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In Middle America, ‘Gentrification’ Is a Useless Word

New development does not always mean displacement.
Row Houses and the foirmer Kim's Coffee Shop and Chinese Restaur

As this decade draws to a close, the story of urban America is increasingly about the great disconnect between a small number of large cities that are thriving, and a much larger number of cities of all sizes that are continuing to fall behind.

What’s true for a handful of large cities is increasingly untrue for the majority of cities in the vast middle of the country. Nowhere is the great disconnect more apparent than in the debate about gentrification.

Gentrification is a hot topic of conversation in coastal cities, like New York, Washington, and San Francisco, with expensive living costs that are also home to influential journalists and academics.

Writing about gentrification has become a cottage industry for many pundits and urban policy wonks. Many of the earlier pieces penned on the topic were important, thought-provoking, and well-reasoned.

But what started as the airing of thoughtful, reasonable, and understandable concerns about displacement and inequality in a handful of coastal cities, has turned into intellectual dishonesty, irrational hysteria, and even self-parody, particularly when it is applied to the long-suffering cities of the Rust Belt.

Peter Moskowitz’s How to Kill a City, which Josh Stephens accurately calls “an ideological rant in the guise of journalism” makes it clear that no matter how many times he mentions Detroit, it is clear that the New Yorker simply doesn’t really understand the place. He says: “The new Detroit is now nearly a closed-loop…It is possible to live in this new Detroit and never set foot in the old one.” I’ve got news for him. Detroit has been like that for 50 years. It’s just that the closed-loop was called 8-Mile Road. Gentrification didn’t kill Detroit. Urban decline did. And we can be confident that more decline won’t resurrect it.

A recent New York Times piece on Climate Change warns us that although Duluth may benefit from “climate refugees,” new growth raises the specter of (you guessed it) gentrification. In case you were wondering, Duluth has been steadily losing population since 1960.

Then there’s Samuel Stein’s Capital City, which at least gets points for originality by dispensing with blaming hipsters or developers for gentrification, and aims its sights squarely on my overwhelmingly leftward-leaning profession of urban planning, even going so far as to say that “proto-planners” (whatever that means) were responsible for Native American genocide as they “enabled the country’s murderous westward expansion, and mapped the rail networks and other infrastructure that made it possible.“

There is even a movement called “Just Green Enough,” which is premised on the idea that parks in poor neighborhoods shouldn’t be made “too nice” in order to prevent displacement by gentrification. Precious energy and effort is expended on endless worry and discussion (and in some cases, active opposition) to a nice park, a new ice cream shop, or a new grocery store, because it could potentially displace someone.

Meanwhile, the poor themselves, continue to languish in disinvested and actively-avoided neighborhoods, without any of the amenities or conveniences that the activists and academics have (and take for granted) in their own neighborhoods.

However well-intentioned, these efforts end up doing the same thing—ensuring that people living in poor neighborhoods continue to have the worst of everything, confined to separate and unequal places with substandard facilities and amenities, all “for their own good.”

How elitist, patronizing, and sad.

For those interested in separating data-driven fact from ideologically-driven fiction, a new report,“American Neighborhood Change in the 21st Century: Gentrification and Decline,” provides a welcome corrective.

Anyone who is serious about understanding urban public policy, equity, and neighborhood change, should read this report. It is an easy read.

The report examines the ways in which neighborhoods in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas are growing or shrinking; getting richer or poorer; rebuilding or disintegrating. It quantifies the degree to which neighborhoods are experiencing economic growth, displacement of low-income people, concentration of poverty, and abandonment.

It finds that the most common form of American neighborhood change, by far, is poverty concentration, rather than wealth concentration. Low-income residents are exposed to neighborhood decline far more than gentrification. In fact, there was no metropolitan area in the nation where a low-income person was more likely to live in an economically expanding neighborhood than in an economically declining neighborhood.

The findings mirror what Alan Mallach says in his must-read book, The Divided City: gentrifying areas are rarely the most distressed areas of a city, particularly where demolition has unraveled a neighborhood’s fabric, and where few attractive homes or buildings of any kind remain; and predominately African-American neighborhoods are less, not more, likely to experience gentrification than largely white, working-class neighborhoods.

Instead, gentrification typically follows a pattern of black neighborhood avoidance. Rather than being subject to displacement by gentrification, urban residents who are both black and poor are far more likely to be left behind in neighborhoods experiencing widespread vacancy, abandonment, and disinvestment.

Instead of displacement by gentrification, what we are seeing in most cities in my part of the country, including Detroit, could be described as displacement by decline—as middle-class residents, African-Americans in particular, frustrated by the continued social and economic disintegration of their neighborhoods, are moving to safer and more attractive neighborhoods in the suburbs.

While the urban renaissance in a handful of neighborhoods gets all the headlines, it is the rapid concentration of poverty and urban decline that is far more prevalent – and troubling.

I’ve lived my entire life in Akron, which like Duluth and Detroit, has been losing population and wealth for 60 years now. Those of us who work on behalf of (and love) these places do our best to fight poverty, abandonment, and urban decline every single day. Living here, it is hard for me to understand getting worked up in anger at someone with some money in their pocket renovating an old house in an urban neighborhood, opening a brewery, or leasing a brand-new apartment downtown.

I hope that this new report’s findings serve as a wake-up call to the people who worry so much about the potential downside of urban revitalization, that they are overlooking the far greater challenges of inter-generational poverty, uneven economic growth, disinvestment, abandonment, urban sprawl, and pervasive and entrenched racial and economic segregation.

I see a lot of people, even here in the Rust Belt, who are energized about gentrification, and convinced that it is the enemy. It’s considered a sexy topic for activism.

But I don’t see the same level of passionate activism being applied to fighting the spread of concentrated urban poverty, neighborhood abandonment, or the yawning racial and economic chasm between older cities like Akron, Cleveland, Detroit, and their newer suburbs.

And let’s be honest. Those are big, messy, complicated, systemic, extremely intractable problems, and there is nothing sexy about them. They don’t lend themselves to clever yard sign slogans or quick-take podcasts. Most people would rather not think about them, because there is not a lot that the average person can even do about them.

But they are the urban problems we need to face. They are the existential challenges to our cities and to the people who live in them.

New development does not always mean displacement, and revitalization is not always a synonym for gentrification.

Gentrification has become a useless word. Words lose their value whey they no longer have an agreed-upon meaning. No one knows what the hell that word means anymore. It’s time to retire it.

Jason Segedy is the director of planning and urban development for the City of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban planning field for the past 22 years, and is an avid writer on urban planning and development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground.