Peter Moskowitz has written for publications including the Atlantic and Vice. His new book is “How to Kill A City.” Moskowitz, who is from Manhattan, tells host Robert Scheer he now finds his hometown and other cities such as San Francisco homogenous and boring, in large part because of gentrification; to live in these cities many people have to change their priorities and choose only lucrative careers. Rather than being a cure for poverty and homelessness, gentrification just pushes those problems out of view. Scheer and Moskowitz discuss the idea that housing should be considered a human right, and agree that in the 1940s and 1950s public housing did not have the stigma it carries today.
RS: Hi, it’s Robert Scheer again with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I have to make the point, out of fear of being considered an egomaniac, that the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Peter Moskowitz, who has written a terrific book about gentrification, which he will discuss. And I just want to say something, he’s only 28 years old. He went to a great school [to] get his master’s, [City University of New York], my alma mater. And I’m always thrilled to see someone succeed and be an important intellectual coming out of that environment, because we had many fine graduates. The reason we’re doing this podcast is I went to hear Peter in downtown LA–we’re now doing this from San Francisco, another city very heavily hit by gentrification, the subject of his book. But I went to hear Peter talk; I really didn’t know much about the book. And it was in downtown LA on Fifth and Broadway, or Fifth and Spring, The Last Bookstore. And I thought there wouldn’t be many people there; I’m an author myself, I’m used to showing up at bookstores and not having large crowds. And I got there pretty early, though, and wanted to get an ice cream across the street in our gentrifying downtown, and I found a line around the block. I thought, well, this is wrong; this must be a rock concert or something, or they’re making a movie, you know? And I couldn’t get a seat; I got in, and I first had to stand until people realized I’m an old guy and there should be a seat that I could have. And then even when I got out, when it was over, there was a line to hear you. Now, I know this isn’t an everyday experience; there’s a lot of struggle about gentrification in Los Angeles. But let me begin that. First of all, give us the history and title and everything of your book, which I’ve neglected to do, and talk a little bit about why you wrote it and the response you’re getting, which is really quite sensational, I think.
PM: Thanks for having me on. The book, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, published by Nation Books, which is a member of the Hachette Book Group. I decided to write this book because I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand to understand gentrification in a deeper way than we’ve usually seen it presented. You know, if you read The New York Times, or if you read The Atlantic or, you know, all these mainstream publications, you see stories about hipsters, you see stories about the next Williamsburg, you see stories about craft beer in downtowns and, you know, where the next hot spot is to move. You don’t hear about race, you don’t hear about housing history, you don’t hear about capitalism, you don’t hear about the class issues that go into the reasons that everyone’s rent seems to be rising, doubling every couple of years. So I was really dismayed that there wasn’t a better explanation of what gentrification actually was, and what it could actually do. And so that’s why I decided to write the book. And I think when you see the response that it’s getting, you know, not to brag or anything, but every event I’ve been to has been kind of packed.
RS: And packed with this audience that does not normally go to bookstores to hear talks: young people. Yeah.
PM: Right, yeah. Yeah, I mean, it’s been a diverse audience age-wise, and in other ways too. But it definitely has skewed young, and I think that just shows how much this issue is affecting people, and how little there is in terms of a way to understand what’s happening.
