Gentrification — What does the term mean? (part 2 of 2)

Sophia Lee
Apr 15, 2018 · 9 min read

Gentrification — What does the term mean? (part 2 of 2)

Vandalism of inkI Coffee in Denver following a controversial ad posted by them that read: “Happily Gentrifiying the Neighborhood since 2014” Photo By Paulafedyk (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Wenfei Xu and I have started a blog, to better understand certain subjects on the urban environment that matter to the both of us and which take some wrangling to get a fuller picture. Our first such topic is gentrification, one of the more loaded and pervasive terms in the general conversation about cities. There’s a reason why the term feels so weighed down by different meanings, uses and overuse, and we hope to slowly unpack this to end up with a better understanding of the forces that shape our cities and and affect the lives of all its citizens.

Briefly on our blog’s structure: Things will unfold in a pretty leisurely dialogue (read: we’re both kind of busy people) going through different aspects of current subject. Wenfei and I will overlap somewhat in our readings, but not entirely, so that we can each bring something different to the table.

The agenda for our first subject is heavily influenced by sociologist Brian McCabe’s “The City: Approaches to Urban Studies” course at Georgetown; Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, Elvin Wyly’s textbook Gentrification (LSW from now), John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill’s Gentrifier, and Peter Moskowitz’s How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. Our discussion will initially focus more on the arc of research in this field rather than on any specific case studies so we can get the big picture first.

If you haven’t done so already, you should first read Wenfei’s post because she sets up more of the theoretical bones (read: heavy-lifting) of our collaboration, and mine is a response to her work. [Link to Wenfei’s post]

Why do we still use this term? Is the term “Gentrification” inherently political?

Technically and academically, yes, the term was intended to be inherently political. Ruth Glass’s original coining speaks to the rigid class structure of England — “gentry”-”fication” — changing from lower class to a middle class is actually baked into the word itself.

In common, non-academic use though, gentrification can mean positive neighborhood change to certain people (Schlichtman, Hill & Patch would call these people Gentrifiers). I once had a conversation during which my use of the term caused an acquaintance to furrow their eyebrows, pause, but very deliberately not respond. Later, they made a comment on their social media that gave light to their thoughts: “… from an empty lot to a fresh grocer and new condos two blocks away?!? Sorry haters #gentrification”. Clearly, they saw gentrification as a positive force in their neighborhood. I’ve had other conversations where my companions would comment how it was so great that their neighborhood was gentrifying and getting so much better. Some noted how much of a profit they turned from buying and selling at the right times — what great luck.

Screenshot from social media, accessed 02/05/2018

However, the aspect of gentrification that continues to nag me uncomfortably can be summarized with the economics maxim: “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Were these neighborhood improvements truly only beneficial, and if so, how were neighborhoods conjuring the capital to make improvements happen? Many scholars and activists have been studying this for much longer than I have, and their findings are mixed, but it does seem like someone is in fact losing out: the existing residents of the neighborhood who tend to be lower-income and people of color (POC). Journalist Peter Moskowitz, in How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood argues that yes, “gentrification almost always takes place on top of someone else’s loss”(1). (More on this in later blog posts, when we dig deeper into causes and effects of gentrification.)

Regardless, and maybe I’m contradicting myself, I do still see the benefit of using the term because folks immediately have a tangible mental image of what Gentrification looks like. Yes, its meanings are messy, but it’s also quite remarkable that a term that may have easily remained only within academic circles is discussed so pervasively by society-at-large.

Dilution of the Term: When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

There exist many compelling and plausible competing explanations for gentrification, and this is because it isn’t a single process but a “broad range of processes,” as Neil Smith argues in 1986(2). These diverse processes lend themselves to study by a diverse range of professionals and scholars. As Loretta Lees argues in 1998, “different methodological frameworks result in different outcomes of gentrification”(3). Even from the few sources I’ve had a chance to absorb so far, I am aware of these unique perspectives and conclusions: sociologists, journalists, geographers, anthropologists, urbanists, urban planners.

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts By Nils Olander — Own Work on Wikimedia, CC BY-SA
Barclays Center By AEMoreira042281 — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The jury is also not out on which instances of urban change constitute gentrification. Schlichtman, Patch, and Hill quote Hamnett (2009) in Gentrifier who quips, “It seems as though we are living in an era of the ‘gentrification of everything,’ an era in which we are ‘stretching the term so far as to make it almost meaningless’”(4). They ask: should the Barclays Center (sports stadium, opened 2012) and the Lincoln Center (opera, classical music venue, opened in parts, 1962–1969) both be considered gentrification? Neil Smith pointed to the “Haussmanization” of Paris (the razing of low-income neighborhoods of Paris to make way for tree-lined boulevards celebrating monuments) as a precursor to gentrification, but is it related? Neil Smith himself argued back in 1982 that we should make a distinction between gentrification and redevelopment, the latter of which he defined as “not the rehabilitation of old structures but the construction of new buildings on previously developed land (5). Are Robert Moses style urban renewal projects (e.g. the razing of neighborhoods to build highways that occurred around the 1950s-1970s) gentrification too?

Looking at the scholarship of gentrification so far (and this may change as we read more), the general consensus seems to be that redevelopment and urban renewal do qualify as gentrification, or certainly they can cause gentrification to occur. Residential scale effects are now termed “classical gentrification” and are based on Ruth Glass’s original description, but the term has evolved drastically, and is still evolving to this day.

A Definition for Gentrification, and a Stance on Displacement: Take 1

My definition to date: Gentrification is an influx of investment and new middle-income residents into a recently disinvested central city neighborhood that has the effect of displacing existing lower-income residents, businesses, and neighborhood culture.

