No two people seem to quite agree on what the word “gentrification” means. If you’re at all interested in what shapes our cities, you’re bound to find yourself in a conversation about gentrification eventually—and depending on who you tend to hang out with, you might find yourself in a fight.

To some, gentrification is synonymous with an inseparably interconnected web of violent acts; it’s a thing to be fought if we want to preserve compassion for the most vulnerable in our societies and guard against unmitigated greed. If we let the interests of wealthy developers control our landscapes, what happens to democracy for the common man?   

To others, though, gentrification is the simple mechanism by which we make our cities better, tied up in our most basic economic processes. After all, if we can’t develop properties and get more money into a neighborhood tax base, what are we supposed to be doing if we want to build better places (short of upending capitalism itself)? If properties must degrade or be improved and rents must rise or fall or be maintained, isn’t “gentrification” a natural process as much as a deliberate one?

But to many more,  “gentrification” is a word that provokes anxiety and uncertainty, especially if we’re people who hold some degree of economic, social or other power and we’re not sure how best to use it. We might worry about our own role in gentrification when we scout for apartments or decide whether or not to support the new coffee shop down the street; we might consider gentrification when we make choices about who to vote for in local elections, or whether that shiny new development in a low income neighborhood is a good thing. And if we’re disempowered people, we might think about gentrification when our landlord hikes up the rent, or when we see a street we’ve cherished suddenly and irreversibly change.

Gentrification can shape our lives. But we don’t seem to really know what it means.

The word “gentrification” itself is only half a century old, so it’s no wonder that we still don’t fully have our arms around it. But since we first put a word to the phenomena, this single term has been re-appropriated and applied to all manner of political, economic, and social processes, and it’s often used as a shorthand for many processes at once. When a crumbling low-income apartment building is claimed under eminent domain and the residents are evicted, many would say that’s gentrification. But when the main earner in a low income family gets a new job, moves up a social class and starts fixing up their house, some would say that’s gentrification, too. Some would say it isn’t gentrification until the hipster cafes and hair salons start setting up shop. Others would say it isn’t gentrification at all unless the “gentry” is white or wealthy.

Whether we think gentrification is a problem to be tackled or a force to be harnessed, it can't hurt to slow down, take a step back, and think about what we really mean when we use this loaded term. Here are just a few of the many things we talk about when when we talk about “gentrification.”

1. Displacement

Displacement—and more specifically, economic displacement—is one of our most common associations with the word “gentrification,” and for good reason; it’s boiled into the origin of the term. When it was first coined by British sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964, “gentrification” was intended to refer specifically to residential displacement like the kind experienced by poor workers in urban London neighborhoods as the middle class (or the “landed gentry”) moved in.

Moneyed developers (one segment of our modern day “gentry”) purchase housing stock and jack up the rents beyond the reach of low-income tenants; an upper class Toronto family purchases a “crack house” in a low-income neighborhood, kicks out the legitimate tenants and all their squatting friends, and renovates it into a single family mini-mansion, making the time to gripe about the harrowing experience on the internet, where they are roundly mocked. These things feel, to many of us, like clear-cut cases of gentrification, with easily identifiable victims who need our protection.

But while we might be troubled by individual cases of displacement, some—including many liberal-leaning voices—have questioned the systemic relationship between gentrification and displacement, as well as the sometimes overwhelming amount of space displacement has been allowed to take up in our public debate. In 2015, City Lab did a deep dive into research that concluded that gentrifying neighborhoods don’t lose low-income residents at a substantially lower rate than any other neighborhoods. Others have gone so far as to state that displacement by gentrification is relatively rare in the US today.

2. Development

Indeed, many would claim that most of the projects that might be decried as “gentrification” are simply basic development—new building and lot owners taking stock of their portfolios and doing what it takes to put them to their highest and best use. Developers, after all, are simply doing their jobs. And in many cases, their efforts to improve the building stock—razing a condemned building that’s unsafe even for people walking by, fixing up a long-vacant storefront, bringing in a neighborhood third place, and yes, even forcing out a low-income tenant who might also be a neighborhood nuisance or even a source of violent crime—these efforts can make places better for the long-standing residents, can’t they? Who are the "victims" of gentrification if so many people are benefiting? 

Still, many question whether all development should be unilaterally accepted as a neighborhood good—or even a “natural” thing for our neighborhoods—or whether we have an obligation to take a broader look at the economic, political, and social effects of neighborhood change. If we’re troubled by the possibility of economic displacement, we might advocate for government solutions like inclusionary zoning or other checks on developers’ power to use their properties as they see fit (though some might argue that it doesn’t always work.) If we’re troubled by the political and social implications of new development, however, the solutions we suggest might be more complex.

