Here come the hipsters, there goes the neighborhood. Sound familiar? What was once a no-go zone is now a grating oasis of shabby-chic boutiques, locally sourced gastro pubs and tank-like strollers for rich people posing as bohemians in gussied-up brownstones. The upgrade raised the value of real estate, and rents, pushing out lower-income residents and artists. Gentrification — the migration of affluent professionals into poorer city cores — has long been blamed for displacement and exploding house prices. Its effects can be felt as far afield as Mexico City and Mumbai, even though former ghettos and sex districts in London and New York hog the attention. A heated global debate often focuses on race and class warfare. But it may be less common than the headlines would have it, and there’s an argument that the good outweighs the bad. Could it be that the only thing worse than being gentrified is not being gentrified?
As property values soar in cities around the globe in step with the widening gap between rich and poor, even the infamous Rio favelas are sprucing up. The fastest-growing megacities are in Asia, where historic neighborhoods in Beijing and elsewhere are pulverized to make room for high-rises. In sprawling Los Angeles, downtown has staged a comeback. Americans are weaning themselves off cars and in a reverse of white flight, immigrants flock to the suburbs that some millennials are shunning. Also moving to older inner suburbs are some low-income families who often find less support or social services. With the shifts come new tensions. A Google bus shuttling workers from their San Francisco homes to its Silicon Valley offices was attacked by a mob angry at the tech influx for pushing rents into the stratosphere.
London after World War II was the scene of rapid social and economic change. The city was moving away from manufacturing and evolving into a services-based economy and capital of finance. In the early 1960s, Ruth Glass, a German-born British sociologist and lifelong Marxist, observed the middle-class invasion of Islington and Notting Hill, home to sizable Caribbean communities. She dubbed it gentrification and framed her theory around class struggle. The negative connotations were clear — the gentry were people of privilege. Glass predicted “London may soon be faced with an embarrass de richesse in her central area.” She wasn’t wrong. Her term is now commonly used to disparage Parisian bobos crawling the Marais, mock the bearded plaid-wearing microbrewer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and bemoan the rise of Berlin cool after the wall came down. All this has happened against the backdrop of a gigantic urban migration in the developing world. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities.
Critics of the G-word see it as an unstoppable menace to a city’s character, replacing mom-and-pop shops with retail chains. Others focus on displacement: In New York, filmmaker Spike Lee compares the encroachment of white people into black neighborhoods to the killing of American Indians. Supporters say that high-income newcomers don’t always uproot low-income families, and that the injection of money carries benefits such as better schools, less crime and more jobs all residents can enjoy. Some academics say the problem isn’t wealthy newcomers but rising urban poverty, often in pockets untouched by gentrification. Economists say measures to curb gentrification such as rent control, widely practiced in New York, have made housing shortages worse. To address concentrated poverty, create mixed-income housing and rectify involuntary relocations, policy makers might consider community land trusts, where occupants collectively own the land they live on, or zoning laws, which in San Francisco preserved the Tenderloin as a home for the down-and-out around the corner from Twitter headquarters.
The Reference Shelf
- Governing magazine spiced up the debate with this running series on the “G-word.”
- For a more data-driven take, see what Brookings Institution and City Observatory have to say along with a read-before-you-speak list. For a scholarly synopsis, this is a good place to start.
- There’s an analysis of urban demographic trends in “The Changing Shape of American Cities” by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
- Ny.Curbed.com offers a snarky approach with their “gentrification watch” posts.
- The Economist weighs the good and bad of the neighborhood changes
- The Guardian gives a European overview and an expletive-filled transcript of Spike Lee’s rant about how Fort Greene Park in the morning looks like the Westminster Dog Show.
- A Saturday Night Live skit poking fun at the changes taking place in Bushwick, a Brooklyn neighborhood in transition.
First published March 23, 2015
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