- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

When Did Gentrification Become A Dirty Word?

About five years ago, the term “gentrification” began popping up more and more in the media. At one time, that term referred to the natural and cyclical nature of cities—meaning that neighborhoods go in and out of fashion as people move around. No real blame as to why, or how or who goes where. Or as we used to say, “some places get hot, others not.”

The new way of thinking is that neighborhoods shift strictly along racial and economic lines. Gentrification is the accepted term for that now.  

A few months ago in Cleveland, I asked Alan Mallach [1] about this urban planning conundrum that has growing in recent years. Mallach is a progressive, longtime, respected urban planning expert and a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a non-profit which describes itself as “dedicated to building a future in which vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated properties no longer exist.”

“Gentrification has become a term that no one knows what it really means any more,” he said. He then referred me to his recent new book, The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America, [2] a powerful look at the current state of the urban environment.

“I’m not sure why this is so,” Mallach writes, “but [the term gentrification] represents a worrisome disconnect between the reality of our cities and the rhetoric flossing from them…Gentrification is widely seen as something that’s being done by someone to someplace or somebody. In an increasingly tribal world, young white people with money, and the members of the gentrification-industrial complex working behind the scenes, are Them—a visible enemy on which to unload one’s frustration and anger.”

Mallach’s book explains the complexity of urban planning —downtown high-rises and who lives in them, neighborhood lifespans, how people are always moving, retail trends and earning power fluctuations—in ways that are clearly explained. And to him, gentrification is not really a part of that. But the media and some urban citizens’ rights advocates are using gentrification as a one-size-fits-all explanation everything that’s wrong in changing American cities today.

East Palo Alto, California, Mayor Ruben Abrica recently said [3] gentrification resulting from the settlement of high-tech companies in a city means the residents there “are living in a semi-feudal society.” Meanwhile, a Boston radio show [4]asked listeners to share their gentrification experiences, which they described as a “super isolation and anxiety producing issue.” A play opening up in Chicago this month called “Rightlynd” describes its plot [5]thusly: “A powerful real estate conglomerate is planning a massive development project that would gentrify the neighborhood … forever.”

Some of the bigger cities in the U.S.—New York, Washington D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and a few others —have seen some of their neighborhoods go upscale over time, while others have descended into further poverty.


But it’s not just more dog-walkers and vegan bakeries that dictate the change. It’s more about the overall changes in the economy—from manufacturing jobs to computer programming employment, wage disparities, education levels, less state and federal programs in cities—that drive the changes, and not the favoring of one ethnic group or another.

So in most urban areas, yoga classes and trendy restaurants are the result, not the cause. As Mallach writes in his book, “in the midst of growth and increasing prosperity, the ranks of the poor and near-poor are often growing, rather than shrinking.” 

Jason Segedy, [6] the director of planning and urban development in Akron, Ohio, sees the conundrum very clearly [7]. Akron has lost population over the past few decades, and the city is trying to stop people from moving out of the central city to the suburbs.

“There is no doubt that the word ‘gentrification’ has created tension and confusion,” Segedy says. “What underlies some of the concerns is the frustration about economic inequality. But I would argue in this part of the country, [inequality] is about the differences between the suburbs and the inner cities, not one city neighborhood against another.

“Stepping back, if the only concern is that wealthy people might be living near lower income people, then I would point out, that in many ways, isn’t that a socially desirable thing we all want?” he continues. “Developers are building $400,000 houses all the time in the suburbs and getting some public funding for doing so, and people don’t have a problem with that. But to build those same houses in the city means wealthy people living near poor people and that automatically leads to displacement?”

What Segedy and many other urban planners are referring to is that housing is market driven, and if cities are looking to get middle-income buyers to move back into the central city in places like Akron, they can’t do it with more cheap apartments and public housing. Poor neighborhoods need higher-end housing investment (which helps spur renovation of older housing), and not more of the lower-end market.As Segedy wrote in Strong Towns, “Rust Belt Cities Need Investment, not Gentrification Worries”: [8]

“New investment and residential redevelopment is not the enemy of these types of neighborhoods. It is their best friend. If new housing were built, it would help raise the values of existing homes to levels that would at least warrant cost-effective investment in their renovation and rehabilitation.”

