The Gentrification Debates
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The Gentrification Debates

A Reader

Japonica Brown-Saracino

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eBook - ePub

The Gentrification Debates

A Reader

Japonica Brown-Saracino

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Uniquely well suited for teaching, this innovative text-reader strengthens students' critical thinking skills, sparks classroom discussion, and also provides a comprehensive and accessible understanding of gentrification.

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Publisher
Routledge
Year
2013
ISBN
9781134725717
PART I
What is Gentrification? Definitions and Key Concepts
INTRODUCTION: WHAT IS GENTRIFICATION? DEFINITIONS AND KEY CONCEPTS
A few years ago an undergraduate in my Race and Place seminar raised his hand after our first classroom discussion of gentrification. “I think that my hometown is gentrifying,” he said, providing a brief description of the small Midwestern city in which he grew up. “Before today I didn’t know what to call it, but I’m pretty sure that it is gentrifying.” A few months later he wrote a paper documenting how the in-movement of affluent newcomers, encouraged by the gentrification of neighboring cities, local land use policies, and readily available mortgages, contributed to the transformation of the social, economic, and physical characteristics of his city.
As this anecdote suggests, many have an image, however vague, of gentrification. One may not know the word for gentrification or have devoted thought to its definition, but many nonetheless possess an intuitive sense of what gentrification is (Becker 1998). Why is this the case? It may be the result of the ubiquity of media coverage on gentrification, or the sheer number of those who, like my student, have firsthand experience with the process (see Lees et al. 2008).
Indeed, you and your classmates may already have different understandings of gentrification. As a result, when you stop to think about how you would define gentrification and discuss this with others, you may find that your classmates’ definitions are quite distinct from your own. For instance, in a class you may have viewed the documentary Flag Wars, which profiles the movement, buoyed by realtors, of white, middle class gay men into a predominately working class, African-American neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. As a result, at the center of your image of gentrification are dilapidated Victorian houses restored to opulence by gentrifiers armed with financial capital, their own labor, and taste for historical authenticity. You might “unpack” this image to realize that, in your mind, gentrification entails the displacement of lifelong residents by gentrifiers who do not share long-timers’ racial or class identity. You might also recognize that you regard the restoration of older homes as a defining characteristic of gentrification and that you believe that gentrification is fueled not only by individual renovators, but also by government officials, such as those who pass and enforce ordinances that require homeowners to meet the costly standards of official historic districts and who threaten to close long-timers’ institutions for failing to meet new zoning standards.
However, if you were to ask another what her image of gentrification is she might mention Sharon Zukin’s pioneering book on the process, Loft Living, which centers on middle class artists and professionals who purchased space in New York industrial buildings in the 1970s and transformed them into studios and homes, and, as a result, helped spur local economic, social, and cultural transformation. Comparing your images, you realize that Zukin’s case does not include the Victorians or immediate displacement of longtime residents so central to your notion of gentrification. Instead, it emphasizes the displacement, facilitated in part by changes that city officials made to zoning laws, of light industry, neighborhood shops, and squatters.
Someone else might volunteer that the term “gentrification” makes him think of the small New England fishing village where his grandparents live. You find yourself arguing about whether the restoration of nineteenth-century village homes by middle class newcomers and the displacement of fishermen and their families constitutes gentrification. Soon your questions expand: Can gentrification occur outside of the city? Must it include the displacement of longtime residents? If displacement is a defining characteristic of gentrification, should we term a revitalization process “gentrification” if the displaced are light manufacturing concerns, store owners, and squatters, rather than renters or homeowners?
In short, despite the fact that, upon reflection, you may realize that you have been exposed to gentrification through firsthand experience, the media, or in school, you may be uncertain about how to define the process, as well as about how to reconcile the concepts central to your image of gentrification with those of your classmates.
It may either calm or concern you to know that despite their general agreement about gentrification’s defining traits, experts engage in similar debates about how to define the process. In one period debate about how to define gentrification was so heightened that Damaris Rose called for scholars to embrace “definitional chaos” (1984; see also Atkinson 2003, Criekengen & Doly 2003), arguing that this “chaos” most accurately captures the complexities of an evolving and somewhat idiosyncratic process. In response, others lobbied for retreat from this “chaos”—calling for agreement about gentrification’s central traits (Zukin 1987, Smith 1996).
