I’m always amazed at the low degree of self-awareness many of those who complain about gentrification have about their own role as gentrifiers. Back in 2013 John Joe Schlichtman and Jason Patch took this on with an paper that appeared in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research called “Gentrifier? Who, Me? Interrogating the Gentrifier in the Mirror.” The full piece is available for download at Schlichtman’s site.
As they put it:
At the 2009 RC-21 conference in São Paulo, a young scholar began her presentation with the premise ‘we all know that gentrification is bad’. Urban scholars rail against the process of gentrification and its destruction of working-class communities. We read about the waves of gentrifiers and the kinds of cafes, boutiques and new amenities that they bring. We express worry to our peers that the city is going to become a bastion of elitism or a generic suburb stripped of diversity. Often, we treat gentrification as a contemporary form of urban class and racial warfare (Smith, 1996). As urbanists, however, we increasingly notice an elephant sitting in the academic corner: many (dare we say most — ‘mainstream’ and critical) urbanists are gentrifiers themselves. As Brown-Saracino (2010: 356) suggests, ‘many of us have firsthand experience with gentrification’. But what difference has this made on our research? Very little. We have created an artificial distance in our analysis because we do not examine our own relationship to the data. The last few years have witnessed lively debates among urbanists on the topic of gentrification. Some of these debates have seemed quite personal. The truth is that those of us situated in the phenomenon of gentrification carry suppositions on the issue that are deeply rooted in our personal biographies.
Their approach to this is to start with themselves, and provide an overview of their “journey lines” and how their own lives and academic careers interact with gentrification. Included is an overview of some of the forces that they see driving decisions that ultimately produce gentrification. It’s worth a read. Here’s a brief excerpt from Schlichtman’s story:
Over the last 15 years, I have lived in three clearly-gentrifying neighborhoods. In all three gentrifying neighborhoods, as with four other residences that I will not discuss, an economic pull has been a key impetus in my residential decision. In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in 1998, I rented a $500/month room in a subdivided brownstone of single rooms with kitchenettes where residents on each floor shared a bathroom. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, from 2006 to 2007, my wife (who grew up in the neighborhood) and I rented an $800/month apartment on the top floor of my in-laws’ brownstone. In 2009, my wife and I purchased a home in Golden Hill, San Diego. At this writing, we are in the process of a move to Chicago.
In Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant, I feel that I was an unwitting gentrifier. I use the term ‘unwitting gentrifier’ to express the fact that I chose to live in these two neighborhoods for economic and practical reasons alone, two considerations that play into every voluntary re-location choice made by any consumer. I moved to New York for graduate school in the late 1990s and lived at Long Island University in downtown Brooklyn (although I attended New York University) because it was the most inexpensive housing arrangement available.
Unlike a lot of academic papers, this one is written in plain English, so don’t be afraid to read the whole thing.