"It’s gentrification, but you could also almost call it apartheid by both race and class."
David Aragon
Shame of the Cities: Gentrification in the New Urban America


A noun pronounced 'jen-trê-fê-key-shên it means urban renewal that results in an influx of middle-class residents into an economically deprived area. The upgrading or reclaiming of deteriorated urban areas by the middle and upper classes and refers to changes in a neighborhood that reflect an inflow of capital. Oftentimes the influx of capital coincides with increasing numbers of the professional and managerial classes or the so called gentry living in an area. New condominiums are built, prices of real estate are bid up, old houses are rehabilitated.

The word is of English in origin stemming from gentry; people of high social position.The root is gens, gent- clan from gen- give birth, as in Greek gignomai be born related to genos race, stock. Gentry originally referred to landowners immediately below the nobility but still of genteel breeding. Other words based on the same root are gentile, genteel, gentle, and gentleman. To gentrify is the verb meaning to convert a working-class or inner-city district into an area of middle-class residence. It was coined by the sociologist Ruth Glass in London in 1964, however inner city gentrification is widely recognized as an international phenomenon and tends to unfold in stages:

  • a high proportion of renters
  • ease of access to jobs centers (freeways, public transit, reverse commutes, new subway stations or ferry routes)
  • location in a region with increasing levels of metropolitan congestion and
  • comparatively low housing values, particularly for housing stock with architectural merit.
By today's standards gentrification is used in a slightly derogatory way since the gentrification of a previously neglected district often displaces the poorer current residents. You could say when Starbucks hits the area "Here comes the neighborhood!" Original residents move out as leases fall in, homes are sold and landlords harass tenants into leaving. Moved along by government monies in the form of grants for urban renewal programs and are paid off by income taxes or increased rates along with a change of tenure from renting to home ownership. This phenomenon is referred to as a rent gap. In London, Islington is a classic example of a gentrified area; in Paris, gentrification has extended from the Marais eastwards. Sometimes a market-led gentrification happens due to a bandwagon effect of numerous uncoordinated decisions by investors who buy property solely for the purposes of making money when they sell off the properties as values increase.

William Alonso (1964) explains in his Alonso model that:

    "higher-income groups, who are less constrained than lower-income groups in their choice of residential location, may prefer the accessibility to the CBD offered by the inner city to the space, quiet, and cheaper land of the suburbs, so that gentrification may result.

    The assumptions on which this theory rests range from all land being of equal quality to lack of planning constraints. This means that the theory is a long way from reality, although it does reflect some aspects of urban morphology."

Sometimes, but not always it is the reverse process of filtering down. Gentrification has a long history. In the mid and late 1800s, power brokers in many European cities tried their hands at urban planning. In Paris, Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann, a court crony of Napoleon III's, gutted the residential areas where poor people lived throughout central Paris and installed the city’s famous grand boulevards. Thousands of poor Parisians were displaced to make room for the sweeping tree-lined boulevards which show-cased the city’s famous monuments. Strict guidelines applied to new building along the boulevards, and the residences there became the most exclusive in the city.

This process became part of the American public consciousness in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s , when artists and bohemians started moving into inner city buildings which had previously been warehouses and factories. Gentrification has a lot of connotations. For some, it's just economic revitalization of neighborhoods. For others, it's tantamount to a domestic class war. For most, gentrification is both good and bad, an extremely complex issue difficult to manage at a governmental level. A difficult balancing act at best; historic preservation and community preservation with revitalization and redevelopment as a goal of both historic preservation alongside community programs as counter balance. The hope is that mixed-income neighborhoods can flourish, local businesses can coexist with national chains and that well-designed higher density will improve, not harm, a neighborhood's value.


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It's a strange process. I lived in the Mission District of San Francisco which is the poster neighborhood for gentrification. It is a very real effect and observing that is one of the reasons that after nearly seven years there I decided it was time to leave.

I have no idea how to stop the process. It's going to happen no matter how many of us (meaning hipster kids) take Spanish or get to know our neighbors.