RS: Yeah, let me point out, the reason we’re doing this interview today from San Francisco, Sports Byline, is that you just appeared at the book festival, the Bay Area Book Festival; a terrific event that’s in its third year in Berkeley. And it was commented on at the panel discussion that the audience was far and away the youngest audience for the whole book festival. And that thrilled a lot of people who think books are dead and young people don’t care; well, they care a great deal. So I want to begin there, with what I think is the real significance of your book. And I think authors sometimes underestimate how important their work is. I happen to, I’ve heard you speak now a couple of times, and I actually think you’re underplaying the importance of your book, because I think it’s the big issue of our time. And it’s the issue–I would retitle your book; I would call it, Dead End for the Meritocracy. Or No Exit From the Meritocracy. That, to my mind, would be a more appropriate title. But, yes, How to Kill a City is true. But what the city traditionally meant was a place of mixed income, background; that was what urban life was about. Let me explain myself, I grew up in the Bronx, New York; went to city college, was there in the Bronx living with my mother, who was a garment worker until I was 23 years old or something, and took the train to school. And now, ever since 1976 when I went to work for the LA Times, I started out living downtown so I could walk to the LA Times when there really wasn’t a downtown. [Laughs] And now, in the last 15 years, 16 years, I’ve returned to downtown, I teach at USC, and I was thrilled by some aspects of gentrification; I love the fact that I don’t have to go to a liquor store to buy a bottle of milk, you know? I love the fact, oh, we’ve got Whole Foods in! Well, first we got Ralphs in–wow! We may even get Trader Joe’s! Everybody’s very excited, we’re getting movie theaters, and then of course we have the whole sports complex. And so, yes, there’s a positive side of gentrification, and we are finally getting some mass transit in LA, and so forth and so on. What we are in danger of losing, and that’s what I’ve experienced with the crowd that came to hear you, is the great thing about a city, which is the mixing of people, the mixing of people; and you feel, we’re doing this broadcast from San Francisco; my God, this thing is becoming a Monopoly game, it’s an atrocity. You know, one high-rise after another, destroying–this was a honky-tonk town! I lived here a half century ago; this was a great town, but it was honky-tonk. You could, you know, meet all kinds of characters, it was known for its characters; now what is it known for? It’s known for, you know, Google executive buses and everything else. So I want to rename your book, and the purpose of this discussion; you can have other discussions with other interviewers, but I want to focus what I’ve learned from going to hear you in downtown LA, I talked to people sitting around me; I overheard their conversation. Basically, they were frustrated participants in the meritocracy. They all had graduated from some college which they thought was a good college. They all had a major they thought was going to help them have a good income. They all were participants, with very few exceptions, in the meritocracy. These were supposed winners. And yet, the reason I call it No Exit From the Meritocracy is they were now in a situation where they couldn’t even afford to live in downtown LA, whether it’s the arts district or the old financial district, the new living–because the rents keep getting jacked up. And then they’re thinking, maybe I took the wrong major! Maybe I didn’t, maybe I wasn’t crafty enough, maybe I should figure out how to go work for Google instead of for this nonprofit I’m working for. And what you have is an ordering of priorities. That you’re not going to be allowed to live in the center of excitement of the city unless you sell out.
RS: And really, your book is about the pressure to sell out and join a new elite, a new class system, of people; the new class, not necessarily from birth, or it’s heavily influenced by privilege and wealth and race and everything else; the new class is, who can best perform for the masters of the new universe? Who can jump the highest and go fetch the ball?
PM: Right. And, yeah, I think you hit on it with the phrase, you know, “reordering of priorities.” Gentrification doesn’t even necessarily have to mean a one-to-one displacement, you know, like one rich white person moves in and displaces a lower-income person. If you look at a place like Detroit, even, where there’s plenty of space to move in, you know, there’s square miles upon square miles of empty space. It’s still a reordering of priorities, the city essentially saying, these are the kinds of people we want here and these are the kinds of people we don’t want here. So if you look at downtown Detroit, at the 7.2 square miles that make up the greater downtown, that’s where all the investment’s going in; that’s where the city has partnered up with large corporations like Quicken Loans to give tax breaks to young professionals who work in the banking systems, who move downtown. And meanwhile, they’re cutting off–literally cutting off–other neighborhoods by cutting out street lights, by stopping garbage service. So I think that, to me, was one of the starkest examples of that reordering; you’re essentially saying, here’s who’s welcome in a city and here’s who’s not. And you know, obviously there are reasons people, especially young people, want to move to the cities. Cities are where culture is; cities, you know, you have mass transit, you have density, you have jobs in cities. But essentially what’s being said by city, state, and federal governments is if you want to live in these places, you have to play the game. You have to be rich, you have to care about life as if it were a commodity; you know, whether you can afford your apartment or your gym membership or whatever else. The more pressure you have economically on yourself, you know, if your rent’s $3,000 a month and your gym membership’s ex amount of money and you have to pay for parking and all that, the more you have to play that game to be professionalized, to be pro-capitalist, in order to just essentially continue living that life. So it’s kind of the urban form of keeping up with the Joneses, in that way.
