What does 'gentrification' really mean?
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.
This article was originally published on StrongTowns.org by Kea Wilson
To some, gentrification is synonymous with an inseparably interconnected web of violent acts; it’s a thing to be fought if we want to preserve compassion for the most vulnerable in our societies and guard against unmitigated greed. If we let the interests of wealthy developers control our landscapes, what happens to democracy for the common man?
To others, though, gentrification is the simple mechanism by which we make our cities better, tied up in our most basic economic processes. After all, if we can’t develop properties and get more money into a neighborhood tax base, what are we supposed to be doing if we want to build better places (short of upending capitalism itself)? If properties must degrade or be improved and rents must rise or fall or be maintained, isn’t “gentrification” a natural process as much as a deliberate one?
But to many more, “gentrification” is a word that provokes anxiety and uncertainty, especially if we’re people who hold some degree of economic, social or other power and we’re not sure how best to use it. We might worry about our own role in gentrification when we scout for apartments or decide whether or not to support the new coffee shop down the street; we might consider gentrification when we make choices about who to vote for in local elections, or whether that shiny new development in a low income neighborhood is a good thing. And if we’re disempowered people, we might think about gentrification when our landlord hikes up the rent, or when we see a street we’ve cherished suddenly and irreversibly change.
Gentrification can shape our lives. But we don’t seem to really know what it means.
The word “gentrification” itself is only half a century old, so it’s no wonder that we still don’t fully have our arms around it. But since we first put a word to the phenomena, this single term has been re-appropriated and applied to all manner of political, economic, and social processes, and it’s often used as a shorthand for many processes at once. When a crumbling low-income apartment building is claimed under eminent domain and the residents are evicted, many would say that’s gentrification. But when the main earner in a low income family gets a new job, moves up a social class and starts fixing up their house, some would say that’s gentrification, too. Some would say it isn’t gentrification until the hipster cafes and hair salons start setting up shop. Others would say it isn’t gentrification at all unless the “gentry” is white or wealthy.
Whether we think gentrification is a problem to be tackled or a force to be harnessed, it can’t hurt to slow down, take a step back, and think about what we really mean when we use this loaded term. Here are just a few of the many things we talk about when when we talk about “gentrification.”
Displacement—and more specifically, economic displacement—is one of our most common associations with the word “gentrification,” and for good reason; it’s boiled into the origin of the term. When it was first coined by British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964, “gentrification” was intended to refer specifically to residential displacement like the kind experienced by poor workers in urban London neighborhoods as the middle class (or the “landed gentry”) moved in.
Moneyed developers (one segment of our modern day “gentry”) purchase housing stock and jack up the rents beyond the reach of low-income tenants; an upper class Toronto family purchases a “crack house” in a low-income neighborhood, kicks out the legitimate tenants and all their squatting friends, and renovates it into a single family mini-mansion, making the time to gripe about the harrowing experience on the internet, where they are roundly mocked. These things feel, to many of us, like clear-cut cases of gentrification, with easily identifiable victims who need our protection.
But while we might be troubled by individual cases of displacement, some—including many liberal-leaning voices—have questioned the systemic relationship between gentrification and displacement, as well as the sometimes overwhelming amount of space displacement has been allowed to take up in our public debate. In 2015, City Lab did a deep dive into research that concluded that gentrifying neighborhoods don’t lose low-income residents at a substantially lower rate than any other neighborhoods. Others have gone so far as to state that displacement by gentrification is relatively rare in the US today.
Indeed, many would claim that most of the projects that might be decried as “gentrification” are simply basic development—new building and lot owners taking stock of their portfolios and doing what it takes to put them to their highest and best use. Developers, after all, are simply doing their jobs. And in many cases, their efforts to improve the building stock—razing a condemned building that’s unsafe even for people walking by, fixing up a long-vacant storefront, bringing in a neighborhood third place, and yes, even forcing out a low-income tenant who might also be a neighborhood nuisance or even a source of violent crime—these efforts can make places better for the long-standing residents, can’t they? Who are the “victims” of gentrification if so many people are benefiting?
Still, many question whether all development should be unilaterally accepted as a neighborhood good—or even a “natural” thing for our neighborhoods—or whether we have an obligation to take a broader look at the economic, political, and social effects of neighborhood change. If we’re troubled by the possibility of economic displacement, we might advocate for government solutions like inclusionary zoning or other checks on developers’ power to use their properties as they see fit (though some might argue that it doesn’t always work.) If we’re troubled by the political and social implications of new development, however, the solutions we suggest might be more complex.