direct result of such framing; it stands on a 50-year-old urban renewal site as well as land New York State seized for its construction, through eminent domain. Supporters obscure the project’s role in worsening racial and class stratification and justify massive public subsidies with dubious promises of local jobs and affordable housing. But as nearby neighborhoods have experienced an influx of affluent, white and other non-Black residents, the premium placed on whiteness has resulted in longtime Black residents being marked as suspect or otherwise incongruent with the area’s progress. Like its predecessor, racialized disinvestment, racialized hyperinvestment pushes residents hampered by cumulative vulnerabilities to the fringes and into states and spaces of deeper disadvantage. In doing so, it severs social, cultural, and political ties in the name of always implicitly racialized notions of profit and progress.
Colorblindness and neoliberal urbanism
Despite the enduring relationship between race and the organization, valuation, and redevelopment of urban space, many frame gentrification, neoliberal urbanism, and their market-oriented logics in race-neutral terms. Following Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s four central frames of color-blind racism,4Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017More Info → such explanations justify and preserve the status quo of racial inequality. For example, some adopt the frame of abstract liberalism, reducing gentrification to a matter of individual choice and equal opportunity in a “free” market, rather than the culmination of policies and processes that produce racialized uneven development and perpetuate group-based economic oppression. The naturalization frame enables many to view gentrification as an inevitable part of urban change, rather than a process facilitated by public-private partnerships and built on the destabilization of prior inhabitants’ communities. It also encourages people to dismiss inequality as “just the way things are,” instead of acknowledging that, even if urban change is inevitable, vulnerability is highly differentiated and socially constructed, and can therefore be socially dismantled.“As in reference to other areas of society, these explanations and their underlying logics are central to the production and reinforcement of racial inequality.”
Others adopt discourses of cultural racism, attributing Black neighborhood decline to cultural pathologies instead of policy-driven neglect, and approaching Black communities as problems to be solved rather than people worthy of investment “as is” and on their own terms.5Mary Pattillo, “Investing in Poor Black Neighborhoods ‘As Is,’” in Public Housing and the Legacy of Segregation, eds. Margery Austin Turner, Susan J. Popkin, and Lynette A. Rawlings (Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2008), 31–46. They may also presume the growing racial homeownership gap is the result of Black people’s financial irresponsibility instead of considering how structural racism constrains Black wealth-building and access to capital and urban space. Still others deploy the minimization of racism frame to suggest racial discrimination is “not as bad” as it was in the past, for example, pointing to individual Black property owners’ and entrepreneurs’ success or to the movement of whites into majority-Black neighborhoods as evidence that the ideologies and practices that have produced racialized space are no longer salient. As in reference to other areas of society, these explanations and their underlying logics are central to the production and reinforcement of racial inequality. They hide the ways racial hierarchies and anti-Blackness structure the urban landscape, even as cities march toward superficially multicultural futures. They also enable stakeholders to absolve themselves of any responsibility in creating and contributing to the current crisis.
Advocates of neoliberal urban development similarly evoke colorblindness when marketing new development projects. Christopher Mele explores how public officials and private investors represent such endeavors as consensual, socially neutral, and beneficial for the local economy and for racial and ethnic diversity. Although many projects gain broad support with promises of socially inclusive quality-of-life improvements, such claims often obscure the inequalities that accompany neoliberal urbanism. This is largely because, rather than address challenges facing existing Black, poor, and other marginalized residents, public and private powerbrokers focus their resources on attracting more affluent clientele.6Christopher Mele, “Neoliberalism, Race, and the Redefining of Urban Redevelopment,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32, no. 2 (2013): 598–617.
As with other aspects of the organization and operation of urban space, the deepening of racial inequality is more than an unfortunate side effect of contemporary development. Rather, it is a defining feature of neoliberal urbanism, which, as a form of racial capitalism, reconstitutes racial distinctions to accommodate capital accumulation and uneven development.7Mele, “Neoliberalism, Race, and the Redefining of Urban Redevelopment.” Unlike in previous eras, entrepreneurial elites increasingly steer away from stereotypes and social problems that portray Black neighborhoods as dangerous and financially risky. Instead, they emphasize depoliticized notions of racial difference that align with the tastes and preferences of potential residents and consumers, such as “exotic” foods and “edgy” art forms like graffiti and hip-hop.
This approach was evident when hip-hop mogul and Nets minority owner Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter emerged as the Barclays Center’s most visible ambassador. His market-friendly image of racial difference and oppositional cool generated a great deal of support for the arena. It also promoted a colorblind narrative of neoliberal urbanism in service of capital. Although Carter’s Bedford-Stuyvesant roots signaled deep ties to local Black communities, his celebrity overshadowed nearly a decade of protest over the project’s displacement of local residents and worsening of racial and class stratification in nearby neighborhoods. Abstract liberalism played out in the bootstraps narrative of his rise to the top of the entertainment industry, casting the arena as spoils of his entrepreneurial success, which he was returning to share with his hometown. Carter minimized gentrification’s role as a process of multiple and overlapping dislocations, instead positing it as a necessary and natural vehicle for progress toward a new and better Brooklyn. Ultimately, his involvement helped divert attention from structural explanations and solutions for urban inequality, consistent with larger trends that transform diversity from a social justice ethic to a marketing strategy and lifestyle amenity.8Brandi Thompson Summers, Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 23. By recasting arena investors from profit-driven businessmen into benevolent providers of public goods, Carter also helped obscure the flimsiness of promises of jobs and housing that have remained unfulfilled.
Race matters – now what?
A long and intricate relationship between race, space, and power continues to shape urban space and society. Still, various colorblind frames for understanding gentrification, neoliberal urbanism, and the racial inequalities they produce and deepen continue to proliferate. In response to this erasure, activists around the world are placing race and structural racism at the forefront of grassroots struggles for the right to the city. It is no surprise, then, that the Barclays Center has emerged as a key site for Black Lives Matter and other racial justice protests in New York City, where people articulate the anti-Blackness inherent in many of the forces involved in the exclusionary remaking of the city.“Ideological and strategic linkages among activists across these contexts have made for powerful connections and dynamic movement-making aimed at seeking justice for Black and other marginalized people.”
Crucially, many have tied the racialized displacement engendered by exclusionary redevelopment to broader issues of housing affordability, police violence, labor exploitation, healthcare access, educational inequality, and political participation, among other issues which are broadly consequential yet have distinctly racial operations and consequences. This has been true in cities as disparate as Cape Town, South Africa; Bahia, Brazil; London, England; and St. John’s, Antigua, where elites implement development plans that marginalize and erase Black communities and histories in a never-ending quest for progress. Ideological and strategic linkages among activists across these contexts have made for powerful connections and dynamic movement-making aimed at seeking justice for Black and other marginalized people. Their theories and actions demonstrate the global nature of the battle for racial and spatial justice, and model strategies for realizing a more just world. Researchers and policymakers alike would be well-served to pay attention to their interventions, and to keep the enduring problem of structural racism as a central unit of analysis and as a central element in any comprehensive solutions.
Banner image: Erin Patrice O’Brien/Wikimedia Commons.