RS: Peter Moskowitz. The book is called How to Kill a City. Let me just say something about why we should care whether cities are killed or not. And I think when you say “kill a city,” you don’t mean economically, because San Francisco is more and more prosperous and so forth; you really mean kill the spirit of a city.
RS: And let me just evoke, you’re only 28 [Laughs] and I’m 81. So let me evoke an image of your town. You grew up in, what, the West Village? Is that where you grew up?
PM: Yes, that was where I grew up.
RS: Yeah. It happened that my father was a knitter mechanic on Little West 12th Street.
PM: Oh, wow.
RS: Yeah, and actually had a stroke there, and ended up going, dragging himself up to the Bronx and then died at an, unfortunately, too young an age, when I was just in college. And I’ve visited that area a lot, and I’ve watched its progression; right now, there’s very fancy stores and designer clothes and all that stuff. And one of the points you make in your talks and in your book is that even the life you grew up with has disappeared. But when I think of New York, for me as a kid coming from the Bronx, I could encounter, just by–let me confess to a major crime. You could take a penny, put it on the trolley tracks, trolley went over it, you had a nickel slug, you could get on the train, even when I was eight years old, and go from the Bronx down to Manhattan. I could go to the Village. You could–that’s what’s the great thing, the life of a city was a varied life; it was a sophisticated life; you could see how the other half lived, you could–you know, oh, hear Greek being spoken, or Spanish, or you know, all over the bloody place. Now what you got is basically a lily-white, mostly, but yes you have token ethnic representation; and you have people mingling with the people that went to the elite colleges.
PM: Right, and that’s, it’s unavoidable. You know, when I looked around at my life in New York a few years ago, everyone around me worked in the same industry; everyone around me made the same amount of money; everyone around me, for the most part, was white, like me. And I thought, you know, I went to public school for my whole life in New York, and so obviously I had a diverse group of friends. And yeah, when I came back and I was, as an adult, I looked around and said, you know, what the hell happened? What happened to not only my city, but to my life? That diversity I cherished, which taught me so much, which gave me–you know, I have a little section in the book where I basically brag and say I’m a more interesting person because I grew up in New York. And when I go to the bars, the media mixers and all that kind of stuff, I’m bored; I’m bored of the city, I’m bored of New York, I’m bored of a lot of San Francisco. It’s a shame, these interesting, lively, diverse cities have been turned into shopping malls.
RS: Let me, first of all, reintroduce this. Because this is a book I want people to know about: How to Kill a City. And we’re really talking about how to kill a civilization, how to kill cultural diversity. And there’s no better example than the one offered in your book about what happened to New Orleans. New Orleans was, by many ways of reckoning, the most exciting, varied, interesting city in America; people went out of their way from all over the world to go to New Orleans, to hear the music, to encounter different cultures, whether it was a variant of the French, the Creole, the black community, the soul, and so forth. And you describe in the wake of Hurricane Katrina an effort to make New Orleans basically a kind of shopping mall.
PM: Yeah, New Orleans to me was the most surprising city to investigate, because the policies and the rhetoric put forth after Katrina, in terms of politicians wanting to gentrify the city, were so–it was so blatant. You know, they said, they gave press conferences being proud of what they were doing to this city; right after Katrina, Governor Kathleen Blanco at the time, said “It took the storm of a lifetime to create the opportunity of a lifetime.” There was a real estate investor who was on the transportation board in the city, who said “We don’t want the same people back here that were here before the storm.” David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, advocated keeping people out of the city. He said in a column in The New York Times that came out just a week after the storm, “If we allow the people to come back, New Orleans will become a crime-ridden, poor city again, so why would we allow that to happen?” Policymakers essentially followed that logic; they shut down every single New Orleans public school and turned them into charter schools. They fired every single unionized teacher and made them reapply for their jobs and new, non-unionized schools. They closed almost every single public housing project and replaced them with private housing. And agencies like FEMA were found to have not given enough money to African Americans to rebuild their houses, while giving the appropriate amounts of money to white communities in New Orleans. So if you look at the numbers now, it’s really jaw-dropping; the city, which is about 450,000 people and is back to its pre-storm population, has 100,000 fewer black people in it than it did before the storm.
