Guys, we have something very serious to discuss with you about the city of Houston. And what is that issue, you ask? Well, it's the monstrous gentrification of Upper Kirby.
No, we're not kidding. Not one bit.
Those claims were made by local writer and resident Anis Shivani in a recent Salon article on the gentrification of central Houston in which he calls the area around Alabama and Kirby not only the most desirable area in the city, but also one of the most stark examples of gentrification in the city.
According to the whopping 4,000-word article, the gentrification of central Houston has turned the area into an "exclusive playland for the rich," and Houston itself has "transmogrified into a city ruled by a brutal strain of neoliberalism."
That opening argument, while obnoxiously written, isn't entirely off point. Much of central Houston has been transformed over the years, and areas that were once home to lower-income residents are now filled with the affluent.
Most readers, should they be able to slog through Shivani's muddy writing, could easily grasp that point. But there's a problem with the argument presented here. When Shivani talks about the gentrification of central Houston, he doesn't really mean all of central Houston. Shivani focuses on Upper Kirby -- where he lives -- which is only one small part of central Houston.
Shivani starts right off by saying that the desirability of Steel Street has made him and his neighbors victims of the leveraging of urban space.
"My neighbors and I are currently being affected by what I consider the most monstrous example of gentrification in Houston," he says. "My neighbors on Steel Street -- at the Kirby and Alabama intersection, arguably the single most desirable location in Houston -- and I have become victims of the grotesque leveraging of urban space by those who falsely assert that the market alone decide outcomes." (Emphasis added.)
But while this argument may work for Shivani, it's hard for us to equate "victims of the grotesque leveraging of urban space" with folks affluent enough to live on the corner of West Alabama and Kirby.
What Shivani also fails to note is that the area of Upper Kirby has not been any sort of "urban space" since the 1980s, when the average person could afford to live there. Still, Shivani insists that gentrification is taking over the area, and he cites the rising rents -- which, remarkably enough, he compares to those in New York City -- and corporate indifference as having stamped out the area's intimacy.
He even goes so far as to note the changing face of Montrose in the early 2000s as a prime example of a neighborhood surviving a residential change without being gentrified.
"Artists, writers and eccentrics from around the country descended in droves in the 2000s to take advantage of Houston's livability. They flocked to the legendary 'gayborhood' of Montrose and brought other neighborhoods around downtown to life," Shivani says. "I called Houston in those halcyon years 'Austin-plus' because it had a lot of the capital's aesthetic attractions in addition to remarkable diversity and friendliness."
There's a problem with Shivani's Montrose logic, though. While the author may believe that the influx of creatives into Montrose was a positive change, free from the displacement of residents, he's merely reframing the gentrification that took place in the city's now formerly gay area during that time.
The same people Shivani claims were just taking advantage of the area's livability were responsible for the gentrification of that area, a process after which many of the residents in the once-affordable neighborhood had been forced out. What happened in Montrose was the same type of injustice the writer is complaining about, yet he appears oblivious to that.
But as misguided as Shivani's arguments are up to this point, they get downright weird when he uses Taco Milagro, which used to sit at the corner of Westheimer and Kirby, as an example of the hazards of gentrification.
"Taco Milagro, at the intersection of Kirby and Westheimer, used to be a lively public-private space. The food was very healthy and people from all over the city danced the night away and congregated on the large patio. But at the gateway to River Oaks, with condominiums going up all around, this open space was unacceptable, so Taco Milagro suddenly shut down," he says.
The closing of an upscale taco place, which once sat in an upscale strip center with an upscale cigar bar, is not what gentrification looks like, but again, Shivani seems oblivious to that.
The entire premise of that argument -- the downfall of a Thursday night hot spot with overpriced margaritas, which was never a bastion of inner-city living -- is so entirely privileged that it's laughable, and furthermore, it just doesn't work.
Shivani never once sells us on the supposed gentrification of Upper Kirby in his article, even with all those words. What he does sell us on, though, is how privileged he is. It's a point that is driven home when Shivani inexplicably tries to differentiate himself from poor welfare recipients.
"We're not homeless, we're not welfare recipients, we're the backbone of Houston, tens of thousands of hardworking residents who put the city in the position of promoting itself as a cultural destination in the first place," he says. "We ride bikes or walk; we loyally support local establishments; we love our neighborhoods and treasure them, yet we are the ones whose lives are destroyed."
In saying this, Shivani seems blissfully unaware that such examples -- bike lanes, a vibrant local business scene -- are luxuries that many longtime residents of gentrified areas only get to enjoy right before they're priced out of their homes.
Shivani really takes things over the top, though, when he offers up a solution for the disruption to his area, which involves focusing on actually poor neighborhoods while leaving his well enough alone.
"If the city were truly interested in broadening the tax base and making it a metropolis with lasting appeal, it would focus on improving the old neighborhoods outside the 610 loop," he says. He goes on to suggest that the city "save the neighborhoods that need to be saved and leave those that are doing great alone."
But should they not, says Shivani, "the final indignity is that while only a part of the street is to be used for the high-rise, all the rest of us have received summary eviction notices. This is gratuitous violence against helpless tenants." Helpless tenants facing gratuitous violence at the hands of developers in Upper Kirby, no less.
Shivani closes out his argument by saying that "Houston cannot become a mature city until it introduces equality between the business elite and the low-wage workers who have been exploited since the city's formation."
While we certainly don't disagree, it's still hard to jump on Shivani's gentrification tugboat here. After all, we aren't really sure who Shivani is talking about when he says "low-wage workers."
Are these exploited parties the same low-wage workers he suggested should have their neighborhoods ravaged by eager developers in exchange for his neighborhood? Or are they those exploited low-wage workers he so adamantly claims to not be a part of? After all, he's no welfare recipient or -- God forbid -- homeless person.
Nope, in Shivani's gentrification book, "low-wage worker" means the still-privileged resident of Steel Street in Upper Kirby, who stands to lose a luxury townhome to the development of even more luxury townhomes.
The injustice of the redevelopment of Steel Street -- if "injustice" is what you really want to call it -- is hardly interchangeable with actual gentrification. In cases of true gentrification, the displaced aren't allotted options, and they are certainly not allowed a forum like Alternet to air their grievances.
Just ask some of the original residents of the East End or Oak Forest, where gentrification is actually happening. You might not find too many of them commenting on Shivani's article or blogging in solidarity, though. Perhaps they're too busy working and trying to find a rent that's feasible for their low-income, welfare-recipient asses to care.