Happy Fifty Years, Gentrification!

... Does Gentrification Gentrify without Gentrifiers?

by Javier Arbona

Gentrification doesn't need to be something that one group inflicts on another; often it's the result of aspirations everybody shares. All over the city, a small army of the earnest toils away, patiently trying to sluice some of the elitist taint off neighborhoods as they grow richer. When you're trying to make a poor neighborhood into a nicer place to live, the prospect of turning it into a racially and economically mixed area with ­thriving stores is not a threat but a fantasy. As the cost of basic city life keeps rising, it's more important than ever to reclaim a form of urban improvement from its malignant offshoots. A nice neighborhood should be not a luxury but an urban right. – Justin Davidson, 2014
An aura of fascination suffuses all of these accounts. The adulatory tone was engendered by a group of writers who continue to build their careers on regular updates of East Village art developments. These "East Village critics" — who are, in fact, not critics but apologists — celebrate the scene with an inflated and aggressive rhetoric of "liberation," "renewal," "ecstasy." – Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, 1987

According to recent literature, the word "gentrification" appeared fifty years ago in 1964. It describes a historical shift after World War II — the unmaking and remaking of cities along new class lines, although it has previous historical precedents, of course. Scholars attribute its coinage to British sociologist Ruth Glass. Its everyday use could predate her writing and Glass herself may have used it in an unpublished draft before the 1960s.

Working on research about London, Glass wrote: "One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class — upper and lower." She then adds, "Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed."

At the initial moment of introducing this concept into the research on cities, Glass shows its inherent critical charge. Note the kind of language she uses (emphasis added): "working class quarters have been invaded," "working class occupiers are displaced," "whole social character of the district is changed." Invaded. Displaced. Changed.

Entire blocks of the San Mateo inner-city neighborhood in Santurce, Puerto Rico, were expropriated and demolished around 2005 for a new high-end development. The resident in the house above continues to wage a court battle against displacement. Photographed by Javier Arbona, January 2014.

Some years after the concept appeared, the first attempts to divorce it of its critical tone came along. In the early 1970s, architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt introduced the term in the pages of the Washington Post for the first time, according to an analysis by Rob Godspeed. Von Eckardt described gentrification as "the best thing that has happened to American cities since ditches were turned into sewers." Addressing these very sorts of revisions of the word, Neil Smith once remarked, “Precisely because the language of gentrification tells the truth about the class shift involved in the 'regeneration' of the city, it has become a dirty word to developers, politicians and financiers." But because the word seems resistant to being swept up with other taboos, then, gentrification periodically has advocates like Von Eckardt who attempt to retake it and absolve the very same unjust processes originally labeled with it.

Can gentrification refer to something opposite to its coinage (while cognizant of the numerous academic variations on the theme)? In other words, can it be divorced from its initial charges of spatial colonization and class segregation? To hear some recent voices in the media, it can.

A National Public Radio (NPR) journalist tweets that "yuppies can stop feeling guilty" because —based on a cursory glance — gentrification also benefits longtime residents. NPR ran her story with a URL extension that gives away the slant: "long-a-dirty-word-gentrification-may-be-losing-its-stigma." Another reporter — looking at the same neighborhood as NPR — asks rhetorically, "is bemoaning the gentrification of Washington, DC, a genre past its prime?" (File this one under: Writing by the Victims of Moaning About Gentrification.)

And in the latest salvo from the world of architecture criticism ("Is Gentrification All Bad?") Justin Davidson ventures: "gentrification can be either a toxin or a balm." It's vital to recall, for context's sake, that Davidson recently invested time and energy defending Michael Bloomberg's mayorship as a virtuous period for public spaces — with no mention of the mayor's dismal record on homelessness, free speech and civil rights. Davidson comments in a radio interview, "We need to define gentrification as separate from the process of displacement." Nevertheless, Bloomberg's tenure itself might indicate that the two (the word and the displacement) can't be as separate as Davidson would like. All in all, these reports, and more appearing almost every day, start to resemble the writing of The San Francisco Chronicle's sports-turned-law-and-order-disciplinarian columnist, C.W. Nevius, which is cause for great concern — for writing and for cities both.

One government study cited by NPR said, "while [gentrification] does not have a precise definition, it is commonly associated with an increase in income, rising home prices or rents and sometimes with changes in the occupational mix and educational level of neighborhood residents." But gentrification does have a precise definition that goes back to its roots. (Invaded, Displaced, Changed). Whether or not the word applies to a specific case could be quibbled over, but its linguistic precision shouldn't be obfuscated. More importantly, "In any area where residents feel under attack they will be using a word like gentrification, it is not the job of a researcher or anyone else for that matter, to impose a formal definition of what gentrification means on a neighborhood," as Sam Barton cogently argues. He adds, "If we are not to dispose of the word in its entirety, we should adopt its colloquial usage." I agree.

Federal Reserve economist Daniel Hartley (author of the study cited in the paragraph above) concludes that, when gentrification occurs, all residents benefit from — unsurprisingly — a higher credit score associated with their zipcode. This is a mixed blessing, to say the least, when issues like steady employment, health care, food or stable housing probably take a higher priority, but I digress. Another article mentioned in the NPR piece — missing exact dates to situate the economic effects — "found that low-income residents were no more likely to move out of their homes when a neighborhood gentrifies than when it doesn't."

Is gentrification happening without gentrifiers and without the gentrified? Apparently, yes. No one loses. Everyone wins. Gentrification. Just. Happens.

