Book Review: Boston on Sam Stein’s Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State

Samuel Stein. Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State. Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2019.

By Amanda Boston

The process of exclusionary development we know as “gentrification”—and the working-class communities and cultures it displaces—has preoccupied urban residents and other stakeholders for decades. Scholars have explored transformation of the process from a scattered residential phenomenon into a governance strategy marked by luxury condominiums, chain stores, and corporate entertainment venues. Many have tied its changing scope, scale, and reach to the neoliberal turn and its manifestations, including global circuits of capital and culture, the dismantling of the social safety net, and the state’s movement away from the role of market regulator and into the role of market facilitator. Geographer Samuel Stein’s Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State is a welcome addition to this body of literature, and to broader debates about equitable planning in increasingly entrepreneurial cities.

While skeptics view gentrification as a natural, necessary, and welcome part of urban change, Stein conveys a brutal reality rooted in processes of accumulation by dispossession. Neoliberalism, he argues, has given rise to the “real estate state,” a “political formation in which real estate capital has inordinate influence over the shape of our cities, the parameters of our politics and the lives we lead” (5). In this climate, public and private interests conspire to boost land values and reap unprecedented profits, making stable and secure housing and homeownership increasingly inaccessible for the majority of urban residents. Stein uses urban planning as the primary lens for understanding this trend and the precarity it has engendered and exacerbated, particularly among historically marginalized populations. He also offers ideological and practical tools for imagining and creating a more just city.

A view of New York City’s Hudson Yards, hailed as the largest private real estate development in the United States, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The first two chapters explore the history of planning in the United States, and gentrification’s ascension to a predominant planning and governance strategy in post-industrial cities. Although Stein demonstrates how planning has teetered between creativity and destruction, reform and radicalism, and elite-driven and popular expression, he locates its origins in settler colonial logics of racial and spatial extraction and expropriation that still reverberate across the country. Given the prevailing colorblind framing of neoliberal redevelopment, his insistence that “capitalism is always racial” (27) is noteworthy; it casts the marginalization of communities of color as a central feature of urban planning, rather than at its margins.

Racialized policies of redlining, urban renewal, and disinvestment were preconditions for real estate speculation. Municipal governments filled voids left by deindustrialization with economic and political capital generated through land markets and partnerships with developers. In this environment, planning has been increasingly mediated by political structures run by people whose careers and fortunes are tied to real estate capital. Thus, Stein contends that planners’ personal motivations cannot explain the vast inequalities their decisions produce, and that even the most well-intentioned planners cannot escape the mandate to make land more expensive and drive out anything—or anyone—perceived as an obstacle to profit. Still, given many planners’ thinly-veiled contempt for the poor and people of color, readers who understand the structural operations of power may not be convinced this is completely true.

Next, Stein focuses on politicians who run the real estate state at the local and national levels. First, he compares development strategies of New York City’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg and his successor, Bill de Blasio. Stein effectively demonstrates that, even in a “progressive” city, politicians’ dependence on the real estate industry’s capital has ensured gentrification will remain a primary governance strategy for city leaders across the political spectrum.

Trump Tower,” Herbert Block, June 22, 1990, Herbert L. Block Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

The fourth chapter takes a biographical tone, focusing on the most prominent family of the real estate state: that of “developer-in-chief” Donald Trump. Stein masterfully posits three generations of Trumps as emblematic of the “private side of U.S. planning history” (118) and its fortunes made from the genocidal project of westward expansion, government-subsidized segregated housing, and “geobribes” that lured developers to capital-starved cities. Stein further demonstrates that this history has informed the Trump policy agenda: from his appointment of a housing secretary committed to dismantling fair housing laws and public housing programs to a developer son-in-law-cum-senior advisor whose renters are suing him for failing to provide essential services, for rent gouging, harassment, and fraud.

41HD2kpe--L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Stein concludes with policies and principles that can help planners, politicians, and ordinary citizens reimagine the policy approaches necessary to “unmake the real estate state.” Among the most notable are his recommendations to make rent regulation universal and permanent; to increase funding and support for public housing; to enact vacancy taxes to discourage warehousing and money laundering; and to increase public stewardship over city planning. While his call to completely end the commodification of housing may seem the most far off, he points to past and presently growing radical tenant movements as evidence that a more just city is not out of our reach.

Capital City deserves attention from urban historians for its nuanced analysis of neoliberal urban policy and specific measures that generate inequality and may be also used in service of justice. This book will be a useful tool for a broad swath of people seeking a greater understanding of the urgency of this political moment which grows with every demolition.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_350Amanda Boston is a Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow at New York University and an assistant professor and faculty fellow at NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management. Her research, writing, and teaching focus on twentieth-century African American urban history, politics, and popular culture. Her current projects explore gentrification’s racial operations in her hometown of Brooklyn, New York, and their role in the making and unmaking of the borough’s black communities.

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