Gentrification and the struggle for Latin American Cities: Interview with Michael Janoschka

A translation of an interview from Spanish…parts of it are circuitous and I apologize. I suppose this is part of what happens when I start with an interview that seems to have been conducted in Spanish (or perhaps German?), rather than the one with David Harvey that was surely conducted in English beforehand. In any case, enjoy.

Gentrification and the struggle for Latin American Cities: Interview with Michael Janoschka


December 17, 2014

Quito, Ecuador

Right to the City (RTC): One hears much talk of the term “gentrification.” Not only in academia, but also in the media and now also from social movements. We know that it is a fairly broad concept, but I would like to briefly know, what do you understand by gentrification?

Michael Janoschka (MJ): Processes of gentrification involve four aspects: (1) the invasion of capital in a particular space, in a specific neighborhood; (2) the physical and symbolic transformation of this space by this invasion; (3) the arrival of higher income people in this urban space, and this involves the fourth and most important space, which is (4) the displacement or the expulsion of popular classes, or of more humble people, from this neighborhood or this specific space. And that is fundamental when we speak of gentrification: we have to emphasize the expulsion and the displacement of people, of subjectivities, of forms of coexisting, of forms of appropriating space, and with this focus on the injustices that are occurring in cities today. For example, the term “gentrification” has a sentinment and presents an articulation necessary to politicize urban studies, and to guide the fight for the city in Latin American cities: recalling the expulsion. Therefore those who say that there can be gentrification without expulsion are simply neutering the term by depoliticizing it, and with that are dismantling mechanisms that they have been given to empower the population. And I believe that the term “gentrification” with nuances that we have developed in Latin America, can be a powerful tool to strengthen, to encourage, struggles for housing, the struggles for the city in Latin American cities.

RTC: Since you mentioned this link of gentrification with urban struggles, and in reference to an article of yours written with Antoine Casgrain, which said that there was almost inherent in the processes of gentrification the processes of de-gentrification or anti-gentrification. In this sense, does a strong link exist between processes of gentrification, social exclusion and urban struggles?

MJ: It is important to recognize that the processes of gentrification in Latin American cities are not what have occurred in the last 40 years in the Anglo-Saxon world. What is interesting about this point is that it goes beyond the housing market and the land market. Wherein, for example, one of the effects that interests me is symbolically gentrifying the historic downtowns, where there is a symbolic exlusion, a control of public space, an expulsion of street vendors. It is all a series of mechanisms and devices of control that involve the symbolic domination of the powerful classes over the popular classes in urban space. These processes are also involved, and if we look at the social structuration of Latin American societies, it is significantly different than what occurs in the Anglo-Saxon world. These processes also involve the reception of neoliberal policies of gentrification acting in State policies, which try to transform neighborhoods into exclusive spaces influenced jointly by economic capital. This is manifested differently in Latin America and causes rejections on the part of popular classes over everything, that are markedly more important than what occurs in North American, English, or Australian cities. Therefore, it is extremely important to look at the unique form of struggle, of resistance to gentrification, because the processes of gentrification do not occur as linearly and as easily in Latin American cities as in the Anglo-Saxon world, and with that there is a hope that can stop or reverse the neoliberal policies deployed in these places. So it seems very important to me to rethink our roles as researchers, to become part of these struggles, to think how these struggles could result in examples of resistance to gentrification – and that is something fundamental when we think about processes of gentrification in Latin America, contextualized and working in conjunction with those who are trying to resist the processes of expulsion in their own neighborhoods.

RTC: The adoption of the term “gentrification” in Latin America is often realized in a critical form. Some intellectuals resist the very use of the Anglo-Saxon term y propose terms like “ennoblement,” “whitening,” and “elitization” to differentiate between the processes that occur in the Global South and North. What would then be the differences between “gentrification” and Latin American “gentrificación.”

MJ: Well, in our investigation we analyze a series of differences. One is what I mentioned, the symbolic gentrification, which is totally fundamental to understand the processes of contemporary urban transformation: all that means the symbolic rearticulation of the center of the city in almost all Latin American cities. Second, all the processes of resistance. Third, the question of commerce as a fundamental aspect in the reworking of political strategies that serve to gentrify the city. Fourth, the very attitude of the State, the way in which they are assembled, how they develop the neoliberal policies that prepare the city for gentrification through large urban projects like the San Roque market here in Quito, through mini-interventions that transform the possibility to adapt urban space, or through the massive interventions like the renovation of public space, the renovation of State buildings, and involving a starting point for privatization. Lastly, the form in relationships between the formal and the informal are changing in the city. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, we study how the formation of new real estate markets – that is to say, the formalization of the land tenure in the favelas – involves the profound transformation of these spaces with the subsequent expulsion of some people of lesser economic means, especially in the most central favelas. And this is associated with the construction of a model of social housing in Latin America, and it is one of the major disasters that have been produced in the last decade, because it involves extreme residential separation of distinct layers of the population, a caging of the popular classes in prefabricated houses as if they were hens. And this is the commodification of a necessary good – housing. That is one of the aspects that is intimately related with gentrification because in the end, the spaces which the people move to are social housing projects at the ultra periphery. Often people were expelled from more central areas. And that is a production of spatial injustice through the market, that should shock us, because in the end, what type of social contract can we ask from a person that we send 70 kilometers to the periphery, and that we cage with all their family in social housing of poor quality – of 40 square meters – not respecting subjective production of habitat, and production without the appropriation of space by the population and the desires of the people? What type of social contract can we ask for later?

RTC: Just to end, what is the link between gentrification and the right to the city?

MJ: I remember years ago that there were many people asking why should we use the term gentrification and not others. And a key event for me was when I went to Santiago, Chile a few years ago where the “Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha” (MPL) approached me and begin to use the term gentrification in a clear form, a “street” from, without knowing well how to apply it in the struggle, and they asked me to systematize this term. And I said, sure, that the concept grounds social movements and can apply in this case, where the MPL intervenes in the construction industry using the word “gentrification,” making very strong visual representations and winning a referendum against the drastic transformation of the commune of Peñalolen – which could stop a series of exclusive real estate developments that would have meant the expulsion of many natives of this commune. If social movements use this term, why should there be resistance on the part of researchers? Then the relationship that you have asked me about, how do the concepts of gentrification and the question of the right to the city relate, I believe is it is important to highlight that the intentions of both concepts and discourses is to make the injustices of global capitalism visible, and to claim the creation of another society and another form of creating cities. They try to show that the city is not simply a mixture of buildings which is ruled by the law of the market, and where real estate businesses can appropriate the surplus value of everything, but that they are spaces inhabited by human being that have the need to create a city different from the city planned by the real estate market. Both terms, I believe, help to politicize this struggle, and to show these struggles win a social transformation appealing to self-organization, appealing to the responsibility of the state, and creating another model of the city, which is extremely necessary.

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