I think economic darwinism is a cause. People like me move into a neighborhood with cheap rent. We could afford to live elsewhere but can buy more toys with cheaper rent. Pretty soon the landlords get wise and start warehousing vacant apartments or just raising rents regularly. Businesses start moving to that neighborhood to suck up the disposable income of the new residents. Before long there are no grocery stores or laundromats just coffee houses and galleries. Where do the people who lived here because they literally couldn't afford to live anywhere else go?

So I chose the easy solution and moved away. The irony is that I had the option to do that in the first place. I wonder where all of my old neighbors live now.

In New Orleans, where I live, poverty and wealth live side by side. But there are still bad neighborhoods, really really bad neighborhoods. Places most people would call ghettos are called wards, where blocks of brown, dilapidated government housing looms in the dim street lights at night. 9th Ward is among the worst. A friend of mine once worked as a member of the maintenance crew and said that on the average, one person on the grounds died per night (not necessarily residents). I have fixed cars whose owners live in these wards that have been riddled with bullet holes from getting caught in the crossfire. Once my boss lent me his car and when I forgot the street where I parked it, I reported it stolen (only to find it nights later on a different block, duh), he went looking for it in the 9th Ward. It's where people often find their stolen cars that were taken for a joy ride rather than stripped for parts or sold. The 9th Ward is not very far from where I live, but far enough to seem like it doesn't even exist. Once, I was riding my bike during the day and accidentally happened upon a street which bisected the 9th Ward. A group of black kids younger than me screamed, "HEY, WHITE GIRL!!!" I had my Walkman on, so I pretended not to hear them.

When looking for apartments in the Garden District or Uptown, the advice I was given was to stay between Magazine and Carondelet, two parallel streets with St. Charles in between them where the neighborhoods were relatively safe. Anywhere past Magazine and you get too close to the River, in less palatable neighborhoods where one of the items in the real estate section of the paper is "unfurnished kitchen," which means there's no stove or fridge; you have to buy those yourself. Once I lived in what I called a crack shack, one block past Magazine near the river that had an unfurnished kitchen. I paid $350 a month for a 2 bedroom shotgun apartment with no insulation, no heat or air conditioning, no stove or fridge. It was a rough ride. Once while living there, I was walking home from the grocery store on Magazine, which is such a nice, normal street that it's hard to believe one block over can be so different. I passed two black men sitting on their front stoop who began hissing at me, that pssst pssst noise, like a catcall of sorts. I ignored it, and they yelled after me, "That's right, go ahead and ignore us. Then you wonder why we black people don't talk to you fucking people." If I wasn't alone on a dark street, I would have liked to have said something.

Maybe they saw me as a threat because I lived in their neighborhood. But I was paying the same low rent for the same shitty conditions as they were. If they saw my apartment and the dorm fridge and hot plate I used to prepare food, if they saw my breath in the cold bathroom as I saw it every morning when I tried to take a bath to get ready for one of the two jobs I held in an effort to pay the bills, they might have thought differently. Maybe not.

Other neighborhoods are becoming far more gentrified than any place I've ever lived, I'm sure, but I have no clue where they are or what their borders are. While I am currently looking for an apartment, I'm not increasing what I am willing to pay enough that it will change much the quality of the neighborhood I likely end up in. There will still be nice buildings next to hovels, pristine gated lawns next to vacant lots. I am the minority here, and this is the South. Those white young people who happen here either do it for college or for a change of scenery, both of which allow for a population that doesn't really increase or decrease but undulates. I am not part of the gentrification process. I am just as broke or stubborn as anyone else, and for that I pay the price of mockery, or rudeness due to the color of my skin.

As far as I can see it, the places moving up in value are the suburban areas outside the city, where white people go to raise families and to leave the city to its own demise. Which is where younger, unmarried people like me take advantage. Cheap rents are no secret here, and people put up with a lot to live cheaply. You want your run down neighborhoods, your high death rate, your poor education and miserable living conditions, you can fucking have them. You can trust that this white person doesn't have the money to take over your street, though sometimes I wish I did so that you could see what living better was like. Shit, I would like to live better too, you know. What it would mean to your kids and their kids. And how no advancement is bought without a price.