RS: [omission]I want to introduce two ideas here. One, what can you do about it? And I think one thing that has happened is we lost an ideal we had, which is that housing–this came out of the New Deal, it came out of the Great Depression, when I was born. And it came out, you know–hey, it’s a human right to have decent housing. And it’s a part of the American experiment to have decent schools to go along with the decent housing. And it was reinforced by a notion that, you know, war veterans coming back, so there was a way you could buy housing and get into this, and so forth. And it was accompanied by public housing projects. And in your book and in one of your talks, you mention New York City still has 600,000, I believe is the figure, units of public housing. In New Orleans they eliminated public housing. Public housing was given a bad name largely by media coverage. I remember growing up as a kid, going to school in the Bronx, reading The New York Times, and increasingly hearing my community described as a failure. And then over the years as I left, you know, the Bronx was somehow a failure–no! The Bronx was a great center of life, the Bronx was exciting, the Bronx–you know, for me, my God, who else knew about Puerto Rican music? And who else ever met someone who had just come from Lithuania, or so forth? And it was a really incredible place, with great schools and everything else. And it was increasingly described as a disaster. And then there was “white flight,” there was movement emptying the city. And we had the, basically, burning down of the Bronx, looting and vandalism and so forth, and building a freeway through the Bronx, and everything else. And The New York Times and other papers kind of celebrated this. And when they didn’t celebrate, they ignored the carnage that developed; you know, the Bronx actually went down without commentary.
RS: And your book is a reminder that cities have to be diverse to be interesting and culturally significant.
PM: And–yeah, I mean, and I think it’s also a reminder that none of this happens by accident. You know, the Bronx’s burning was a purposeful series of acts; the city closed, strategically closed fire departments in poor neighborhoods, like in the Bronx and Brooklyn and Queens. The areas you saw white flight from–and there have been studies on this–were the same areas that had firehouses closed. So what happened was, they’d close a fire house, they’d disinvest from that area, they’d pull back all sorts of funding, and then all of a sudden a building would go up in flames and there wouldn’t be a fire department there to put it out. So what else would you do except leave? And so I think we often ignore those very purposeful factors when we talk about gentrification and instead just see it as this inevitability. As, you know, people move where they want, change happens, and you just kind of have to get used to it. To go back to your first question about what to do about it, I mean, I think that does have a lot to do with how we see housing, how we see communities, how we see cities. You’re right, in the 1940s and 50s we, for some reason, had a very different idea of what housing meant; it was seen as a right. I still find it unbelievable given our current political context that the federal government would spend billions of dollars to provide essentially free housing for poor people 50 years ago, right? But it happened. And I think it can happen again; as you pointed out, in New York, there is still a strong system of public housing, even if it is underfunded and therefore needs a lot of maintenance. But it shows that these ideas still exist. So the first step to solving the problem is saying, you know, why aren’t we thinking of housing as a human right anymore? Why are we not thinking of cities as lively and diverse and in need of investment, as opposed to these capital-producing machines?