Perhaps as a result of such calls, after decades of scholarship researchers have come to some agreement about gentrification’s central characteristics. As the readings in this section demonstrate, while scholars acknowledge that gentrification varies by time, place, and stage of gentrification (Clay 1979, Kerstein 1990), for the most part they concur that among gentrification’s defining traits are an influx of capital and resultant displacement, and the transformation of local “social character” (Glass 1964: xx), culture, amenities, and physical infrastructure (Warde 1991, Atkinson 2003). Most also agree that government policies and broad economic and demographic shifts—such as banks’ liberal lending practices in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the transformation of many North American and western European industrial cities into service-economy hubs, and the maturation of the baby-boom generation in the 1970s and 1980s—facilitate gentrification.
Like many other scholars, the anthropologist Gina Perez offers a straightforward definition of gentrification, describing it as:
an economic and social process whereby private capital (real estate firms, developers) and individual homeowners and renters reinvest in fiscally neglected neighborhoods through housing rehabilitation, loft conversions, and the construction of new housing stock. Unlike urban renewal, gentrification is a gradual process, occurring one building or block at a time, slowly reconfiguring the neighborhood landscape of consumption and residence by displacing poor and working-class residents unable to afford to live in ‘revitalized’ neighborhoods with rising rents, property taxes, and new businesses catering to an upscale clientele.
(2004: 139)
This definition captures many of the characteristics that scholars agree define gentrification: an influx of capital and resultant social, economic, cultural, and physical transformation and displacement (see Atkinson 2003).
If there is general agreement among scholars about these defining traits, what is there left to debate about? To varying degrees the authors in this section provide definitions and descriptions of gentrification that overlap with Perez’s. However, each author emphasizes distinct elements of Perez’s definition. For instance, some stress the displacement of poor and working-class residents, while others devote greater attention to the transformation of housing stock. Underlying debate about how to define gentrification are a few pressing questions. As this section details, first and foremost is the question of whether to define gentrification by its causes, outcomes, or everyday character. A second related question is about which of gentrification’s causes, outcomes, or dimensions typify the process. A third question involves where gentrification takes place. In the process of posing and answering these questions scholars argue about which cases of revitalization should be deemed “gentrification,” while simultaneously pushing each other to construct definitions that acknowledge gentrification’s variability—i.e. the fact that its precise characteristics and dynamics vary, to an extent, by time, place, and stage of gentrification (Clay 1979, Kerstein 1990).
In the following pages, I first outline a key disagreement related to gentrification’s definition and parameters: the question discussed above of whether we should define gentrification by its causes, outcomes, or the character of the process. Second, I outline how debates about when gentrification began, where it occurs, and what its outer limits are reveal underlying disagreement about this same definitional problem, specifically about whether to define gentrification by its causes, outcomes, or the daily interactions and choices that characterize the process.
Generally speaking, most scholars’ definitions of gentrification center on gentrification’s outcomes or consequences, rather than on its causes or on the character of the process—its everyday manifestations and progress (see Brown-Saracino 2009). Specifically, as an essay in this section by Neil Smith suggests, scholars and others emphasize economic revitalization, transformation of the built environment, and displacement as key signifiers of the process. Why do many definitions hinge on gentrification’s outcomes? As this book’s fourth section reveals, scholars debate facets of gentrification’s outcomes and consequences, such as displacement rates. However, there is greater collective agreement about gentrification’s outcomes than about its causes and I believe that this is why many definitions emphasize economic revitalization, aesthetic change, and displacement.
Most of the readings in this section question this general consensus on the centrality of outcomes to our definition of gentrification by focusing instead on gentrification’s causes. Specifically, in the readings that follow you will find that every author either implicitly or explicitly attends to gentrification’s causes and many regard these as central to the definition of gentrification that they propose. The authors’ attention to causation is neither representative of the broader literature nor happenstance. Rather, it is a product of the fact that within the literature there is much debate about gentrification’s sources, and because this book is organized around areas of contention, essays debating gentrification’s causes are thus disproportionately central to The Gentrification Debates.
That said, while many of the authors of the essays in this section emphasize causal factors in their definitions, they disagree about which causal factors are foundational to gentrification. For instance, in the essay in which she coined the term “gentrification” Ruth Glass explicitly links gentrification to the restoration of historic homes. Like Sharon Zukin, whose essay, “Gentrification as Market and Place” offers its own definition of gentrification, Glass suggests that shifting ideological orientations to the city encouraged middle class individuals to invest in central city properties that a previous generation had devalued. According to this argument, if the city had remained undesirable in the eyes of the middle class, homeowners would not have taken advantage of political and economic shifts that opened the central city to them. Thus, scholars like Zukin and Glass hold gentrifiers’ cultural valuation of the central city as an important component of our concept of gentrification.
In contrast, others cite demographic trends, such as the rising number of married women in the workforce in the second half of the twentieth century as contributing factors (see Marukusen 1981, Bondi 1991, Warde 1991). Three of this section’s authors, Neil Smith, Sharon Zukin and Ruth Glass, turn to deindustrialization as well as social policies that stripped cities of economic and infrastructural resources in the middle of the twentieth century as enabling conditions for gentrification. In their view, such change and policies reduced central city property values and, in turn, invited the speculation and investment that characterizes gentrification. In turn, Neil Smith regards what he terms a “revanchist” approach to urban policy, which punishes or seeks to take revenge on the city’s poor residents (1996: 43–44), as a key contributing factor, and conceives of this revanchism as part of an effort to restructure the city to benefit the elite. Likewise, Sharon Zukin writes that “gentrification persists as a collective effort to appropriate the center for elements of a new urban middle class” (1991: 187).
The next section of the book will attend more closely to such causal arguments. For now, suffice it to say that many scholars include causal factors, of one kind or another, in their descriptions and analyses of gentrification. However, because there is significant disagreement about gentrification’s causes, as well as a dearth of attention to the processes or everyday characteristics of gentrification (Brown-Saracino 2009), when it comes to defining gentrification many scholars emphasize the outcomes of the process. That is, many more scholars agree about gentrification’s outcomes than about its causes, and, for this reason, common definitions tend to hinge on that which gentrification produces, such as displacement and the related transformation of a place’s economic, social, and physical character.
As a side note, as you read this section you may realize that with few exceptions the authors do not explicitly attend to the everyday process of gentrification. For the most part, their conceptualizations do not hinge on daily evidence of gentrification’s progress: the sound of hammers and saws as workmen refurbish houses, the individuals seated at a new coffee shop or bistro, campaign posters for a pro-gentrification mayoral candidate that color shop windows, or terse words between neighbors who come from distinct economic backgrounds. Which of these elements, you might ask yourself, might one reasonably expect to find in most gentrifying places and how central should they be to our conceptualization of the process?
The disagreement I have outlined thus far—about whether gentrification is characterized by its outcomes, causes, or the character of the process—directly addresses the question of how to define the process. However, many other scholars approach this question less directly. For instance, tension about how to define gentrification is apparent in essays in this section that consider when gentrification began, where it occurs, and how to recognize its outer limits.
Nearly all of the essays in this section consider the question of when gentrification began. What does the question of when gentrification began have to do with defining the term? In short, scholars tell origin stories about gentrification as a way of arguing that certain characteristics of the process—those present in its earliest history—should be considered its defining characteristics. In addition, they reveal varying opinions about the centrality of gentrification’s causes and outcomes to the definition.
Many trace gentrification to the period just before 1964 when Ruth Glass coined the term in the introduction to a book on London. However, others, like geographer Neil Smith, in an essay in this section, suggest that we can trace its roots to the century before Glass first wrote of gentrification (see also Clark 2005). Specifically, in his “Short History of Gentrification,” Smith suggests that “something more akin to contemporary gentrification made an appearance in the middle of the nineteenth century” (1996: 35–36), then known as “embourgeoisement” (Smith 1996; see also Gaillard 1977, Harvey 1985, Engels 1975: 71).
In her essay describing London’s gentrification Ruth Glass identifies an ideology that embraced urban living for the middle class—in her terms, “a switch from suburban to urban aspirations” (1964: xxxi)—as a defining characteristic. As a result, she argues that urban renewal projects—government funded slum clearance and infrastructural transformations such as the construction of interstate highways through working class neighborhoods—enabled gentrification (1964: xvii), but, like Gina Perez (2004), she regards urban renewal as a precursor to gentrification, not as gentrification itself. Thus, authors such as Glass and Perez disagree with Smith. They do not believe that “gentrification” is responsible for the transformation of all of the neighborhoods from which poor and working class residents have been displaced to suit the needs and tastes of the middle class. Why do they disagree? On my reading, Glass worried that if we collapsed all such transformations under the umbrella of gentrification, this would negate how ge...

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