DIALOGUE | Urban Gentrification

Photo of San Francisco circa 1958 via Shorpy.

Gentrification came up a few times in smart comments from last week's post Snark is the New Black in response to the McSweeny's article about "Hirl" (a bald critique of Sqirl Cafe). The comments really made me think about the concept. Here's one comment in particular:

The only thing I will say, in regards to Hirl, is that gentrification is a really damaging process. Essentially, people from a higher socioeconomic class start raising the overall cost of rent in a certain area, so the poorer natives are eventually pushed out of their own neighborhoods. It doesn't improve poverty--it shuffles out the impoverished, and turns their neighborhoods into playgrounds for people using hip urbanism to pretend they come from a rough part of town. So I can understand the critique on Hirl, even if it has a mean-edged sarcasm to it.

In theory, it doesn't take much thought to be against the negative side effects of gentrification. In practice though, I'm confused as to how the individual or sole-proprietor should take action.  In other words, if I were to open up a shop and didn't want to overpay on rent, should I still decide to open elsewhere where the rent is 5x higher in a neighborhood where a majority of residents have a similar socioeconomic background to my projected customers? Or taking it further, if I can't afford to do that, should I decide not to open a shop at all? Are we to draw lines on maps and decide that certain people should only live and operate businesses in certain neighborhoods from here on out? These aren't rhetorical questions, I'm really asking and really interested to hear people's opinions on this.

Considering what I post on this blog, I'd be a hypocrite if I railed against gentrification and continued to feature small new shops popping up in, say, Echo Park. I'm against the rising rents and increased property taxes and most of all people being displaced, but how do we change that while also believing urban landscapes are ever-changing and cities aren't static entities? So, again, I feel a little stuck on this one and would love to hear more thoughts.


Anonymous said…
These are all really interesting questions and I'm glad more people are having this conversation. I am, admittedly, only beginning to understand the complexity of this issue. My two cents - you should of course open and operate your business where you find it to make the most sense. On gentrification, it's not something that can be solved at the level of individual choices. However, more people need to be engaged in the planning of their cities and neighborhoods and be vocal about the issues of gentrification and push for more mixed income housing development (including policies like setting aside housing for low-income individuals/families), among other things. On the issue of rising housing costs specifically (especially in NYC and SF), there's "up-zoning" where we stop zoning restrictions that don't allow people to build more housing. Check out Matt Yglesias if you want to read more about that.

Really all this is a push for more diverse neighborhoods. I get the argument against gentrification based on further marginalizing those in poverty, but no one wants to talk about the damaging effects of concentrated poverty. Truth is, neighborhood shifts happen and I'm not sure that I agree that this is inherently a bad thing.

Closely tied to all of this and also not talked about is the issue of race. Many of the above policies do not and will not get traction not because of poverty (i.e. poor people and rich people living together) but because this country is still, frankly, deeply racist. Tons of resources out there on housing discrimination for example, and we need only look at the creation of suburbs and white flight to see how many of the poor, largely minority, urban neighborhoods were created in the first place.
Mattea said…
Hey Lizzie, thanks for stating what I've been juxtaposing for a long time. For some background, I'm a Sociology major with an Urban Studies minor, and also happen to love a lot of the creature comforts of city gentrification. While initially against gentrification, I do not feel the shop owners are the people to blame for the changes in city neighborhoods, but the landlords. Gentrification, while negative in many efforts, is meant to increase economic prosperity even when it does the opposite. Landlords should take responsibility for socioeconomic diversity in neighborhoods by establishing affordable housing in apartment complexes with mixed-income status tenants. Therefore, shop owners would cater to people of different socioeconomic status, which would allow for more subtle changes in a community than an urban exodus of one class based on the other's ability to buy someone out. Just my two cents, but thank you for addressing this topic within your blog's landscape.
Leticia said…
Let me give you a perspective from bellow the Equator - not Australia - Brazil.

Over here there is a real state bubble going on, new studios on my neighborhood are selling for five times the price I payed four years ago. Rents are going through the roof too. I live in a residential neighborhood near downtown in a major city.

People are getting squeezed into living further away, but still in my building there are low income families mixed with some newcomers - like me.

NY has a few initiatives about affordable housing - too little and too late, as I understand. Besides the fact that people all over the world want to live there, me included. San Francisco "suffers" from the proximity to the Silicon Valley - too many people with too much money - so, if you are an immigrant, your are going to live further down the peninsula and not in a victorian home.

Over here there is no such thing as affordable housing initiatives (section 8 or forcing new developments to build cheaper units) - there are invasions of disused buildings downtown and near where I live pressuring the mayors office to convert them to housing. Lots of the worst kind of politics involved.

