P.E. Moskowitz: The ‘plastic straws’ of gentrification

New Orleans-based author and journalist P.E. Moskowitz (who identifies as queer) has written for The New Yorker, Slate, and the New York Times. They will speak about their research surrounding the topics of both free speech and gentrification on Oct. 19 at Christ Church Cathedral.

Moskowitz’s new book, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighbourhood, chronicles the process of gentrification in New Orleans, New York, Detroit, and other American metropolitan areas, and offers suggestions for how to fight back.

“I think the lessons are applicable everywhere. I think the lessons of New York and San Francisco are applicable to every city to see the writing on the wall,” says Moskowitz. “It’s going to sell in the same way, the decisions are always the same, everyone says the same thing like ‘oh maybe it won’t be that bad, maybe it won’t displace everyone.’ But fast forward ten years and who would’ve thought, it’s always the same results.”

Recognizing the problem

Having grown up in New York’s West Village during its own early stages of gentrification, Moskowitz first became interested in understanding the socio-economic phenomenon when they returned home from college to their newly unfamiliar home neighbourhood.

“It was like a bomb of money had just been dropped on [West Village]. All of my favourite stores were closed, there were no pizza stores left within a ten-block radius which seems criminal for New York,” they say.

More than just pizza shops however, Moskowitz’s home had changed drastically in terms of affordability and socioeconomic demographic. Upon realizing that this situation was not unique to their own neighbourhood, they started looking into this process of gentrification more critically, embarking on a research project on the histories and policies of other suburbs and cities throughout the United States.

“When talking to other people who lived in other neighbourhoods, or even in other cities, they were all sort of telling me the same thing was happening there,“ he says. “So I knew there had to be something bigger going on than just what was happening in the Village, so that’s why I started investigating.”

Resistance to a recurring pattern

P.E. Moskowitz. | Photo by Erica B. Christmas

Though much research and theorizing has been put into understanding the process of gentrification, what Moskowitz’s research has brought to the fore are two key points that they urge people to consider.

First is the striking repeatability of the gentrification process. Rather than a spontaneous series of events which plays out differently in every city, Moskowitz says that it’s often the same actors and corporations that are involved in gentrifying different cities.

“It’s not even just a similar process, it’s often the exact same players behind the process. And that’s especially true if you’re talking about large global banks like Goldman Sachs or other banks…all these entities that are really heavily invested in real estate,” says Moskowitz. “So it’s not even that the lessons are applicable, it’s that, a lot of the time, the same people and policies are appearing.”

Moskowitz says that it’s easy to feel helpless, or turn to the wrong solutions to combat such a force and phenomenon. So as important as it is to recognize gentrification in its initial stages, what’s just as important is knowing what to do about it.

Drawing parallels to tackling pollution and climate change, Moskowitz highlights the second key point: the importance of collective action and community organizing over individual consumer choices, such as recent campaigns against individuals using plastic straws. Moskowitz encourages politicians to embrace policies beyond limited social housing expansion, and for concerned citizens to get involved in community organizing, finding ways to resist policies and proposals which are at the root of gentrification, rather than its symptoms.

“I think we do a lot of ‘plastic straw’ work when it comes to gentrification, kind of nibbling around the edges,” says Moskowitz. “But, to use the example of someone protesting a [gentrifying] condo, that’s an example of a really effectivte individual action that you can take, to organize. Because it’s not only about that condo being built, it’s about the larger policies that add up to it. I think that individual actions need to be directed towards the systemic cause.”

For more information on the event, visit banyen.com/events

For more on Moskowitz, visit moskowitz.xyz