Everything I Know About Gentrification, I Learned From Urbz: Sims in the City on Nintendo Game Boy Advance

By Freddy Detchou

Winter 2021 Issue

When I moved to the city for university, I felt like I was out of my depth. I grew up out on the countryside with my uncle and had gotten used to living in a close-knit community with friendly neighbors, fresh air, and an easygoing lifestyle. In the city, however, my life became a rat race filled with odd jobs, running to classes, living in an unsafe apartment and working to save a struggling city facing entrenched classism and a real-estate magnate’s plans to accelerate gentrification to his benefit, regardless of the consequences.

As realistic as that (almost) sounded, I’ve actually just described the plot of the Urbz: Sims in the City video game (the Nintendo Game Boy Advance version), which was released in November 2004. Unlike most of The Sims games, where you simply create your character, build a house, get a job and let loose on the world; in Urbz, your created character follows a set story. As I recently discovered, this story may reflect realities and perceptions of gentrification, specifically in the North American context. Let me explain:

After moving to Miniopolis (the big city) your character works to stop Daddy Bigbucks, an archetypal immoral capitalist character who is planning to buy up all of the city’s buildings and tear them down in order to build the “most fabulous urban theme park the world has ever known”, displacing all of the city’s “undesirable” inhabitants in the process. The game’s solution is twofold. On one hand, your character needs to befriend the leaders of the game’s four social groups to unite the people, and on the other, they need to convince local entrepreneurs to invest in the community to build the city up equitably and affordably. Along the way, you organize protests, get arrested, take on a variety of jobs to pay for life expenses and university (and use your education to gain promotions) and impersonate dead sailors to convince their brothers not to sell their businesses (to be fair, this only happens once, but I thought that it was wild enough to warrant inclusion in this list).

When I first found the game in 2007, I was only 11, so I didn’t really think too much about it, but picking it up again in 2020, I couldn’t help but notice its themes and the blueprint that it lays out for real life. Gentrification is, according the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “a process in which a poor area experiences an influx of middle-class or wealthy people who renovate and rebuild homes and businesses, often [resulting] in an increase in property values and the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.” It has its roots in the word “gentry”, which refers to people of a certain (read: higher) social standing. The term, as it is known today, was first used in British sociologist Ruth Glass’ 1964 book London: Aspects of Change:  

One by one, many of the working-class neighborhoods of London have been invaded by the middle classes […]. Shabby, modest mews and cottages […] have been taken over […] and have become elegant, expensive residences […]. Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.

Over the past few years, this concept has been brought up all over the world – but few areas have experienced this phenomenon more acutely than Brooklyn, New York City. Once a mostly Black neighborhood known for its cultural renaissance in the 1980s, the borough is now seen as diverse, trendy, upscale and “cool.” Following a combination of disproportionate drug-related incarcerations within the borough’s predominately Black neighborhoods in the 1990s and the closing of businesses, among other things, new investors bought and engaged in developments around the area, leading to a rise in property values and quality of goods in lower-income areas, attracting investors and dynamic, creative (and mostly white) young professionals and contributing to the departure of established landlords, business owners and inhabitants.

Many have lauded the effects of gentrification, citing reduced crime rates, increased property values, regeneration of community and cultural spaces, and improving the overall quality of life of affected neighborhoods (including for low-income residents). Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood is often put forward as an example of gentrification’s positive effects – the area has seen an increase in new high-rise (and high rent) apartment buildings, cultural institutions and attractions, Starbucks cafés trendy businesses and dynamic young people. The demographic shift is worth noting as well – between 2000 and 2010, Fort Greene’s White population increased by 120%, and its Black population decreased by 30%.

