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Gentrification can be defined as the process of demolition of the traditional, economically dysfunctional and disadvantaged working areas and their consequent restructuring according to the mode of the middle class and the urban elites’ habitat. Gentrification is usually accompanied by the evictions of native residents and a sharp rise in rent and housing prices (Wu 2). This important process occurs in almost all major global cities and continues to gather momentum in the countries of Eastern Asia, including China.
The modern research studies in the field of urbanization and urban environment usually focus attention on the social implications of the phenomena – social mix or violation of original residents’ rights provoked by the removal of urban villages initiated by the state-led process of gentrification.
It is possible to say that gentrification is associated with both positive and negative impacts on the city population. On one hand, commonly perceived in the Western tradition and the human capital theory as a process stimulated by artists’ assembling in particular urban districts and the consequent attraction of public interest, it entails economic growth, refinement of living and public spaces, and the boost of the overall quality of life (Florida 7).
According to the recent research findings, the development of creative “bohemian” local culture entailed by the establishment of performing arts institutions and museums’ opening in such urban areas as Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado, or Sarasota, Florida, predicted the positive changes including the attraction of property development, as well as employment and population growth (Florida 13).
At the same time, gentrification evokes the issues of social suppression and class division, provision of insufficient political and social support of the disadvantaged population in favor of business services development and estate options supply for the middle and the upper-class citizens. For example, the redevelopment of the Chinese informal urban settlements, such as Gaojiabang and Qiaojiatang in Shanghai, prone to dilapidation due to their disadvantaged economic status and lack of collective resources, resulted in the mass relocation of the original district residents who were displaced by individuals from higher-income social groups (Wu 22).
Such elimination of lower-income citizens from the particular urban areas is induced by the growing tendency of political obedience to urbanization, and this tendency, in its turn, outline and emphasize the shift in the governmental role which contributes to the development of social inequality supported by the clearance of the urban areas from material or human waste and economic deregulation, as well as reduction of investments to social support (Wu 3).
To comprehend the effects of changes in individual social status and urban space position, it is important to review the process of gentrification in a broader context, evaluate multiple opinions on the subject in order to form an impartial view of the phenomena (Colombo, Cullen and Lisle 438). The in-depth analysis of diverse sources is meant to develop a profound understanding of gentrification, to reveal the mechanisms of post-industrial working-class restructuring, and evaluate the role of the state as the major source of social-spatial disparity.
As a rule, researchers distinguish two stages in a long-term gentrification process (Wu 3). For example, in a number of Western countries, during the first phase of urban gentrification, poor and dull districts draw the attention of initiative and creative people: artists, poets, journalists, etc. (Florida 8) The potential of this creative people allows them to transform the districts’ functioning and align it towards own interests. As a result, the urban area then becomes more attractive in terms of rent and living. Following the creative initiators of the gentrification process, economically-interested people find their place in the district. At this stage, the real estate market experiences an increase in demand, and the district acquires a more privileged and advantaged status.
In his TED Talk “Art Causes Gentrification,” the artist, Ethan Pettit, narrates about the way the artists contribute to the development of inner cities or villages of the larger urban districts transforming them from the working class zones into the spaces for bourgeois citizens (Pettit). Pettit claims that by creating spatial installations and sharing his/her artworks, an artist “anticipates the gentrified life,” helps to develop the urban design, and refine local infrastructure.
However, while focusing on aesthetical and philosophical implications of gentrification led by artists, he ignores the potential negative effects of the process and its adverse impacts on the citizens who cannot afford the elevated gentrified way of life.
In her interview with “Lumpen Magazine,” Jessi Meliza, the co-owner of “Peanut Gallery” in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, describes the gentrification process as a “transitional time…from rentals or homes that people have owned for…25 years to people buying and gutting places” (Gaffin par. 22). Being the live witnesses of these transitional times, the small gallery’s owners have seen the rapid economic restructuring of the district, a drastic rise in prices, and refinement of service quality. As one of the benefits of gentrification in the Humboldt Park district, the gallery owners distinguish a mild local shift in gang violence which, however, “just…moved three blocks down” (Gaffin par. 33).
Thus, the experience of several gentrification initiators in Chicago demonstrates that while the elevation of life quality in one area of the city may be commonly perceived as a positive effect, the mere consideration of benefits can be mistakenly seen as the general improvement. However, it is observed that generalization of gentrification’s positive effects can be misleading because the negative social phenomena, such as crime, cannot be eliminated by it but can only be shifted and moved to other urban regions.
Contrary to most of the Western countries, it is possible to say that gentrification in the Chinese cultural and social context is primarily led by the government and the political climate in the country. Overall, gentrification can be regarded as a localized form of urbanization in the broader sense of the term, and, in China, it is a large-scale process that involves millions of people (Wu 2). As stated by Wu, China experiences a neoliberal shift in the organization of its economic urban space, and it has led to a “more market-oriented approach to urban redevelopment” (4). Overall, the urban economic space serves as a focal point for the stimulation of different production factors, including funds and other resources, supported by the urban functional qualities which ensure a high level of efficiency.
