Gentrivitalization by brewery

Do craft breweries really "revitalize dying neighborhoods"? Let's ask an expert!

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In 2017 a Denver coffee shop put out a sign saying it’d been “happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014” and lol people did not think that was very cool! Source

Gentrification. It’s bad, except when maybe/on occasion/if undertaken responsibly it can be good? Seems like a complex issue, and not the sort of thing you’d want to align yourself with and trumpet publicly on social media during a global pandemic that’s likely going to result in an “avalanche” of low-income and non-white folks getting evicted from their homes in neighborhoods that have already been ravaged by the insatiable beast we call capitalism.

But hey, what do I know?!

Gentrification by brewery

Last week the Florida Brewers Guild circulated an open letter to Governor Ron DeSantis asking him to let them reopen their taprooms, nearly all of which had to shut down because the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been an absolute catastrophe. (Editor’s note: there are entirely too many open letters flying around these days. Close your letters, people!)

There was a line in there that turned some heads:

Oh man, oh man, oh mannnnnnnn.

Times are legitimately very tough for breweries (in Florida and elsewhere), and I sympathize. I think a lot of people sympathize, actually! In fact, there are probably only a handful of things that you could do—“you” being a large adult brewers guild—to make people not sympathize with the plight of your constituents.

One of them is to loudly and proudly proclaim that you’re “the #1 tool utilized by municipalities to gentrify areas in dying neighborhoods.”

Don’t say that! Or if you simply must say it for some unfathomable reason, at least don’t write it down and post it! Never tweet! My god!

The Discourse™, now “revitalized”

After being called out on social media, the FBG opted to swap “revitalize” in the place of “gentrify” to soften the blow a bit. The group’s executive director, Sean Nordquist, told Fingers:

The original letter was sent out by the Gild [sic] in our efforts to draw attention to the dire situation facing Florida breweries due to orders in place by the Governor. The use of the word "gentrify" was a poor choice to point out the benefits to neighborhoods with abandoned or underutilized areas, and the employment of local residents by new independent businesses like breweries. In our hurry to get the message out, we did not stop to choose our words more carefully. The decision for the followup letter was to use the word "revitalize" in an effort to better convey the message.

Which, OK, probably better than using the dreaded g-word. But the framing is still not great. Positioning craft breweries as the hoppy tip of the gentrification spear (sorry, the revitalization spear) pretty neatly undermines the industry’s already-damaged image as an irreproachably progressive force for anti-corporate social goods.

And of course, it raises the question of what constitutes a “dying neighborhood” in the first place. Who gets to call time-of-death? If a neighborhood is actually dead, what killed it? And what, exactly, do breweries do to magically resurrect it?

I’m no expert, so don’t listen to me. Let’s talk to Neil Reid instead!

Quantifying the change

Anyone with eyes and a Zillow account can see that craft breweries do change neighborhoods. So what do we call that change—and how do we measure it?

“At the end of the day, it’s the same thing,” said Reid, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toledo, referring to gentrification/revitalization semantics.

Reid told Fingers that rather than “gentrification” (too loaded to allow for meaningful dialogue) or “revitalization” (too presumptive that the outcome is positive) he refers to the process of neighborhood change as “transformation.”

“You don't ‘revitalize’ a neighborhood good neighborhood to a bad neighborhood, right? But transformation can go both ways,” he said.

As for the “deadness” of a neighborhood, it’s pretty focused on one key metric: cost per square foot. “What these breweries are looking for is inexpensive real estate, and you can find inexpensive real estate in ‘distressed’ neighborhoods.”

Reid is an authority on this process, having studied it for years and co-authored such academic bangers as:

  • Craft Breweries and Neighborhood Crime: Are They Related?

  • Going out for a Pint: Exploring the Relationship between Craft Brewery Locations and Neighborhood Walkability

  • Craft Beer and the Revitalization of Charlotte’s NoDa Neighborhood

Putting numbers to these transformations is tricky, but in that last paper, Reid and co-author Isabelle Nilsson of UNC Charlotte found, among other things:

that the value of single-family homes increased by 9.3 percent as a result of a brewery opening nearby, while the value of condominiums increased by 3.2 percent. The value of commercial properties was unaffected.

That sounds like some gentrification to me! Of course, what’s true in Charlotte may not be/probably isn’t true elsewhere, and Reid and Nilsson’s plans to expand their research to 48 other cities had to be put on hold due to—you guessed it!—the coronavirus pandemic.

But the fact that the appearance of craft breweries can be linked to property values going up is reason enough to turn our attention to what pisses people off the most about gentrivitalization: displacement.

Winners and losers

When property values go up (due to the arrival of a brewery, or whatever) the people incumbent to the neighborhood get squeezed by rising rents, higher costs of goods and services, and maybe even higher property taxes.

