Rams stadium’s new artificial lake deemed “gentrification,” but that’s only half the story

Writing a post based on a news story based on tweets is not exactly my favorite way of doing journalism, but in this case, I think it’s warranted. Newsweek, which still exists after passing through a series of ownership changes that included a bizarre money-laundering scheme, reports that residents of Inglewood are increasingly griping on social media about how the Los Angeles Rams‘ new stadium is getting all kinds of fancy gewgaws while the city’s schools remain underfunded; one declared of the team’s new artificial lake: “This is gentrification.”

https://twitter.com/ch1chi_xoxo/status/1288718599532589056

As someone who’s written books on both stadiums and gentrification, I think I’m uniquely qualified to nitpick this, or at least to delve a little deeper into the implications of stadium-led redevelopment.

One of the arguments often made by community members opposed to sports projects — or any kind of big development projects — is that they will price existing residents out of the neighborhood. The evidence that sports venues actually make a neighborhood a more enticing place to live is fairly weak: Stadiums bring excitement and crowds, but also public drunkenness and traffic problems. And while you can definitely find plenty of examples of stadiums that saw luxury housing rise up around them, luxury housing has been going up in cities all over America as part of the Great Inversion; as I noted a couple of years ago, the New York Jets having their stadium on Manhattan’s then-low-rent West Side rejected didn’t stop developers from coming in with a new plan that put up tons of new luxury housing, with the help of a few billion dollars in taxpayer funds. Sometimes the causality even runs the other way: Stadium builders target a neighborhood because they think it’s primed for gentrification and they can reap the benefits by speculating on land around their new venue.

If anything, what stadiums do to smooth the way for gentrification is what might be termed the bulldozer effect. As I discovered in researching The Brooklyn Wars, one of the biggest reasons why big development projects or rezonings can lead to hikes in housing costs and displacement of existing residents — even when you might think that building lots of new housing should lead to lower rents in simple supply-and-demand terms — is that they provide an easy excuse for the demolition of neighborhoods, or at least large stadium-sized parts of neighborhoods, that are standing in the way of rapid gentrification. With cities increasingly attractive places to live for people with money, for all the same reasons they grew so big in the first place (easy access to jobs and culture, mostly), the only real thing keeping them from gentrifying even faster is the distaste of many suburbanites for living next to the black and brown people with low incomes who settled there when their parents and grandparents decamped for the suburbs in the first place — at least if there aren’t a few local artists or white dads with baby strollers around to make the place feel like it has “potential.”

Which, finally, is where the artificial lake comes in. It isn’t receiving any public money that I can tell, but by carving out a chunk of Inglewood and repurposing it as a playground for the moneyed classes (or at least for people who can afford football tickets, who tend to be pretty well-off), it creates a bubble of perceived safety that allows other developers to market Inglewood to newcomers who might otherwise turn up their nose at living next to Inglewood residents. In fact, this is exactly what Inglewood Mayor James Butts said he was hoping for when he compared the stadium to the Genesis device in Star Trek: Wrath of Khan that turned a lifeless planet into a utopia, which really is an odd way to refer to the city of more than 100,000 human beings that you are supposedly representing.

New stadiums and artificial lakes, then, are less about directly luring people to cities, and more about rebranding them. Which surely must seem tempting to mayors who Google their own cities and are met with this:

All of which would be fine and great if Inglewood could be made less dangerous in a way that allowed current residents to benefit from the improvements, rather than risk being priced out as a result. (In fact, the crime rate in Inglewood has already been dropping pretty dramatically.) But in an America defined by massive and still-widening inequalities in wealth and income, that’s hard to pull off, at least not without freezing rents and banning evictions.

In the anthology New York Calling, labor historian and musician Philip Dray memorably recalled a time when he first moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side (artist on the block! quick, tell your friends looking for cheap city apartments!) and went to a block association meeting about the city’s offer to install new street trees on the sidewalk:

All the white people want the trees, but the Hispanics are against it, saying that prettifying the block will just drive the rents up. The whites are kind of numb — how can anyone not like trees?

This is America: A land where people are afraid to have nice things because they’re afraid it will just make someone with more money want to take them away from them. That’s not the only reason why stadiums continue to get built while teachers have to make GoFundMe campaigns to buy books for their students, but that’s pretty much impossible to understand without it.

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