Herein lies the problem for many. Legendary filmmaker Spike Lee, a Fort Greene native, summarized some of the prominent arguments against gentrification during a 2014 Black History Month speech at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute:

I don’t believe that [gentrification has its good sides]. I grew up in Fort Greene. […] Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in [inner cities] for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every day when I was living [in Fort Greene] […]. The police weren’t around. […] Then comes the Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. There were brothers playing African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father […] bought a house in 1968, and people moved in last year and called the cops on my father [for playing acoustic bass]! […] I’m for democracy and letting everybody live but you gotta have some respect. You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now [things] gotta change because you’re here? Can’t do that! […] And what about the people who are renting? They can’t afford it anymore! People can’t afford to live here anymore. [..] It’s a scam!

Gentrification is defeated by the creation of a rainbow coalition of different social groups, who come together to save the area that they call home.

Mr. Lee’s impassioned plea reflects a frustration and fear that is not uncommon in communities facing this kind of change: and with his reference to Christopher Columbus, he evokes the image of strangers coming to stake their claim on existing land and cultures with no regard for the people indigenous to the area. Sure – increased property values, more cultural institutions, increased outside investment and recognition sound good, but, especially in this context, who are they benefitting, and at what cost?

At the beginning of Urbz, Kris Thistle, your work supervisor, informs you that your boss, Mr. King, has sold his King Tower apartment building (where you live and work) to Daddy Bigbucks, who has promptly fired and evicted everyone in the building in order to get his big plan going. To avoid having to choose between homelessness and returning to your uncle’s farm, you convince Kris to let you keep your job and live in the building, as long as you stay hidden in the unfinished penthouse. A few days later, you stumble upon a holographic message from Mr. King, who explains that, although he let himself be seduced by Daddy Bigbucks’ big bucks (hehe) he regrets his decision and needs your help to make things right. When you get caught snooping around Bigbucks’ lawyer’s office, you get arrested by the town’s detective and thrown into jail.

Luckily, after some smooth talking, you convince the detective to let out on parole, on condition that you work to get back on your feet by getting a job and a house, and the game is truly underway. You start the game in Urbania, a sort of stereotypical inner-city, “urban” neighborhood (and you can’t leave this area until your probation is over), and after every few missions, you gain access to the two, progressively more upscale areas, SimQuarter and Glasstown. Early on, your character is introduced to the city’s four main social groups (or “Rep Groups”, as they’re called in game):

The Streeties (Down-to-earth, stylish, and cool, the Streeties look like a combination of all of the pop and hip-hop styles of the 2000s and pride themselves on being plugged into the “real”, underground culture – they’re the “original” inhabitants of the inner-city area);

The Nerdies (As their names suggest, these are the brains of the city, operating at the top of Miniopolis’ scientific, tech and educational fields);

The Richies (These are the rich socialites and yuppies, always looking for the freshest new trends, biggest names and hottest venues);

The Artsies (Artists, creative professionals, eccentrics, hipsters: the free-spirited art makers).

Throughout the game, the challenges that you complete help you gain notoriety within these groups, and you befriend a whole cast of characters who help to advance the plot along the way (special shout out to Grandma Hattie, a sweet, elderly revolutionary who gets thrown into jail for leading the movement against Daddy Bigbucks). Using your connections, you convince the four Rep Group leaders to use their status and particular sets of skills to mobilize people and save the city: the Streeties help you to move through the different neighborhoods and make connections, the Nerdies give you tips on how to increase your skills and outsmart Daddy Bigbucks, the Richies buy and help reopen key attractions like the museum, and the Artsies work to start a carnival on a vacant lot and organize theatre premieres to criticize Bigbucks, create jobs and increase outside interest in the city.

Despite their differences, the groups rally around you to save their beloved Miniopolis, and all ends well enough – well, after seeing his legal routes blocked, Daddy Bigbucks tries to go back in time to build Miniopolis in his image, but you manage to stop him from doing that, too (is this a comment on revisionist history, or people stripping things of their historical context? Maybe, but that’s a theory for another day).

In Urbz, the specter of gentrification is defeated by the creation of a rainbow coalition of different social groups, both established and new, who come together to save the area that they call home. In real life, however, things aren’t as straightforward. In contrast with the wonderful image that Urbz paints, where all elements of a community come together to understand and respect their common and heterogeneous cultures, the reality can be grimmer.

