What Is Gentrification, Anyway?

North 6th Street in Williamsburg. Photo by Mary Hautman


    Gentrification. It’s one of those words that gets thrown around in the media and casual conversation. It’s a diagnosis slapped onto the opening of a funky coffee shop or the closing of a well-loved store. It can mean whole communities displaced, significant racial change, and increased homelessness.

    But what exactly is gentrification? And is it always a bad thing?

    A definition of gentrification:

    Gentrification is the phenomenon of affluent folks moving into less wealthy neighborhoods, renovating homes and attracting new businesses. In the process, property values increase, rents go up, and poorer neighborhood residents are displaced.

    The term is defined by a significant demographic shift — an increase in the number of affluent residents in a nabe and a decrease in the number of poorer residents.

    Or, as summed-up by the Centers for Disease Control: “Gentrification is often defined as the transformation of neighborhoods from low value to high value.”

    What Is Gentrification? Causes Effects

    Sociologist Ruth Glass and the cover of her 1964 book London: Aspects of Change

    The term “gentrification” was coined by a Brit.

    Ruth Glass, a British sociologist, first came up with the term in 1964 when describing how middle-class people were moving into formerly working-class neighborhoods in London and displacing the less affluent residents.

    In the introduction to her book London: Aspects of Change, Glass wrote:

    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 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.

    Sound familiar? Glass’ description could just as easily apply to any number of housing-starved metro areas today — San Francisco, New York, Washington, Boston — albeit with different housing stock, ethnic groups, historic and transitional communities, and regional symbols of affluence.

    What Is Gentrification

    Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick. Photo by Mary Hautman

    Gentrification is essentially wealthy people displacing poorer people.

    But within that definition, there’s ample room for some controversial commentary. Gentrification has been invoked in everything from criticism of a developer’s tone-deaf trash party to the cause of helicopter parenting, and even called a human rights violation.

    Because of gentrification’s tangled relationship with development and economic and racial tensions, people sometimes confuse it with phenomena like new construction, the proliferation of cafes, and conflicts between ethnic groups.

    But it’s all about that demographic shift and the area’s increase in value. Sure, that value change could lead to increased building, twee coffee shops, and racially inflected conflicts — but those effects aren’t inherent to gentrification.

    What Is Gentrification

    Bogart Street and Flushing Avenue in Bushwick. Photo by Mary Hautman

    So what causes gentrification?

    For good or bad, gentrification is a social phenomenon which has roots in broader economic and societal forces, including a tight rental market, lack of affordable housing, and perceived “trendiness.”

    Urban theorist Richard Florida has written that gentrification’s effects “are symptoms of the scarcity of quality urbanism.” Basically, when there’s not enough housing in a desirable neighborhood (and not enough neighborhoods in the city that are desirable), people with money will displace those without.

    Some believe that the causes of gentrification are rooted in racist bank-imposed economic policy: Formerly redlined areas — where black people and other minorities were denied home mortgages — became ripe for gentrification because disinvestment leads to blight, high crime, and low home prices and rents. If there’s good housing stock or lofts in these urban neighborhoods, bargain housing can eventually attract artists and other creative harbingers of gentrification.

    Another wrinkle is that many gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn — including Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, PLG, and Bed Stuy — have very high rates of black home ownership.

    Recently, several studies have found that harmful gentrification — the kind that results in displacement — might be more rare than previously believed. Controversial Columbia University professor Lance Freeman, who is considered a leading expert on gentrification, has argued that there’s little empirical evidence to show that displacement is a foregone conclusion when affluent folks move into a neighborhood.

    In his 2006 book There Goes the ‘Hood, Freeman argues that rates of moving are about the same in both gentrified and non-gentrified neighborhoods. Basically, Freeman believes that reports of displacement are overblown.

    What Is Gentrification

    4th Avenue on the border of Park Slope. Photo by Jaclyn Warren

    What are the negative effects of gentrification?

    Because of the displacement of long-time residents and businesses, gentrification is most often seen as a negative phenomenon.

    It’s important to note that the adverse effects of gentrification are experienced overwhelmingly by renters and not homeowners (who reap some of the benefits of gentrification’s increased property values). Renters don’t get to share as much in the neighborhood’s value increase. They just end up paying more or leaving.

    If a traditionally working-class neighborhood suddenly becomes unaffordable for existing renters, they end up needing to move even further from their jobs and city amenities — taking on additional burdens of time and money, and no longer participating in their old community.

    A 2015 report discovered that gentrification alienates NYCHA tenants because longtime-local eateries, laundromats, and other businesses are replaced by expensive shops and offices that NYCHA residents can neither afford nor find employment with.

    What Is Gentrification? Causes Effects

    Bike in McCarren Park. Photo by Mary Hautman.

    What are the positive effects of gentrification?

    In the 1970s, gentrification was actually considered a good thing — a way of injecting money and resources into decaying and underpopulated urban centers.

    Gentrification has also been shown to create more racially integrated neighborhoods, revitalize a neighborhood’s economy, and has been correlated with higher school test scores and a significantly lowered crime rate.

    By driving up property values, gentrification also increases the home equity of longtime homeowners in an area.

    What Is Gentrification

    East Williamsburg. Photo by Mary Hautman

    How can we make gentrification less bad and more good?

    Perhaps the most important way to increase a neighborhood’s affordability and diversity is to boost the availability of affordable housing. Stronger rent regulation, community land trusts, co-ops and taxpayer-funded development are all ways to help lower-income renters stay in a neighborhood even as wealthier folks move in. Some measures — namely rent regulation and government subsidies — are more controversial than others.

    Emily Molina, a professor at Brooklyn College whose research focuses on the uneven impact of the foreclosure crisis, has said:

    “We should be advocating more public investment in these projects, especially at the federal level, and ensure distribution in the most equitable way, including to different neighborhoods. The private market will not do that.”

    Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has proposed creating new programs to help residents buy homes in their communities. As longtime readers might remember, this is the approach that allowed Brownstoner commenter fiordiligi and several other Brownstoner readers to stay in Brooklyn even as it becomes more expensive.

    Federal funding for affordable housing is another viable solution — if it was easier for lower-income residents to afford living in their neighborhoods, displacement wouldn’t be as prevalent.

    Other ways to balance the effects of gentrification creep are to patronize long-term businesses and get involved with block associations or other neighborhood groups. Richard Florida argues that increased funding for public transit and schools can disperse the kind of concentrated demand that leads to gentrification.

    But what do you think? Would these measures help create the vibrant, racially integrated, mixed-class neighborhoods that could take the best of both gentrified and non-gentrified worlds?

    What Is Gentrification? Causes Effects

    Bed Stuy. Photo by Mary Hautman

    Related Stories
    Does Gentrification Help the Poor? NYCHA Residents Weigh In
    Gentrification in Park Slope and Beyond: What Can Be Done?
    Brooklyn Group Says Gentrification Violates Human Rights

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