On Gentrification and Neighborhoods

What is gentrification, and what, if anything, is wrong with it? And while we’re on the subject, what is a neighborhood? Wilfredo and I have been doing a lot of work on these questions, and this may not be the only post on the subject.

Definition of gentrification

Let us begin by considering definitions of gentrification from three sources, each of which has its ups and downs:

1) Wikipedia: “Gentrification, or urban gentrification, is the change in an urban area associated with the movement of more affluent individuals into a lower-class area.”

This definition is in no way incorrect, but it is also intentionally vague. Where the other definitions I will consider at least gesture towards defining the effects of gentrification, Wikipedia defines it as any change associated with a certain population movement. Again, this is correct, but not specific enough to be useful.

2) Mirriam-Webster: “Gentrification: the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”

This definition avoids the error of vagueness, mentioning the process, the cause, and the effects. However, I believe “renewal” and “deteriorating” are loaded terms that make the definition a lot narrower than we would like. Here I am thinking of Boston’s North End as described in Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” which although far from deteriorating and indeed fully functional was a prime candidate for gentrification (which, I have been given to understand, has since occurred).

3) An article by Laura Schmidt (which I mentioned in my last post) in the November 2007 issue of the Platypus Review: “Gentrification is the reconstitution of a neighborhood which occurs when lower-income areas with lower land value are re-developed with higher-value housing into a decidedly wealthier neighborhood.”

This definition is quite satisfactory (particularly the word “reconstitution”) other than one important omission: it speaks in terms of neighborhoods and land values, not people. Why is this a problem? Well, imagine the residents of a low-income neighborhood all win the lottery one day. Their neighborhood may quickly become high-income, but gentrification cannot be said to occur; the population is exactly the same as before. Schmidt’s next sentence appears to remedy this problem: “During this process the class-composition and character of the neighborhood is changed; those already living in the neighborhood cannot sustain the rise in property taxes and must move elsewhere.” The problem is, this statement is again too narrow.  Multiple studies have shown that gentrification’s role is more complicated than forcing out indigenous indigents. This is not to say that gentrification does not cause demographic change; I will return to this point. For now, though, here is my proposed definition of gentrification:

4) My definition of gentrification: Gentrification is the reconstitution of an urban area that occurs when higher-income people move into a lower-income area, thus raising land values and changing the fabric of the neighborhood.

This definition, I submit, hits on all the important points: the urban area it is confined to, the change in economic state as measured by land values, and the change in the neighborhood—as distinct from the mere change in populations. But how is change in a population different from change in a neighborhood? Isn’t a neighborhood basically a population and its geographic area? Perhaps it is time to define what a neighborhood is.

Static neighborhoods and flows

A neighborhood is obviously tied to a geographic area, and obviously it involves individuals. But is a neighborhood defined in terms of specific individuals? Not if neighborhoods can be constant over time. Let us take Manhattan’s Chinatown as an example. A generation ago, this neighborhood was occupied overwhelmingly by Chinese immigrants and second-generation immigrants. Today it is much the same. This is not to say that nothing has changed—the old lingua franca of Cantonese is today being replaced by Mandarin—but I don’t think anyone would doubt the continuity of the neighborhood. In other words, the populations have changed, but the neighborhood has not. Chinese immigrants and their children who moved out were generally replaced by other Chinese immigrants.

What has really remained constant in Chinatown, in a way, is change—that is, a particular kind of change, where Chinatown immigrants are replaced by other Chinese immigrants. Let us define each of these Chinese-immigrant-for-Chinese-immigrant exchanges as a flow of people; specifically an “identity flow,” since the inflow and the outflow are the same. A neighborhood full of identity flows will stay static over time; a neighborhood full of “replacement flows,” where the outflow differs from the inflow, will change over time. Not all neighborhoods are homogenous, of course—in fact, most are not—and this too can be expressed in terms of flows: if a neighborhood is made up of, for example, 80% twentysomethings and 20% senior citizens, and over time it continues to have this makeup, this is most likely because identity flows are replacing young with young and old with old. In this case the neighborhood simply contains two different kinds of identity flows, one that replaces young with young and one that replaces old with old.

Neighborhood change and definition

Now let’s use flows to examine Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, which should be highly instructive for figuring out what neighborhood change is. Before Pilsen had a name, it was inhabited by German and Irish immigrants. It received its name at about the same time it became majority-Czech (with a number of Slovaks). In the ’50s and ’60s it became predominantly Mexican, and in the past decade or two a real estate company, Podmajersky Inc. (run by an old Slovak family), has turned the eastern quarter into what it calls the Chicago Arts District or Pilsen East. This project has been successful, and the demographics of East Pilsen have changed significantly. Although the inhabitants are still mostly Mexican, many of them are artists rather than the lower-middle-class laborers who have inhabited Pilsen throughout its racial successions, and many artists are non-Mexicans from other parts of the city, the Midwest, or the country.

