I had just come home from work when three students from the college down the street approached my porch with official-looking clipboards in hand. “Excuse me ma’am,” (I’m a ma’am now? When did this happen?) “Can we ask you some questions for a school research project?”
Instead of hissing “Youths!” and retreating into the darkness of my lair, I obliged. I am a “ma’am” now, after all, and that comes with a responsibility to be magnanimous toward fine upstanding young people everywhere.
First question: “What does gentrification mean to you?”
What does gentrification mean? To anyone? It’s spoken of as this insidious force creeping into neighborhoods and ruining everything, kicking out Olds and Poors alike and replacing mom-and-pop corner stores with craft collectives selling artisanal lettuce wraps in a locally-sourced avocado reduction for half a month’s rent.
Of more concern is its secretly racist power to take neighborhoods full of people of color, kick out the current residents, and replace them with hip white people who work at tech companies willing to pay twice as much for the same apartments after Pinterest-worthy cabinetry is installed.
Gentrification is also probably the reason I own my house, so I was feeling guilty in the moment.
I blurted out my answer: “More rich white neighbors.”
What we think about when we think about gentrification
When I posed the question to #BitchNation on Twitter (shut up we are totally making this a thing), the responses were pretty similar to my own knee-jerk reaction when talking to the students.
@digindigout said, “First thought: hipsters w/$$ displacing people of color/long standing community members. I know it’s more complicated than that :).”
And our all-purpose Internet mom, How to Grow the Fuck Up, said, “Pushing out long-standing residents and businesses, especially PoC, to make communities ‘better and safer’ … for white people. There is usually some kind of cupcakery or other trendy store involved.”
And when I asked my husband, he said, “I’m not doing your blog legwork for you I’m trying to read my book.” Typical lazy millennial.
So we’re all pretty damn sure racism is involved somehow. (Spoiler alert: racism is always involved somehow. Welcome to America.) The stereotype, as noted above, also usually pertains to some sort of hip, stupidly expensive business enterprises as well… like an establishment that sells locally-sourced, small-batch, artisanal croutons with a side of pickled, GMO-free acai berries and bespoke succulents, for example.
So rich white people displacing poor people of color + ridiculous business concepts fit for an episode of Portlandia = gentrification?
That’s depressingly close, actually.
No but srsly: what is gentrification?
The dictionary definition reads like a completely unsatisfactory euphemism. “The process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste,” says nothing about the perceived threat of displacement. And besides, who wouldn’t want to renovate and improve a neighborhood so that it’s nicer and cleaner? Who wouldn’t want more solid infrastructure and amenities to make their lives a little easier?
Making things nicer isn’t the problem. It’s the cost—both monetary and human—that gives gentrification its reputation as not-so-secretly evil.
To understand gentrification we need to take a detour through… History Lessons with Kitty and Piggy!
In the first half of the twentieth century in America, people started fleeing cities for the suburbs in droves. Urban centers had supposedly become festering cesspools of crime and degeneracy, no place to raise a family. The solution for middle class Americans was to move a safe distance outside of cities, close enough that they could still commute in to their white collar jobs, but far enough away that their children didn’t have to go to school with the children of the poor.
That left primarily low-income people occupying urban neighborhoods. And because this is ‘Murica, that meant people of color and starving artists working blue collar or service industry jobs (because of redlining, which is a whole different fucked up thing you should educate yourself about).
Fast-forward to the 1970s and suddenly urban centers were back in vogue with the well-to-do. It was known as “reverse white flight.” Turns out all those low income people of color and artistic types had transformed their neighborhoods into unique and interesting cultural centers where you could find cool stuff like food from all corners of the globe.
Suddenly, cities were interested in “””urban revival.””” But a rose by any other name… is most definitely still displacing the poor and drastically altering the character of historic neighborhoods.
And thus began the maniacal process of gentrification in which mustache-twirling slum lords kicked out all their impoverished tenants, raised the rents by a factor of five, and put up signs proclaiming “Wealthy white folks welcome!”
Or, slightly more believably, there was a demand for available housing in urban centers from people willing to pay top dollar to live there. And as a result, rent and property values rose. Some landlords saw an opportunity to sell their property to developers who in turn renovated or rebuilt to meet the lifestyle demands of a higher income class.
So yeah, through gentrification low income people of color do get priced out of their neighborhoods, and family-owned small businesses do get pushed out of the available retail space. Here’s what else gentrification does:
- The demographics of a neighborhood skew more white and the population of people of color declines
- The median income of a neighborhood rises
- Household sizes decline as low-income families are replaced by young, white collar singles and couples
- Rents and home prices shoot up like a geyser
- Development booms as rental units are converted to luxury condos for ownership and older homes are destroyed and replaced by high-end housing, retail spaces, and restaurants
- The character of a neighborhood can change irrevocably
Which all sounds… like a rather dire call to arms for people who would rather not get priced out of their homes and businesses. Because where, exactly, are the victims of gentrification supposed to go? Are they supposed to somehow predict the gentrification of their neighborhood and plan ahead financially? Find the funds to start a bespoke ankle warmer dispensary before their landlord raises the rent or sells their building to a hungry real estate investor? Fight back?
