Rethinking Redevelopment

What we’re getting wrong about gentrification and cultural heritage

Milton S. F. Curry, dean of the USC School of Architecture, argues that the way we think about gentrification and cultural heritage undervalues the interior lives of low-income Black Americans. Pictured: Mural in Philadelphia (Susan Sermoneta/Via Flickr)

We tend to think of cultural heritage in terms of iconic historical artifacts, and we tend to think of saving cultural heritage in terms of heroic acts to preserve historically important things. We tend to think of gentrification as an inevitable economic phenomenon that, like so many other components of our capitalist lives, produces winners and losers—benefitting some and injuring others. But the way we tend to think of both gentrification and cultural heritage is bound up in ideological forces that devalue the lived experiences of those most threatened by the onslaught of transformative economic change.

We are all familiar with how gentrification works. A historically working-class community sits adjacent to an upper-middle-class community where previous residents have been priced out. During the next real estate cycle, incremental pressure results in more upper-middle-class residents purchasing homes in the working-class area and eventually, the working-class residents get priced out and seek housing further outside of their community, resulting in longer commutes and a net loss in wealth.

In a recent Washington Post article, “How record-setting art auctions are ruining the old neighborhood,” Philip Kennicott wrote: “Gentrification is about displacement, about the market coming in, taking things that felt like accessible common property and making them so uncommonly expensive that they are no longer what they once were…Something that was once habitual, a part of a beloved place—buying a cup of coffee or getting a haircut—becomes a locus of exclusion.” Kennicott’s premise is that gentrification takes affordable assets and makes them economically unattainable.

But exclusion is about constraining options, not displacing options. If people can choose to purchase coffee either from a Starbucks or from an historic coffee shop next door, then diverse classes have an expanded set of options in the same proximate space. If we apply this example to residential units and other commercial sites, we could potentially develop communities without the blunt force of gentrification, i.e. without a simplistic acceptance that capitalism inevitably will produce ever-expanding zones of exclusion absent human intervention.

Regardless, Kennicott and others err by focusing on exclusion at the expense of focusing on the processes of devaluation. Devaluation, in the context of urban gentrification, describes the processes by which systemic and institutional actions suppress the value of physical assets in underserved and low-income communities. Devaluation occurs through public policy—residential redlining, environmental racism and classism, deficits of public parks and civic amenities, etc. Revaluing is catalyzed when a devalued community is targeted for reinvestment.



What are constantly undervalued are the untranslatable vestiges of the interior lives of displaced residents, the staged presence of culture within the homes and apartments that these residents once occupied. The architectural uncanny, according to Anthony Vidler, treats modernity as a catalyst for unleashing psychoanalytic forces deep in subjective will to produce simulated anxieties uniquely connected to the project of modernity—“feeling-effects” like alienation or estrangement, or the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own home. Revaluing these physical assets—seen as hollow shells or neutral sites for architectural reinvention and transformation by the wealth class— is heralded as the city remaking itself and becoming contemporary, as the supposedly inevitable transformation of physical structures no longer adhering to uses they have outgrown and responding to society’s new demands.

For some communities and polities, the interiority of cultural experience is one of the few available modes of resistance. The exterior image of the typical single-family home is largely regulated by zoning codes and often bland aesthetic norms. Likewise, low-income apartment buildings and the like are already depicted as places of low cultural life and places where drug usage and violence coalesce. Therefore, any exterior treatment that further marginalizes the physical asset and the inhabitants further degrades and marginalizes the inhabitants’ existence. From the dramatic description of Harriet Jacobs’s garret as described in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to the expressive imaging of Black American life in Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry series, the interior space of Black American life has been where culture is materialized. Undoubtedly, the interior space is still the place where the most marginalized populations find their unique counter-cultural voice expressed through the aesthetic construction of their spaces and lives.

Working at the intersection of architecture, theory, and urbanism, USC Architecture is attempting to think anew about “pre-gentrification zones”—places that, because of land ownership and the scale of under-development in comparison to adjacent real estate markets, are ripe for large-scale rethinking in advance of unregulated market-driven development that would force out current residents, landowners, and renters. Working with municipalities, community groups, and designers, we will utilize design as a form of policy to influence future development in these and other areas. In Los Angeles, Fresno, and the San Diego/U.S.-Mexico border region, we will examine and analyze the conditions and presuppositions that support the processes of devaluation and revaluation, as well as speculate as to how interventions can be made by market and non-market actors in achieving more egalitarian results to urban redevelopment imaginings. Cultural heritage is no longer separate from urban redevelopment, just as gentrification is no longer an issue that exclusively affects the poor. As we are witnessing, a lack of affordable housing creates ripple effects in all housing markets and sub-markets and thus affects the pricing of both rental and owner-occupied housing across virtually all sectors of the market. We must use design, architecture, and aesthetics as primary drivers of new policy interventions that will result in the development of cities in which all are able to afford the civic and public infrastructure that we all pay for.

Milton S. F. Curry is Dean and Professor at the USC School of Architecture and holds the Della & Harry MacDonald Dean’s Chair in Architecture. Dean Curry obtained his Master in Architecture post-professional degree from Harvard Graduate School of Design and his Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University. He was associate dean for academic affairs and strategic initiatives at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture & Planning from 2010 to 2017. Dean Curry has held teaching positions at Harvard University, Arizona State University, and Cornell University. Throughout his career in academia, he has coordinated graduate and undergraduate design studios at all levels and has taught theory-related seminars on architecture and cultural theory, urbanism, and housing. He is recognized as a leading voice in integrating cultural theory, race, and class into the ongoing interrogation of modernism and modernity. He has founded two academic journals: Appendx in 1993 and CriticalProductive in 2008.

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