There are lots of favelas, but they are very very far away. Two hours by bus from downtown away. The government builds and sells affordable houses and apartments, but also very little and very very far away.

My take on what I know from the US - I have visited many times in the last decade (mostly NY and SF) is that - as bad as it is to be poor in the US, it is much worse to be poor in Brazil. I would gladly leave the lower middle class over here to be poor over there.
Danielle said…
You cannot begin to examine gentrification without examining white privilege.

Why is it that these poorer neighborhoods that the upwardly mobile "discover" are almost always made up of ethnic and racial minorities?

From Spike Lee:

“I grew up here in Fort Greene. I grew up here in New York. It's changed. And why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?

'The garbage wasn't picked up every motherf--- day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. When you see White mothers pushing their babies in strollers, three o'clock in the morning on 125th Street, that must tell you something.

'You can't discover this! We been here. You just can't come and bogart. You can't just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you're motherf--- Columbus and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people. You have to come with respect. There's a code. There's people."

s.e. Smith said:

"They consistently co-opt and appropriate elements of other cultures, piecemeal, and often without any cultural sensitivity or respect. They regularly draw upon the work and legacy of people of colour, usually without crediting them, and most of their contact with people of colour comes in the form of the service personnel serving them their food, cleaning their wine bars, and picking their organic produce."

I would argue that there is a personal choice to made regarding gentrification. These communities existed before the white folks "discovered" them -and they existed for a reason. Showing up and not thinking that you have an effect on an existing community and neighborhood is being willfully ignorant and not actively examining the role that you play in changing a neighborhood is the very definition of exercising privilege.
Amelia said…
What if this conversation is about being better citizens?

A discussion about understanding the privilege that comes with a class of people being able to simply relocate and find that services and facilities simply follow them where ever they go.... how can we re-purpose privilege to serve everyone? There is so much that we can learn from living in diverse and thriving communities, but we have to commit to being a humble member of communities where we live and work.

If you want to open a shop in an affordable zip code, your shop should serve the community of that zip code, you need to attend community meetings, sponsor local events... in short, don't just use the real estate to save a few bucks, but become part of the fabric that makes the neighborhood special and a place where you'd like to have a business.

Full disclosure, I'm a white designer living on a Dominican block of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Lizzie said…
These are all really impressive comments so far, thank you for the respectful tone, thoughtful discourse, and studied perspectives.
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lizzie said…
Just a PSA, because people ask me about this sometimes. The above "comment has been removed by the author" means the person commenting deleted their comment, it was not removed by me. I only remove spam.
What's interesting to me is the way gentrification starts with working class artists living at the same socioeconomic level as the existing ethnic population, and how that mix suddenly becomes attractive to moneyed consumers who create demand for creature comforts like lofts and fancy coffee. Somewhere in between you have those small independent shop owners who are by no means rich, but in looking for cheap real estate and selling organic, artisanal, or even just ethically produced goods are still beyond the spending power of the existing population. I wholeheartedly agree with Ameliea--NOT to demonize small business owners, but there is a decision that gets made to either serve the existing population or hedge your bets on attracting a new one. This is not categorically bad. There's a balance in high and low-income people living in the same spaces and can be beneficial to both-- like creating demand for farmers markets, which take EBT payments and help relieve 'food-desert' neighborhoods. Riding that fine line between development and gentrification is rarely sustainable, though.

The thing you can't legislate is moneyed people's weird perceptions of cultural cache that makes gentrification essentially a roving hunt toward the ever-receding horizon of "authenticity".
I have ALL KINDS of things to add, but will stick with a quickie. A few years ago, someone tagged a wall in my DC neighborhood with the phrase "resist gentrification." Citypaper reporters surveyed local residents about their reaction. For the most part, people didn't know what it meant. Just something to think about...
Anonymous said…
In response to "Danielle"
Wow, that Spike Lee quote is really thoughtless, as is the implication that neighborhoods should remain racially or ethnically segregated.
I'm white. I'd like to buy a house for the first time. The neighborhoods I'm looking at are places where I can afford to buy a house. They are not currently majority "white" neighborhoods. If I am able to buy a house in a neighborhood that is not currently populated by a bunch of white people, I am not a careless, racist, colonialist. I'm just a person buying a house. Contributing to a local economy. Paying taxes. Preserving a hundred year old building. Why shouldn't I be able to live where I can afford to live?
Jeannie said…
Your blog rocks! And the fact that you're bringing this up on your blog also shows that you SUPER rock. I also want to reiterate the awesome article posted above as a resource: http://oaklandlocal.com/2014/01/20-ways-to-not-be-a-gentrifier-in-oakland-community-voices/
Stephanie said…
I want to echo the appreciation others have expressed for raising such and important issue on this blog. First, I think it is really important to understand what gentrification means and to talk about it in connection to displacement because, in reality, the two often occur together. A group in Oakland, Causa Justa, put out a great report about strategies for developing communities that mitigate the displacement of long term residents. You can find it here: http://www.cjjc.org/en/publications/reports

