How oligarchs destroyed Houston

Salon

Central Houston, once a bastion for the creative class, has been converted into an exclusive playland for the rich

A startling change for the worse has occurred in the physical appearance and occupancy of central Houston over the last few years. Entire historic neighborhoods, while superficially modernized, have had their character destroyed. How can change on this scale take place so fast, despite the lessons of the recent national housing collapse? Who are the people behind this transformation, how do they get what they want, and who gets hurt by their callous disregard?

My neighbors and I are currently being affected by what I consider the most monstrous example of gentrification in Houston. I want to expose its sordid aspects, hoping that Houston will do the right thing and that other cities in the early stages of gentrification will take note of what is at stake.

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. 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. Despite the influx of the creative class, Houston remained affordable and blissfully free of alienation.

Alas, for many of us the dream has ended. Houston has transmogrified into a city ruled by a brutal strain of neoliberalism, and the city’s well-known tendency to be disrespectful of history has been taken to gothic extremes. It took only a few short years for developers to displace the original population of the central neighborhoods, while converting the core city into an exclusive playland for the rich.

The metamorphosis has received little coverage in local media, which are beholden to the same growth-at-all-costs advocates who fund politicians. Houston now has comparable rents to New York City, and corporate indifference—which I had never known since I moved here almost 20 years ago from New England—stamps out neighborhood intimacy. Houston has ceased being what it was, as rampant commodification destroys its inherent Southern gentleness and live-and-let-live philosophy.

Gentrification is the process of replacing deteriorating inner-city housing stock with upscale residences—townhouses and condos—while the original lower-income residents are evicted. Gentrification, as it started occurring in North American cities in the early 1970s (following the lead of London in the 1960s), goes through certain well-known cycles, typified by what happened to New York’s Lower East Side. In the first wave, gentrifying pioneers (typically educated and older, intrigued by the cultural possibilities of the inner city) move back from the suburbs, followed by a younger wave of gentrifiers (students and artists) who give the inner city a stronger cultural aura, followed at last by yuppies and then even richer and more homogeneous upper-class people for whom moving in has more financial than cultural meaning.

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