You know how the story goes. Girl meets girl; they fall in love; they buy some sperm and have a baby; they realise that staying in their one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan for very much longer is a recipe for disaster. They need to move, but unless they suddenly get jobs at a hedge fund, or wangle a trust fund, they can’t afford anything decent in New York and will have to relocate somewhere cheaper. Finally, they realise they have become a middle-aged cliche.
That, my friends, is how I found myself sitting in a diner in Philadelphia last week eating a tuna melt and having an existential crisis. My wife and I had driven down from New York for the day to go house hunting. Neither of us knew much about Philly, but it is a diverse city where we wouldn’t be the only mixed-race gay people with a baby. It is close to New York, with much cheaper housing, and it has world-class museums. For some reason, it is very important to me that I live somewhere with good museums, even though I can’t remember the last time I went to a museum and, to be honest, I don’t really enjoy them. Nine times out of 10, I would prefer to go to a nice cafe or the pub. Philly has tons of those, too!
In short: Philly ticks a lot of boxes. And not just for my family: droves of New Yorkers have moved to Philly recently. Our waitress informed us of this fact when we told her cheerfully that we were thinking of relocating. “Oh great!” we said in response. “Not really!” she replied. Fleeing New Yorkers have pushed up prices and her rent has rocketed; at almost 60, she is getting priced out of the area she has lived in since she was a little girl. She is probably going to have to wait tables for the rest of her life.
Oh my God, I thought, after we left the diner feeling just a little bit queasy. Are we the baddies? If we move to Philly, will we be evil gentrifiers? The answer to that is: yes.
Here is the dilemma, though: we will probably be gentrifiers wherever we move. We have been priced out of where we live. If we want to move somewhere with room for a kid or two, then we can’t afford not to be gentrifiers – unless, of course, we move to the suburbs (I would rather dissolve my arms in acid). However, there would almost certainly be something problematic about that, too. There is nothing anyone can do these days that is not in some way problematic. Spending an exorbitant amount of time on Twitter has taught me that.
Perhaps it is a self-serving thing to say, but I think that maybe we ought to retire the term “gentrification” – or, at least, substantially rethink how we use it. While it was once a useful way to describe a specific phenomenon, it has now become a simplistic way to rail at the complex forces behind inequality. I love self-flagellation as much as the next liberal, but people like me are not responsible for the housing crisis. The way we fixate on gentrification feels to me a little like the way we fixate on plastic straws or recycling when it comes to the climate crisis: it is a convenient way to blame individuals for a systemic problem.
Then again, that is exactly what a gentrifier would say.