I would also add, that it is important to remind ourselves that more often than not, residents of low income communities of color are being impacted by the affects of gentrification. This should not be taken as an attack on young, predominantly white, gentrifiers. I just think it is important to be aware that there is a racial dynamic at play. When you look at the issue from a population perspective, you see that this pattern perpetuates the continued movement and maintenance of people of color into segregated, high poverty neighborhoods that lack basic assets - grocery stores, transit options, good schools, health care.

We all have a part to play, and I think that the government has a huge role to play. For example, setting city planning guidelines that mandate affordable housing is one way to keep people in their homes for generations to come even when the surrounding neighborhood improves.

However individuals and small businesses can also do their part. First, use your vote wisely. Vote for political representatives that want cities to being places welcoming to all. In NYC, there is a drastic different between Bloomberg and DeBlasio's policies. Second, try to remember that you are coming into an existing community and show some respect for the history. I understand that people want to open up a business, but is that business something for the existing community or is it for your "projected customers" from that neighborhood with high rent? If you are trying to bring something new, can current residents afford your prices so that they have the opportunity to become patrons? Shouldn't the prices reflect the less expensive rent you are paying? Third, think about how you can support your local economy. Can you procure from other existing businesses or hire local youth?

By no means do I have all the answers, but I think about these issues a lot both professionally and personally (full disclosure: I live in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood). Thank you again for the space to contribute my thoughts.
Whitney said…
I am so happy to see this conversation on your blog, Lizzie; it's something I think about so much. There was another comment that it's up to the landlords and not the shop/home-owners and that's something I find painfully true. I wanted to open my business in a 'fancier' neighborhood but couldn't afford it. In only two years, I can't even afford to expand on my own block! I've been explicitly told that the landlords will always take a higher offer over even an existing tenant who is proven to pay their rent. I see this happening time and again on the Eastside, especially when the building is owned by a bigger or non-local management company. I'm not sure what the solution is--perhaps programs that enable the community (whether minority, young, low-income) to have ownership themselves. It's also key for the community to support the people and business they'd like to see stay; if you love the bodega on your block, and don't want them pushed out, don't forget how much even a small purchase means to the owner.
Jen said…
There's an interesting point in the 'Communicating with Commodities' chapter of Juliet Schor's book The Overspent American. In discussing taste, class, and how consumerism is a form of communication about social capital, she says 'lest anyone feel too smug about having gone beyond such crude snob appeal, consider the trend towards "gentrification". How many think that they "just love" the details, the turrets, the elegance of Victorian houses? How many stop to think about what gentrification literally means? Namely, creating a gentry - asserting upper-class credentials through ostentation and superfluity. Inside these houses, the fashion is to obliterate the ("tacky") working-class influence (hence, the popularity of internal gutting).'

Part of what we're talking about with race and gentrification is the enormous amount of social capital that is part of white privilege. I know this comment isn't even attempting to suggest solutions, but I just found that point interesting and wanted to share!
Anonymous said…
"So why can't I just live where I want to/can afford..."
1. because you living in that neighborhood might not be what's best for the community
2. because you'll be okay not "doing your most favorite thing" (Louis CK)
3, because being a decent person means making tough sacrifices for other people-- including people you don't know (e.g. not requesting/accepting special treatment)
Anonymous said…
In my opinion gentrification is neither good nor bad in general. It is the natural, and likely irresistible manifestation of free market economics, which, is also neither good nor bad, it just works in predictable ways. Every underdeveloped neighborhood has potential for investment. Individuals or companies are free to invest their capital in hopes of a return. The first investors in a neighborhood are usually taking the highest risk. They often lose their investment as "gentrification" takes longer than expected. If the early investor borrows a substantial portion of the invested capital, they will likely face bankruptcy in a slow-moving gentrification scenario.

It's important to recognize that development of neighborhoods, just like any other development investment, creates jobs and increases the overall wealth and standard of living in our society, or in this case, the slice of society we call a neighborhood. Just as stagnation leads to a troubled national economy, it does as well on the local level. Economic growth (the product of investment and development) is the only real means by which prosperity can be shared by an increasing number of people.

