Saturday, April 7th, 2007

On Gentrification

The Boston Globe had an interesting essay this week talking about gentrification. I’m not sure what this was. I’m assuming some sort of op-ed since it doesn’t read like a normal article. The point the author is trying to make is that gentrification is more complex than it first appears, and there are winners/losers of various races. It is not just a monolithic rich whites displace poor blacks.

My position on gentrification is very clear. It is the principle enshrined in landmark civil rights legislation and the Fair Housing Act. Namely that people have a right to live where ever they want to and can afford to. There is more than a whiff of retrograde ideas in the anti-gentrification push. Activists talk about the “character of the neighborhood” and “displacement” of existing residents. What they forget is just a few short decades ago those same words were nothing more than racial code words for keeping neighborhoods white. It can’t be “fair housing” for thee and “gentrification” for me. Trying to maintain neighborhoods as the private preserve of an exclusive group of people is discrimination plain and simple.

However, there is more to the story. If change is driven by the free market, by people choosing where to live and developers choosing where to build, that’s ok. But too often gentrification is active public policy. The city declares a neighborhood blighted and starts using eminent domain to acquire properties to turn over to connected (i.e., campaign contributing) developers. TIF and other subsidy funds are handed out. PUD or other zoning favors are given for developers who are putting in “high class” development.

There is a certain tension here. As I’ve noted elsewhere, any improvement in a neighborhood increases property values and thus affects the poor negatively. So just something like replacing sidewalks and adding street lights can start driving the poor out. I’m not going to suggest we should leave urban neighborhoods to decay in the interest of allowing the poor a place to live.

But too often city officials, and just plain citizens, drive around and see these old neighborhoods full of charm and character, though a bit run down, and see only the potential of the buildings, of the built environment. The people in the neighborhood barely register, except possibly as a negative. I’ve seen many comments from the well-meaning on urban discussion forums talking about how certain neighborhoods have great potential for lofts, condos, coffee shops, and swank restaurants. I think it is pretty obvious who they imagine might live in those condos and eat in those establishments. All this while exclaiming over the architecture. I call this “love the neighborhood, hate the neighbors”.

There seems to be only one model of urban rejuvenation that city planners and all too many others understand: converting older neighborhoods into yuppie playgrounds. Everything else is viewed as blight even if in a certain sense it might be thriving. I think of the many immigrant neighborhoods, which are often full of profitable small businesses, yet still are viewed as distressed because these businesses don’t look like the shiny, new, high design concept the upscale expect.

I know many cities are desperate to get anyone with money to move there. And that’s a worthwhile goal. When all you’ve got is poor people, that’s not a recipe for civic success. Still, by focusing on a pretty narrow slice: yuppies with no kids (or pre-school aged children), empty nesters, tourists, etc. can a city thrive? Can you have a successful city without a broad middle class? Time will tell. I think it is worth noting, however, that even a place like Chicago, which has seen perhaps the biggest urban condo building boom of any city in the US thanks to pro-development policies and land availability, is actually losing population. The influx of the upscale can’t make up for the departures of everyone else. I ultimately believe that to be truly successful, a city needs to have a broad middle class that chooses to live there. Obviously this is no easy feat given the state of urban schools, but this is the core problem that needs to be solved.

In the meantime, I’d challenge cities to step up and think of redevelopment ideas that don’t involve lots of condos and Starbucks. Take into account the people who actually live in these neighborhoods, not just the built environment. Think about the businesses who’ve toughed it out there, not just about the big national chains or swank local shops you hope to attract. And recognize that urban success doesn’t always look the same, and a little grit and lack of a fancy interior designers, etc. doesn’t make a neighborhood run down or blighted.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Public Policy

6 Responses to “On Gentrification”

  1. Crocodileguy says:

    How to do it right: Fall Creek Place. By rebuilding a very dilapidated neighborhood yet providing massive subsidies so the poor could continue to live there, Indianapolis IMO did a great job in “gentrification” while including the current constituency.

  2. Brad S says:

    Is basic city building code/street code enforcement only a cost? Is police enforcement only a cost? Aren’t these also benefits that, while not immediately cash-generating, redound throughout the neighborhood, regardless of income?

