Gentrification and the Waterfront: Urban development in San Francisco

Gentrification and the Waterfront: Urban development in San Francisco

Jasper Rubin

Jasper Rubin, urban geography expert

Is gentrification of the post-industrial waterfront inevitable? Various theories of gentrification have evolved
during the decades since British sociologist Ruth Glass first coined the term in 1964. Mostly it is used to refer to the transformation of a residential neighborhood as lower income residents, often minorities, are displaced by middle and eventually upper income residents. Recent work, however, has expanded the scope of the concept, introducing terms such as “new-build” and “retail gentrification,” and it has been linked to industrial displacement. Gentrification has also been described as the “knife’s edge” of neoliberal urbanization, as a tool local governments use to help reshape cities as they compete for high-end jobs and a wealthy demographic, emphasizing private benefit over public.

But industrial displacement, for instance, does not just result from gentrification, as one writer has observed—it is gentrification. This begs the question: by stretching the term gentrification to encompass more than residential change, has it lost its utility? Examining San Francisco’s urban waterfront provides an opportunity to consider gentrification, to question whether the term is still useful. Perhaps a more useful way to look at urban change, one that subsumes gentrification within it, is to view the transformation of the landscape along class lines—to ask who has the right to be in the city. This is more important because displacement, a key element in the process of gentrification, affects not just residents but workers (who are often one and the same), businesses, the built environment, and indeed one’s ability to be in a city.

There is, however, another aspect of change occurring along San Francisco’s waterfront that further complicates matters. Most analyses of gentrification invoke something that is lost. Indeed, one account has described residents’ experience of gentrification as “displacement”—a process that disconnects or alienates them from familiar territory even while they may still live there. But as a part of the process of its transformation, San Francisco’s waterfront has actually gone the opposite direction, creating public spaces and encouraging civic life. There are more places for people at the water’s edge, suggesting something that might be called emplacement. This makes it a little difficult to describe the changes of the last decades as solely harmful ones in the mode of unfettered gentrification. Furthermore, unlike accounts of state-led gentrification, many of the positive aspects of recent change along the waterfront have been the result of planning policy and public engagement.

To understand how gentrification and the waterfront are related it is important to delve into something of the history of the place. San Francisco is unlike other old port cities in that it has not revitalized its waterfront only with housing and commerce, but rather with a diversity of uses and users. How this occurred helps to explain why waterfronts need not become completely gentrified spaces.

Jasper Rubin is an associate professor of Urban Studies and Planning at San Francisco State University. Rubin will deliver a lecture titled Gentrification and the Waterfront at the Douglas College campus in New Westminster on Nov. 7.

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