There are ten cities in the U.S with a population of 1 million or more, but there are 90 cities with a population 221,000 or more. Problems of urban displacement and economic disparity and neighborhoods being in the “hot” and “not” cycle might be happening in those big cities because, unfortunately, that has always happened in those places. But “gentrification,” meaning rich people taking over poor neighborhoods en masse is not exactly happening in those 90 other smaller cities.

A cursory look at the media coverage suggests that the scourge of gentrification is not only happening, but everywhere. In Portland, Maine, and in Portland, Oregon. Brownsville, Texas, and the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Las Vegas has a gentrification problem, too.  Add Traverse City, Michigan; Bentonville, Arkansas; Austin, Texas, and Jacksonville Florida to that list.

Then there is Detroit. A popular tee-shirt there [9]commands, “Don’t Brooklyn My Detroit.” That might be code for “keep your gentrifiers out of here.” But in a city that has gone from 1.8 million in population to 673,000 in 2017 —and with an unusually high concentration of poverty —is not a good place to disparage outside investment.

The experts know that Detroit’s gentrification claims make little sense. The Brookings Institution’s Alan Berube writes, “It’s hard to imagine that [Detroit] will do better over time without more high-income individuals.” Noted urban economist Joe Cortright wrote [10], “Detroit’s problem is not inequality, it’s poverty…The city has a relatively high degree of equality at a very low level of income.”

And Mallach wrote this in the Detroit News [11] in August:  “This is the context of gentrification in Detroit. If we think of gentrification as affluent people moving in, supplanting a lower-income population and pushing up sales prices and rents, there are few areas in Detroit where that’s happening … There is no upside, though, to neighborhood decline, the bleeding of family wealth, the deterioration in housing conditions and quality of life, and the loss of the middle class, all of which are afflicting far more of Detroit than is likely to be gentrified in the foreseeable future.”      

Peter Moskowitz had the opposite view in his own book, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood: “Gentrification in much of Detroit seems to have skipped the beginning phase with the artsy folks, the laid back coffee shops, and the activists and instead jumped straight from broke dystopian metropolis to yuppified playground.”

Juliana Maantay, professor urban environmental geography at City University of New York and author of Brownfields to Greenfields: Environmental Justice Versus Environmental Gentrification, [12] falls into that camp and says government is supposed to safeguard against policies that may hurt people. But “government is going all in and saying ‘rah rah rah’ about any new project…some don’t see that as being lifting up the city, but penalizing the people who were already there. That’s where the ‘gentrification’ issue comes into play.”

Maantay is right about that to an extent, and her credentials in urban planning circles are impeccable. But the notion about what “gentrification” has come to mean—a dirty word—is perhaps a symbol of social media gone wild.

The media is adding fuel to the fire by covering urban equality issues in smaller town America as if it were the same as Brooklyn. The New York public radio station, WNYC, asked it this way [13]: “Does This Avocado Toast Come with a Side of Gentrification?”

Interestingly the anti-gentrification crowd can’t find one political group to blame for their urban displeasure. One tweet I found says, “Gentrification is a racist practice that Democrats use to trap blacks in poverty.” Another says, “What the Republican call trickle-down economics is really updraft economics. It’s called gentrification.”

Then again, some say all this is about vegan cheese and fro-yo and juicing. Rose wine in malt liquor bottles. Neighborhoods where you can almost smell the pesto and the privilege.

But maybe making fun of it allows us to make sense of it all. Boston artist Tory Bullock has come up with “The Gentrification Game,” [14] where the players roll the dice and move forward or backward, depending on the color you get. A neighbor or bystander calls the police on you for looking suspicious or playing music loudly.

In the NPR story about Bullock’s game, one of the players said she thought the game was “rigged.” Another player called the Gentrification Game and its changing rules a “metaphor for America.”

I like the artistic interpretation of all this. Things being rigged as a metaphor for America. Maybe it is rigged. But against some of us or all of us?

Daniel McGraw is a freelance journalist and author living in Lakewood, Ohio. He tweets at @danmcgraw1



15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "When Did Gentrification Become A Dirty Word?"

#1 Comment By PubliusII On November 15, 2018 @ 9:23 pm

Strikes me as fight for social status among separate populations both on the Left.

The well-off Left thinks it’s great because they get in on the ground floor of trendy, hip neighborhoods.

The not-well-off Left hates it because they can’t afford to live there. They are consumed with envy for those doing well in the economy.

