Defining Urban Imperialism

Columbia Heights in Washington, DC

Gentrification, according to www.dictionary.com, is defined as,

–noun 1.

the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.
 
The word gentrification is fairly new; it dates to 1975-80, so in the world of language, it’s a mere infant. As a word, gentrification, has come to stand in for an entire process, series, of actions, is expected to accurately describe  an extremely complex economic, socio-geographic, age, and racial and ethnic dynamics and processses.
 
The current definition of gentrication, is used in short-hand to outline an entire system whereby certain people are further disenfrachised – pushed beyond the metaphoric margins, to the very real margins of cityscapes, often in order to “make” space for those who are not working poor, those who are not of color, those who do not have ability issues, those who are not older.
 
Gentrification has a loose definition and meaning. What’s so bad, after all, if middle class people return to the city, bringing back their considerable financial power? What’s so bad about a new grocery store being build in an area that has languished without access to fresh foods for decades. For this reason, gentrification no longer, to me describes the comprehensive realignment of both physical and psychic space in urban cityscapes.
 
Instead, I choose to refer to the complex dynamics at play as urban imperialism, because I believe it more accurately describes the nuances, practices, and processes at play when a middle-class landscape and model is imposed upon an urban cityscape.
 
Imperialism is defined as (again according to www.dictionary.com) as,
 
–noun 1.
the policy of extending the rule or authority of an empire or nation over foreign countries, or of acquiring and holding colonies and dependencies.

Harlem New York

By entering working class communities, often communities of color, creating or reconstituting space for middle-class families or singles, and establishing institutions that meet the needs of the middle-class, cities – through developers, urban renewal, and programs that are specifically designed to reward to certain class alignments over others,  are often endorsing a series of policy actions that extends the authority of government to desginate who can occupy what space and when.

It’s true that governments often do just this: decide who can use space, when and how. We have state parks, federal land, imminent domain. But for people of color, or those who are colonized, the government’s claims to space and who can be in that space, harkens to systems of oppression which allowed governments to wield unreasonable and unethical power over poor people and people of color. 
 
In a neo-colonial age, how is the urge toward “manifest destiny” sublimated? Where and how does the compulsion to colonize go? I submit that in an age where concerns over “green” living exist, and at a time when certain resources – and the infrastructure to provide those resources (water, energy) is limited, that the colonial impulse has been turned toward cities. Thus, urban imperialism has evolved. To be sure, the urban imperialism of the 2000s, is not so very different than the move in the 70s and 80s to rid cities of “blight,” but I do believe the dynamics are far more complex.
 
 
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