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The “G word” of urban politics

"Has Anyone Really Asked About a Gentrified Gone Girl?" Reads a one-line, half-star review by Promising Young Woman.

"Graphic novels are comics, but gentrified," read the headline of a Jacobin article.

Gentrification adds so many words these days – "graffiti", "rock music", "writing", "thrift" – that it bears little resemblance to its original definition. In 1964 the sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term gentrification. As Steven Thomson explained for Curbed, Glass described a "class phenomenon … by adapting the Britishist" gentry "to describe the process of the" middle class liberal arts "that entered their predominantly working class London neighborhood.

The term flew across the Atlantic and found its home in the United States, where in the last decades of the 20th, data from Google Books shows that the term "gentrification" didn't really make its way into the US until the late 1990s and has continued since then is in use.

There is no single empirical definition of gentrification among scientists, which makes it difficult to speak about with certainty. But let's talk: From Indianapolis to Austin, on a stage for the presidential debate and on a panel discussion on bike paths and of course on Twitter. Every time we talk about housing, the G word inevitably comes up.

Google books

Our focus on gentrification could lead to the assumption that this is the prevalent form of inequality in American cities (our oversized focus on the phenomenon may be due in part to the tendency of gentrification scholars, journalists, and digital media consumers to be in gentrification districts themselves). But the core laziness in American cities isn't the gentrification neighborhoods: it's exclusion, Segregation and concentrated poverty.

White, affluent neighborhoods that have denied class and racial integration have successfully avoided much control as gentrification is at the heart of urban political struggles. On the other hand, predominantly black and brown neighborhoods often fail to gentrify due to divestments and centuries of racist and classical politics.

And yet gentrification fires our imagination and offers a visual juxtaposition of inequality. While stagnant, segregated neighborhoods are an accepted backdrop to American life, rapidly changing, diverse neighborhoods and the culture warfare that accompanies gentrification is the battlefield where all disagreement comes to the fore.

Gentrification as a juxtaposition of the haves and the dispossessed

In his 2019 article "Hoboken Is Burning: Yuppies, Arson, and Displacement in the Postindustrial City," Princeton historian Dylan Gottlieb documented the violent displacement of Puerto Rico residents between 1978 and 1983 when the city of Hoboken, New Jersey was gentrified . As thousands of young professionals flocked to Hoboken, the potential sale or rental price for remodeled units soared and "homeowners were faced with strong incentives to crowd out low-income tenants."

As a result, “almost five hundred fires broke out through tenements and apartment buildings in the square mile city,” writes Gottlieb. “Most of the (displaced residents) never returned to Hoboken. According to the investigators, almost every fire was caused by arson. ”A total of 55 people died and over 8,000 were left homeless.

Today, this type of forced displacement is not what most people mean when they talk about gentrification. But what exactly they are talking about is less clear, and the confused debate often leads to confused policy objectives.

A recent New York Times article featured a Black Brooklyn homeowner speaking to a new white neighbor who was mistaken for a beggar: “I went over to have a conversation and before I could finish a sentence, he told me he didn't have any money, ”the man told the Times. Stories like this one of black homeowners watching their neighborhoods change around them abound, often with a culture shock to previous residents when the newcomers treat them or long-standing cultural markers with disdain.

In a Twitter thread accompanying the article, educator and historian Erica Buddington shared how the neighbor immediately assumed she was a saleswoman and shut the door on her when a package was mistakenly delivered to her new neighbor's house and she got it wanted to pick up.

In addition to these frustrating and racist micro-aggressions, there are concerns about displacement and the harm that could happen to those who stay. A 2020 study by then-sociologist Brenden Beck of the University of Florida showed that "on average, calls to the police increased after the middle class grew by a quarter". While Beck did not find these calls resulted in more stops or low-level arrests, he noted that "as the property market grew, the police carried out more orderliness and proactive arrests."

So are my new neighbors absolutely. My package was delivered to the wrong house and a guy answered the door and said, "I don't want anything you sell."

When I told him I was looking for a package, he said, “What the post office does is not my problem.” Pic.twitter.com/Qtmm8OWdS2

– Erica Buddington (@ericabuddington) August 18, 2021

But while gentrifying neighborhoods generate these types of interactions between neighbors or a stricter “order maintenance” police force, gentrification is not the root problem. The separation of neighborhoods doesn't remove these feelings or the damage they cause: it just hides them. In an affluent, white enclave like the Upper East Side, there are no fewer people who assume that a black man is begging for money on their street than in up-and-coming neighborhoods. In fact, there are probably more. Gentrifying neighborhoods are pulling back the veil and making these worlds collide, showing the huge disparities in income, access to education, and government protection and investment.

