Gentrification? Bring it

In July, a group of long-time, mostly Latino residents of Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood staged protests outside a trendy new coffee shop called Weird Wave Coffee, holding signs that read “Amerikkkano” and “WHITE COFFEE.”

Across the country in Brooklyn’s rapidly gentrifying Crown Heights neighborhood, locals lashed out over a new restaurant with decor that included fake bullet holes and a menu that offered a drink called “40 ounce rosé” (malt liquor and wine) served in a paper bag.

Over the past few decades, gentrification debates have migrated from the pages of academic journals into the streets and the mainstream press.

The word, in many ways, is tinged with negativity. And for good reason. In tight real estate markets, it can lead to development that privileges profits over community and shuts people out of neighborhoods they have lived in for decades.

But what about cities struggling to overcome the threat of bankruptcy like Hartford? How does gentrification look in New South cities like Austin and Nashville, where midcentury urban planning destroyed residential communities and left downtowns largely unoccupied?

While doing research on the economic health of Hartford, one of us asked the head of a downtown Hartford nonprofit about gentrification. Her response? “We could use some of that. But we are so far away from it, it’s not even an issue.”

If residential patterns and urban areas vary, so too must the story of gentrification. In other words: Have big cities hijacked the gentrification debate?

The origins of gentrification

“Gentrification” is a term coined by the British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964 to explain the return of the middle class to London’s center city.

In the U.S., academics and urban planners first started extensively talking about and debating gentrification in the 1970s. Between 1950 and 1970, urban manufacturing went overseas and white middle-class city-dwellers moved to the suburbs. Concerns over blighted urban centers grew. Sociologists, planners and geographers found new cultural and economic trends to study related to the rise of artist and middle-class loft living and the return of capital investment to urban centers.

Today, the meaning of gentrification no longer refers to the “return to the center.” Instead, it usually means that new and affluent residents or developers are investing in a neighborhood.

This infusion of capital changes the relationships within and between communities. Demand increases and property values rise; poorer residents are displaced as wealthier people move in; new shops appear and the public image of the neighborhood changes. High demand can incentivize landlords to evict residents, at times using egregious practices – like hiring someone to harass renters – in order to escalate rental prices.

Members of New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood protest a development company’s attempts to push immigrant families from their homes. Bebeto Mathews/AP Photos
Extreme gentrification takes place in the highest-rent, highest-demand places like San Francisco or New York’s Greenwich Village. Rents in New York’s once-booming Bleecker Street have become so astronomical that vacancy is now a problem of too much demand, rather than not enough: Property owners now keep their storefronts empty, hoping a major chain will want to locate in the high-visibility district.

Gentrification isn’t all negative. In an influential and counterintuitive study, Lance Freeman and Frank Braconi, who study urban development, found that poorer residents were less likely to move out of gentrifying neighborhoods than nongentrifying neighborhoods. Safety improves with gentrification, and so can services and amenities.

While some neighborhoods experience positive outcomes, gentrification studies are mostly concerned with access to housing, public space and the loss of community. It seems impossible not to view New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Boston through the lens of skyrocketing real estate and displaced residents.

What about other kinds of places?