Review of The Sustainability Myth: Environmental Gentrification and the Politics of Justice By Melissa Checker, New York: NYU Press. 2020. 280 pp.

Reviewed Book

The Sustainability Myth: Environmental Gentrification and the Politics of Justice By Melissa Checker, New York: NYU Press. 2020. 280 pp.

Cover of The Sustainability Myth (2020)

Keri Vacanti Brondo

University of Memphis

The Sustainability Myth: Environmental Gentrification and the Politics of Justice showcases the paradoxes that emerge as New York City attempts to reinvent itself as one of the world’s most sustainable metropolitan areas. Drawing on over 20 years of research on environmental racism, Melissa Checker takes readers on a historical tour de force of three forms of gentrification — green, industrial, and brown. Checker traces how “environmental gentrification” leads to the uneven distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, and how environmental justice activists, despite their own racial, political, and economic divides, come together to resist sustainability’s false promises.

Checker employs the concept of “sustainaphrenia” to capture the hidden costs that emerge with heightened attention to sustainability in urban spaces, including the false notion that urban development polices can stimulate economic growth and mitigate climate change, all the while attending to the social justice arm of sustainable development via civic engagement. Much to the contrary, Checker’s close analysis of the programs and policies behind Mayor Bloomberg’s promises to reinvent NYC through sustainable redevelopment and grant New Yorkers access to a greener, healthier lifestyle and amenities instead had a much more predictable outcome, resulting in the consolidation of wealth and access to green spaces for some and dispossession and environmental inequities for others, which track along racial and economic lines.

For the anthropologist-reader, it is important to note that The Sustainability Myth is not a traditional ethnography. Rather, Checker considers the book “an ethnographic approach to a particular trend and moment in time” and “less of an ethnography of a particular place or group” (46). Methodologically, the book draws on archival research (from historical records, policy documents, zoning laws, websites, social media, and the like), combined with ethnographic description from Checker’s work, and friendship, with environmental justice activists during public meetings, workshops, collaborative grant-writing, and other social interactions. This approach allows the book to speak to a wide audience, from academics focused on urban studies and environmental justice to lay audiences with interest in the history and transformation of New York City.

The Sustainability Myth is comprised of two parts. The first set of chapters are a historical account of the unfolding of the three forms of environmental gentrification: the relationship between public green space and rising property values (“green gentrification”); use of zoning policies to locate “heavy” industrial facilities within marginalized communities (“industrial gentrification”); and incentivizing private developers to clean up and repurpose brownfields to encourage further high-end, luxury development (“brownfield gentrification”). Throughout these chapters, Checker dives into a variety of examples from New York’s foundation through today, showing how discourses of revitalization, progress, sustainability, and similar buzzwords were repeatedly deployed to veil what was really happening: capital accumulation for wealthy elites and the displacement and environmental injustice for primarily Brown and Black residents of lower socioeconomic neighborhoods.

A major strength of The Sustainability Myth is that it is rife with compelling examples of how sustainable urban development operates as an exclusionary act that furthers capitalist agendas, providing access to prime real estate and capital to wealthy elites while also justifying land grabs and eviction of marginalized communities. Checker starts her historical analysis with some of the most iconic green spaces and names in New York, revealing the decision-making processes behind the creation of Central Park by removing what had been the largest community of free Blacks in the city, making way for mansions of some of the Northeast’s wealthiest families, like the Vanderbilts and Carnegies. Checker shows how Robert Moses, city planner, parks commissioner, and namesake for the state’s parkway system, beaches, and playgrounds, made decisions for siting waste management, transportation routes, and parks based on race and class, and facilitate the forced displacement of poor and minority residents in the name of urban revitalization.

In the contemporary moment, Checker forces readers to confront their own embodied neoliberal sensibilities and ways they are complicit in advancing environmental gentrification. Analysis of contemporary urban renewal programs aimed at encouraging the expansion of what Richard Florida calls the “creative class” and the spread of the “Maker” movement, popular with millennials throughout gentrified Brooklyn, stand out in this way. It is far too easy for people to get caught up in the sustainability narrative, a discourse that speaks to sensibilities of liberal-minded individuals with concerns for environmental health and social justice.

Having meticulously laid out the costs and contradictions of urban development, the reader wonders if there is hope for a sustainable future in New York City and other urban centers. This question becomes the focus of Part Two. These last couple chapters feature the fruits of Checker’s ethnography and collaboration with environmental justice activists on Staten Island, alongside of the critical message that participatory policies and practices are often in name only. Drawing in large part on day-to-day realities of environmental activism for Beryl Thurman, Checker’s central interlocutor, the final chapters demonstrate how neoliberal agendas appropriate and co-opt civil rights discourse in a way that disables grassroots activism. Thurman and other activists face a series of no-win situations: for instance, feeling as though they must attend meetings so they can remain attuned to the threats their constituents face, without mechanisms for true participation. At one point Thurman notes that developers call steering committees a “steering committee because they are steering us in the direction they want us to go” (147), a message critical for students pursuing a range of careers that promise public engagement to absorb.

Environmental justice activists also face an exhausting number of demands on their time and energy, from draconian expectations for reporting from granting agencies, to uncompensated labor for service on boards and committees and guest lectures at academic institutions. Despite constraints and demands on activists’ time and energy, and despite city officials’ efforts to reconfigure space, NYC residents and activists have continuously resisted and reclaimed public space through urban gardens, drum circles, and other means. Checker shows that even in highly polemical and politically divisive times, environmental justice activism crosses social boundaries, fostering unlikely partnerships and coalitions from people of all walks of life. This is her message of hope for the future.

A central strength of the book is Checker’s ability to apply critical political economic theory in readable terms, making it accessible to students of all levels. Students will see theory in action through NYC urban planning, with clear examples of Karl Marx’s concerns about capitalist expansion and the “metabolic rift,” David Harvey’s understanding of the “spatial fix” and how real estate often serves as a solution for the crisis of over accumulation, and how Neil Smith’s “rent gap” theory gives rise to gentrification in specific neighborhoods.

A shortcoming for medical anthropologists is the limited information on health and illness. We know that residents in the North Shore live in areas subject to flooding or sometimes quite literally on top of contaminated soil, with unsafe levels of lead and arsenic, but because this is a book about a “trend and moment in time” and not about “a particular place or people” (46) we receive little detail on the bodily experiences, illness narratives, and health impacts for people living amidst environmental toxins and exposed to the threats of climate change. Thus, those seeking an ethnography of health and illness, or health-care interventions should look elsewhere. For readers interested in a critical reading of how a century of urban policy has created led to environmental marginalization and exposure to health inequities, Checker’s contribution is must-read. In sum, The Sustainability Myth is beautifully written, data-rich book that is well-suited for students of all levels and across a series of disciplines, but primarily geared towards courses and academics of urban studies and environmental justice activism.