All of the problems people worry about when they invoke gentrification – evictions, police actions against colored people, lack of investment, predatory landlords – exist in segregated neighborhoods, often more.

As Suleiman Osman, a professor at George Washington University, wrote in his 2011 book The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, “There have been many stories of tenants (in Brooklyn) being pressured by landlords to leave revitalized areas. But also non-revitalizing blocks with high abandonment and demolition rates recorded equally high rates of displacement. "

What is gentrification?

Defining gentrification is difficult, even for experts.

The Urban Displacement Project, a research and policy group at the University of California Berkeley, defines it as:

a process of neighborhood change that includes the economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood – through real estate investments and the influx of new high-income residents – as well as demographic change – not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in terms of the level of education or the racial one Composition of residents.

While this covers the conceptual ideas, it has been difficult for researchers to determine which neighborhoods are gentrifying. Not for lack of attempts: Benjamin Preis, PhD student in Urban Studies at MIT, and his co-authors compared four different models of gentrification and displacement risk and found “striking differences between the models”. For example, one weighted "access to public transport" as a risk factor for gentrification while others did not, and another gave no data on racial composition.

The researchers applied all of the models to Boston and found that there were "only seven (counting) sections where all four models were consistently either gentrified or threatened with gentrification or displacement".

"(The models) disagree on the front end, they disagree on what we call gentrification, and then it's not surprising that they really disagree in the back end to actually find out what these neighborhoods are", Price said to Vox. “You end up having radical differences of opinion. One method identified nearly 120 tracts facing displacement pressure and another had only 39. "

As Columbia University researcher Brett McMillan explains in the Shelterforce publication, while gentrification is often believed to occur predominantly in predominantly black or brown neighborhoods, this is not the case. He explains the research: "Chicago neighborhoods with black populations over 40 percent experienced significantly lower gentrification rates" and "white 'invasion" of census areas with black populations 50 percent or more was a relatively rare phenomenon. "

The other big problem with defining gentrification is trying to quantify the physical shift. Widely regarded as the most damaging by-product of gentrification, the evidence that gentrification causes physical displacement is a mixed bag.

Displacement is another phenomenon that is difficult to define. The reasons people move are not cataloged in any database, and poor Americans are mostly temporary due to financial uncertainty. In addition, it is difficult to define “forced eviction” – if someone can afford a one-room apartment in his community but not a bigger house, will he be evicted if he has a child and moves to a more affordable neighborhood? People move for a variety of reasons: In 2015, FiveThirtyEight calculated that the average American has moved more than 11 times in their lifetime, suggesting that there are very few "long-term residents".

Importantly, research by eminent eviction scholar Matthew Desmond "found no evidence that renters living in gentrification or racially and economically integrated neighborhoods were more likely to be evicted." But perhaps rising rents can lead to evictions without evictions. (The way to avoid this would be to keep rents low by building more housing and preserving existing affordable housing, but more on that later.)

While the Hoboken arson was an unequivocal case of forced relocation, it is extremely difficult to gauge the insidious ways in which financially insecure Americans could be pushed out of their neighborhood.

The research literature in this area is mixed. Some researchers have found that "gentrification is associated with slower housing turnover in (disadvantaged) households rather than rapid displacement". However, other research found that "between 1989 and 2002, between 8,300 and 11,600 households were displaced annually in New York City … between 6.6 and 9.9 percent of all local moves among tenant households".

Overall, the research literature tends to believe that gentrification roosts can, but need not, lead to displacement. Gentrification can This promises integration and urgently needed investments that can improve the quality of life of the residents – but only if disadvantaged residents share the benefits of increased investment.

Most city dwellers live in poor neighborhoods that stay poor or higher income neighborhoods that do their best to stay that way

The cry of “fire, fire, gentrifier” spread during some of the protests against racial justice in the neighborhoods last year. The battle lines in these neighborhoods aren't clear, but the anger directed at the yuppies brunching on the sidewalks was palpable. The group that is conspicuously avoiding this conflict? Wealthy (often white) urban and suburban homeowners who have long refused to allow integration or even yuppies to live in their segregated neighborhoods.

While gentrification comes with very real damage, it's important not to lose the forest for the trees.

Gentrification neighborhoods are "very small pieces of history," says Karen Chapple, professor of urban and regional planning at UC Berkeley who directs the school's Urban Displacement Project (UDP), which has worked to promote gentrification in several US cities map.

