Neil Smith (1954-2012) shaped an entire generation of urban researchers who embarked on urban conflicts and tried in the last 40 years to support social mobilizations against upgrading and displacement. His own writing was linked to his political activities for many years and has helped many urban politicians to turn the analysis of urban conflicts upside down.
His books on the circular character of the devaluation and upgrading of urban spaces under the conditions of capitalist urbanization (Smith 1984) and on revanchist urban politics in New York (Smith 1996) are still among my most lasting reading experiences in over 25 years of study, teaching and research. Neil Smith succeeds in the rare feat of translating great theories, strong theses and political positions into a pool of knowledge suitable for everyday use and of bringing a mental order into the anger or the indefinite discomfort about an urban development that exacerbates inequalities and deepens exclusions.
Erik Clark – who studied the ups and downs of real estate prices in Malmö – is rumored to have shouted the library quiet while reading Neils Smith’s “For a Theory of Gentrification” – “YES! This completely makes sense! ”- disturbed (Slater 2012). The aha effects are very similar when tenant initiatives recognize their struggle against modernization, demolition or conversion in Neil Smith’s rent gap theories. The knowledge that gentrification has less to do with lifestyles than with exploitation interests offered a strategic advantage for many initiatives, because clear and focused demands can be made with the feeling of having seen through the game of the owners and investors .
The logic of the yield gaps
The article “For a theory of gentrification […]”, published in 1979 by the barely 25-year-old Neil Smith, not only had a successful academic provocation in the title after 15 years of gentrification research, but still has the substance, urban upgrading processes and repression systematically connect with each other.
On the first pages of the article, Neil Smith questions the previously common declarations of demand for gentrification processes, incidentally refutes the myth of a reversal of suburbanization processes (“Back to the city movement […]”) and seizes the neoclassical hypothesis of consumer sovereignty in market economies at. In order to explain that living preferences are changing in several cities and on different continents at the same time, the individuality itself, which is constitutive for the model, must be questioned (Smith 2019 : 69). Smith does not deny the role of housing preferences, but suggests that they are insufficient as an explanation of urban change and draws attention to the long-ignored role of “developers and builders, lenders, authorities, real estate agents, landlords and tenants” ( ibid.).
A more comprehensive theory of gentrification must take greater account of the conditions of production, because regardless of the cultural preferences of consumption, it is obvious that there would be no remediation activities if they were associated with a financial loss. “The so-called urban renaissance was pushed by economic rather than cultural forces.” (Smith 2019 : 70) In addition, the lifestyle explanations of the changed housing preferences cannot explain why some quarters are becoming the backdrop for gentrification processes and others not.