And they leave: “The most common problem people associate with gentrification is the displacement of residents from a neighborhood experiencing redevelopment,” according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

The fact that remaking a formerly neglected district often requires the ouster of its longterm residents (and the independent businesses that serve them) to clear the way for exposed-brick breweries and cool-kid coffee shops and other bourgeoisie businesses is what complicates the feel-good story that “revitalization” tries to tell.

“It's so difficult to say this is good, this is bad, it really is,” said Reid. “I don't think it's that black and white.”

(Speaking of black and white: race and economic class being deeply entangled in this country, the low-income residents being bounced from their homes are often nonwhite, while the craft beer community, despite some recent efforts, remains very white. This is key subtext for this topic, and I plan on examining in more detail in future editions. If you have suggestions for interviews/reading, let me know!)

I have never been gentrified out of the neighborhood I grew up in by some hot new hazecannery selling juice bombs for $24 a four-pack but if I did I suspect I would be pretty certain that this process is bad as hell.

Of course if I owned the hazecannery making the money printer go brrrrr I would probably think to myself “hot dang, gentrivitalization is tight, let’s do this to another neighborhood pronto.” (Editor’s note #2: If I ever start selling overpriced smoothie IPAs and talking like this, please assassinate me.)

But that’s sort of the point: the goodness or badness of a neighborhood’s redevelopment depends on your perspective—and your relationship to capital. If you have it, or access to it on account of being the sort of person (white) that people will lend money to it, this process probably reads like a happy tale of urban renewal.

Who gets to enjoy that renewal? The newcomers who reap the benefit of cheap rents and a performance of bootstrappery that the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino once lamented as “the vocabulary of survival becoming plausibly accessible to the rich.” Them, for sure. And the NLIHC does note that “longterm residents who are not pushed out” can also benefit from development. So that’s nice!

But for everyone else? “Well, then it’s a negative story. That’s the negative perspective,” said Neil.

Apropos of nothing here’s a very upbeat promo video about a former school in Alabama that got redeveloped into, uh, not-a-school:

OK, moving on!

“The #1 tool”

Don’t let me scare you off with my tenuous grasp of real estate development and the factors of production. Back to the matter at hand: are breweries really NOS for gentrification?

Nordquist, from the Florida guild, told me the bit about breweries being the “#1 tool” powering neighborhood gentrivitalization “was an estimate based on an internal polling of our membership as well as the number we are hearing from other states in similar situations.”

I was an English major in college and can barely figure out how to sort an Excel spreadsheet alphabetically, but that does not seem like a great way to source statistics like this. (Self-reporting: biased!)

Reid seemed dubious of such a blanket premise, noting that while breweries were occasionally major first-mover investors into distressed neighborhoods, they also often followed other businesses into those areas.

“A craft brewery by itself does not revive that neighborhood, but it can be an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle,” he said, while conceding that “they’re obviously prime candidates because of who they attract: the younger demographic, people with a little bit more disposable income that are quite happy spending, you know, six bucks on a 12-ounce beer,” he said.

But he was also sort of incredulous as to why Florida’s guild would’ve made that pitch in the first place.

“There's lots of good things about craft breweries. Being associated with that negative connotation [of gentrification], I think that’s something that they would want to avoid,” mused Reid.

You would think that, wouldn’t you?

Fingers presents: The Barfiti Project

Yes hello it’s me, @dinfontay. I write Fingers, a newsletter about drinking culture and being online. This account is the home of The Barfiti Project, an index of watering-hole wall scrawl from around the world. Send me pictures of your favorite barroom graffiti! And sign up for Fingers! OK!
July 26, 2020

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and enemies, lushes, drunks, and parents alike: feast your jaundiced eyes on The Barfiti Project, the latest addition to the burgeoning Fingers Media Conglomerate/Ponzi Scheme.

Last week I put out a call for your best photos of bar bathroom graffiti, inspired by a tweet about same from Ben Collins, an NBC News journalist I follow for his great reporting on the boogaloo movement and right-wing lunatics generally. (The reporting is great; the lunatics, not so much.)

My goal is simple: to create the most vast and wonderful visual index of bar graffiti ever known to humankind. In service of this laudable aim I created an Instagram handle and began posting some archival photos from my own camera roll, as well as early submissions from Fingers readers.

Got photos of barroom graffiti you care to share? Submit your own exemplars of the genre to be featured by DMing me on Instagram, or emailing me at dave at dinfontay dot com. Include the following details, if you can:

  • Location: the name of the bar, what neighborhood/city/country it’s in, yadda yadda

  • Date: approximately when the photo was taken

  • Other: whatever you think I should know about it beyond that

And of course, don’t forget to FOLLOW @its.fingers on Instagram for a pipeline of the finest dive bar bathroom #content in the world. The world, I tell you!

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