    Most of us in most major cities (I’m in Denver) can tell you of attempts at redevelopment that became white elephants or other forms of massive commerical failure. Maybe it’s time we let simple actions determine the course of “livability.” And to the Sioux Fallses and Fort Waynes of this country; may I suggest abandoning the yuppie chase altogether? Those places are better off luring in Evangelical Christian families.

  3. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Fall Creek Place looks nice. It will be interesting to see how the neighborhood fares over the long term as demand in that area increases.

  4. BigSprinter says:

    Good points and very well written.

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for kind words, BigSprinter

  6. BigSprinter says:

    Since my initial brief comment I’ve meant to come back and post a more detailed reply, as I think there is definitely some good stuff here, and it definitely got me thinking.

    First off–I applaud you for succinctly stating the hypocrisy inherent in many’s criticisms of gentrification. As I put it to folks here in Denver, what if Thornton (a largely white suburb) started restricting the number of blacks that could move in, would that be acceptable? Of course not, but I actually had a neighborhood association grant application come across my desk stating that our organization would know they’ve been effective “by the limited number of white faces in our neighborhood.” No kidding.

    A couple other thoughts–First, about “love thy neighborhood but not thy neighbors”–I agree to a large extent. I live in urban Denver, and we have a couple neighbors that clearly moved into the city to just shorten their commute, and because they got a “cute” house–I think they likely would rather our ‘hood be just like the suburbs but close to town.

    We, however, moved into the neighborhood as much for the eclectic mix of cultures as we did the architecture of our old Victorian. We got married in Mexico, have lived much of our lives in the desert southwest, and have a soft spot in our heart for much about the latin culture.

    We actually despise a lot of things about the suburbs–the homogenous homes, the lack of interaction with your neighbors, and the lack of diversity. For us, we were excited at the prospect of having African-American and Spanish-speaking neighbors to help us re-acquire our foreign-language abilities, and to keep us from becoming too sheltered in our thought processes, as I think can happen in the white-bread suburbs.

    However, now that we’ve been in our neighborhood a while, certain things are causing our unconditional love to wear thin–The litter, drunks smashing bottles on our street, people urinating and defacating in public, having to park a block away from our house because the family next door has 10 people and five cars for their 900 square foot home, and the fact that our neighbors have their swamp cooler propped up on their front porch on two discarded car tires and a random amalgamation of scrap wood.

    So for some, myself included, our love for the neighborhood starts out complete, and includes our neighbors, but after dealing with these issues over and over, it’s just human nature in my opinion to at some point wish more responsible, or ultimately, more affluent people moved in. Personally, I wish the more affluent incomers were African American or Hispanic to maintain the diversity, but that never seems to be the case. It only seems to be the whites that see treasure in another man’s trash, and invest in and fix up a home in these redeveloping urban neighborhoods.

    Which brings me to my other point, relevant to your comment about why developers don’t redevelop with minorities wants and needs in mind–Personally, I don’t think it matters how you redevelop these neighhorhoods, the minorities won’t come back. I don’t know if it’s because African Americans and Hispanics associate these old neighborhoods with the poverty they used to embody, or if it’s actually a case of the “implicit bias” that Sampson and Raudenbush described in their studies rebuking the Broken Windows theory–where they claimed to have found that even minorities correlate the level of disorder in their environment with the percentage of residents that are black or Hispanic. I don’t know what the reason is, but again, it only seems to be young, affluent whites that are buying historic homes here in Denver and fixing them up. Most of the more affluent African Americans seem to be moving to Park Hill and Stapleton. And trust me–Our neighborhood is still on the affordable side of Denver gentrification, and there aren’t any conveniences in our neighborhood yet–We’re waiting for a Walgreens, Starbucks, ANYTHING other than a liquor store, so it’s not like the neighborhood has been so caucasian-ized that it’s beyond appeal to African Americans.

    So to me, maintaining the diversity of these urban neighborhoods is a challenge for more reasons than just gentrification and displacement.

    Anyway, keep up the good, analytical thinking, and the fantastic writing.

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