Many people view the opening of chain businesses like Starbucks as a signifier of gentrification. (Source: lilivanili)

Many people view the opening of chain businesses like Starbucks as a signifier of gentrification. (Source: lilivanili)

3. Colonization

For many, gentrification is nothing more than a modern day form of colonialism, with the middle class “gentry” as conquistadors and the low income residents that came before them as a captive population subject to uprooting. Critics of the colonizing aspects of gentrification often point out the common intersections between low income levels and marginalized races, ethnicities, classes, sexualities, and other populations; after all, we can’t talk about gentrification as a bloodless economic process when real people and their real homes are involved.

When a wealthy developer puts up a luxury apartment building in a poor neighborhood and upper middle class, white, straight, English-only speakers line up to sign leases, they can bring with them a tide of change that threatens not just rent prices, but an entire cultural landscape. A Whole Foods goes up and runs a family-owned Asian grocery out of business. The police pay more attention to the area—the new wealthy neighbors have the money and social capital to demand that they do so—and they disproportionately target the long-standing residents of color who don’t have the same capital to stand up for themselves. It’s myopic to view gentrification only through the lens of a municipal budget sheet; even if we agree that gentrification is just about residential displacement, how we can ignore what all the new neighbors bring with them when they move in?

But many—again, including many liberal voices—question whether we can really think of a porous, modern city neighborhood in the same terms as we speak about Native American settlements before the arrival of Columbus. And even if we accept the comparison, what are those in power being asked to do? Is it better for low income communities to be ignored and avoided? If we have the resources to help and we want to do it ethically, what might that help look like?

4. Economic Integration

Many in the urbanism community have argued that, despite our best intentions, the opposite of gentrification does not look like low-income communities being left in peace to live self-directed lives, free from the influence of colonizers and capital. In reality, it looks a lot more like crushing concentrated poverty—and with that comes devastating health outcomes, under-performing schools, increased crime, food deserts and, believe it or not, even higher rates of displacement of the poor than gentrifying neighborhoods. From this perspective, a person with relative economic power maybe shouldn’t pat themselves on the back for moving to an affluent area, investing their energies and tax dollars into their equally-wealthy neighborhood, and leaving the poor folks next door to flounder. Some might even go so far as to say that it’s our duty, if we have options, to integrate economically with our less-affluent neighbors; after all, study after study has shown that growing up in a uniformly and extremely poor neighborhood (and especially a racially segregated neighborhood) is one of the greatest determinants of future success—and not in a good way. 

But those skeptical of the concept of economic integration might argue that this reasoning only makes sense if we accept that there’s no way for the affluent to help the poor short of moving in next door. The premise of economic integration might suggest that we’ve simply agreed—perhaps erroneously—that economic mobility isn’t possible, and that the poor will always be poor, and there's nothing the affluent can do to change that. Why should no government, charitable, educational, or other interventions be considered? Why shouldn’t the poor be moved into wealthy neighborhoods? Add to that concerns that integration might be the first phase of a takeover—as a friend once said to me, “economic integration just means that poor residents’ days are numbered”—and this idea might feel more dangerous than we’re willing to risk.

5. Hipster invasion, Disneyfication, suburbanization...

And then, of course, there are the aesthetic effects of gentrification: The hipster boutiques and coffee shops. The sanitized chain stores and drive throughs that can make a neighborhood look an awful lot like the suburbs. Some even claim that bike lanes are an early symptom of gentrification, since cycling is perceived to be a favorite mode of transportation for the white, affluent and able-bodied.  

Anger about the flattening aspects of gentrification runs the gamut from fears of cultural erasure to simple aesthetic preference (i.e. "Get these bearded white guys in flannel off my block!"). But that doesn’t mean that everyone thinks this white-washing is a necessary symptom of a gentrifying neighborhood. In their excellent and nuanced book Gentrifier, co-authors John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch and Marc Lamont Hill distinguish between “entrenched” gentrifiers—middle-class people who feel they “belong” to their new neighborhood, as Hill did when he moved to a predominantly black low-income area as an affluent black man—and “symbolic” gentrifiers, who have no “native” link to a neighborhood but desire to be proximal, preserve, and perhaps even curate the “authentic” local community that came before them. The authors of Gentrifier point out the ways in which both types of gentrifiers can be helpful and problematic, and how the aesthetic evolution of a neighborhood is very rarely simple.  

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I’ve written this list not because I believe we need to winnow our way down to one “real” definition of gentrification. Language evolves, and it should; the phenomena we’re describing are too complex for the terms we use to talk about them to stay static.

But the next time you find yourself in a conversation about gentrification, I challenge you to be a little more precise. Ask yourself what really has you so angry, or perplexed, or excited about the example of gentrification you’re discussing; unpack the vocabulary behind the term, and do the same for your conversation partner. Then ask rigorous questions about the many processes you’re likely untangling, seek more evidence, and consider all sides. Chances are, you’ll find that you’re talking about something far bigger than can be encapsulated in a single word (and what you’re talking about may not even be included on my list; leave your thoughts in the comments). Keep talking anyway. Keep working to learn more. It’s the only way to really make your town stronger.   

(All photos from Unsplash unless otherwise noted.)


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