Gentrification and Smart Growth

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This article by Michael Figura was first published in the New Life Journal.

“The majority of the stores, the 99-cent stores, they’re gone.  The Laundromat on the corner is gone. The bodegas are gone. There’s large delis now. What had been two for $1 is now one for $3. My neighbor is a beer drinker, and he drinks inexpensive beer, Old English or Colt 45 or Coors — you can’t even buy that in the stores. The stores have imported beers from Germany. The foods being sold — feta cheese instead of sharp Cheddar cheese. That’s a whole other world.” – Gwen Walker, 55, a longtime resident of the General Grant Houses in West Harlem. NY Times “Mixed Feelings as Change Overtakes 125th St” June 13, 2008

Gentrification occurs when one class of people with a higher income moves into an urban area and displaces a poorer class of people.  Because we still have large economic disparities between races in the United States, gentrification usually involves white people displacing minorities, but at its basic level, gentrification is about one class with more financial power and resources displacing another group of lesser means.  Gentrification can be identified by a large out-migration of an area’s long-time residents and an in-migration of a new class of people with higher incomes.

Gentrification occurs when trendsetters such as artists, whose upbringing is of middle and upper class, start moving into poor urban neighborhoods.  Soon after trendsetters move into these neighborhoods, the perception about those areas by the mainstream middle and upper classes improves.   The mainstream middle and upper classes “rediscover” the benefits of city living, such as shorter commutes, a walking lifestyle, efficient public transit, and an urban social scene.  As the mainstream moves in, real estate becomes much more expensive and the existing community is priced out.

Prior to the mainstream moving into poorer urban areas, there is usually a push from local government to decrease crime and increase public investment, as local governments encourage the arrival of wealth and the prospect of higher property tax revenue.    While decreasing crime and increasing public investment are good goals, those goals are usually met by an ousting of long time residents, who move out because of a quick escalation in rent.  ( “The Cincinnati riots and the class divide in America”).   Crime is decreased when gentrification occurs, but it is decreased through a penal system that is responsible for putting more young black males in prison than in college (  Broad social reform and community building are often not the agents of institutional change for improving poor urban neighborhoods.  Thus, gentrification often brings a very negative reaction from the existing neighborhoods.

Gentrification harms people that have the fewest resources in our society by changing their living conditions without giving them resources to empower themselves.   Gentrification exacerbates existing class and racial problems that have been present since the inception of our cities.  The middle and upper classes were able to escape and forget about these urban problems with the “white flight” to the suburbs of the late 20th century.  With a return to city living, these problems are now being brought to the forefront.

The smart growth principles of urban living that are being encouraged by city planners, environmental activists and New Urbanists have the side-effect of encouraging gentrification.  Smart growth calls for a return to urban living by the middle and upper classes that have been propagating suburban sprawl.  The smart growth and New Urbanism community needs to fully acknowledge and work against the negative impacts that come with bringing affluence into economically depressed areas.

There are some that argue that gentrification is a good thing because it solves urban problems, mainly crime and drug related activity.  These people say that a return of affluence can be used in a good way to de-concentrate poverty.  However, free market gentrification re-concentrates poverty elsewhere and displaces these urban problems rather than solving them.  Some communities are now finding that their cities are being revitalized only to see their inner-ring suburbs become the new ghettos (Chicago Reporter Article- “Suburban Ghettos in the Making”).

What can we do to work against gentrification?

Many see the creation of affordable housing in redeveloping areas as a fix for gentrification.   Policies that promote affordable housing, such as rent-control or inclusionary zoning (mandating new development have a certain percentage affordable housing) are part of the solution, but are a far stretch from being the entire solution.  Providing housing affordability is only one aspect of combating gentrification, and by itself, is destined to fail.  Housing affordability needs to be done in conjunction with policies and programs that promote education, job training, a Living Wage, capital for small business start-ups , community building, the provision of equitable social services for all people, and reform of the “justice” system.  By simultaneously working on policies that create reinvestment in our urban communities while also providing for housing and reinvestment in the PEOPLE that make up those communities, the smart growth movement can undo much of the damage to our cities that was done during the “white flight” to suburbs.

If you are someone who would contribute to the gentrification if you moved to an economically depressed neighborhood, then you can play an active role in helping to change the system that ignores gentrification’s negative aspects.  Ways to do that are to volunteer in the community, advocate for more education and reform of the justice system (especially for drug related crime), and to generally spread the gentrification conversation from the housing sector to all sectors.

The gentrification problem is monumental, but through awareness and activism, our society can follow smart growth principles and empower the existing communities that are being gentrified.

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