Pressing one’s nose against a window you can’t enter is corrosive. And their response is to try to stigmatize gentrification according to the norms of the well-off Left.

#2 Comment By Whine Merchant On November 16, 2018 @ 12:45 am

“Gentrification” is only a dirty word if you buy into the outrage mindset.

If we called it Urban Renewal, the political clamour would be coming from the opposite side!

#3 Comment By ControlE On November 16, 2018 @ 8:52 am

Look you don’t have to be an urban planner to see where the resentment for “gentrification” comes from. If you build a $400,000 house on a block with $30,000 rental houses then no one in their right might is going to pay $400,000 for it. Its actual value would be much lower due to the property values around it. So that leads to investors also buying up the rental houses to improve their value.

When you live in one of those $30,000 rental houses and struggle to pay the $700 a month rent don’t you think you are going to be pissed when you are told they are tearing it down? Oh don’t worry though they are building a new house and you have first shot at renting it. The new rent will be $2100 a month.

I think race gets rolled up with gentrification and that is what throws a lot of people off; but race isn’t the only factor. I live in a pretty homogeneously white area of the country. I’ve watched trailer parks full of white people be bulldozed and replaced with $200,000+ cookie cutter subdivisions. Those economically disadvantaged white people were rightly upset that they lost their homes and could no longer afford to stay in that neighborhood.

#4 Comment By Jon On November 16, 2018 @ 9:46 am

Interesting post. I have been rethinking the dilemma of rising housing costs. How has the injection of wealth cause surrounding property values to rise? How has the building of luxury housing for the affluent spill over displacing poor neighborhoods? Is it merely the propaganda of those who are looking to oppose capital to labor that is to say, those who seek to ignite the fires of class war?

In my neck of the words, a rust belt town ebullient with poverty and recipients of the government dole, a group of artists have had to move twice because the buildings they have occupied are being renovated for condominiums targeting the upper middle classes. Alas, this is the decision of specific investors who own said properties and not an ongoing trend of displacement. Such development, it appears, is not bound to spill over and adversely impact on its poorer neighbors.

How does an investor or a group of speculators profit in luxury housing in poor neighborhoods that lack the bistros, trendy bars, used bookstores, and fancy restaurants featuring a panoply of fusion cuisines but whose streets are riddled with gun violence? Were these structures to become filled with new residents, they would remain vertical bedroom enclaves for single folks who commute to one of the neighboring larger cities.

And now the NIMBY voice resounds over Amazon’s move to Long Island City as if its East Coast headquarter will drive up housing costs there and in Astoria. Does a single move by a single but major corporate giant signal the rise in surrounding property values?

It would seem to me that this cost-push inflationary pressure impacting on major urban areas is complex in its cause — an array of factors such as a trend of real estate investors large and small alike looking to develop properties in the vicinity of enterprises of varying sizes that draw upon a local workforce in a word, economic growth.

#5 Comment By Walker On November 16, 2018 @ 2:53 pm

Anyone who wants to understand gentrification would do well to read Jeremiah Moss’ book Vanishing New York. Moss has very specific opinions, but his book is also first-rate journalism and is a work of a committed historian that would enrich anyone’s perspective, regardless of their opinions whether the trends he describes are good or bad.

Moss makes a distinction, through his observations and citations/discussions with an academic on the subject (not having the book on me at the moment unfortunately I can’t include the academic’s name), between gentrification and hypergentrification. The former describes the slow movement of rich/upper-middle class peoples to relatively poorer – i.e., middle/lower-middle, working-class, and poor neighborhoods – as they naturally seek more affordable housing and the pioneer experience of exploring exotic urban life. While Moss points out several significant issues with migrations like this, he also (rightly, I think) recognizes that it is a natural migration, one that has taken place numerous times throughout history, and a sign of overall economic health in a larger community. Furthermore, as (non-hyper)gentrifications take place over decades, the local communities have time to adjust and come to new, wholesome and even improved, equilibriums. On the hand, hypergentrification is a destructive force that arises from cooperation between developers, politicians, megabusinesses, and police. These groups work together to, in a very short time, not only remove existing residents through a combination of borderline street-gang law enforcement – e.g., criminalizing unapproved street vendors/hotdog stands/smoking and drinking outside – rapid luxury housing development that makes all new housing stock unaffordable to all but the rich, business tax incentives – e.g., Amazon in Long Island City – and good-paying jobs for highly-educated white-collar professionals only, with the collaboration of politicians through all this.

