Charles Murray has called for wealthier Americans to help bridge the cultural chasm between themselves and citizens further down the class ladder by moving out of their enclaves and into less exclusive areas. There’s a name for at least some of this: gentrification.
Gentrification is what happens when wealthier people buy up property in blighted or at least scruffy parts of a city, and renovate the run-down housing. It’s also called “urban pioneering” — the idea that one is staking a claim to savage territory, and civilizing it by one’s presence. “Gentrification” is, to many people, a dirty word, because it displaces very poor people from those neighborhoods. I don’t think it’s a dirty word, frankly — but then again, I was a second-wave gentrifier once.
The neighborhood where we bought our house had been a drug-gang war zone in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, the gentrifiers showed up. They loved those architecturally significant old houses, and saw value there. They took big risks to buy those properties up, even though they came cheap. Eventually the neighborhood started slowly getting better. By the time we arrived, it was a good place to live, though close enough to the danger zone that some nights you could hear gunshots in the near distance. As far as I knew, a Hispanic couple, both retirees, was the only couple from our block from the old days. They talked about how it was too dangerous to sit on your front porch at night back then. They were clearly happy that the neighborhood had turned around.
But here’s the thing. With the coming of the middle-class gentrifiers, their old neighbors — mostly working-class Hispanics like them, I believe — moved out. Property values went up — but that meant they had to pay higher property taxes. Because the gentrifiers moved there out of love for the historic quality of those old houses, they pushed to have the neighborhood declared an official Historic District. When this happened, it radically limited the freedom of homeowners to do what they wanted with their property. I remember our Hispanic neighbors running afoul of the city for some minor code violation thing in this regard. Eventually they decided they were going to try to sell their house and leave. I think they had several reasons for doing this, some having to do with grandchildren, but I’m fairly certain that they just got tired of living among people like, well, us. To be clear, there was no discord between them and the other neighbors. We got along fine. But I could see how they might have felt like for all the good that came to their neighborhood with gentrification, they also lost it.
Again, I don’t think gentrification is a bad thing, in principle, for reasons mentioned in this article. The reason I bring it up here, even though I don’t think Murray is talking only about gentrification, is because I think the same dynamic that we see with gentrification should make one skeptical of Murray’s idea that having members of various social and economic classes living together is going to bridge the cultural chasm. As long as people are free to buy and sell property as they wish, and there are laws forbidding covenants that keep classes of people from buying property in a particular place — two factors that we can all agree are good things — then people will try to live around people like themselves. This is normal human behavior. That means too that they will not want people too unlike themselves living around them. This is normal human behavior also.
Let’s say that a few SWPL hipsters with cash start buying up housing in a “vibrant” neighborhood, because they want to live around working-class people. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that these SWPLs are the children of the people in Belmont, the prosperous town Murray mentions in his book, “Coming Apart.” They get the idea that it’s cool to live in Fishtown, the working-class town also in his book, because they want the “authentic” experience, and they hate the stuffiness of Mom and Dad’s boring rich suburb. For starters, how likely do you think the people of Fishtown are to take to these outsiders moving in? Second, how likely do you think the SWPLs are to stay in Fishtown once they decide to start a family? Do they want their kids to grow up with Fishtown values? [I say that not to privilege Fishtown values over Belmont values, but only to point out that until and unless you’re willing to raise your kids in a place, living there is just tourism.]
Third, let’s say Fishtown gets a reputation among affluent SWPL types, and they start moving in, bidding up the real estate market. Before you know it, the working-class people who live in Fishtown may find they can’t afford to live there. Maybe they don’t want to live there, because the things that made it feel like home are going away. All these strangers are now living here, people with different habits, and different tastes. Maybe the poorest or at least the most disaffected working-class people of Fishtown leave, but others stay, and the neighborhood mix stabilizes. That could happen. But isn’t it possible too that Fishtown would, in time, return to a cultural homogeneity, except now the working class homogeneity has been exchanged for upper class/Bobo homogeneity?
In the end, I think what irritates me about Murray’s suggestion is the idea that working-class white people are eager to welcome upper-class white people to their neighborhoods, so they can learn how to behave from their example. That’s what Murray is calling for. Seriously, he wants upper-class whites to be secure in their bourgeois values, and to move in to working-class areas to educate the natives by setting a good example — and, in turn, gain the benefit of cultural diversity of living around people unlike themselves.
Good luck with that. Leaving the question of housing aside, I’m am pretty sure that the cultural gentrification Murray proposes would not go down well with the people the Murrayite missionaries are supposed to civilize.