But gentrification, as a word, is incapable of projecting the benign "balm" that some in the media and academia make it out to be. Does anyone identify as gentry? Hardly anybody (though some people do, certainly). But do any of the gentrification-friendly journalists self-identify as gentry? The gentry are generally understood to be an over-advantaged lot. In the history of literature and art, the gentry hoard property and privilege as much as they can, yet they obsess over their manners and style in order to disguise their rapacity. These are the basic reasons why gentrification carries with it the power of biting satire. Glass (a Marxist) was well aware of this. It's precisely because no one likes to reveal themselves as such shameless climbers that periodic efforts emerge to revise the definition of the word and deaden its force. In reality, using the word without its satirical edge is a surefire recipe for sounding like a member of the gentry oneself.

Indeed, urban dwellers (or their scribes) are free to identify as the entitled members of a rigid caste system if they like, but that doesn't mean they can salvage the term gentrification for the better. One can't have it both ways. Either there is gentrification or there isn't. Period. And recalling Barton, I'd venture to say that the locals experiencing it have a better sense of what's going on. To give it any positive spin implies denial of the stratifying wave the process begets. In short, gentrification doesn't just happen.

Remnant wall of the San Mateo neighborhood in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Photographed by Javier Arbona, January 2014.

One must be equally alert to replacement words spoken to camouflage gentrification — and sometimes to advance its course in the very same breath. Neighborhoods don't "evolve," passively "change," or get "discovered." "Transition" and "transformation" can also be added to the pile of evasive vocabularies. David Madden points out how these kinds of words, in effect, stigmatize and denigrate past neighborhood history as a primitive state before the gentrifiers. In a demagogic offshoot of the same revisionist-colonialist vocabulary, Jerry Brown once asserted, as mayor of Oakland, that staving off gentrification was to invite "slumification."

Or take, for example, the following: “What will this transformation mean for Oakland? [Gentrification] should produce a bigger tax base that can help improve city services and maybe even create a more effective police force." These are the words of Jonathan Mahler in The New York Times Magazine — while conceding that gentrification produces few jobs (except for police, apparently) in the very same article. He concludes: "The utopian vision for a post-capitalist Oakland clung to by (rapper and activist) Boots Riley and the rest of the city’s revolutionaries will soon be dead." ... Dead? Due to what cause of death? A vision killed by some divine plague — the wafting, mysterious airs of gentrification? All of these twists reveal the bizarre contortions of turning a charged word into a bland euphemism.

Here is another way to look at it: for these studies and articles to be on the mark, their authors must unfortunately be using gentrification wrong. If everyone's lot is improving, then we're not speaking of gentrification, or are we? Perhaps this is the case and the word has been poorly chosen. But NPR's Laura Sullivan and the scholars she cites do stress gentrification time and time again. They seem to celebrate what they see changing. She writes, "every other shop is a new restaurant, high-end salon or bar. The neighborhood is gentrifying." Whether this cohort realizes it or not, it takes gentrification to usher in the gentry, and vice versa. And even if some legacy residents stick it out, that is not evidence of gentrification's benevolent gifts trickling down to these folks.

To be fair, a short piece on the radio or in a magazine hardly has the room to tease out the effects of gentrification — although the NPR reporter should have sought out at least one countervailing study. Likewise, one of the two NPR citations forms the bedrock of Davidson's New York Magazine piece. (Is the evidence so slim that they all call the same scholar? Did they realize his study has also been retorted? And that, in addition, "The unfortunate paradox is that studies showing low mobility rates among the poor are being used to vindicate gentrification and to dismantle precisely those policies that help to cushion its worst impacts.")

My aim here isn't to directly agree or disagree with these writers, even though I nevertheless suspect that these pieces are inaccurate and take a very short view of urban history. (It's easy to deny displacement as part of gentrification when it happened in "the past.") For an example of much deeper journalism, see a recent story by Rania Khalek examining the longer historical pattern of neighborhood neglect, displacement and elimination of public housing in Washington, DC. But more to the point at hand, the re-branders of gentrification are blinded by their operating theory of "gentrification without gentrifiers" — and blinding others along with them. And that's a larger issue with the discourse: a colonization of language itself.

Gentrification, at its root, refers to something different from the commonplace assumptions I have mentioned here. If one is writing articles, one can do better than to leave the word itself unexamined in plain sight. (Besides, how many of these writers can claim to know gentrification from the perspective of those who have experienced urban disenfranchisement?) Countless vernacular opinions mirror the same assumption in the media of "gentrification without gentrifiers." But the suffix "-ation" implies that someone is doing something, that is: gentrifying.

The core problem with these stories reflects a turning away from what gentrification precisely means, perhaps out of fear that one is, or could be, complicit in the process. And yet, at the same time, the classist anxieties over gentrification's Other — Brown's "slumification" comment, for example — show how phobias of the poor and "other" rank higher than a concern over one's own role in the process. This hardly makes for good research or journalism.

I, for one, would be thrilled to read that gentrification is not happening — that we all misidentified one of the most significant urban restructuring processes of the past half-century. But if gentrification is taking place — and it certainly is (and has) — someone must be practicing it. Moreover, even among studies that acknowledge the detrimental effects of gentrification, there is a pattern of focusing on the seemingly independent decisions made by individual homebuyers (and, sometimes, renters). These housing consumers are in a putative "market" devoid of actual power brokers. Realtor groups, homeowners associations, business improvement districts, employers, public and private police forces, government policymakers, planning consultants, politicians, marketing agencies, banking and insurance firms, and the news media all cooperate, in different ways, to gentrify.

So the constant focus on the homebuyer/renter as the sole gentrifier can have a detrimental effect on anti-gentrification efforts. The consumer doesn't act alone. The usual hero or villain central to gentrification narratives — the consumer (if such an abstraction has any meaning) — is more likely to be the last ingredient in the mix. Therefore, the concerted pressure of gentrification suggests that communities should not cede possession of the term itself.

Javier Arbona, geographer and founding member of the Demilit collective, gathers gentrification links here. He can also be found on Twitter: @AlJavieera.

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