The term “Zen” suggests a process that is easy, masterful, and calming—something most of us are eager to experience. (1) And “gentrification” sounds like a gentle transformation of a pig sty into a pastoral abode. However, urban “gentrification” means conversion of decaying inner city housing into a “higher and best use,”—that is, offices, upscale apartments, retail. In the 1960’s, it was called “urban renewal,” sometimes subsidized.
Who is gentrifying whom now?
As reported in The Nation (2) and in local news rags, developers and global investors are sending capital into places where welfare and charitable support previously went. In poor, black, and Latino areas, housing is already expensive relative to the shrinking income, and people resist moving out—because they have nowhere to go. This gentrification is hardly a Zen process. Perhaps it should be.
Why do it with Zen?
Why should we even consider preventing private property from going to the highest (well, a higher) bidder? Is there a social value in perpetuating decaying apartments and trailer parks and corner grocery stores in places where financial forces could impose high-rise condominiums and “clean” digital businesses and stylish restaurants? That depends on whether you think folks of low income should be able to mix with the upper class.
How to do it with Zen?
If there is a high social value to defense of low-value property, how do we do it with Zen—with ease, mastery, calming? Public value—the defense of the commons—is an established process, more often employed to keep a smoky boiler factory out of a mid-class neighborhood. It’s called zoning, controlled by building permits. It can be employed to protect the poor, as well as the rich. However, the decision-making happens in city councils and zoning commissions and other political places, where we argue the “whether” of each particular case, rarely considering its public value. We proceed with power, not ease. With manipulation, not mastery. With crisis, not calming.
As politics becomes dominated by money, the defense of the same less-profitable, less-attractive space must be reenacted, year after year. One decision rarely holds for all time—not even for national parks, especially not for neighborhoods. No rest for anybody, not for the residents, not for the commissioners, not even for the investors.
Again, why gentrify by Zen?
If we are to preserve a society of other than two classes—a minority in privilege and a majority in squalor—then ultimately we need a value system beyond wealth. That’s because, in the complex system that is a free society, unrestricted flow of money is a positive feedback, ultimately self-destructive and ruinous to democracy in the cycle of a civilization. (3) For values, we might consider a system in which we regard all persons as endowed with equal opportunity for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That could be Zen-like. Even if it isn’t powerful, profitable, or productive.
(1) Jon Morrow, IBPA Independent, August 2015.
(2) The Nation magazine, March 28/April 4, 2016, p. 12.
(3) Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1968 and 1996.