“Neighborhoods, then, are not just homes, but opportunities for profit and redevelopment. And the renewal fantasy that defines them hides an often racist history of deliberate and concentrated impoverishment, one that’s inevitably copied wherever poor residents are forced to move next—usually the isolated suburbs they were barred from occupying in the first place.”
So gentrification does improve neighborhoods in all kinds of ways. Just not for the people who already live there.
Are the horror stories true?
Anecdotal evidence suggests this terrifying, racist, anti-poor, heartless process of gentrification is happening at an alarming rate. I can’t even park in some parts of my neighborhood because of all the construction dumpsters and I’ve fucking lost count of the cranes littering our skyline. We’re reaching critical gentrification levels here!
But let’s look at gentrification by the numbers. Because data is way sexier than anecdotes.
According to Census tract data gathered by Governing Magazine, gentrification has accelerated in recent years. Nearly 20% of neighborhoods with low incomes and home values have gentrified since 2000, whereas in the previous decade only 9% of similar neighborhoods gentrified.
According to the same study, the most gentrifying city in the country is Portland, Oregon (which, if you’ve ever been there, is about as surprising as the sun rising in the East), which experienced gentrification in 58.1% of its eligible tracts since the 2000 Census.
A Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland study found that, “In three-quarters of America’s 55 largest cities, less than 10% of all neighborhoods experienced gentrification from 2000 to 2007, and gentrification affected 5% or less of a total of 22 neighborhoods.”
It’s hard to compute the racial impact of gentrification on cities. The Washington Post recently reported on a historically black neighborhood where the forces of gentrification are actually using its historic blackness as a marketing tactic to attract the wealthy, young, and hip. And that, my friends, is fucking cultural appropriation.
But while displacement of the poor is objectively inhuman, gentrification has some surprising benefits. Improvements to infrastructure and schools generally help everyone in a given area, which is great if you can afford to stay in the area. And in some cases, neighborhood improvements like new business and updated infrastructure actually reduce displacement. In fact, a 2004 Columbia University study found that “Disadvantaged households in gentrifying neighborhoods were actually 15% less likely to move than those in non-gentrifying households.”
In other words, lower income people might sometimes see gentrification as a personal benefit. These are families that can’t quite afford to move somewhere nicer and safer. So when the nicer, safer neighborhood comes to them, they are not about to look a gift horse in the mouth if they can afford it.
This is not our way of saying “Surprise! Gentrification is actually a good thing!” Far from it. The displacement of the economically disadvantaged is the absolute opposite of what we stand for here at Bitches Get Riches, and I want to make that clear.
I’m just saying: gentrification is less a tsunami and more a slowly rising sea due to the melting of our polar ice caps. It’s definitely a disaster. But we have time to learn to cope with it and maybe even come up with a solution. (Inarguably, we have more time to solve gentrification than we do climate change. That ship has fucking sailed).
I am a beneficiary of gentrification
I live in a traditionally Latino neighborhood in a major American city. I love my neighborhood, especially since I lived in several far crappier neighborhoods before I bought my house circa two years ago.
Since we moved in, the tiny retail district two blocks away has exploded with development. Four new buildings full of town homes have gone up where once dilapidated single-family homes stood. Boarded-up storefronts have been replaced with a microbrewery, an art gallery, a hair salon, and a delightfully #shabbychic bakery that serves coffee in fucking thrift store teacups. It’s great.
The former dive bar on the same block was revamped under new ownership a few years before we moved in, and many of the old houses in the neighborhood have been “scraped” and replaced with giant, expensive homes in that fugly, blocky, asymmetrical design that will be out of style within ten years.
It’s awesome… for us. We saw the writing on the wall development-wise, and partially chose our house and neighborhood because we wanted to have access to all the cool stuff in the neighborhood. So in a way, I am a direct beneficiary of gentrification in my city.
But I also love the culture of this neighborhood. I love the decades-old used bookstore, and the park with its pond where people teach their children to catch and release beleaguered fish. I love the Brazilian restaurant and the old school butcher shop that’s been in the family for four generations. I love my elderly Latina neighbor who brings me homemade tortillas when I’m gardening (“You looked hungry!”) and the mariachi band that plays for birthday parties in the park (no joke it’s fucking brilliant).
I fell in love with the character of this neighborhood. I like my neighbors. And I don’t want them to be sacrificed on the altar of locally-sourced, artisanal kale chips sold from a food truck for $14.