Book Review Preview: How to Kill a City

By Dennis E. Gale

Peter Moskowitz. How to Kill a City. (New York: Nation Books, 2017)

Journalist Moskowitz pens a provocative book arguing that gentrification — in virtually all of its dimensions — destroys communities. An impassioned writer, he centers his critique on case studies of four U.S. cities: New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and New York. Through a series of interviews, direct observations of local conditions, and citations of various published sources he argues that the forces of gentrification are destroying the social diversity of neighborhood life.

Despite his myriad attacks on gentrification and its impacts on working class people, Moskowitz is quick to acknowledge that, yes, he too is a gentrifier. In his native New York, he and his friends patronize clubs and bars in areas undergoing reinvestment. He acknowledges that some of these establishments have replaced other businesses once catering to the needs of low- and moderate-income families. And shifting demographic patterns have replaced racial and ethnic populations with college-educated elites. He skewers the public and private sectors, both of which, he insists, court wealth, income, and public revenues at the expense of long-term residents.

Moskowitz shows that even Detroit and New Orleans, two cities long challenged by population losses, physical decline, and financial disparities, are nonetheless experiencing moderate levels of public and private reinvestment. In both cases, city leaders have adopted policies catalyzing middle-income housing construction and renovation. At the other extreme, he writes, San Francisco and New York, both metropolises seemingly overwhelmed by the forces of gentrification, demonstrate the extent to which the Weltanschauung of urban life can undergo fundamental changes. Nothing illustrates this better than Moskowitz’s colorful walking tour across Manhattan, in which he reveals his deep nostalgia for the city of his youthful memories.

Readers seeking a balanced treatment of gentrification will probably be disappointed by this book. On the other hand, those dedicated to the proposition that gentrification’s overall costs outweigh its benefits will find plentiful grist for the mill.

The full book review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs.

Dennis E. Gale
Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University
Lecturer, Stanford University
Dennis.Gale@fulbrightmail.org