Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

When Did Gentrification Become A Dirty Word?

Are the caricatures of urban transformation ruining the positive things that are happening economically and culturally to cities?
gentrification protest

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 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, 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 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 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 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, the director of planning and urban development in Akron, Ohio, sees the conundrum very clearly. 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”:

“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 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, “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 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, 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: “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,” 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