Leslie Kern's New Book Challenges Assumptions about Gentrification & Offers Hope in the Face of Rampant Housing Inequality
Gentrification, and the massive housing affordability crisis to which it is related, is an issue plagued with myths and misunderstandings. As we enter an era where housing has become unaffordable for countless people, it is more urgent than ever to understand, and resist, the pressures that have led us to this point in history.
Enter professor and writer Leslie Kern, whose smart, practical writing on city issues, including in her bestselling book Feminist City, has earned her a reputation as a leading thinker on urban challenges.
Her new book, Gentrification Is Inevitable and Other Lies (Between the Lines Press) is a myth-busting call to arms. She travels to major cities struggling with gentrification and housing, including Toronto, Vancouver, New York, London, and Paris, and examines problematic assumptions about class and taste, culture and neighbourhoods.
Her clarion call challenges readers, politicians, and city builders to imagine a more accessible future, where we thoughtfully resist the "uncontrollable" forces behind gentrification and housing inequality. Both fiery and hopeful, practical and innovative, Kern's writing will inspire anyone feeling hopeless about the state of housing today. We're excited to speak with her today about Gentrification Is Inevitable and Other Lies. She tells us about where her sense of urgency comes from, why conversations about gentrification need to be intersectional beyond just discussing class, and how writing imaginary reviews helped her focus her writing process.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be. What made you passionate about the subject matter you're exploring?
My new book is, I hope, a rallying cry for city lovers to push back against the idea that gentrification is an unstoppable force. It takes the reader through different stories, or ways of understanding, this transformative urban process with a view to breaking down various myths and misconceptions. I’m a gentrification researcher in my “day job” as a professor, and I want this book to serve as both an accessible entry point to talking about gentrification, and a manifesto for taking steps to combat it.
My passion for this topic comes from a sense of urgency about the need to radically alter the way we live on this planet, the way we relate to one another, and the way we understand our responsibilities to the human and non-human world. I love cities. Over half the world’s people live in cities. Yet cities are sites of rampant inequality and they lag behind on sustainability (and these issues are linked, of course). I’m from Toronto and you’d have to be willfully ignorant to miss the ways that gentrification has completely changed the fabric of so many communities, as well as its human costs in terms of displacement, homelessness, and the hopelessness that many people feel about ever achieving a stable housing situation. The book spells out these costs, while also aiming to alleviate some of that hopelessness with practical ideas for countering gentrification.
Is there a question that is central to your book? And if so, is it the same question you were thinking about when you started writing or did it change during the writing process?
The central question is, how can understanding gentrification differently help us do something about it? I always had the aim of telling the story of gentrification in a different way than the typical academic or media narrative. As a feminist, I’ve long challenged the idea that gentrification is only about class change. I want to explore how gentrification affects different groups of people, and also how power structures like race, colonialism, and gender shape the way gentrification plays out. So this question has been animating my research for a long time. The challenge was in figuring out how to approach it in a way that would be interesting to everyday city dwellers.
What was your research process like for this book? Did you encounter anything unexpected while you were researching?
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The process was equal parts seeking out sources of information, and being bombarded with information from news sites and social media. That’s one of the features of writing about a contemporary, ongoing issue: there’s always another story, another manifestation, another study to pay attention to. It can be overwhelming, but it’s also amazing to have your research come to you. I collected links to these stories in a document divided by subject, and then I could find them easily when I wanted to write about them. I suppose I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of resistance strategies and success stories that I found. As I note in the book, these rarely circulate beyond the local context and we’re left feeling like there are no ways to push back.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
This book was mostly written at home, at my dining room table, on my ten year-old MacBook. I write in the mornings but not until after I’ve had coffee, exercise, breakfast, and more coffee. I try to do it before any other work-related tasks. I’m not too precious about specific rituals or spaces, though. For me, waiting for “just right” conditions can easily turn into an excuse not to write.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
The most practical coping method of coping that I have is just to keep working, even if it’s only eight and a half minutes of point form notes tapped out during the boring part of a meeting. My brain loves to check off “writing” on my to-do list and that tiny rush keeps me going. The more whimsical method involves keeping the ultimate vision clear in my mind. For this book, I wrote out what I wanted the reviews to say, as if I was blurbing my own book. I would look back at those notes to keep myself on track if I felt like I was getting bogged down in the writing or losing my way.
I also remind myself to “trust the craft.” If I feel like I can’t figure out how to get through a piece of writing, I try to let go and trust the instinctual writer’s craft that I’ve been honing all my life. It’s like muscle memory. You can trust some deeper part of your mind to take over.
Did you write this book in the order it appears for readers? If not, how did it come together during the writing process?
I wrote it largely in order, but the particular division of chapters that I ended up with emerged after I had a really rough first draft. It was very clunky and despite my best efforts, too academic. One of my own margin notes to myself read, “No one cares about this.” Once I came up with the plan to present more focused “stories” about gentrification, I could break down the material into more digestible bits that, hopefully, readers will actually care about.
Leslie Kern is the author of three books about cities, including Feminist City: A Field Guide. She is an associate professor of geography and environment and women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University. Her research has earned a Fulbright Visiting Scholar Award, a National Housing Studies Achievement Award, and several national multi-year grants. She is also an award-winning teacher. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vox, Bloomberg CityLab, and Refinery29. Leslie lives in Sackville, New Brunswick (Mi’kma’ki) with her partner and cats.