Just as companies fail when their products are eclipsed by innovative competitors, neighborhood shops must adapt to compete to remain viable. Innovation might not require big investments. It just needs to be appealing to customers. who might otherwise take their business elsewhere.

Regarding displacing the most vulnerable residents, it's unfortunate, but again, it's economics. People find they can no longer afford to rent an apartment are forced to move when rents are raised. Others who own their apartment are rewarded. In prosperous societies the capacity for social welfare expands as businesses and individuals generate more government income by affording to pay and paying more tax.

Gentrification/Economics: not good, not bad, just reality.
Kate B said…
I live in Oakland and have seen the effects of gentrification first hand. One of the most dehumanizing effects of gentrification is that the culture gets squashed beneath the (usually white) privileged culture. If you want to move to an area, or open up shop, make friends with the people who were there before you. Make sure your presence in the neighborhood is inviting to all of the community. Reach out, be inclusive.

What's challenging is that by your mere presence as a member of a privileged class, you are taking the place of someone from the community. Consider a partnership with another business, or taking the time to find out what is lacking for the community and helping to provide that. Avoid saviorism, but extend the hand and sometimes, as much as you can manage, use the space you're taking to step aside and let someone else get in there.

It's a difficult question and one that we need to keep thinking about. It's hard to face the fact that just by ones mere existence in a place they can be oppressing and marginalizing another group, but that's what privilege is all about. Nobody should feel unwelcome as long as they are constantly keeping their reality in check by seeing clearly the ways in which they are advantaged and resisting that advantage.
Anonymous said…
To: Gentrification/Economics: not good, not bad just reality

Economics is not some super-organic "thing" thus it cannot rise above the actions of the humans that perform it". And human actions can definitely be "bad" or "good".

If you believe that human economic actions cannot be "bad" then I recommend you read something about Pinochet's Chile (mass torture and murder directly connected to "bad" libertarian economic policies)

Perhaps one of the most telling socioeconomic findings of the past few decades has been the finding that the single biggest factor affecting both your psychological and physical health is where you are (your socioeconomic status) in relation to other members of your community. If you're on the bottom rung then your health is on average worse then members above you. This holds true for every community--so billionaires are on average more healthy then millionaires in the same community. This is not due to access to health care, better food, etc. because even people who can afford to buy entire countries will be worse off then neighbors who have more money. The health discrepancy is exaggerated (worse) for communities with large discrepancies in wealth. Gentrification results in large discrepancies in wealth in neighborhoods and will, on average, result in worse health for the poorer members that remain (including babies and the elderly in case your imagining this is only true for middle aged adults). So knowing this, can gentrification be good or even neutral?
Anonymous said…
Lizzie, I really appreciate that you've brought this issues back for conversation on your blog. To be honest, your post about cynicism left a bitter taste in my mouth and I think it's because I needed this conversation to happen. Other people have already posted things that I would echo so I don't have much to add. What I will share is that I am an upwardly mobile Black American living in San Francisco. I benefit much from the conviences that gentrification has offered in terms of restaurants, shops, and social environments.

On the other hand, I recognize that gentrification and the rising cost of living has caused the Black population to decline from 20% to under 4% in some 20-30 years. Initiatives to grow SF's economy do not try to provide opportunities to people and groups who have been thriving in these neighborhood for decades. The land and space is taken and given to the highest bidder. Those new residents and business owners moving in (mostly young and White), should not be ignorant to what they are participating in. Moving into the Mission district and selling an $8 piece of toast sends a clear message to the veterans of the community that they are no longer welcome or able to participate in their own local economy.

Thank you to other commenters for sharing your thoughts about action items on how to address this.
Molly said…
How nice to air these issues. I love what Amelia said about being humble members of the community in which we live. It's sometimes boring work, community meetings, but city politicians can be moved by seeing neighbors unified in an insistence upon, for example, the inclusion of affordable housing in new developments.

Our neighborhood planning team (in Austin) meets often with incoming businesses and developers. The latter often want to include residents as customers. They are also almost universally surprised by census data showing neighborhood residents' income levels, which are much lower than median. It would be nice if businesses researched the population first and thought of ways their business could serve the neighborhood. If people aren't going to be able to afford to shop, maybe you could offer store space for meetings or events or volunteer as a business rep to help get foot traffic to other businesses. Best of all, just ask what the neighborhood could use.

Artist Theaster Gates is working in the thick of this issue and has interesting things to say. Here's one article: http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/theaster-gates/

Thanks, Tomboystyle. Rock on!

Molly said…
Oh dear, sorry this triple posted. Lizzie, please feel free to remove!

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