Gentrification and the Class Cleansing of our Cities

Baltimore, Baseball and Burning Buildings

The Hartford Courant recently published the editorial “Why Hartford Is In A Better Place Than Baltimore.” That truth remaining undetermined, Hartford and Baltimore are at least historically comparable. Urban development projects, like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Hartford’s recent stadium-centric development, are neo-liberal icons of a coming egalitarian prosperity. Following Baltimore, the city of Hartford invites taxpayers Hartford to help pay for a new baseball stadium. It will house what will no longer be the New Britain Rock Cats. Seems Hartford’s Democratic Mayor Pedro Segarra helped hatch a scheme to steal a virtual public commons (the team) from the people of the city of New Britain. It would financially improve the team’s owner, and bring needed urban investment. Planning lessens business risk to the owner and developers, and places it where capital usually prefers, with the workers. The new digs will be the centerpiece for other venues and businesses. The promises of chicken-in-every-pot job creators and politicians are a strong narcotic for an increasingly beleaguered working class.

What do sports stadiums have to do with the flaming streets of Baltimore? Much, of course. Let’s recall the routine fraud of urban development as a panacea for deep and persistent social problems. Many remember the predictions of Democratic Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer three decades ago, during  construction of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Today, they smell a pungent irony, as the burning city becomes America’s latest lesson in trickle-down hyperbole. The Inner Harbor did little to remediate the decline of communities into abject poverty and violence. That fact is forged into a truism in the crucibles of Howard Street and Bolton Hill. One wonders how poor mothers in Baltimore feel as gleaming sports stadiums appear in wealthy and increasingly self-segregated neighborhoods; located just a few blocks from underfunded and dilapidated public schools.

Corporations whose profits never reach pockmarked Baltimore streets are largely the winners in development projects. Compounding social neglect, we toss diminishing taxes and expanding debt into the coffers of wealthy developers and private consultants; who like to contribute to political campaigns. The practice is so pervasive that even the conservative blog Oregon Catalyst complains about “a pyramid scheme developed as a mechanism to provide sustainability to the corporate welfare system, with little to no input from citizens.” In the U.S., Community Benefits Agreements, insuring development benefits go back to affected communities, are increasingly under attack by neo-liberal politicians, thus expanding the subsidy to developers.

“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”

Urban planning in Baltimore and Hartford serves profit over people. This is noticeably manifest in the process known as “gentrification.” Gentrification involves folks with money, jobs and college educations displacing folks with no money, no jobs and little education. Commercial development projects that link high-end condos to hookah bars, haute cuisine and baseball stadiums enable a displacement, a class cleansing of urban neighborhoods. The squalid worker housing of capitalism’s industrial past are gone. Today, newly gentrified technocrats gather into shining Reaganesque enclaves built upon a mountain of hyperbolic promises. They are largely financed by taxpayer subsidies to businesses, developers, contractors and consultants. In the process, communities are shattered, the lawn is mowed of undesirables and the fundamental needs of the urban poor are ignored.

That accomplished, physical security “requires” militarized police forces, stop-and-frisk policing, and draconian anti-homeless and anti-immigrant laws. Increasingly, private security patrols public streets, employing new technologies and low-wage labor, raising safety concerns. Subsistence workers in service industries appreciate the incestuous relationship between privatized policing and neo-liberal labor policy. In Germany,  private firms that “protect” housing complexes function also as neo-liberal anti-immigration and anti-union operatives. One is reminded of Henry Ford’s use of Pinkerton security to attack unions, and Walmart’s anti-union surveillance of employees and critics. “Neoliberal urban governance” becomes “for-profit purposes.”

Whence gentrification? The rise of monopoly-finance capitalism requires a suitably trained and distributed (read “localized”) work force. These workers support the technological, legal, financial and managerial needs of corporations. Computer professionals employ state-of-the-art technologies collecting customers’ personal information from the Internet for marketing purposes. Clever and inventive legal talent insures that corporations fly just below the ethical radar. Magical accountants and financial support find the right ways and locations to hide profits from taxes. Public relations departments at JP Morgan-Chase, Citigroup, and Bank of America work overtime. They explain why their corporate rapacity is not so bad and why Eric Holder was right not to send bonus-gorged capitalists to prison. All these shenanigans are supervised and expedited by flocks of M.B.A.s. Each are drunk on a neo-liberalism served up at the Nation’s business schools.