The mobile and substantially conventional frames of the modern urban areas depend on the character of investment policies and priorities identified in the strategic regulation of economic space. The occurrence of urban areas associated with economic activity is the result of capital flow into new, innovational organizational forms, spheres, industries, and the creation of appropriate urban infrastructure. At the same time, the processes linked to demographic, cultural, political, and economic tendencies become particularly acute in urban regions and, in the cities, they find resolving in the development of new market competition and cooperation forms, new points of urban growth that contribute to the transformation of social institutions.
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The redevelopment of the traditional Tranquil Light Neighborhood, “an 80-year-old housing compound consisting of 198 three-story row houses,” in Shanghai was motivated by the government’s efforts to preserve the historical heritage and endow it with new economic potential by transforming it into a commercial district filled with “hyper-luxury residential complexes” (Arkaraprasertkul 1).
The old district’s redevelopment had the purpose of preventing the valuable historical structures from deterioration and was aligned with the goal to increase tourist attraction. However, reconstruction provoked a significant demographic change. It is observed that the number of non-Shanghainese inhabitants increased while most of the original residents who lived in the former working-class neighborhood since the 1930s moved to other urban areas (Arkaraprasertkul 3).
As a result, the cultural perception of the Tranquil Light Neighborhood has drastically changed, and the previous social meaning that the district held in itself became depreciated giving way to a new form of market-oriented economic and social values. Although the majority of the neighborhood residents initially were not in the disadvantaged position, the urban restructuring that occurred in the area provides an example of negative gentrification effects in terms of cultural value diminishing in favor of approaching greater financial profits, and if this is associated with both ethical and social implications.
A new wave of Chinese urban redevelopment was stimulated by the organization of such large public international events as the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games (Wu 7). This new wave of restructuring was associated with intense competition which resulted in the administration of more ambitious projects aimed at “improving housing conditions and the extraction of land revenue” through the adjustment of land use and demolition of the remaining urban villages which are commonly regarded as “informal settlements” inhabited by migrants without the local registration (Wu 7).
In the 2000s, the government initiated the demolition of a large number of urban villages and redevelopment of obsolete industrial parks in Shanghai and Beijing. For instance, the restructuring of Gaojiabang in Shanghai district commenced in 2007 and the native residents were offered either monetary compensation or “ownership swap” (Wu 15). However, the compensation was calculated considering the housing size and condition of the property at Gaojiabang, and since the economic environment in the district was quite disadvantaged, the residents of informal villages usually obtained small compensations.
Nowadays, the poor and dilapidated neighborhood in Shanghai was redeveloped and replaced by modern buildings and facilities. But the initial factor which contributed to the development of urban villages was the state’s inability to provide support for rural migrants (Wu 20).
Overall, the society in different cities and even the districts within one urban area can be characterized by economically advanced, postindustrial, and rural modes of life. It is possible to assume that in some cases, the development of an economically sustainable community can naturally be supported by economic cooperation of different social agents, in other cases, redevelopment and gentrification of economically disadvantaged zones may lead to greater price increases and creation of social gaps between distinct social groups, differentiation of life quality level, and provocation of adverse social phenomena.
It is possible to conclude that both government-led and artists-led gentrification processes may entail some positive and negative social transformations. The potential benefits of gentrification and the development of economic and social space involved in the process include the development of new recreational and cultural urban areas and contribution to urban economic development. The potential disadvantages of gentrification are the state’s privatization of urban land, as well as the increase in service prices which may lead to the differentiation of citizens’ residence zones and disruption of unified social space.
The review of literature devoted to the urban villages’ redevelopment in China and the wave of American artists-led gentrification helped to reveal that the social and economic consequences of the process may substantially vary in different cultural contexts. A high level of property and rights deprivation, as well as suppression of less advantaged social groups and a large number of displaces from the original place of residence due to commercial development of the urban sites and small size of material compensation to original land-owners, make it clear that the political and cultural environment in China is less appropriate for the mitigation of adverse impacts of cities’ modernization and localized urbanization processes.
It is possible to say that government-led gentrification in China is characterized by the use of aggressive redevelopment patterns. However, as stated by Colombo et al., greater awareness of class-related realities in the diverse mass media sources may contribute to the strengthening of national democratic processes (439). And, in this way, to eliminate the potential tendencies of economic segregation and social gaps’ development, the journalists and public organizations should strive to promote the inclusion of democratic methods and principles of compliance into the design of urban and economic redevelopment projects.
Arkaraprasertkul, Non. “Gentrification from Within: Urban Social Change as Anthropological Process.” Asian Anthropology 15.1 (2016): 1-20. Web.
Colombo, Gary, Robert Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2016. Print.
Florida, Richard L. Cities and the Creative Class. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Gaffin, Kyle. “Artists, Communities, & Gentrification: An Interview with Peanut Gallery.” Lumpen Magazine. 2015. Web.
Pettit, Ethan. “Art Causes Gentrification.” TED Talks. TEDxBushwick. 2015. Video file. Web.
Wu, F. “State Dominance in Urban Redevelopment: Beyond Gentrification in Urban China.” Urban Affairs Review (2015): 1-28. Sage Journals. Web.