One of my pet peeve about many fellow urbanists and city dwellers is their disdain for gentrification. Like Gordon Gecko’s notorious “Greed is Good’ speech” in the 1987 movie Wall Street, I’m here to say ‘Gentrification is Good”
At its most basic level, gentrification reflects the transformation of long neglected places like downtown Phoenix into vibrant and successful areas. It begins with the arrival of artists and hipsters attracted by low rents. The pioneers then cultivate a scene that begins to attract middle class professionals.
According to Sharon Zukin’s recent book, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, gentrification depends on transforming neighborhoods so that the professional class sees them as “gritty” and “authentic.” Historical building, warehouses and the like provide a foundation for the “authentic” urban experience that attracts upper-middle class people tired of strip malls and chain store.
Using coffee as an example, both the many locations of Starbucks as well as the independent coffee shops such as Fair Trade Cafe, Royal at the Market, Conspire and the new downtown locations of Lola Coffebar and Cartel Coffee Lab have contributed to the revitalization. Many people lump all this development together under the banner gentrification. They are wrong. The multiple Starbucks clones reflects a homogenization of downtown that is distinct from gentrification.
A Starbucks is a Starbucks is a Starbucks, whether you are in a Chandler strip mall, Taylor Place at ASU downtown, or for that matter, Hong Kong. On the other hand the independent coffee shops show a more positive ‘gentrification’ of downtown. Even though many of the ‘independent’ coffee houses are the second or third locations in the Valley, their downtown outlets reflect the flavor of the surrounding neighborhood rather that that of a corporate brand.
There is a distinct difference in decor and more importantly vibe between, say Lola Uptown and Lola Downtown that is lacking when you visit one of the many Starbucks or Subways around town. Yes the surroundings may be familiar from one place to the next, but each site is different enough to offer authentic experience. Besides, it’s at these independent cafés where the young urban hipsters and “gentry” are found, not in Starbucks.
I’m not immune to the consistency of Starbucks, or the affordability of Subway. Vigilant readers may spot me in one of these establishments on occasion. This post isn’t meant to judge such business or their customers, rather to point out the different impacts after all, if downtown Phoenix is to be successful we need to greatly increase its population of both residents and visitors, which means opening our arms to ALL walks of life. My problem isn’t with Starbucks or Subway, and it isn’t just with downtown Phoenix. In fact it is a global phenomenon of the same stores, selling the same stuff and the same coffee. One Starbucks is cool. Four within a ¼ mile rover each other is overkill.
Stay tuned for more posts along this line of thinking. As always, I look forward to reading your thoughts and questions in the comments section.
This is day 10 in my 28 Day Blogging Challenge. 18 days to go.