RS: I’m talking to Peter Moskowitz. His book is How to Kill a City. And he’s 28. [Laughs] And I bring that up only because he actually was older than many of the people that were in the audience when I went to hear him on Fifth and Spring at The Last Bookstore in downtown LA. And for people who want to know, how can we reach young people–I’ll tell you, I teach at the University of Southern California and have about 100 kids in my class, one of my classes. And I notice the laptops would open, Bernie Sanders, first there were two or three, then maybe half had Bernie Sanders–I don’t think I ever saw one with Hillary Clinton on a laptop. Now, I’m sure many of them voted for Hillary as better than Donald Trump, but they certainly weren’t excited about it. And the crowd that came to hear you, both there and at the Bay Area Book Festival, they were these young people that everybody says they want to reach, OK? And then I thought, well, I got a couple, I got three sons. What are they doing? I was sitting there in the audience. And what are my grandchildren going to do? And I have a son who teaches, and while he’s getting up there in age in his late forties, he teaches in Oakland at Skyline High School, a very hard-working guy. But he can’t buy a house in Oakland. In Oakland he can’t buy a house now, because it’s being gentrified so rapidly, right? On a teacher’s salary? So we’re going to have this phenomenon: if you’re a teacher, you can’t live in the city where your kids–if they go to a public school, but you probably have a shutdown of the public schools. And then I have another son who was living right next to, across the street from the bookstore you spoke at, but again, you know, the rents become astronomical; you got to go live somewhere else. And he’s working on public interest causes; he was one of the people, Peter Scheer, who helped us get a living wage in Los Angeles and LA County. But the system of meritocracy is saying, don’t reward the hard-working teachers, don’t reward the person who’s working for the public interest; reward the person who’s going to be a hotshot for Google or sell you stuff you don’t need, or what have you. And I think this is the core of the problem. We are talking about stratification of the rewards going and the people you socialize with, being people who can jump the highest to capture the ball thrown out by Google or Apple. And so then the issue really becomes, you’ll be living in an environment where you’re never challenged.
RS: Right, where you’re never challenged, because even in the old days in Manhattan, yes, you lived in a fancy building, but if you took a walk, you were going to see other slices of life, and you were going to be confronted, if not, maybe just by some angry person, or maybe some shopkeeper who had some problems, or their children, what school were they going to and so forth. Your book really describes a deliberate stratification of the society, in the name of meritocracy, to support the system of the rich.
PM: Yeah, I think you can’t separate gentrification from everything else going on in the world right now. You know, income inequality being at its highest level in a hundred years; globalization so that middle-class jobs are shifted overseas; and you can’t unlink those things. You know, we’re living in a society where the only ways to make money are increasingly to bet on other money. You know? We’re not making actual goods in this country anymore; the housing crisis was caused by these insane kind of instruments where people were betting a million dollars on ten thousand dollars worth of property. The economy has become a kind of circus, and the only way to live within its bounds is to participate in it. And anyone that moves to New York now, they have to get a job that pays them $100,000 a year or $200,000 a year, and that means working in the financial sector, it means working in advertising. How do you become a radical, how do you become a writer, how do you become anything that supports actual, like, growth of a society, when you have to spend $2,000 a month on rent? It’s impossible. And I do think that is deliberate, in the same way that Trump wants to cut arts funding even though it doesn’t actually affect the budget; how do you prevent dissent from happening? You cut the funding for artists who dissent. So I think gentrification is kind of that on a massive scale. The more you tie people into the capitalist system, the less room they have to budge from within it.
RS: But let me just say also, what we’re losing here is the safety valve. Cities were a safety valve; it was where the pressure could be let off on the pressure cooker, you know? Where people, even the [Rockefeller]–I remember, Nelson Rockefeller, he had his office in mid-Manhattan; I went for a walk with him a few times. You know, he couldn’t deny there were other lives going on. But we now live in a very unreal, multinational economy, where many of the workers are in places you’re not going to visit, in factories in China or Bangladesh or someplace; your clothing is all made somewhere, it’s not made any longer where my father worked on 12th Street, Little West 12th Street. You know, my mother worked in a garment factory. They’re made by people you don’t even recognize as fully human, because you don’t have to rub shoulders; you don’t see them going into the subway, you don’t see them eating at the Automat a few blocks from where your fancy house is. And it carries with it an enormous danger, because it basically says, we’re going to have a small number of winners who can afford this life; the rest of the people are going to be parked elsewhere. Goodness knows where; maybe a large number end up being homeless, as we have in all these cities. We haven’t talked about that, but when you spoke downtown in Los Angeles–and it was really one of the great contradictions for me as somebody who does live downtown, when Occupy was there, oh, all these people working in the Federal Building, working at the banks, working at City Hall–they said, oh it’s terrible! Look at the disarray of life! I spoke of Occupy, with Robert Reich, by the way, who had been Secretary of Labor; we both spoke there a couple of days before the place was smashed by a liberal mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, with his police force and so forth. A guy I liked, knew him when he was at the ACLU, but nonetheless, liberal mayors in most of these cities, including a liberal republican mayor, or independent mayor in New York, smash these movements. Why? Because the homeless were unsightly, OK? But if you walk three blocks, four blocks from where–I did it, I parked my car, you know, three blocks, four blocks away from where you were speaking, you know. And man, it’s Calcutta! It’s unbelievable, miles of this poverty. Their idea is get rid of the homeless, that’s hard to do; park them somewhere else, right?