By this, again I think good, distinction, we can understand the difference between healthy gentrification and hypergentrification. The former is to managed and even encouraged, the latter is to be resisted.

#6 Comment By Hypnos On November 16, 2018 @ 2:54 pm

1) People resent displacement and disruption of their communities. This is a fundamental emotion, not something judged in the context of the economy, technological shifts, etc.

2) Gentrifiers have varying degrees of taste. Some want to leverage their buying power to enjoy the cultural pastiche of their new neighborhoods while retaining their bourgeois trappings, such as safety and elite education. Others care little for their new neighborhoods apart from the economic opportunity, and work to ignore the presence of the old residents, or have the authorities deal with them.

Anyone else see parallels to the interactions between First Nations and European settlers?

#7 Comment By JimDandy On November 17, 2018 @ 5:41 am

“Gentrification” has been a bad word for a long, long time. “Integration” is cool, though.

#8 Comment By Dan Green On November 17, 2018 @ 8:31 am

We cannot over simply so called gentrification, as if one admits it, it consist of various moving components. We are no longer a manufacturing power house . Big corporate factories purposely built in small rural towns to captivate their work force, and benefit from lower taxes and tax breaks .With the so called digital age and service economy, cities offer young people jobs, and a diversified living experience . Our freeway system is clogged and spending hours getting to and from a job is considered a waste of ones life. Another major point that I personally benefited from is, buying in a so called generification neighborhood, and making a big profit selling when the time is right. Lastly it could be said, raising kids in a diverse cultural environment with good schools is advisable. Burbs are now bastions of those with a lot of wealth. Small towns conversely have little to offer the Boomers kids.

#9 Comment By midtown On November 17, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

These are 95% ethnic conflicts — ways of life severely at odds with one another. Which is unfortunate, because it means there is no real solution. One side will push out the other.

#10 Comment By David Craig On November 19, 2018 @ 9:11 am

>About five years ago
Gracious! Where have you been? It’s been a plague on cities for at least 30 years.

A neighborhood develops its own character – not with money but with community.
Then a few pioneers enter the area, drawn by cheap homes and rich culture.
Then corporations realise there’s money to be made by buying up properties (often over the heads of tenants) and hiking up the rents/prices, thereby destroying the community that started the whole process.

Of course gentrification is dirty word – it describes the replacement of value with money.

#11 Comment By Butler T. Reynolds On November 19, 2018 @ 10:24 am

It’s fun to watch the gentrifiers move in to Atlanta. They are often young progressives who never had any real interaction with low-income neighborhoods.

On the local news one evening there was a story of residents of a new condo development complaining about the residents of a HUD apartment.

They were demanding that the Atlanta government do something about the frequent gunfire, car break-ins, noise, and other crime.

And here they thought it was because of racism that their parents and grandparents moved to the suburbs.

#12 Comment By mrscracker On November 19, 2018 @ 12:06 pm

Hypnos says:

“Some want to leverage their buying power to enjoy the cultural pastiche of their new neighborhoods while retaining their bourgeois trappings, such as safety and elite education.”


I live in one of the poorest states in the nation. I can guarantee that my neighbors also highly value their safety & don’t think of it as a bourgeois trapping.

#13 Comment By Hannah Katz On November 19, 2018 @ 4:14 pm

So when a stable neighborhood is transformed into a violent ghetto, that is good. But when people move into that same ghetto and start fixing up the properties to make it livable, that is bad. Got it.

#14 Comment By Truth, truth, truth On November 19, 2018 @ 6:03 pm

The Left represents the biggest offenders. Chicago is beyond broke, but they’re giving Obama a sweetheart deal and lease on public land to build a monument to himself-not his presidential library. Local residents, mostly poor blacks, want Obama to sign a Community Benefits Agreement to ensure they don’t get gentrified out of their homes. Obama has consistently refused and has had protesters arrested! Screw the community, the community organizer Obama wants all the profits for himself!

#15 Comment By Loran Tritter On November 19, 2018 @ 8:16 pm

Speaking as a former gentrifier, the only relevant political issue is the stance of the local government – zoning, police protection, code enforcement, etc. Generalizing is pointless.
Political posturing by politicians who are seeking votes from the poor is to be expected.