How to Kill a City

Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood


By PE Moskowitz

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A journey to the front lines of the battle for the future of American cities, uncovering the massive, systemic forces behind gentrification — and the lives that are altered in the process.

The term gentrification has become a buzzword to describe the changes in urban neighborhoods across the country, but we don’t realize just how threatening it is. It means more than the arrival of trendy shops, much-maligned hipsters, and expensive lattes. The very future of American cities as vibrant, equitable spaces hangs in the balance.

Peter Moskowitz’s How to Kill a City takes readers from the kitchen tables of hurting families who can no longer afford their homes to the corporate boardrooms and political backrooms where destructive housing policies are devised. Along the way, Moskowitz uncovers the massive, systemic forces behind gentrification in New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York. The deceptively simple question of who can and cannot afford to pay the rent goes to the heart of America’s crises of race and inequality. In the fight for economic opportunity and racial justice, nothing could be more important than housing.

A vigorous, hard-hitting expose, How to Kill a City reveals who holds power in our cities-and how we can get it back.



When I returned to New York from college, I found myself belonging to two groups of people: the gentrified and the gentrifiers. I'd grown up in the West Village, just a few blocks from where journalist and activist Jane Jacobs wrote her pro-urban treatise The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. Jacobs's book was a 400-page meditation on what made the Village great—its small, varied streetscapes; its diversity of profession, class, and race; its inherent eclecticism. Jacobs argued that every other city in the United States should try to emulate its success by encouraging the creation of small shops over big ones, small streets over grand avenues, and varying sizes of apartment buildings and town houses over huge complexes.

But when I came back from college, the Village looked a lot different from the egalitarian wonderland described by Jacobs. The Chinese restaurant my family would order from at least once a week had closed to make way for a Capital One bank. My favorite pizza place had become a high-end grocery store. The video store where my brother worked in high school had turned into an upscale clothier that seemed to only sell a few really expensive items at a time (that store then closed; it was followed by a store that seems to only sell a few children's toys at a time, all made out of wood). The queer scene on Christopher Street, just a few blocks from my parents' house and once one of the most famous gay streets in America, had been priced out and policed into blandness. The middle-income housing on the surrounding blocks had been converted into market-rate condos. Bleecker Street, once filled with antique stores, had been overtaken by chains such as Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, and Coach.

Now, in place of buildings that reminded me of my childhood, stood beacons of wealth unprecedented in the neighborhood. Three glass buildings designed by "starchitect" Richard Meier, taller than anything around them, had sprung up a block from my parents' house. And right across the street from my old house, a former artist's loft and garage had been topped with pink stucco condos and rechristened "Palazzo Chupi." When the building opened for sales in 2008, apartments sold for upward of $25 million.

My parents' building was different too. Every month, another apartment seemed to start renovation. Playwrights, artists, and midlevel professionals were moving out, replaced with bankers and businesspeople who were hostile to the old set of residents. People no longer held the front door for each other. People no longer said hi on the elevator. I no longer recognized our neighbors. I started giving stern looks to everyone I passed in my building. The sense of community that had made the West Village feel like home for me and my parents—and that had inspired Jane Jacobs over fifty years earlier—was gone.

What had happened between 1961 and now? Or even between the 1980s, when my parents first moved to the neighborhood, and now? The Village Jacobs wrote about is all but gone, and a new one that looks like a funhouse version of its former self has replaced it. A lot of the people are gone too, forced out because they could no longer afford sky-high rents. An average one-bedroom in the West Village now rents for about $4,000 a month. If you walk down the quiet, tree-lined blocks of the West Village on a weekday, you're bound to see several construction crews gutting former multifamily homes and turning them into mega-mansions. In September 2014, a Texas oil heiress sold a 12,000-square-foot "fortress-like" townhome to an unidentified buyer for $42.5 million just blocks from Jacobs's former home. Jacobs's small town house now houses a real estate office. The Village is less racially diverse today too—about 90 percent of its residents are white. The only area consistently less diverse in Manhattan is the Upper East Side.