PM: Right. This is about this gated-community mentality. You know, there was an article that kind of went viral about this, you know, kind of tech guy in San Francisco who said, why should I have to see homeless people on my walk to work every day, like it’s frustrating, it makes me sad. And actually, at an event I had yesterday in Menlo Park, someone said, well, the neighborhood’s nicer now; you know, there used to be more murders in East Palo Alto, and now there aren’t, so isn’t that a good thing? And my point was, you’re not getting rid of poverty, you’re not getting rid of homelessness, you’re not getting rid of the violence associated with poverty. You’re just pushing it out of your own sight line so you don’t have to do anything about it. If you go to these towns, I’ve traveled a lot through Eastern Pennsylvania to towns like Redding and other kind of former manufacturing and coal towns, this is where the new urban poverty is. All the same problems are still there, like they were in the inner city fifty years ago; instead, they’re just out of view from people who can actually do something about it, politicians and the rich. So essentially what you’ve done is create this gated community in cities and pushed everything that you thought was a problem outside of them, not so you could solve them, but just so you didn’t have to deal with them.
RS: Well, I want to wrap this up. But where did you come from? How do we get more like you?
RS: No, because I’m a guy who contributes a little bit of my spare change to City College and City University; you’re 28 years old, you’re a graduate of CUNY, City University of New York; I love, it’s the institution I’ve most believed in in my whole life, was City College; it changed my whole life, you know. It was the school of the proletariat, where they were German, Italian, Puerto Rican, what have you, Jewish, et cetera. And how do we get more like you? Why didn’t you sell out?
PM: Yeah, I mean, so, the only time I ever went to private school was college, and it was the worst experience of my life.
RS: That was undergraduate.
PM: That was undergraduate.
RS: Let’s not confuse people; your graduate education came at–
PM: City University.
RS: –the great City University of New York, yeah.
PM: Yeah. But my high school was essentially Communist and Anarchist 101; it was, my teachers were proud supporters of the far left; we even took a trip to Venezuela in 11th grade to learn about neoliberalism.
RS: This is in Manhattan?
PM: This is in Manhattan, yeah, Beacon School; and unfortunately it’s actually gentrified since then, and taken a kind of conservative, elitist turn. But that was a life-changing experience for me, being able to go to that high school. And you know it was because I was surrounded by people who weren’t like me. And without that, I don’t know who I’d be. You know, I didn’t grow up rich, but I grew up with the access to enough privilege that I could have been one of the ones that sold out. I could have easily chosen a more stable career path, but because I’ve had these experiences of seeing things beyond my own perspective, I know that there are other ways to go about life that are more enjoyable and feel better for me.
RS: So what I want to end on is encouraging people to get a copy of How to Kill a City, not so they’ll get bummed out, but they’ll learn there’s still time, how to save these cities. These are issues, you can weigh in on these issues, you can oppose and challenge politicians, be they democrats or republicans, who do not understand the need that democracy has for vital urban life. That was true when we had the revolution; New York City provided an urban life and mixing. So did, obviously, Boston. So that’s Peter Moskowitz, How to Kill a City. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence, where Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney are the producers; Kat Yore and Mario Diaz, the engineers at KCRW in Santa Monica; and here at Sports Byline in San Francisco, which will probably be gentrified out of existence, this wonderful building we’re broadcasting from will probably be destroyed; I used to do Left, Right & Center here for much of the 19 years when I was in town. And Darren Peck, the leader of Sports Byline, will probably be gone. And people will say, what happened? This used to–and Ramparts magazine that I once edited was across the street. I suspect I’ll come back a few years from now and it’ll all be gone and replaced by big, lifeless high-rises. So again, thanks, Peter Moskowitz, check out his book, How to Kill a City, because I want you to read it and then figure out, how can we save cities?