Tom Slater's (2006) article ‘The eviction of critical perspectives for gentrification research’ is one of the most important urban geography articles of the last decade, and I am glad to be invited to comment on it. An incisive intervention, it marks and names what had otherwise been a perceptible if largely unremarked drift in gentrification research from broadly critical approaches, even amidst debates over causes, to an openly celebratory embrace of gentrification as a lead policy of city-building around the globe.
There are many interrelated reasons for the eviction of critical perspectives in gentrification research, and Slater touches on several of these. First, the political climate today is obviously of central importance: it has racheted to the right compared with 20 or 25 years ago when critical approaches to gentrification were established. Second, in this altered climate, academia itself has changed, and while much writing and research still often takes place under some banner of liberal cosmopolitanism, the appetite for serious political critique has been deflected or else diverted inward. For many, politics is hijacked today by, at best, an ethics of passive abomination, at worst a disavowal of politics entirely. This post-political ideology obviously beclouds much more than gentrification research. Third, the structure of academic work has changed, nowhere more rapidly than in the UK, where, as Slater points out, the evacuation of critical perspectives may have proceeded furthest. Postgraduate success in the UK depends significantly on receipt of an ESRC grant, which in turn builds in a substantial policy requirement. If one is opposed to gentrification, the requirement to come up with gentrification policy, however ameliorative, presents itself as a pre-critique of any critical scholarship. Such institutionally imposed preemption is deeply anti-intellectual insofar as it screens out research that refuses to accept the premise of gentrification as an urban good. A postgraduate attempting to fulfil this policy requirement by advocating ‘policy’ that the anti-gentrification movement (rather than the state) might wish to implement would reasonably be concerned about the fate of his or her ESRC (or for that matter, US National Science Foundation) grant proposal. This requirement of state conformity, however broad its gloss, has been reaffirmed by the workings of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) which is increasingly deployed as an international model of university corporatization. The RAE becomes a beating stick for disciplining especially junior colleagues into publishing the ‘right kinds of pieces’ in the ‘right kinds of journals’. Slater's brave critique was certainly in one of the ‘right’ journals, for any scholar working in interdisciplinary urban research, but we can assume that its analytical indictment of establishment research output is unlikely to have appealed to any department head keen to sustain or enhance an RAE ranking.
There are other reasons for the eviction of critical perspectives in gentrification research. Chris Hamnett (1991) long ago pointed to the role of career building in the direction taken by gentrification debates, and there is little doubt that, as the academic rewards for critical scholarship diminished while those for policy work expanded, numerous gentrification researchers of that generation simply followed their own career interests. But this is more than a case of ‘mellowing with age’. Also under more intense and conservative institutional constraints, many younger researchers have found the path of least career resistance to be paved by more and more detailed policy-relevant case studies that hold the larger issues out of focus. Furthermore, the conservatizing of gentrification research has also been encouraged by official state repackaging of the bureaucratic discourse; ‘gentrification’ has been made such a dirty word in Europe that EU urban policy and many national policies have banished the class truth of this term from the official lexicon in favour of the telling epidemiological metaphor, ‘regeneration’. Not a few of gentrification's new best friends today cut their scholarly teeth on critiques of just such dodgy naturalizations of the city, such as those offered by postwar social ecology, but those lessons are conveniently forgotten today. For researchers who are embarrassed to talk about social class today, even at a time when classes are cleaved further and further apart (often along coincident racial and ethnic fault lines), European ‘regeneration’ policy optimistically imbibes the post-structuralist phlogiston of the age, namely that if one changes the discourse the world will follow.
In reality, the process of gentrification has expanded horizontally, recognized now in cities on all continents (except presumably Antarctica), and vertically, reaching down to smaller cities and towns in the urban hierarchy. Gentrification has gone from a marginal event in a few local housing markets of global cities to a systematic, comprehensive policy for city building. As long ago as 1970, Henri Lefebvre (2005) suggested that urbanization may be supplanting industrialization as the form taken by capital accumulation, and he was surely prescient. Gentrification is a part of this process, happening on a more massive scale in Shanghai and Mumbai, for example, than in the older post-industrializing cities of Europe, North America and Oceania. The centrality of city building to the global economy is expressed in the 2007 financial crisis that began in the US ‘sub-prime’ housing market. But it is also signified by the increasing protests against urban gentrification/redevelopment projects such as the Olympics enterprises of Beijing and London.
A far more chilling sign of the importance of critical gentrification research came in August 2007. Citing among other things, the use of ‘key words and phrases’ such as ‘gentrification’ and ‘inequality’, German federal authorities charged four urban researchers and laid charges under section 129a antiterrorism laws. These researchers had been under state surveillance for almost a year, and if the charges were not so serious they would seem ludicrous. In effect, their academic research on gentrification, their familiarity with others charged under the same legislation, and their access to a research library made it possible for these researchers, in the eyes of the German state, to be suspected of having the ability to perhaps be the intellectual leaders of a possible terrorist cell. If this litany of speculative hypotheticals were not sufficient, the desperation of the German state is surely evident in the following: the authorities cited one researcher's failure to carry a cell phone to a meeting as a sign of ‘conspiratorial behaviour’ (presumably his cell-phone abstentionism prevented his being tracked by state agents) (see Bernt and Holm, 2002; Smith 2007; also, the website, email@example.com). The International Sociological Association and the International Critical Geography Group together with more than 3,000 international academics immediately protested against the incarceration of one researcher and the application of the anti-terrorist laws. Demonstrations in several cities followed. One researcher who had been jailed and held in solitary confinement was subsequently released, but the federal case continues as does the mounting protest.
Why would critical gentrification researchers seem such a threat to the state? Three of their avowedly ant-militarist acquaintances have been charged with attempting to set fire to several army trucks, and the state has chosen to apply section 129a antiterrorism laws to them too, rather than simple vandalism charges. But this connection in itself hardly amounts to an explanation of how the German state could find itself naming anti-gentrification research as contributing to terrorism. More important, and mentioned in the filed charges, was that the scholars were politically active in urban social justice movements. The federal authorities clearly feared a growing activist connection between critical gentrification research and the global social justice movement. Indeed, the 2007 anti-G8 protests in northern Germany, which some of these scholars attended, launched an international land and housing rights campaign that targeted among other things the displacement and eviction resulting from gentrification. More than any other, this case highlights the increasingly repressive tendency of many states around the world to treat even legitimate opposition as synonymous with terrorism.
On one minor historical point I would take issue with Slater's argument. The early history of gentrification research did harbor considerable celebratory writing, and it took a considerable effort by researchers of various stripes — Marxist, feminist, social democratic, humanist — to establish a more critical theoretical and empirical literature. It is clearly time to relaunch that effort, as Slater's article so eloquently demonstrates, albeit under conditions wherein what counts as gentrification has developed considerably. The neoliberal globalized city is most assuredly not the Keynesian postwar city, and gentrification too has changed accordingly. And yet the class etching of the urban landscape that gave rise to the language of gentrification is, if anything, more intense today, and this should be a central part of our inquiries and analyses.