New Yorkers tend to complain about changes in neighborhoods such as the Village by focusing on the fact that they are no longer "cool" parts of town. But to Jacobs, places like the Village weren't just cool; they proved that cities could be run with little government intervention and could foster equality without much help. According to Jacobs, the small shops, cheap rent that attracted artists and writers, varied street lengths, and mixed-use zoning policies not only made for interesting people-watching but also made a neighborhood work as a closed system. The shopkeepers weren't only business owners, they were an unpaid police force, watching out for crime and making sure kids walking alone to school got there safely; a pedestrian-friendly block not only meant a good place to walk, it meant the creation of a place where strangers could interact and come up with new ideas and new destinies for each other; a variety of types of buildings, from new luxury apartments to old tenements, meant that a diverse group of people could afford to live in one neighborhood and not be segregated by income and race.

If the neighborhood once heralded as the best example of a place that fosters diversity and equality could become one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the United States and one of the least diverse in New York, what does that say about the future of American cities? And what happened to the people who were left out of the new and rarefied West Village?

When I decided to move back to New York, I knew the West Village would be too expensive, so I began looking elsewhere. I soon realized that even studio apartments in Manhattan were unaffordable for a young journalist, so I looked in the outer boroughs. For a year I lived with my boyfriend in Astoria, Queens, then in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, then at the border of Williamsburg and Bushwick.

In each place I could tell something similar was going on, only now I was on the other side of it. There seemed to be two worlds living on top of each other—a set of stores, bars, and restaurants visited by me and my friends, and a set visited by the residents there before us. When I saw the scowls on my new neighbors' faces, I imagined that they felt the same way about us as my parents and I did about the new faces in the West Village.

At first this process seemed so new and so odd that I couldn't tell what was happening. Things were changing. Things were tense. But they seemed indescribable. White friends moving deeper and deeper into Brooklyn seemed to be less and less comfortable with their decisions, but still unable to prevent themselves from making them. I knew what was happening to New York was part of something immense—you could see how huge it was just by looking at any given block from year to year. Yet there wasn't really a language to describe it. And then this word started being tossed around in news articles, in Facebook rants, at bars where my old friends and I would complain about the new New York: gentrification.

By the early 2010s nearly everyone had heard of the term, and nearly no one had a precise definition, but it nonetheless adequately described what was happening: the displacement, the loss of culture, the influx of wealth and whiteness into New York's neighborhoods. The images I saw and stories I heard both first- and secondhand started to form a coherent picture: friends moving out of the city and heading to Austin or Philly or Los Angeles, shuttered bodegas and laundromats in every neighborhood, the new banks that replaced them, the new neighbors, and the Kickstarter campaigns by people seeking the assistance of housing lawyers and a little help with rent were all part of the phenomenon described by the word.

I was in some ways a victim of the process, priced out of the neighborhood I grew up in, but I also knew I was relatively privileged, and a walk through Bushwick or Bed-Stuy confirmed that—seeing the old, dilapidated apartment buildings under renovation, with windows boarded up and signs out front proclaiming the building's new owners, on block after block. I knew people were being kicked out. It became clear that for most poor New Yorkers, gentrification wasn't about some ethereal change in neighborhood character. It was about mass evictions, about violence, about the decimation of decades-old cultures.

But the reporting I'd seen on gentrification focused on the new things happening in these neighborhoods—the high-end pizza joints and coffee shops, the hipsters, the fashion trends. In some ways that made sense: it's hard to report on a void, on something that's now missing. It's much easier to report on the new than on the displaced. But at the end of the day, that's what gentrification is: a void in a neighborhood, in a city, in a culture. In that way, gentrification is a trauma, one caused by the influx of massive amounts of capital into a city and the consequent destruction following in its wake.

If I was going to be complicit in this process, I wanted to know what was really going on.

When you consider the scope of the problem, it becomes clear that gentrification is not a fad or a trend. Hipsters and yuppies have more buying power than the neighbors they often displace, but individual actors cannot control housing markets and remake cities on their own. The graphic designer with a penchant for organic coffee who lives in Brooklyn is not conspiring with the multimedia artist from San Francisco who loves kombucha. Gentrification cannot be fully explained by developers either: while they might have similar interests, the part-time house flipper who owns five houses in New Orleans and the condo owner in Detroit do not coordinate policy with each other. There's a losing side and a winning side in gentrification, but both sides are playing the same game, though they are not its designers. It's not a coincidence that cities with disparate economies, demographics, and geographies—Nashville and Miami, Portland and Louisville, Austin and Cleveland, Philadelphia and Los Angeles—are all simultaneously undergoing the same process.