What I have described here could be a stable situation, but in point of fact it is not. The artist population may or may not be static (in terms of individuals or identity flows), I do not know, but East Pilsen’s increasing hipness draws more and more inflowers from certain demographics: college-educated, upwardly mobile, and usually not Mexican. Thus replacement flows are changing Pilsen. The outflowers continue to be predominantly Mexican, as they have been since the neighborhood became predominantly Mexican, but the inflowers are no longer other Mexicans. But is this really the case? Why do we continue to treat East Pilsen and West Pilsen as the same neighborhood, when one is mostly characterized by replacement flows and the other by identity flows? Perhaps all this gentrification (for this is what is occurring) is breaking Pilsen into two neighborhoods? Of course, neighborhoods can be highly heterogenous, so this does not have to be the case merely because the two parts are becoming more demographically different, but that is not a reason to maintain the unity of the neighborhood.

In fact, the best argument for continuing to treat Pilsen as one neighborhood is that Pilsen’s residents themselves treat it this way. Ask an artist, a yuppie, a hipster, or a Mexican in that area what neighborhood they are living in, and they will all tell you Pilsen. The terms “East Pilsen” and “West Pilsen” are used merely to distinguish one sub-neighborhood from another, much as the North Side, the South Side, and the West Side distinguish Chicago’s sub-city units from each other without each being cities. (“I’m flying to Chicago this weekend,” not “I’m flying to the South Side this weekend.”) By contrast, when the University of Illinois at Chicago expanded into what had once been the Maxwell Street or Lower West Side neighborhood, they renamed it University Village. The university was successful; few living there today would describe themselves as living in either of the former two. Thus a neighborhood is defined at least partly by its own self-consciousness. I say “self-consciousness” because University Village’s legitimacy as a neighborhood is not particularly threatened by the fact that many people elsewhere in the city remember Maxwell Street. I therefore propose the following definition:

5) My definition of a neighborhood: A neighborhood is a self-conscious geographically localized community.

Here I am defining “community” to mean a population bound together by direct and indirect interactions. A neighborhood community is bound together not only by face-to-face interactions, but also by independent interactions with the same cashier at the local grocery store, or independent uses of the same parks, buses, and sidewalks.

The problems of gentrification

Now let us return to consider gentrification in terms of neighborhoods and flows. An area is said to be gentrifying when the flows change so that lower-income identity flows become income-raising replacement flows (with higher-income outflows than inflows) and higher-income identity flows . Once this has happened, it hardly matters to what extent the population has already changed. If a few rich people move into a poor neighborhood, but they are replaced by poor people again when they flow on, no real change in flows has taken place and no gentrification really happened. If a few rich people move into a poor neighborhood and are replaced by rich people when they flow on, this is a more sinister sign for the neighborhood.

But why sinister? What is the problem with gentrification? It is one thing to say, as some do, that there is no problem: that the inflowers are just exercising their right to buy or rent housing with their money. My question, however, is not whether people are exercising their rights, but whether there is a problem. Clearly, in practice, there often is. What are the evils most often attributed to gentrification?

6) The coercion problem: Locals are forced out of their homes when richer people move in nearby, increasing rents and property taxes.

7) The community problem: Communities provide important support to members of a neighborhood, especially poor ones. Replacement flows can destroy or greatly weaken communities if inflowers do not participate to the extent that outflowers formerly did.

Although at first glance the coercion problem might seem to be the more serious, given the dramatic image of someone forced out of their home, it turns out to be overestimated in frequency and severity. Lance Freeman, an urban planning professor at Columbia University, published a highly relevant study, “Displacement or Succession?: Residential Mobility in Gentrifying Neighborhoods,” in the Urban Affairs Review in 2005. His study concluded that the demographic shift that occurs in gentrification “appears to be a consequence of lower rates of intra neighborhood mobility and the relative affluence of in-movers,” rather than actual forced displacement of individuals. In other words, the outflow of low-income residents did not accelerate, and the demographic change was caused mostly by a change in inflows. A study reported in Time last summer reached similar conclusions, although for several reasons I’m a little less inclined to trust that one.

What is to be done?

Freeman’s study mentioned lower rates of intra-neighborhood mobility, flows that move people around within a neighborhood. Impeding intra-neighborhood mobility weakens community, since a higher percentage of inflowers will have to spend time acclimatizing to the neighborhood. Furthermore, when gentrification is occurring, more affluent inflowers may be less interested in participating in the community than low-income inflowers might have been. This analysis suggests two types of solution: from a general point of view, the inflow of people who may not participate in the community can be prevented, and from an individual point of view, inflowers can choose to reinforce the existing community (or, failing that, form an inclusive replacement community, if that is in fact any different). Am I saying that the former should happen, or that inflowers have a moral obligation to do the latter? I will pass over these questions as I passed over the question of right a few paragraphs ago. All I am saying is that these are solutions to a problem.

In concrete terms, identity flows that the caprices of capital would destroy can be preserved through government intervention, and specifically affordable housing. Of course, government interference in the housing market has its own problems, like inefficiency and corruption, but at the correct level of intervention the loss of efficiency will be balanced by the gain in equity. Solutions at the individual level are not too difficult: inflowers can get to know their neighbors and integrate into the existing community if possible.

