Gentrification – Understanding & Context is Part I of a two part series on gentrification and its consequences. Stay tuned for Part II: Gentrification – Consequences, Impacts, & Eviction.
What is gentrification?
Gentrification is the process by which more affluent people (generally demographically young and white) settle in an urban neighborhood (typically populated by low-income residents and people of color), pushing property values and housing costs up and driving a complete change in neighborhood character and culture. The dramatic rise of housing costs and the overwhelming shift in neighborhood personality often drive low-income, long-time residents out of their own community.
Gentrification is a term that is oftentimes is “used negatively, suggesting the displacement of poor communities by rich outsiders” (PBS). Many critics go so far as to liken the process of gentrification to colonialism, the well known practice in which one group subjugates another, displacing the ‘lower’ group in the process (Zak Cheney Rice, .Mic). Although many aspects of gentrification do seem to mirror colonialism, and many label the process as a driving force behind the dissolution of culture, “the effects of gentrification are complex and contradictory, and its real impact varies” (PBS).
A History of Gentrification
Gentrification is a distinctly modern phenomenon, first recognized in the later half of the 20th century. It has truly come to the forefront in urban areas in the last 25 years.
British sociologist Ruth Glass described the process in 1964, noting the sudden influx of middle class, young professionals into the London neighborhood of Islington, an area that was known for its working class roots and West Indian immigrant population (Steven Thomson, Curbed). Playing off the term “gentry”, Glass encompassed the current concept of the process into a single word, “gentrification”, instilling into the phrase both high-class connections and allusions to change.
Aerial view of the Olympic Park and the Stratford neighborhood of London, which has undergone major redevelopment and gentrification in recent years. CC Image courtesy of EG Focus on Wikimedia Commons.
Although Glass developed the idea of gentrification in London several decades ago, the term still applies to many portions of the city. London in recent years has seen the revitalization, so to speak, of many city center locations and regions on the fringe of the urban core, with more and more educated, young business professionals seeking easy access to work and nightlife. The neighborhood of Shoreditch in East London experienced a massive wave of gentrification in the past ten years and there has been significant backlash against rising property values and living costs. Many locals have been pushed out, and the particular East London grittiness – which Shoreditch was always known for – has been replaced by trendy coffee shops and even a cold cereal bar. My own former neighborhood of Stratford, another East London locale, seems to be on the same track. Stratford—where I lived from January 2016 to June 2016—is one of the best examples of a modern age “melting pot”. The region transitioned from an industrial hub in the mid-1900s to an ethnically diverse enclave with an impressive mixture of cultures and nationalities. Still today, walking down the street you will find diverse cuisines and people of all backgrounds. However, gentrification had already begun before my arrival, particularly with the development of the area in lieu of the 2012 Olympics. With more modern structures came influxes of educated, young professionals and measurable change. Even in conversation with my former boss, who lived there only a few years before me, it is evident that Stratford has changed dramatically: dingy old sectors have been razed, malls have been built, a new tube station designed, ethnic gems destroyed, and crime reduced. In attempts to court whiter and more affluent young residents, new, modern buildings and amenities are constantly under development. As a result, housing prices have risen and many locals are being forced further eastward. Like Shoreditch, the neighborhood is in jeopardy of losing its cultural diversity due to soaring housing costs. However, at the same time, many residents, both new and long-term, are heralding some changes: nearly all regard the addition of green spaces, development of reliable transportation, and reduction in violence, as a positive, making the area is better for everyone. Yet, these positives are often times at odds with the negatives associated with gentrification in the region. The complex story of Stratford highlights the diverse and often times dueling consequences of gentrification.
The Lower East Side, a traditionally Jewish neighborhood, was one of the last portions of Manhattan to gentrify. CC Image courtesy of David Shankbone on Wikimedia Commons.
In the United States, as well, gentrification has been a strong force in the later half of the 20th century through recent years. The origins of gentrification are often found in the 1960s during the push for renewal throughout urban areas and the ongoing drive to cut crime and revitalize poorer neighborhoods of cities. The removal of blighted buildings, the addition of modern conveniences, and the decline of violence and drug use not only made neighborhoods throughout American cities better for their own residents during this time period, but also attracted outsiders (Nyesha Zenetta Maughn).
In New York for instance, over the course of the late 20th century, crime rates dropped dramatically—today, crime is at only 19% of its 1990 level (Thomas Rogers, Salon). Coupled with redevelopment of lower Manhattan and other districts, the affluent began to flock to the city, building up nearly every corner of the island. Areas like SoHo, the Lower East Side, and Flatiron are what they are today—sophisticated hubs for culture, shopping, dining, and living—because of stronger policing tactics and strategic urban renewal projects. The urban revitalization and crime abatement obviously had major positive effects for the city and the new residents. However, what happened to lifelong residents as their rent prices began to soar? What happened to their communities and distinct cultures as the new moved in and the old moved out? Given these complex consequences, many have asked if it is possible to make neighborhoods safer and more modern, without attracting more affluent residents and threatening specific cultural enclaves (The Dirt, Aaron King).
SoHo developed rapidly after an influx of educated professionals and artists in the 1990s. CC Image courtesy of Fuzzy Images on Flickr.
But, then again, perhaps reduction in crime rates and the push for redevelopment was not the sole factor contributing to gentrification in major cities from the 1990s until today. In fact, a “1976 study by the Urban Land Institute”—even before crime rates declined and renewal peaked—”found that nearly half of the 260 cities [surveyed] with a population over 50,000 had undergone gentrification” (Steven Thomson, Curbed). Therefore, gentrification seems to have appeared in cities before major changes in the urban landscape occurred. This possibly suggests that there was a preference shift for the American middle class and the young. It seems that in the 1960s, educated, young professionals and artists had “an increasing desire for the kind of cultural and intellectual pursuits which are generally found only in the central cities—performing arts, museums, libraries, seminars, etc.” (Steven Thomson, Curbed). Their shift in priorities led them to move to cities, driving demand and rent up, displacing locals.
The Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg was representative of the working class roots of the neighborhood in the mid 20th century. Since then, many young professionals have flooded into the area. CC Image courtesy of David Shankbone on Wikimedia Commons.
Whether a push for urban renewal, the reduction in crime rates, or the shift in young professional housing preferences, there is no doubt that gentrification was and still is pervasive. Gentrification has been widespread in locations such as San Francisco, which has the highest housing prices in the country; the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn; and Boston (Zak Cheney Rice, .Mic). In Williamsburg, rent prices have soared over 75% since 1990, with costs on average increasing 6.8% per year (Jessica Dailey, Curbed). To put this in perspective, when my grandmother grew up in Williamsburg in the 1940s, her parents’ 3-bedroom garden-level apartment would have cost roughly $900 in today’s real money. In 2017, a 3-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg goes for $4,000. This increase in housing costs seems excessive to many.
Clearly gentrification has historically had widespread impacts in terms of housing costs and displacement of people and culture in urban places—and these impacts continue today. However, what has yet to be explored is how gentrification perhaps impacts our own community and the people we met in Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted.
More to come on these topics next week in Part II: Gentrification – Consequences, Impacts, & Eviction.
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The Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn is ubiquitous with gentrification. CC Image courtesy of LWYang on Wikimedia Commons.