Gentrification is not about individual acts; it's about systemic violence based on decades of racist housing policy in the United States that has denied people of color, especially black people, access to the same kinds of housing, and therefore the same levels of wealth, as white Americans. Gentrification cannot happen without this deeply rooted inequality; if we were all equal, there could be no gentrifier and no gentrified, no perpetrator or victim. Gentrification is also the inevitable result of a political system focused more on the creation and expansion of business opportunity than on the well-being of its citizens (what I refer to as neoliberalism). With little federal funding for housing, transportation, or anything else, American cities are now forced to rely completely on their tax base to pay for basic services, and the richer a city's tax base, the easier those services are to fund. That can mean attracting the wealthy to cities, actively pushing out the poor (who are a drain on taxes), or both. The latter seems to be the preferred one in most cities these days.

Different cities gentrify in different ways, but they are nonetheless taking part in the same process. And that process is so predictable that back in 1979 MIT urban studies professor Phillip Clay laid out the distinct stages of gentrification. First, a few "pioneering" gentrifiers move into a neighborhood, followed by a rush of more gentrifiers. Then corporations such as real estate companies and chain retail stores, seeing an opportunity to profit from the arrival of the pioneers, become the main actors in a neighborhood. It's not that corporations are necessarily conspiring to overpower the pioneers, but because corporate buying power is so much greater than that of individuals, gentrification inevitably leads to corporate control of neighborhoods. Finally, in Clay's stages, the process becomes completely top-down, wherein the only entities powerful enough to change and hypergentrify an already gentrified landscape are corporations and their political allies. I'd also add that there's a precursor to all of these stages in which a municipality opens itself up to gentrification through zoning, tax breaks, and branding power. This preparatory phase is rarely seen or talked about because it happens so long before most people witness gentrification in action, but this stage is crucial to understanding gentrification.

In New Orleans, Stage 0 was Hurricane Katrina. The city used the opportunity presented by the storm's destruction of poor and African American neighborhoods to attract white people and investment. Gentrification in New Orleans was happening before Katrina, but the storm kicked it into high gear. Between 2000 and 2010, the black population in the city's "hippest" neighborhood, Bywater, declined by 64 percent; it's hard to know exactly how much of this shift happened after Katrina hit the city in 2005, because there's no census data from right before the storm, but most experts agree the majority of the population shift happened after Katrina. Given that New Orleans has had more than a decade to see the effects of that shift, it's a good place to start exploring gentrification: the disaster and its aftermath allow you to see the entire process from start to finish.

In Detroit, Stage 0 was the city's declaration of bankruptcy in 2013, which enabled it to find other ways to profit in the wake of declining industry. Detroit cut services to the poor while spending billions to attract gentrifiers. One might not think gentrification would be an issue in a city that once housed about two and a half times as many people as it does now, but in Detroit it has taken a unique form of concurrent prioritizing and deprioritizing: the city's downtown, Midtown, and Corktown neighborhoods have all experienced economic resurgence thanks to corporations pouring billions into infrastructure and real estate projects, but the rest of the city is crumbling. Rents in these three areas have increased by up to 10 percent a year, and some buildings are asking $2 a square foot for rentals, about 60 percent higher than what most apartments rented for just a few years ago.

Most people put the start of New York City's gentrification, its phase 0, in the 1970s or 1980s, when the city nearly went bankrupt thanks to a declining industrial sector and "white flight." But in fact, New York's policy makers have for nearly a hundred years been planting the seeds for a rich, real estate–focused, anti-industrial city. In a sense, this means New York's leaders were better planners: they were able to foresee the realities of a new, consumption-based US urban economy years before most, and so they made sure New York was first in line to benefit from it by making way for financial and real estate capital. They did so by gutting the city's older industries, which kept its poor and middle-class residents employed and adequately housed. Though the foresight of New York's planners presented an opportunity to design the city more equitably, that was never part of their mission. They were backed by financial institutions and real estate capital, and so their explicit goal was to inflate their backers' bank accounts. New York's decades-long gentrification history also means we can see its worst effects here: rents have risen out of reach of everyone but the wealthiest.