So how does my analysis of gentrification differ from the prevailing view? Well, I think I have shown that race, which all too often gets mixed up inappropriately in talk about gentrification, is not a direct cause of gentrification or its problems. “Low-income” is a relevant category of people because the economic effects of income disparities lead directly to the change in flows. “Race” does nothing of the sort. I have also avoided the idea that a neighborhood can be the natural home of an ethnic group, or any group. Affordable housing and other measures aimed at keeping low-income residents in a neighborhood do not operate under the rationale that the neighborhood should remain low-income in perpetuity. Their purpose is simply to provide a buffer that will allow the pre-gentrification community to survive the sometimes sudden upheaval of flows. When I have used race or ethnicity in this post, it is merely as an example of a feature a neighborhood’s population may share. Neighborhoods, of course, are not defined solely by their ethnicities, a claim I doubt there is any need to support.

As a final note, it is important to avoid the romanticization of pre-gentrification neighborhoods that too often occurs among leftists and low-income advocates. The idea of soulless yuppies invading a struggling but vibrant neighborhood and replacing all its cherished small businesses with Starbucks and Urban Outfitters is unrealistic. Post-gentrification neighborhoods may resemble each other in some ways, but then pre-gentrification neighborhoods also have a lot in common with each other. If you trade a Harold’s Chicken Shack for a Starbucks, have you really lost anything? Not to mention that yuppies receive an extremely disproportionate share of ill will compared to other stereotypes, but I won’t go into that here.

In the end, let’s bear in mind that no urban neighborhood is wholly homogenous or unchanging, that gentrification often (perhaps always) occurs without anyone intending its negative effects, and that there is room and need, as usual, for solutions on both the collective and individual levels.

Questions for commenters: How does the presence or absence of property taxes affect gentrification? If you agree that the answers to the coercion and community problems are affordable housing and neighborliness, why do you think we have so often failed to accomplish them? Are mixed-income communities on the rise, and if so how will that affect all this?


5 Responses to “On Gentrification and Neighborhoods”

  1. Hi,

    I am Czech living in the US and I had a question regarding your very interesting article. Do you know if the so-called Pilsen part of Chicago still exists? Is it still called Pilsen? I have never heard of it!

  2. Hi Tanja,
    Yes, there is still a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side called Pilsen, although it is no longer Czech. The Encyclopedia of Chicago and Malynne Sternstein’s Czechs of Chicagoland have more information on Pilsen and other areas in Chicagoland that have or had concentrations of Czechs and Slovaks.

  3. thanks! I will check it out..

  4. Some interesting thoughts here, but in some cases, whether or not race is an “intentional” factor, it becomes an issue. To ignore it is to further fuel the barrier that exists between race groups.
    In my particular neighborhood, we live side by side in Victorian row houses, but the “upwardly mobile” white community, generally new to the neighborhood, have very little interest in keeping the black population here. So what do you do when it IS a factor that everyone is afraid to talk about?
    One of the reasons that affordable housing and neighborhliness fail is this: there is little effort to keep the middle. Many people who live in a neighborhood experiencing gentrification might be renters of moderate income (we’ll use the $50,000 mark). They can’t afford a home that is $250,000 – especially when it might have been $60,000 a few years prior. So these potentially stable homeowners move to another neighborhood where they can afford a home, and the income divide widens. There should be a three-tiered approach: Affordable housing, the Land Trust model, and market-value homes. Renters need to be on a similar model.

    Another reason is this: The newcomers to the neighborhood want to recreate it with their vision…generations of others be damned! They go in with a proverbial bulldozer, and forget to talk to the people about what their needs and wants are, and many people don’t know how to speak up when (and if) the opportunity arises.

    You can’t take a “top-down” approach and have it work. To make a sustainable community, there must be grass-roots efforts to ensure 1) needs of the existing community are meet 2) desires of the inflowers are obtainable without gridlock and 3) there is opportunity for the middle to stay, arrive and/or thrive. The problems that exist within a blighted community can’t be fixed with a broom – you’re only creating more of a problem because the dust scatters everywhere. Pretty buildings and expensive houses are nothing without a sustainable community model.

  5. Jennifer,
    When you say “it [race] IS a factor that everyone is afraid to talk about,” are you saying that racism is the reason the “upwardly mobile” whites don’t have a positive desire to keep their black neighbors in the neighborhood? If so, that’s the kind of claim you’d have to back up in this day and age, and if not, the fact that the inflowers are mostly white and the outflowers mostly black is about as relevant as the fact that the inflowers probably shop at nicer grocery stores: the problem is not caused by grocery store prejudice. In that kind of case (the kind where racism is not an “intentional” factor), race only “becomes an issue” when people insist on seeing it as one.

    As for “generations of others be damned,” I agree! A neighborhood is for its current residents first and foremost, and then for the rest of the citizenry and future residents. Previous generations have nothing to do with it, except insofar as preserving their legacy adds to the neighborhood. Being the first in your family to live in a neighborhood doesn’t mean you have less right to live there and leave your imprint upon it, any more than being the first in your family to go to college means you belong there less. With that having been said, obviously everyone in a neighborhood should both speak and listen about needs and wants.

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