In many communities, the process of rapid urban development known as gentrification often leaves a bittersweet end result, with the “upgrading in the social character of the neighborhood” often being linked to the erasure of culture and traditions and the stripping of the “soul” of a city, often leading to clashes on issues such as loud music, art, and more, in both peaceful and violent ways. In these cases, different groups can’t seem to find a common understanding, or their quest for understanding is bulldozed by government or investor efforts.

This is not to say that gentrification is a wholly evil process – nothing is black and white. For example, while it has been found that this rapid development did not significantly affect displacement in New York City between 1989 and 2011, the opposite was true for San Francisco and the Bay area. Also, while it is believed that gentrification benefits White people at the expense of Black people, college-educated Blacks often benefit from the changes as well, albeit not to the same extent. The issue here is the sense that there is not enough progress and positive change to go around, as the needs and wants of these more privileged groups often supersede those of previous inhabitants, who are often lower income Black families.

This is where Urbz comes in. The game exists as a direct challenge to this image of gentrification as a purveyor of inequalities and eraser of culture, people and places, and pushes for an ideal community where we all find ways to include and benefit everyone.

But in today’s day and age, how can we build on existing communities instead of building over them? How can we ensure that there is space for everyone? And can we truly build communities in an equitable way? Is it too good to be true?

As explained by Roderick Hall, the Director of Organizing at Abundant Housing LA, a social welfare organization that advocates for more, more affordable and more diverse housing in Los Angeles, context is important. This game, as many writers have done before and after it, presents a solution that does not “take into the totality of thought and lived experience within a community, how they arrived at that thought, and what their concerns are to move them towards the ‘right’.” Thus, when we consider the history of segregation, exclusionary and divisive housing policies such as redlining, the social divisions that they helped to propagate and the insular nature of many social groups, it does not seem like this Urbz model is scalable – especially in a day and age during which we have retreated further into our bubbles and often only exit them for “a cultural experience.”

Although Urbz is a game that features a fiddle-playing elf/demon, a teen-aged humanoid albino crocodile, a vampire and the ghost of a civil war soldier in its cast of characters, its most glaring fault as a representation of gentrification is the lack of the historical and present-day contexts that directly impact the way that gentrification is presented and experienced in our societies.

For all of these limitations, however, I do believe that the ideal world that Urbz gives us holds some important ideas and may give us loose tactics that can be translated to real life. Of course, achieving an inclusive gentrification process that rivals the one found in Urbz would require concerted efforts, collaboration and significant research and understanding, but the idea of a more inclusive renewal is not an impossibility – and it has even been attempted. We’ve seen the creation of the City of London’s Creative Enterprise Zones, which aim to simultaneously support local artists and amplify the city’s creative spirit and attractiveness, for example, in collaboration with local businesses, academic institutions, and land developers. The zones are expected to leverage more than 30 million pounds of investment and create over 3,500 new jobs. And, in addition to the efforts of organizations like Abundant Housing LA, groups at various levels of government, and companies trying to take responsibility, there has been an increase in making sure that societal change does not happen at the expense of those who are most in need. These kinds of development initiatives help to set precedents for strategies that distribute benefits more evenly.

At the end of the game, you walk through a parade thrown in your character’s honor, as a thank you for saving the city. While the citizens of Miniopolis unveil your statue, Daddy Bigbucks languishes in exile on an island inhabited by gophers. After facing eviction, termination, imprisonment, and an attempted mass displacement, you mobilize the people to take back their city, and everything falls into place. In our world, however, nothing is that simple – the idealized vision of inclusive gentrification is not a realistic solution (and even if was, every context is too different for it to be universally applicable), but, maybe, especially with the growing number of applicable precedents, this kind of fantasy can help us imagine and create societies that take care of everyone, especially those in need, and will motivate us to keep moving in that direction.

Freddy Detchou, also known as SUPER FREDDY, is a Canadian artist of Cameroonian origin who is currently based in Montreal.