San Francisco is an outlier—it did not experience an economic crash that became an excuse to reorient policy to the same extent that the other three cities did, nor did it have much in the way of an industrial economy that needed to be gutted in order for it to be filled in with a bourgeois consumption-based economy. Instead, a surging tech industry pushed its way into the city (with help from its government) and rapidly transformed everything around it. Because this gold rush economy forced San Francisco to gentrify so rapidly and completely, the Bay Area is maybe the best place to peek into the future of the gentrified economy and find out what happens when the poor have literally nowhere to live in a city. The answer, as the Bay Area shows, is that they move to the suburbs, where they are underserved by jobs, transit, and community services. Across the United States, but especially in megalopolises such as the New York region and the Bay Area, the suburbs are booming with the displaced. The poverty rate in the suburbs, which for decades rose at a rate similar to poverty in cities, began quickly surpassing urban poverty after the year 2000.

Gentrification is the most transformative urban phenomenon of the last half century, yet we talk about it nearly always on the level of minutiae. Every week there's a new slew of articles about the "next Brooklyn" or the "next Williamsburg." The word hipster has become a kind of shorthand to describe the rapid changes many cities are experiencing. "The Hipsterfication of America," went one National Public Radio headline from 2011. "Brooklyn: The Brand" was the title of an article in the New York Times's T Magazine detailing the "Brooklynizing" of the world. The New York Times came to rely so heavily on this Brooklynization-of-the-world narrative that its stylebook editor, Philip B. Corbett, chastised its newsroom for the overuse of the word hipster in 2010 and its overzealous comparisons of everyplace to Brooklyn in 2014.

The hipster narrative about gentrification isn't necessarily inaccurate—young people are indeed moving to cities and opening craft breweries and wearing tight clothing—but it is misleading in its myopia. Someone who learned about gentrification solely through newspaper articles might come away believing that gentrification is just the culmination of several hundred thousand people's individual wills to open coffee shops and cute boutiques, grow mustaches and buy records. But those are the signs of gentrification, not its causes.

As geographer Neil Smith wrote in his landmark book on the topic, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City, "If cultural choice and consumer preference really explain gentrification, this amounts either to the hypothesis that individual preferences change in unison not only nationally but internationally—a bleak view of human nature and cultural individuality—or that the overriding constraints are strong enough to obliterate the individuality implied in consumer preference. If the latter is the case, the concept of consumer preference is at best contradictory." In other words, gentrification is not a fluke or an accident. Gentrification is a system that places the needs of capital (both in terms of city budget and in terms of real estate profits) above the needs of people.

We talk about gentrification at the interpersonal level because that's how we see it in our daily lives—rents mysteriously rise, an art gallery opens one day, then hipsters follow. But in every gentrifying city there are always events, usually hidden from public view, that precede these street-level changes. The policies that cause cities to gentrify are crafted in the offices of real estate moguls and in the halls of city government. The coffee shop is the tip of the iceberg.

If we want to have any hope of fixing this process—of ensuring that as our cities change, low-income people can stay; that the people who built our cities aren't relegated to its outskirts, pushed to communities where community is hard to come by and basic services are lacking—we have to understand what's actually going on.

I've chosen to write about the four cities in this book—New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York—because each provides an important counterpoint to the media's narrative of gentrification as the product of cultural and consumer choice. In all four, specific policies were put in place that allowed the cities to become more favorable to the accumulation of capital and less favorable to the poor. New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York gentrified not because of the wishes of a million gentrifiers but because of the wishes of just a few hundred public intellectuals, politicians, planners, and heads of corporations. By identifying these players, their policies, and their effects, I hope to make clear that gentrification is not inevitable, that it is perhaps even stoppable, or at the very least manageable.

When we think of gentrification as some mysterious process, we accept its consequences: the displacement of countless thousands of families, the destruction of cultures, the decreased affordability of life for everyone. I hope this book is a counterweight to hopelessness about the future of urban America that enables readers to see cities are shaped by powerful interests, and that if we identify those interests, we can begin to reshape cities in our own design.

