Josh Dunigan |||

What is (Good, Bad) About Gentrification?


After watching almost all of Parts Unknown, some episodes many times and most at least twice, I started to pick up on a lot of the things that Bourdain cared about. He cares about rock music, he cares about freedom, he cares about good food, and he cares about good company. In the most abstract sense, Bourdain is showing humans and their unique cultures, but also the things that we all share in common. One of the common things in a lot of episodes, particularly the city episodes, is on gentrification.

Bourdain is a true cosmopolitan and has seen his share of places. He lived in the Lower East Side of New York City at its lowest and saw it become what it is now today. Not only with his home, but around the world he returns to cities and things are changing faster than anyone can keep up with. Some of the things that bring wonder to every Bourdain excursion are things like food markets, street vendors, and generational restaurants. However, it seems as Bourdain comes back to cities, these places are dissappearing.

One episode that talks about this a lot is the Hong Kong episode. As with any foreign place, especially in this digital age, we learn about places before we go. For Bourdain, learning about Hong Kong was done through the beautiful films of Wong Kar-wai. Furthermore, he learned about Hong Kong through the eyes of Christopher Doyle, who was a frequent collaborator with Wong Kar-wai’s movies as his cinematographer. More than any other art form, a film will portray the way a city looks and feels in its most flattering way. Not only do films show the beautiful parts of a city, but the ugly parts. After watching Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, it is hard not to fall in love with Hong Kong.

Bourdain met with Christopher Doyle, who has lived in Hong Kong for decades shooting and making films and they discuss gentrification. Part of the nature of a city is that it changes, but when is that change good or bad? As someone who lived there for awhile, Doyle is obviously nostalgic and attached to some of the older parts of the city. Heck, his apartment was (has been demolished) the apartment that Tony Leung’s character lived in in Chungking Express. As an artist, Doyle gave an artist answer. He said that he at least will have shown people what they are going to be losing, what they are going to give up, what they are never going to get back in his work.

But at least you can say Look what you’re losing.” All we can do is give an image to an idea.

Bourdain met with other people as well. He talked to shop owners who have been around for generations, he went to the Chungking Mansions and met with refugees, he talked to one of the 28 licensed street vendors, and he talked with some of the younger people defining what Hong Kong is now such as musicians, directors, and chefs. The licensed street food vendor talked about how the government wants to get rid of the street people” who make the city seem dirty and not-Western. The musicians talk about how there is no where for people to practice music and the job itself is not high paying as in the entire band has day jobs to support themselves. The musicians themselves were a nihilistic rock band, who talked about how society tells the youth that they should be quiet, change is not possible, and that they should just work and settle down.

Some people are hopeful for Hong Kong, however. One of the shop owners said that the youth of Hong Kong feel a tenderness towards the way it is and the way it was and will fight to keep them for the good memories. The chef wants to take the old and modernize, but still respect it and not change it to something it is not. The director spoke about how she wants to keep what is unique about them, about the people of Hong Kong, alive.

As the people in the Hong Kong episode show, there are good parts and there are bad parts of gentrification. What are the good and bad parts exactly? Anyone who lives in cities or visits them enough can see gentrification happen and possibly are disturbed about it. What makes it disturbing? What is our role in this? Before I try to even attempt an answer at those questions, I would like to get some definitions on the board first.

Notions of Good and Definitions of Species

As the people in the Hong Kong episode show, there are good parts and there are bad parts of gentrification. What are the good and bad parts exactly? Anyone who lives in cities or visits them enough can see gentrification happen and possibly are disturbed about it. What makes it disturbing? What is our role in this? What makes a city good or bad in the first place? Before I try to even attempt an answer at those questions, I would like to get some definitions on the board first.

Functional, Final, and Tethered Good

Korsgaard, using Aristotle, presents in her work Fellow Creatures some arguments about what is good or bad and how to talk about it. To talk about things that are good or bad, we must tie it to something. It does not make sense to say that pain is bad” or love is good”, unless you talk about it as if it is good-for or bad-for something. So we must say pain is bad for the dog” or love is good for me”.

How to determine if something is good-for or bad-for something is using what we call the functional good of something. What is good-for a knife is related to what the function of a knife is. What makes a good knife is if it performs its function well, which would be cutting things. If a knife was dull and could not even cut room temperature butter, the knife would almost cease to be called a knife since it cannot do the thing it is made for. So what is good-for a knife are things that help realize the function of a knife. So this might be something like continually sharpening it with a whetstone. What is bad-for a knife would be letting it rust or using it in such a way to create fractures or cracks causing it to break.

