What a City Is For

What a City Is For

Remaking the Politics of Displacement

By Matt Hern

An investigation into gentrification and displacement, focusing on the case of Portland, Oregon's systematic dispersal of black residents from its Albina neighborhood.

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An investigation into gentrification and displacement, focusing on the case of Portland, Oregon's systematic dispersal of black residents from its Albina neighborhood.

Portland, Oregon, is one of the most beautiful, livable cities in the United States. It has walkable neighborhoods, bike lanes, low-density housing, public transportation, and significant green space—not to mention craft-beer bars and locavore food trucks. But liberal Portland is also the whitest city in the country. This is not circumstance; the city has a long history of officially sanctioned racialized displacement that continues today. Over the last two and half decades, Albina—the one major Black neighborhood in Portland—has been systematically uprooted by market-driven gentrification and city-renewal policies. African Americans in Portland were first pushed into Albina and then contained there through exclusionary zoning, predatory lending, and racist real estate practices. Since the 1990s, they've been aggressively displaced—by rising housing costs, developers eager to get rid of low-income residents, and overt city policies of gentrification.

Displacement and dispossessions are convulsing cities across the globe, becoming the dominant urban narratives of our time. In What a City Is For, Matt Hern uses the case of Albina, as well as similar instances in New Orleans and Vancouver, to investigate gentrification in the twenty-first century. In an engaging narrative, effortlessly mixing anecdote and theory, Hern questions the notions of development, private property, and ownership. Arguing that home ownership drives inequality, he wants us to disown ownership. How can we reimagine the city as a post-ownership, post-sovereign space? Drawing on solidarity economics, cooperative movements, community land trusts, indigenous conceptions of alternative sovereignty, the global commons movement, and much else, Hern suggests repudiating development in favor of an incrementalist, non-market-driven unfolding of the city.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262034883 272 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 5 b&w photos


$19.95 T ISBN: 9780262534420 272 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 5 b&w photos


  • His study of the cleansing of [Portland's] black-majority Albina neighbourhood makes for a thoughtful, first-person book...

    Times Higher Education


  • Matt Hern's What a City Is For not only offers a brilliant analysis of the violence of urban dispossession and displacement in settler-colonial contexts, but envisions a radically alternative view of the city grounded in a decolonized conception of land and sovereignty.

    Glen Sean Coulthard

    author of Red Skin, White Masks

  • Hern has an entirely unique voice and approach to writing that seamlessly braids incisive intervention with sharp analysis and a phenomenal capacity to tell stories that makes him one of my favorite subversive intellectuals. With a beautiful commitment to the politics of embodied and critical action, What a City Is For takes us through a rethinking of the politics of cities by carefully dismantling the root—capitalism, settler colonialism, and anti-Blackness. This book is a raw, honest, and brilliant analysis delivered with the fire of someone who cares very deeply about the world we share. His words fly off the page and into my life as he invites me to envision a different way of living in a different world, and in doing so, he makes me feel less alone.

    Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

    author of Dancing on Our Turtle's Back

  • What makes a neighborhood particularly 'gentrifiable'?  Why do displacement and dispossession continue to be such central aspects of capitalist urbanism, and how do they operate at present? In this eminently readable, personable, and honest book, Matt Hern focuses his perceptive bifocal activist-theorist lens on these questions with incredibly rich results. Readers will find in this book the seeds of a dissenting urban imagination, one that credibly construes attachment to land as a source of radical resistance, urban design as a technology of freedom, and place-based activism as a means to a new ontology of dwelling.

    Arturo Escobar

    Professor of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

  • What a City Is For is a scholarly look at Portland made accessible to general readers. Matt Hern's work is essential reading for anyone interested in urban studies and the politics of Portland generally. This text will stand the test of time.

    Judson L. Jeffries

    Professor of African American and African Studies, The Ohio State University, coauthor of The Portland Black Panthers

  • This book is a timely and critical study of the devastating consequences of unbridled speculative real estate forces and their disproportionate impact on the lives and livelihoods of the African American community in Portland, Oregon. It offers a shocking portrayal of the deliberate process of displacement and subsequent impoverishment of the black communities. What a City Is For is an eloquent cry for the de-commodification of housing and land as perhaps the only way to truly build cities where all the residents have equal rights to everything that cities have to offer.

    Miloon Kothari

    former Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, United Nations Human Rights Council