Part 1

New Orleans


Hanging On

The first thing you need to know about New Orleans is that neighborhoods in New Orleans do not work like neighborhoods everywhere else. In other cities, the rich and poor live in completely different parts of town—highways, train tracks, and other vestiges of racist urban planning ensure that the rich and poor sections of cities hardly ever mix. Here, water from the Mississippi is a constant threat, so the rich live where the land is highest, and the poor live in the valleys. That has given New Orleans a chaotic topography of inequality.

For decades, the high blocks with grand houses—St. Charles, Magazine, Esplanade—hid behind them a lowland filled with dilapidated shotguns that housed New Orleans's working class. It used to be that tourists could crawl along St. Charles Avenue on one of the city's historic-looking streetcars, gawk at 4,000-square-foot, hundred-year-old mansions sitting atop manicured lawns, and never know that if they ventured just fifty feet beyond the avenue to the north, they'd see a neighborhood that looks nothing like the New Orleans of tourist brochures and Hollywood movies. It would be easy to drive, walk, bike, or take a streetcar from the bars on Frenchmen Street through the Disneyfied French Quarter and along Magazine Street or St. Charles Avenue and never realize that just beyond these streets lie the people the city has neglected for so long.

These neighborhoods, tucked behind the ones we usually picture when we imagine New Orleans, were poor and filled with culture and community. Tremé, Bywater, Mid-City, Central City, the Upper Ninth Ward, the Lower Ninth Ward, Uptown, and Carrollton were the places where most New Orleanians lived: the musicians, the second-liners, the undervalued laborers scrubbing the banisters of hotels.

But gentrification has challenged those geographic maxims. The rich crests of the city can no longer hold the rich, who are venturing beyond their traditional redoubts. Nearly every neighborhood in the city abutting the Mississippi River gained white residents in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Those neighborhoods—the French Quarter, Central Business District, Bywater, Marigny, Garden District, Irish Channel, and parts of Uptown—have for decades created a kind of teapot shape of whiteness within the city, but between 2000 and 2010, Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella noted the teapot had both "broadened and internally whitened." The change could be seen on nearly every street, as new arbiters of hipness—coffee shops, boutiques, art galleries—bloomed on blocks with houses still devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

As the city celebrated its new life, nearly no one in power—the mayor, the governor, council people—seemed to care about the tens of thousands of black people who never returned. When I interviewed African Americans who left New Orleans after the storm, they told me they're afraid to go back because it feels like a different city, like it's no longer theirs, and in many ways they are right.

National newspapers and magazines have now taken an interest in the city, experiencing it, in the words of the New York Times, "with fresh eyes and ears." They've profiled ad nauseum the new, nearly all white artists, actors, musicians, and chefs who populate the city's gentrifying neighborhoods. New Orleans, according to these publications, is filled with magic hedonism and is just begging to be explored. "In New Orleans success is measured by how unhinged you can get," one musician told the Times. But the city isn't quite as gentrified as Los Angeles or New York. "New Orleans is not cosmopolitan," one actress said. "There's no kale here."

With its narrative rejiggered from one of poverty and death into one of resurgence, New Orleans could start anew. City officials and other supporters of the change went on a PR war in an attempt to convince the world and the city's residents that all the new people, the new restaurants, and the old streets and old neighborhoods given new names (or just rechristened with the word new in front of their old names, as in "the new Freret Street" and "new Marigny") mean that New Orleans, ten years after Hurricane Katrina, is back—back from the destruction that drove out half of the city's population, back from economic collapse.

To be sure, the economy is doing better, and the population is approaching pre-storm levels. But back is the wrong word, because the people here now are in large part not the same people who lived here before the storm. New Orleans lost more than half its entire population, an exodus of 254,000 people, thanks to the man-made failures that allowed a slow-moving but relatively weak hurricane with an eye that missed New Orleans to decimate the city. When it came back, it came back differently: New Orleans used to be 67 percent black and only a quarter white. Now white people make up 30 percent of the city, while the black population doesn't seem to be returning at the same rate, accounting for just 60 percent of the population, according to the 2010 Census. That change—67 percent to 60 percent—might seem like a modest one, but when you crunch the numbers the human toll is clear: by 2010, the city's white population had just about returned to its pre-Katrina levels, while today approximately 100,000 black people are still missing from New Orleans.