Now, a functional good does not get us any fancy moral responsibilities. It may be stupid to cause bad-for things to a knife, but it would not be a moral wrong. This is because something like a knife does not have a final good. What a final good is similar to a functional good, except that the subject at hand is not a thing, but it is some being that has what Korsgaard would call a valenced character”. A being has a valenced character if it is able to represent its environment to itself and futhermore use that representation to maintain and promote things are good-for it and avoid things that are bad-for it. Things that obviously come to mind would be humans and in the context of Korsgaard’s work, our fellow creatures. Using the knife again, it is something that does not represent itself and promote its own good. If it did, a knife would go about sharpening itself and try to avoid things like rust or being used improperly.


Korsgaard in her book set out to try and show that we have some sort of moral responsibility to animals using a Kantian notion of ethics. After laying out her main argument, we are presented with a logical antinomy. An antinomy is where from the same premises you can, seemingly, infer two contradictory statements, something Kant was deeply disturbed by (personally, I think that in this case it is because the premise is bad). The antinomy was if we do have moral obligations to animals, what do we do?

One thing we could do is to let animals be in their natural selves. However, it seems like if we could somehow stop the amount of horrible suffering that goes on in nature, even without the help of humans, we should stop or prevent it. If we could change the DNA of carnivores, breed them differently, or give them some fake meat, would this not be better? If using the notions above of final good, changing the nature of animals may actually not be good-for or bad-for it at all, we are changing the species entirely.

To be an animal, a creature, is to belong to some species. Species membership tells us what is good-for or bad-for an animal. If we know that a species of dog is a pug, we know that its breathing is normal. If it is not a pug, say a lab, and it is breathing like a pug then we are able to tell that something is wrong. If we wanted to put all the wolves in the zoos and give them fake meat to eat, would that not be bad-for the wolf since what is good-for it is to hunt in the wild? Another example to think about is what we did to domesticate many animals. We fundamentally changed the functional and final senses of good for animals and even ended up changing their genes over time. At a certain point, we may not be doing what is good-for something, but changing it to something entirely different.

Good and Bad of Gentrification

One obvious thing to show about gentrification is the good-for and bad-for the old and the new residents. The saying look how much better the neighborhood is for the residents” does not make any sense, the reason being it lacks a tether to some being. Who is the gentrification of a neighborhood better for exactly? It sure as hell is not better for the original residents. The original residents probably cannot afford to live there anymore. They may have had to leave a place they lived at for decades, they may live farther from work, farther from school (or have to change schools), farther from public transit, farther from food, or farther for family. It may be good-for the new residents, in that it is safer, cheaper than their last housing, more hip”, and has more authentic” restaurants. But it does not make sense to say that gentrification is just better for everyone since some people got the short end of the stick.

What is good-for a city then? Well, I think there are certainly things that are good-for a city that are obvious. Cities around the world come with their own architecture, food and drink, history, fashion, design, and all other things. These unique things are what makes people come to the city. If all the cities had the same things, there would be no reason to leave New York City to visit Marseille or Busan. People come to NYC for the unique museums, to see the famous restaurants, to walk the same place as some gangster or movie star did, or see an architect’s famous building.

The problem with gentrification is not that it is bad in a sense, it is that it changes it into something new. Think about all the things that make your favorite city good. For me, I think about the numerous parks in NYC, art galleries, independent cinemas, comedy clubs, the unique restaurants in the East Village, or outdoor bars in Marseille. If those were gone, the reasons why people fell in love with the city will be gone. If you build all glass shopping malls, put in chain restaurants or Instagram places, its not that the city will be worse, it will just be different. The chain restaurants, the Instagram places, and the shopping malls are what makes the city good for some people (maybe tourists or rich elites).

Not all of gentrification is bad-for the current residents or people who loved the city for some other reasons. Most people who grew up in the Lower East Side in the 70s look back fondly at that time, but they do not look fondly back at the danger of growing up there, the outbreak of HIV, and the overall lack of safety. The dialectic of change does not have to just be bad-for the residents all the way.

But the change is happening. If people are not concious of what they are losing, it will be gone forever. You can stop change from happening, but you cannot bring back something once it is gone. When thinking about where you live, think about what you like about the city. If you like that independent theater that shows great old movies or unique new ones, make sure to go there more often. If you have a local coffee shop with friendly employees, good music, and a nice atmosphere, spend some time there instead of Starbucks. The driving force behind gentrification is consumerism and we as consumers control that change. If you live in a democractic country, you have even more power than just money. Go to that local meeting, sign that petition, share that post, or donate to the organization protecting your local heritage.

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