On Gentrification

I have been asked a lot recently about neighborhood displacement in growing cities — gentrification, in other words. So I thought I would share a few thoughts based on a wide-ranging and thought-provoking article by Kelefah Sanneh in The New Yorker about gentrification and the meaning of the word “ghetto.” These are tough but worthwhile topics to address.

Sanneh argues that the terms gentrification and ghetto are, in a sense, shared beliefs that “the sorrows and joys of neighborhood change tend to be unequally shared.” As terms, they carry with them certain assumptions about the good we seek in our communities.

Gentrification is a morality play with a muddled plot. It is surprisingly unclear who is being displaced by bohemians, and how. Poor neighborhoods are hardly static places even without wealthier newcomers. Here’s Sanneh:

“While traditional gentrification narratives suggest that poor residents, if not for the bane of gentrification, would have been fixed in place, the truth is that poorer households generally move more often than richer ones; in many poor neighborhoods, the threat of eviction is ever-present, which helps explain why rising rents don’t necessarily increase turnover. And gentrification needn’t be zero-sum, because gentrifying neighborhoods may become more densely populated, with new arrivals adding to, rather than supplanting those currently resident.”

Displacement has come under closer scrutiny in recent years, and the results suggest that gentrification is more heat than light. A 2004 study from Lance Freeman and Frank Braconi found that in seven of New York City’s gentrifying neighborhoods of the 1990s, poor households were “19% less likely to move than poor households residing elsewhere.” They go on to find that “a neighborhood could go from a 30% poverty population to 12% in as few as 10 years without any displacement whatsoever.”

A later paper by Freeman found that a household in a gentrifying neighborhood nationally had only a 1.3% chance of displacement. Yet another study of his revealed that while gentrifying neighborhoods did experience some displacement from 1970 to 2000, they generally became more diverse in income, race, and education than non-gentrifying neighborhoods.

This suggests that gentrification is about something more than displacement. There lies a deeper tension within the city over the shape of a neighborhood and its inhabitants, and whether or how they should change over time.

“Arguments over gentrification are really arguments over who deserves to live in a city, and the notion of a right to stay put is sometimes at odds with another, perhaps more fundamental right to move.”

When we say that a city’s residents should be able to come and go as they please, we are implicitly putting people at the center of our concern. Yet this is not where the gentrification debate has often wound up.

“Arguments about gentrification sometimes imply that places matter most. Jane Jacobs, for instance, could seem to cherish Greenwich Village more than she cherished the people who lived there, to say nothing of the people who might have liked to join them, if only there had been more and cheaper housing.”

If we care about place, then it is in the interest of policy to keep people where they are. What makes a community unique, in this view, are the physical manifestations of a settled people. If, rather, people are the center of a city, then it matters rather less whether the physical buildings change or if there is such a thing as brain drain. What matters is opportunity.

“The opposite of gentrification is not a quirky and charming enclave that stays affordable forever; the opposite of gentrification is a decline in prices that reflects the transformation of a once desirable neighborhood into one that is looking more like a ghetto every day.”

But with opportunity comes a form of hardship: change that is nearer than ever but whose fruits are not always yours to enjoy.

“In the ghetto narrative, a poor neighborhood falls victim to isolation; in the gentrification narrative, a poor neighborhood falls victim to invasion. These stories are not necessarily contradictory — they reflect a common conviction that the sorrows and joys of neighborhood change tend to be unequally shared.”

All of this to say, gentrification is not a cut and dry matter of displacement. It is also about the changes in and fracturing of community. It is about wealth disparities no longer being between neighborhoods but within them. It is about the loss of social capital even for gains in physical or financial capital.

I do not have clear answers to gentrification, but what I know is this: place matters when people matter most. Every person should have the opportunity to flourish in community no matter their physical address.