In New Orleans, not many places outside the Quarter are hiking their rents where they haven't always been high, like the Warehouse District or Uptown. Some people try, buying run down homes and sprucing them up, but they're often not backed by any corporations. They just love this city and want to improve it in their small way. The real problem, I think, are those tenacious landlords who will not spend the money needed to make their rentals the least bit more appealing. They expect everyone to be slovenly, irresponsible losers, so they often get what they expect and deserve in my opinion. If they get a renter like me, who takes care of what she has, they chalk it up as coincidence, luck, and wait for me to get tired of it and leave.

Everything needs a balance, but humans seldom understand that. They overdo it, sending out skyrocketing rents and sales to usher in corporations instead of working with the community, instead of realizing that there is one and that it may need a little organization, since why should the community care now when the people who have charged them cheap rent for the last 20 years don't care about them? White people and corporations just amaze me most of the time how clueless we can be.

Gentrification, as a term, has long ago left the sociological literature and entered the common speech, usually in a pejorative way. The problem with this is, while the term might have meant something fairly specific in the original research (although I doubt it was very specific), it has come to mean a number of things in its common usage.

When using sociological terms, it is important to operationalize them. Gentrification is the process of a more affluent population moving into an area inhabited by a less affluent population. While this sounds like a good definition, defining it further is somewhat problematic. On the issue of "affluence", there is many ways to operationalize that. Furthermore, how is the difference between them defined? Every neighborhood or demographic area has a range of possible incomes, so how far above the range of incomes do newcomers have to be before they are gentrifiers? And as for "moving in", we have the same question: since there will almost always be some residents of an area with an income well above the mean, how much of an influx has to happen before the area is "gentrified"? 10%? 20%? 50%? Thus, very different definitions of what gentrification means could be given. It could be 10% of the people moving into an area have an income of 20% over the old average, or it could be 50% of the people moving into an area have an income of 50% over the old average.

This is not a theoretical question, although the plain numbers may make it sound like one. I will take two different examples of something that could be called "gentrification", and explain why they look very different on the ground. These are two stories from my hometown of Portland, Oregon.

The Pearl District was, in the early 1990s, a large section bordering downtown Portland that had previously been a light industrial district, but now consisted of mostly abandoned or semi-abandoned buildings, as well as some low-income housing. It also smelled like a brewery. Due to a deliberate effort by the Portland Development Commission and some developers, the area was torn down, rebuilt, and filled with condominiums and trendy restaurants and galleries. Walking through the Pearl, it is hard to imagine any way to exaggerate what it is like. It is a good place to get a cupcake for five dollars, or get aromatherapy for your dog. The residents of the Pearl are largely of the so-called creative class, and are paying top-dollar for their condominiums. It would be hard not to call the Pearl "gentrification".

Across the river is the large, amorphous district that makes up North and part of Northeast Portland: An area of at least a dozen square miles, taking in different residential, commercial and industrial districts. This area is also, traditionally, the center of Portland's African-American community. In the 1980s, it had a mostly exaggerated reputation of a "dangerous" area. However, it was a large area, and while parts of it were very poor, much of it was working class or lower-middle class. What has happened, slowly, in the past ten years or so is that the area has lost some of its stigma, and many lower-middle class or middle-class people have moved in. Many of these people are young, white, and well-educated, but not quite the type of people who can pay a quarter-million dollar for a 1500 sq. ft. condo. In fact, in November of 2004, I was one of these people. I had just left school, and got kicked out of college housing, and needed a place to live very, very quickly. Craigslist advised me of a room for rent in North Portland for a reasonable price, so I moved there as quickly as I could. So I, as a young desperate person, suddenly became one of the gentry.

Hopefully these stories, which while somewhat detailed are still not detailed enough to give the actual feeling of how these neighborhoods have changed, can give a bit of a hint of the problem with "gentrification". In the first example, a decision was made by a small group of people, including government agencies and developers, to take a small group of ground, and drastically change its characters and sell it to some very wealthy people. In the second, over a much larger amount of time, an area slowly changed its character, as people moved into it out of necessity. Yet both of these are "gentrification". This is why I think the term "gentrification" is poorly characterized, and not very good as a serious sociological term.

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