The basis for this definition is from Sociologist Jackelyn Hwang on the Grapple podcast episode, “Breaking Down Gentrification with Jackelyn Hwang”. She defines it more conservatively, “as an influx of investment and of middle and upper class residents into a previously low income, central city (downtown) neighborhood,” When asked if gentrification causes displacement, Hwang’s response was nuanced. In her research with the Federal Reserve Bank, they found that mobility for lower income residents wasn’t higher, but that when they did move, it was to lower-income neighborhoods. She also goes on to explain that there may be cultural and political displacement, even if there isn’t a statistically significant amount of residential displacement. When asked about the effects on renters vs homeowners, she admits the research shows that renters are more likely to be displaced than homeowners (6).

If links to displacement are mixed in the “hard research,” why is it important? Even though Hwang does not include displacement as an effect of gentrification in her general definition, she does argue that it is important to remember that there are many kinds of displacement, and inconclusive research on residential displacement does not include displacement of neighborhood culture, politics, and businesses. Statistically, we can prove that neighborhoods are changing economically and often racially from predominantly people of color to white. Qualitatively, it’s very hard to believe that this doesn’t result in a pretty drastic shift in neighborhood culture and feel, even from an outsider’s point of view. One of the biggest issues that pro-gentrification advocates don’t seem to understand is that even though existing residents may not be getting priced out or leaving, they can feel extremely frustrated, stressed, or even fearful in feeling left out of the decision making causing the change to what they view as “their territory.” As urbanist and urban planner Kristen Jeffers says in the Third Wave Urbanism episode on gentrification, “if [gentrification is] planned, and people feel involved, and people feel OK with what’s happening as a majority, then it’s less of an issue when neighborhoods start to change.”(7) Change will happen, but whether change happens to you or you make the change makes a huge difference in agency and enfranchisement.

I’m also taking a stronger stance on gentrification causing displacement of “existing low-income residents, businesses, and culture” because although it’s harder to crunch numbers on neighborhood culture and politics displacement, there are many real stories being reported and told by journalists and activists about it happening. Urban anthropologist Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, in the same Third Wave Urbanism podcast episode summarizes a recent Next City article written by Deonna Anderson, “In New York, a Neighborhood Makes a Pre-Gentrification Plan”: “these residents are saying ok, things might change, and we do want our neighborhood to be better, so through efforts to take ownership of space, clean up our own space, open our own businesses, start our own business organizations, and allow people to come in under our watch, then hopefully, we can stop gentrification before it starts. It’s brilliant!”(8) In Johnston-Zimmerman’s understanding of Gentrification, as well as Anderson, and the residents of Brownsville, Gentrification is something that happens to you and it does not equate to positive change. They believe a neighborhood can “be better” and also still feel like it is their “own space.” To residents of a lower-income neighborhood about to experience the influx of investment and middle-income residents, gentrification is decidedly a negative force.

Peter Moskowitz, in How to Kill a City, presents many qualitative accounts of residential and cultural displacement from real people within four in-depth case studies of New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, and NYC. For example, in New Orleans, Moskowitz talks with Ashana Bigard, who describes “legendary parties and barbecues that happened nearly every weekend in St. Thomas. There was a sense of community and camaraderie. Now most residents, isolated in semi-detached single-family homes, don’t talk to each other” (8). To give just a few more examples from many, in Detroit, Moskowitz meets Cheryl West as she is getting evicted from her family home of 60 years (9), and then witnesses the entire Cobo Center, the city-funded convention center, in January of 2015 when “it held no fewer than 10,000 Detroiters who’d shown up in a last-ditch effort to save their homes. Most were there to enter into tax payment plans with the county; others had come to seek help from a slew of nonprofits providing guidance (though no financial help) for how to deal with landlords, the county, and banks”(11). We have to remember that data points in statistics are real people who are experiencing real suffering from change that they had no part in deciding.

Until next time

I likewise feel this got a lot longer than I originally intended, but as we said earlier, it’s a complex topic that deserves respect. Excited to share our findings as we dive deeper into the research!

References & Notes

  1. Peter Moskowitz. How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood. (New York: Nation Books, 2017), 55.
  2. Loretta Lees, Tom Slater, and Elvin Wyly. Gentrification. (New York: Routledge, 2008), 10.
  3. Lees, Slater, Wyly; xxii.
  4. John Schlichtman, Marc Hill, and Jason Patch. Gentrifier. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 9.
  5. Lees, Slater, Wyly, 9.
  6. Stephanie Marudas, Lindsay Lazarski, and Naomi Starobin. “Episode 10: Breaking Down Gentrification with Jackelyn Hwang.” Produced by Keystone Crossroads, NPR. Grapple Podcast November 1, 2016. Podcast, MP3 audio, 16:20. Accessed February 23, 2018.
  7. Katrina Johnson-Zimmerman and Kristen Jeffers. Produced by Third Wave Urbanism. Third Wave Urbanism Podcast July 2, 2017. Podcast, MP3 audio, 57:37. Accessed February 25, 2018.
  8. Johnson-Zimmerman and Jeffers, Third Wave Urbanism, same episode.
  9. Moskowitz, 29.
  10. Moskowitz, 91–92.
  11. Moskowitz, 100.

For Whom Cities Grow

Examining the dynamics of urban change and its effects on spatial inequalities.

Sophia Lee

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Architect @bohlincywinskijackson and Adjunct Professor at Temple Architecture department, @tylerschoolofart

For Whom Cities Grow

Examining the dynamics of urban change and its effects on spatial inequalities.