Gentrification and Defending a Word

Growing up in Portland, OR, I watched America’s largest town turn into America’s smallest city and in the process I have seen neighborhood after neighborhood radically change. These changes have not just been a decrease in people of color and increase in neighborhood income (though that is certainly part of it); rather they have involved shifts in the neighborhood culture towards the hipster culture often exaggerated in Portlandia. There is a replacement of cultures that often happens when the demographics of a neighborhood change which permeates everything from the roads (gravel to pavement, potholes to bike lanes) to grocery stores (collard greens to kale). In different times and places the details change, but the broad strokes are always the same: a wealthier demographic moves into a neighborhood and erases or co-opts the original culture with their own.

In 1964, the British sociologist Ruth Glass described this phenomenon in London:

One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes — upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages — two rooms up and two down — have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences. Larger Victorian houses, downgraded in an earlier or recent periods — which were used as lodging houses or were otherwise in multiple occupation — have been upgraded once again. Nowadays, many of these houses are being sub-divided into costly flats or “houselets” (in terms of the new real estate snob jargon). The current social status and value of such dwellings are frequently in inverse relation to their size, and in any case enormously inflated by comparison with previous levels in their neighbourhoods. Once this process of “gentrification” starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.

Since then, the term gentrification has incited controversy, activism, research, and confusion. Stemming in large part from this confusion—which often devolves into bad research and arguments—a growing number of scholars and commentators are calling for the rejection of the word “gentrification” itself. In the face of this, gentrification has the power to recognize a particular process better than any other word. This process will not go away with a single word’s retirement. Without “gentrification” there is no good word to tie together similar the similar changes happening in contemporary Portland, 1990s/2000s New York, and 1964 London. Delinked from each other, none of these changes can be fully understood.

On the other hand, without a clear and reasonable definition, “gentrification” is a distracting word at best and an obstructive one at worst and because of the plethora of un and ill defined uses of the word I am proposing my own.

A Proposal

I define gentrification as:

the process by which people of higher incomes move into a lower income neighborhood and change its physical and social characteristics to better meet their preferences with little functional regard to the existing neighborhood or its residents.

An Explanation

There are a several things to note here. First, gentrification is a process—it is not an event but a period of time defined by innumerable large and small actions which together create change. Second, it is a social process driven by economic forces—gentrification cannot happen outside of a market economy, but the economic process alone does not a gentrifying neighborhood make.  Third, race is not a component of the definition of the word. Finally, physical displacement is not guaranteed.

Massive change rarely happens all at once; there are almost always warning signs and a time in which the old turns to the new. For something like gentrification in which the time and way the new replaces the old is crucial and varied, it is a mistake to not carve a space from which to focus on the manner in which this happens. File this under “not controversial.”

Deconstructing the word, gentrification should describe turning something into an object for the gentry. This is the thrust of my (and others’) definition; the process I am narrowly focused on is driven by economic forces that could be seen as class warfare.  A group of people move into a neighborhood where they have significantly more wealth than pre-existing residents. The neighborhood then changes to cater towards the tastes and desires of these wealthier residents because they have the desire and financial capacity to create changes in the market. This takes many forms, from changes in the price and type of homes on the market (lofts are the classic example of this) to the neighborhood’s stores (expect a Whole Foods to help put the corner stores out of business). This happens even when the gentrifiers have nothing but the best of intentions. In a market economy business will cater towards those with money at the expense of those without money.
Of course gentrifiers may actively encourage this change, which is not restricted to the market. The criminalization of the neighborhood culture is a common method by which gentrifiers stamp out the old culture; there are numerous examples of historically black neighborhoods in the US with drum circles which, once the neighborhood began gentrifying, were broken up by police officers enforcing a curfew at the behest of the 311 and 911 calls of new residents. The city government will often support gentrification by putting money into a neighborhood after it begins gentrifying (or to lay the groundwork for the process). These changes are often geared to meet the desires of the gentrifiers rather than the desires of long term residents and further change the character of the neighborhood. Realizing that these changes in the fabric of the neighborhood are social—not economic—but are rooted in the basic laws of the economy is central to the study of gentrification.

Because gentrification is driven by economic forces, it does not require a racial component. The gentrifiers and previous residents can conceivably be of any race (or gender, age, sexuality, or nationality for that matter). The advantage of removing race from the definition is that it makes the definition international. The racial dynamics of US cities are not the same as the racial dynamics and histories in Eastern Europe or South America for example. This does not mean that race should be left out of studies of gentrification. For example, understanding why a particular neighborhood in the US is being gentrified often requires knowledge of the city’s history of redlining. A study of gentrification may benefit from placing race front and center in the analysis, but that study’s value is compounded when compared with a study which focuses on other demographic factors.

Finally, I have cleaved displacement from gentrification. I’m only going to mention two of this move’s advantages. First, it allows for honest study of displacement (direct and indirect) in gentrifying neighborhoods. This is a much needed change (and a topic for another post). Second, it encourages researchers to study more than displacement. While displacement is central to discussions of gentrification it is not the only part of the process worth exploring. There are many other good and bad products of gentrification that are ignored because of an overemphasis on displacement.

It is my hope that by using the word to describe a particular process that is possible in any capitalist city “gentrification” can once again become an intellectually fruitful word.

1 thought on “Gentrification and Defending a Word

  1. Chaim - June 24, 2018

    Music to precede “criminalization of the neighborhood culture” — “There Goes the Neighborhood” by the Bus Boys :

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