When Chapple made her first map of the Bay Area in 2005, she says, “About 10 percent of neighborhoods were gentrified, but about 40 percent simply got poorer over time. And it wasn't the story anyone wanted to hear. … Systemic poverty and racism are so harsh … and (gentrification) is also much more visible. "

If you look at UDP's work in Southern California, they find that in San Diego County only "7 percent of the areas are at risk of or prolonged gentrification / displacement". In Chicago, they find that only 18 percent of low-income households "live in low-income neighborhoods at risk of or already affected by gentrification and / or displacement".

What is happening in the other parts of the city? Segregation and / or concentrated poverty that persist in disadvantaged communities.

In Denver, Colorado, they found that only "17 percent of neighborhoods were at risk of gentrification" and "45 percent of middle- to high-income neighborhoods in Denver were at risk of or persistent exclusion from low-income households."

Racial segregation and income segregation locks people on low incomes into a trap of concentrated poverty. The best schools are relegated to the highest-income neighborhoods, good jobs are often found in exclusive or up-and-coming neighborhoods, and companies are less willing to break into an area of ​​concentrated poverty because there are fewer customers. All of this is a vicious cycle that traps low-income Americans. It also hinders their ability to grow on their own as financial insecurity makes people temporary and lack the time and energy to build a community.

Meanwhile, homeowners in affluent neighborhoods have established systems of local control through rules such as zoning to keep their neighborhoods unaffordable for low-income Americans, including many black and brown Americans.

Zoning laws are the rules and regulations that decide what types of houses can be built where. While this may sound harmless, exclusive zoning is anything but. These rules have a dark history in the United States as an instrument of racial and economic segregation, used explicitly to keep certain races, religions, and nationalities out of certain neighborhoods. And although explicit racism has been removed from the law, the effect of many of these rules remains the same: keeping affordable housing and the people who need it away from the richest Americans.

City by city, the message is clear: Segregation and concentrated poverty are the real pests of urban life, despite our fascination with gentrification.

Local zoning rules often keep affordable housing and the people who need it away from the richest Americans.

How to Create Ethically Integrated Neighborhoods

Gentrification does real harm, but there are ways to reduce it and pave the way for integrated, equitable cities.

Integration is not a panacea, but research shows that after gentrification, "children benefit from increased exposure to more promising neighborhoods and some are more likely to attend and graduate from college". Additionally, gentrification can allow existing homeowners in a community to capitalize on rising property values ​​as long as there is anti-eviction policies in place to ensure property tax payments don't price people out.

There are some other measures the US could take to alleviate the damage that is being done to disadvantaged communities.

First, it is clear in the business literature that increased housing production lowers rents. It also cares that newcomers do not increase the price of existing apartments, but rather turn to new buildings for their housing needs. The evidence that modern gentrification leads to displacement links that displacement to rising rents. Reducing this pressure is of the utmost importance to stop unwanted displacement. In Hoboken, New Jersey, the vacancy rate fell below 1 percent during the forcible evictions and arson in the early 1980s. This shortage of supply contributes to the incentive for property owners to crowd out lower-income tenants.

Second, tenant protection guidelines could help prevent some evictions. Legal counsel in housing proceedings, for example, would create a balance of power between low-income tenants and homeowners who want to pull out possible profits from the sale or conversion of the property for higher-income use. It is also important for cities to work to maintain affordable housing, especially when new homes are being built.

Third, repurposing wealthy white segregated neighborhoods could slow the rate at which emerging neighborhoods are changing and help fight segregation. Slowing down gentrification can ensure that local officials can react to protect existing residents while reaping the benefits of the phenomenon.

These types of interventions can provide a roadmap for ethical neighborhood integration.

None of this is meant to undermine the very real cultural conflict that gentrification brings with it. Even if you are able to stay in your neighborhood and home, seeing shop after shop that doesn't serve your community or is not available to you at your income level can be deeply alienating. It's no wonder that people who have seen centuries of divestment get angry when public and private money does not start pouring into their neighborhood until after high-income college-educated people decide to move there. While these people are not solely responsible for the inequality, the blatant injustice is difficult to ignore.

All in all, it becomes clear why we focus on gentrification while avoiding the invisible culprits (segregated enclaves) controversy: Gentrification is the most visible manifestation of inequality in urban life.

“Gentrification is a cultural area to deal with resentment against inequality. … These feelings should not be underestimated, ”argues Gottlieb. "This is an expression of a longstanding feeling of 'I'm not welcome in the city, I have no right to the city' – the people who are moving in are not the next reason to leave."

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