What does "gentrification" really mean?

August 6, 2017

Kea Wilson of Strong Towns explores gentrification. No two people seem to quite agree on what the word “gentrification” means. If you’re at all interested in what shapes our cities, you’re bound to find yourself in a conversation about gentrification eventually—and depending on who you tend to hang out with, you might find yourself in a fight.


For many, gentrification is nothing more than a modern day form of colonialism, with the middle class “gentry” as conquistadors and the low income residents that came before them as a captive population subject to uprooting. Critics of the colonizing aspects of gentrification often point out the common intersections between low income levels and marginalized races, ethnicities, classes, sexualities, and other populations; after all, we can’t talk about gentrification as a bloodless economic process when real people and their real homes are involved.

When a wealthy developer puts up a luxury apartment building in a poor neighborhood and upper middle class, white, straight, English-only speakers line up to sign leases, they can bring with them a tide of change that threatens not just rent prices, but an entire cultural landscape. A Whole Foods goes up and runs a family-owned Asian grocery out of business. The police pay more attention to the area—the new wealthy neighbors have the money and social capital to demand that they do so—and they disproportionately target the long-standing residents of color who don’t have the same capital to stand up for themselves. It’s myopic to view gentrification only through the lens of a municipal budget sheet; even if we agree that gentrification is just about residential displacement, how we can ignore what all the new neighbors bring with them when they move in?

But many—again, including many liberal voices—question whether we can really think of a porous, modern city neighborhood in the same terms as we speak about Native American settlements before the arrival of Columbus. And even if we accept the comparison, what are those in power being asked to do? Is it better for low income communities to be ignored and avoided? If we have the resources to help and we want to do it ethically, what might that help look like?

Economic Integration

Many in the urbanism community have argued that, despite our best intentions, the opposite of gentrification does not look like low-income communities being left in peace to live self-directed lives, free from the influence of colonizers and capital. In reality, it looks a lot more like crushing concentrated poverty—and with that comes devastating health outcomes, under-performing schools, increased crime, food deserts and, believe it or not, even higher rates of displacement of the poor than gentrifying neighborhoods. From this perspective, a person with relative economic power maybe shouldn’t pat themselves on the back for moving to an affluent area, investing their energies and tax dollars into their equally-wealthy neighborhood, and leaving the poor folks next door to flounder. Some might even go so far as to say that it’s our duty, if we have options, to integrate economically with our less-affluent neighbors; after all, study after study has shown that growing up in a uniformly and extremely poor neighborhood (and especially a racially segregated neighborhood) is one of the greatest determinants of future success—and not in a good way.

But those skeptical of the concept of economic integration might argue that this reasoning only makes sense if we accept that there’s no way for the affluent to help the poor short of moving in next door. The premise of economic integration might suggest that we’ve simply agreed—perhaps erroneously—that economic mobility isn’t possible, and that the poor will always be poor, and there's nothing the affluent can do to change that. Why should no government, charitable, educational, or other interventions be considered? Why shouldn’t the poor be moved into wealthy neighborhoods? Add to that concerns that integration might be the first phase of a takeover—as a friend once said to me, “economic integration just means that poor residents’ days are numbered”—and this idea might feel more dangerous than we’re willing to risk.

Hipster invasion, Disneyfication, suburbanization...

And then, of course, there are the aesthetic effects of gentrification: The hipster boutiques and coffee shops. The sanitized chain stores and drive throughs that can make a neighborhood look an awful lot like the suburbs. Some even claim that bike lanes are an early symptom of gentrification, since cycling is perceived to be a favorite mode of transportation for the white, affluent and able-bodied.  

Anger about the flattening aspects of gentrification runs the gamut from fears of cultural erasure to simple aesthetic preference (i.e. "Get these bearded white guys in flannel off my block!"). But that doesn’t mean that everyone thinks this white-washing is a necessary symptom of a gentrifying neighborhood. In their excellent and nuanced book Gentrifier, co-authors John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch and Marc Lamont Hill distinguish between “entrenched” gentrifiers—middle-class people who feel they “belong” to their new neighborhood, as Hill did when he moved to a predominantly black low-income area as an affluent black man—and “symbolic” gentrifiers, who have no “native” link to a neighborhood but desire to be proximal, preserve, and perhaps even curate the “authentic” local community that came before them. The authors of Gentrifier point out the ways in which both types of gentrifiers can be helpful and problematic, and how the aesthetic evolution of a neighborhood is very rarely simple.  

I’ve written this list not because I believe we need to win now our way down to one “real” definition of gentrification. Language evolves, and it should; the phenomena we’re describing are too complex for the terms we use to talk about them to stay static.

But the next time you find yourself in a conversation about gentrification, I challenge you to be a little more precise. Ask yourself what really has you so angry, or perplexed, or excited about the example of gentrification you’re discussing; unpack the vocabulary behind the term, and do the same for your conversation partner. Then ask rigorous questions about the many processes you’re likely untangling, seek more evidence, and consider all sides. Chances are, you’ll find that you’re talking about something far bigger than can be encapsulated in a single word (and what you’re talking about may not even be included on my list; leave your thoughts in the comments). Keep talking anyway. Keep working to learn more. It’s the only way to really make your town stronger.  

Article by Kea Wilson originally published at StrongTowns.org. Kea Wilson serves as Director of Community Engagement for Strong Towns. She's based in the great city of St. Louis, Missouri, but she's lived everywhere from Santa Fe, New Mexico to coastal Maryland to far northern Michigan. She became passionate about the question of what it means to build a better world when she was in college, where she volunteered at a co-op bike collective and studied (most of) the great works of western civilization, roughly in chronological order. She's worked in community outreach and development for six years, most recently at a small independent bookstore where she coordinated a not-so-small author events series. She's also an avid (if somewhat slow) cyclist, an armchair economics nerd, and a novelist.

Republished under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
(All photos from Ennis Davis, AICP of Moderncities.com)

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