Thursday, August 10, 2006

An Actual Dialogue!

OK, I owe Tom Slater an apology. I sent him the letter in the post below without telling him that I was also publishing it to my blog. This was a violation of basic netiquette. I should have waited to see if he responded and asked him before I put my critique up. This is especially true in light of the fact that he responded thoughtfully to my criticisms. So, with his permission, I will publish his response to me, and our subsequent back and forth. It's important to remember that, even on the internet, we shouldn't always talk past each other and drop bombs, but try and engage in an actual dialogue. That's how we move the ball forward, folks.

Here's Tom's response to my first letter:

Dear Spencer (if I may),

Thank you for your message, and interesting comments on the op-ed. I have been receiving all kinds of messages from people in downtown, from people in and around Skid Row, and far beyond LA - some supporting the general argument, others like yours criticising it, which is typical of the divisive nature of gentrification. It is good to learn that many people are talking about the broader issues contained in my piece - clearly this is an important debate, but one which I do feel should be constructive rather than dismissive.

I was not invited to write the piece because of any in-depth knowledge of LA. I was invited by the LA Times to place recent downtown events they wrote to me about in the broader context of gentrification, a topic I have researched and written about in North America. You are entirely correct in pointing out the one factual error in the piece. The information re:
street cleaning given to me by the newspaper turned out to be incorrect.
The mistake was due to a miscommunication and an editing error: it has since been duly noted and corrected, and apologies have been made by both the LA Times and myself to CCEA for misrepresenting their actions, which CCEA have accepted.

I stand by the arguments made in the piece except for that error. I absolutely agree with you that change must happen. I never said it shouldn't. The question is what kind of change, and in whose interests is change happening, and that is what I was *warning* about. If you read the piece carefully, there are no factual errors about LA bar the one mentioned above, but instead a message about gentrification which is something I know is surrounding Skid Row. For instance, I talked about deinstitutionalization in the broader US (not LA) context, and the loft conversion cap thing was again a general message, which your local SRO ban is following - but for how long? There are huge pressures on this moratorium. Plus, the responses I have been receiving confirm that my worries are somewhere near the mark.

My point for years now is that either the unliveable disinvestment and neglect that you mention or gentrification and displacement is a *false
choice* for low-income/homeless areas, and once this is recognised (it so often isn't), then desititute people are not just shifted elsewhere.

This is an important debate (your e-mail is indicative of that), but one I do feel is more productive with less adversarial patrolling of one's own territory.

With very best wishes,


Here's how I responded:

Dear Tom,

Thanks for responding. I agree that the choice between “neglect and disinvestment” and “gentrification and displacement” is a false one; however, it is a false choice that is a first postulate of your op-ed argument, not one generated by the reality on the ground. I know that there are places where the kind of gentrification you speak of is happening. I briefly lived in one, in Camberwell in South London, where an ethnically mixed and income mixed neighborhood was being made over by the arrival of upper-middle class folks buying up and restoring row houses. This is not however what is happening in Los Angeles. Anyone unfamiliar with L.A. would think upon reading your piece that low income housing was being turned into lofts, but this isn’t supported by the facts. Over 98% of loft conversions in downtown Los Angeles have been to industrial and office buildings. I know of only one hotel that has succumbed to loft conversion, and even this singular building is not now condos, but market-rate apartments occupied mostly by middle class residents, such as a grad-student friend of mine. In fact, the newest hotel in downtown Los Angeles used to be the headquarters of an oil company, and another prominent conversion is now going into a former vegetable warehouse. My former loft was in a building that was once a garment sweatshop. As light manufacturing, especially garment manufacturing, has moved overseas, these empty spaces have become housing, and for the first time that I can remember, there is actually signs of life on the streets of downtown after 6pm. This growth will cause more people to care what happens downtown, and I have seen first hand the positive benefits to this newfound interest in what was otherwise a public policy cipher.

I apologize if I came across as trying to kick you out of my sandbox, but we’ve had our fair share of armchair quarterbacking out here. The problem with large themes is that they are so often unequally applied. Your argument might do well in San Francisco or Brooklyn, but in a city with a downtown as blighted and ignored as that of L.A., it can only hurt. It was misguided activists who petitioned and sued Governor Reagan and Governor Rockefeller in New York to release the mentally ill from institutions without adequately considering the unintended consequences, and I fear that the same may again happen here, that activists will sweep all the complex change now happening downtown under the rubric of “gentrification”, and that to be opposed. Our downtown revival is still a weak patient, Tom, and I fear anything, however well-intentioned, that will smother it. If it were up to me, every elected official, wealthy civic booster, and city planning academic in L.A. would be required to live in the twenty blocks of Skid Row. Only then can we really address the massive problem of homelessness, only when the powerful people of this famously disconnected city really see it every day. The new residents are raising their voices in a way no one else ever has here. It’s not just about real estate, it’s about seeing before our eyes the toll of poor mental health and addiction in a country that pays too little attention to either. If it takes the lure of exposed brick and nightclubs to make people care, well, I’m willing to pay that price. Your objections may one day actually be a problem here. Would that we someday have only such more esoteric issues to confront.

Spencer Windes
Downtown Los Angeles

You might also be interested in today's piece on Skid Row in the Times.

This is something we see regularly down here, the revolving door from treatment center to open-air drug market. These are the kinds of challenges we face. I've lived in some pretty gentrified places (Williamsburg, Dupont Circle, The Mission) but I've never had to literally turn down half a dozen dealers in one block. It's just overwhelming. We've got a ways to go before gentrification really sets in, I'm afraid.

Spencer Windes

And finally, Tom's response back to me.

Thanks for the reply. I wish I had the time to respond in depth to your
fascinating observations, which I really do appreciate you sharing with me.
One immediate response is that the conversion of empty industrial and office buildings into lofts that house middle class residents is in fact a form of gentrification (among others, Sharon Zukin's classic book 'Loft Living' deals with this very well - and a colleague of mine recently researched this in your old neighbourhood of Williamsburg). Gentrification is much much more than the middle classes buying up and restoring houses.

Displacement does not necessarily define gentrification: the erosion or prevention of affordable housing in favour of middle class interests does.
Decades of research illustrate that if the mentally ill/drug addicted are adequately housed, their symptoms will be at the very least more manageable. I can't help but imagine the progress for the homeless if garment sweatshops and vegetable warehouses were not appropriated by profit-seeking real estate interests. This is not to reduce everything to real estate capital, but rather to point out that it is a significant piece of the puzzle. I have researched and written about these issues in Toronto, and similar things are happening in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, a neighbourhood with more than its fair share of drug addicted, mentally ill people (being pressed on all sides by gentrification, and now resisting it vigorously). I have also written about the need for a 'geography of gentrification', to understand how different places experience the process in different ways - if downtown LA is as unique as you explain, then it is a primary research site.

I wish I shared your optimism over the potential for change if every elected official, wealthy civic booster, and city planning academic in L.A.
would be required to live in the twenty blocks of Skid Row. For me, the problem is that the enormous profits and taxes that can be extracted from the built environment are too often irresistible, and I would be amazed if such people in tandem with large developement corporations are not licking their chops at the Skid Row street cleaning as a sign of a future clean-up in the form of gentrification. Plus the fact that Bill Bratton is the LAPD police chief - a man with a track record of expelling homeless people from Manhattan in order to pave the way for massive profit-seeking capital investment, without considering the consequences for the homeless - does suggest that it would not be sensible to assume that change is going to happen with any compassion.

I thank you again for contacting me directly, and I very much hope you will prove me wrong and gentrification will not affect Skid Row any time soon!




Post a Comment

<< Home