Rapidly changing market conditions and increasingly 24/7 operational business needs engendered by globalization, for example, increase demand for worker labor time. Employers increasingly expect “on-demand” availability so urban elites commonly clock 72-hour workweeks. Yet, workers need of time to sleep, accomplish their basic human activities, and enjoy the pleasures of their privileged economic status. Centralizing housing near work sites, and offering convenient transit and trendy nightspots can maximize both labor and personal time. These considerations also motivate corporate “work from home” policies. Localizing work (either geographically or virtually), amenities and home is wise business practice.

There’s Class Warfare, All Right …

In Marxian terms, these workers receive “subsumed class payments” from capital. This is the surplus value needed to attract, pay, train and maintain these employees. These workers receive paychecks (and whopping bonuses), but do not own the means of profit-making or produce commodities for sale in the market. Rather, they provide services that sustain corporate business operations and goals.

The worldwide transformation of capitalism from manufacturing to finance-monopoly capital is one cause for gentrification. In the past,

“…suburban highways meant factories could move out of congested cities to the suburbs. That era is now mostly over. Instead, the fastest-growing industries are finance, technology and business services, all of which depend on firms, their competitors and their clients being closely packed together. That has also helped revive urban economies. In London, the number of jobs in inner-city Canary Wharf has quadrupled over the past decade. In outer-suburban employment centres, such as Reading and Croydon, it has dropped.”

Educated and well-paid technocrats require creature comforts, and city planners keenly include them in development proposals. Young, well-heeled cosmopolitans largely avoid the difficulties of urban life through privately provided services. In Detroit, people in poor neighborhoods wait an hour for a 911 response, while private security in gentrified areas appears within minutes. City developers acquire working class properties and rentals, and turn them over to private developers. These insure real estate appeal, such as public gardens, convenient and safe transit, private security and trendy entertainment. This development purportedly will attract young elites who will settle in, their combined spending trickling down to the less fortunate. That certainly happens, and can be profitable if you are the owner of an art gallery, a trendy sushi bar or an upscale fashion outlet. The situation is different for those displaced because they empty wastebaskets at an art gallery or deliver Gucci in Williamsburg (for a subsistence wage), or wait tables in a restaurant (for less than the subsistence wage, plus tips).

Not So Great Expectations

In cities across America, the results of development are not as expected. What is happening as expected is a burgeoning income gap, geographical displacement of the poor and middle class, and accompanying class tension and conflict. Much displacement is due to “housing demolition, ownership conversion of rental units, increased housing costs in taxes and rent, landlord harassment and evictions.” It is little wonder that brazen class divisions exacerbate the already palpable sense of alienation and helplessness among struggling families who are losing their homes.

Local and global conditions decide how disadvantaged groups are affected by development. Local factors include the density and location of businesses that require subsumed workers, politics, class dynamics, militarized and privatized security, self-segregation, and gentrification. Globally, the financial transformation of capitalism, technological challenges to business (like customer information security) and international trade agreements (like the distressing TPP) require well-educated and maintained business support. Marxians may see the desperate outburst in Baltimore as the city that neo-liberalism built, and is still building.

Gentrification does not account for every economic hardship or social malady faced by inner city communities of color and middle-class workers. A sudden technological innovation might affect where and how gentrification unfolds. Nevertheless, our Marxian perspective is consistent with its history and practice. It explains causal connections between changing productive forces of capitalism and the social conditions those changes engender. Socialists understand how the designs of Wall Street become a class cleansing on Main Street. They appreciate a problem that will remain unless the destructive tendencies of capitalism are recognized and eliminated.


J. Richard Marra

lives in Connecticut. He received his Doctoral degree from Cornell University in 1977, majoring in Musical Composition and the History of Music Theory. While on the Faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, he completed graduate work at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in the Philosophy of Science. He is a member of the Socialist Party USA, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Philosophy of Science Association. His articles have also appeared on the websites of the Secular Buddhist Association and The Hampton Institute. He is a 2014 recipient of the SPUSA's Eugene V. Debs Award. To read other essays by J. Richard Marra, please visit

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