The city's priorities have been made obvious by the fact that while officials have gone on media tours celebrating the economic growth of the city ten years after the storm, the local government (along with its federal and state counterparts) has stopped tracking or even talking about its still-exiled population. From what little research there is, we know that diaspora includes tens of thousands currently living in Houston and other cities in Texas. We know others have relocated to small towns throughout Louisiana or far-flung places such as Utah and New York. But their vanishing still haunts black communities in New Orleans today.

I've heard the words colonization, occupation, and genocide used to describe what happened here after Katrina. That might seem dramatic to outsiders, but what else can you call a set of policies that in their effect, and oftentimes seemingly in their intent, kicked out a small city's worth of black people? What can you call a set of policies that encourages the white and moneyed to come in their place? The answers would seem conspiratorial if they weren't so well documented in local newspaper articles from right after the storm, which detailed politicians and businessmen railing against the old New Orleans and sounding excited to usher in a new era. "It took the storm of a lifetime to create the opportunity of a lifetime," then governor Kathleen Blanco said a few weeks after the storm. "We must not let it pass us by."

What else do you call a coordinated attempt by thought leaders, politicians, and business interests to radically change an entire city "demographically, geographically and politically," as one real estate maven put it, except a deliberate attempt to gentrify?


  • "[An] exacting look at gentrification in New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco and New York, exposing how large institutions-goverments, businesses, foundations-influence street-level processes that might appear as organic as the coffee shop's dark roast. ... How to Kill a City elucidates the complex interplay between the forces we control and those that control us."—New York Times Book Review
  • "Moskowitz is a talented and impassioned writer...[H]e pokes, prods and listens. He finds holes in official stories and gifted storytellers among people who have been steamrolled."—San Francisco Chronicle
  • "Movingly conveys [gentrification's] emotional and sometimes tragic toll as he highlights its stark racial realities in Detroit, San Francisco, New York and New Orleans."—Washington Post
  • "Gentrification takes a community's personal tragedy, loss and destruction, and monetizes it. Understanding how this happens, and how individuals may unwittingly find themselves a part of it is what makes Moskowitz's book so important. It isn't a lesson about what happened, it's a warning about what is happening now."— Truthout
  • "How to Kill a City is a convincing and persuasive argument that the U.S. has a serious problem with affordable housing that is not going away any time soon."—Booklist
  • "Moskowitz...pulls no punches in his depiction of gentrification...He paints a vivid and grim picture of the future of American cities."—Kirkus
  • "A fascinating analysis of late-stage gentrification in which corporate control of cities renders them uninhabitable to most people. Showing how gentrifiers exploit 'someone else's loss' as a consequence of long histories of racist policy, Peter Moskowitz calls for a global movement against this 'new form of segregation,' defining housing as a human right rooted in community instead of real estate profit."—Sarah Schulman, author of Gentrification of the Mind and The Cosmopolitans
  • "Peter Moskowitz offers a smartly written and fiercely logical indictment of city governments for selling out longtime residents to aggressive developers and rich investors, and calling it growth. This book is a wake-up call to communities to say no to state-sponsored gentrification and join together to resist their own demise."—Sharon Zukin, author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places
  • "A forceful critique of gentrification and its impact on disempowered members of American society."—Library Journal
  • "When it comes to housing and urban development, as with other aspects of American life, Moskowitz makes clear that the heft of one's purse and the color of one's skin are determinative. How to Kill a City is an indictment of a system that places making a home for capital above making homes for people."—Santa Barbara Independent

On Sale
Sep 4, 2018
Page Count
288 pages
Bold Type Books

PE Moskowitz

About the Author

P. E. Moskowitz is the author of How to Kill a City. A former staff writer for Al Jazeera America, they have written for publications including the Guardian, New York Times,, New Republic, Wired, Slate, Buzzfeed, Splinter, and Vice. A graduate of Hampshire College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, they live in New Orleans.

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