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Evolving Public Interpretation of Gentrification Term Paper

Related Topics: Media Crime Poverty Investment

Pages:15 (4506 words)




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Just like pornography, everyone seems to know "gentrification" when they see it. See a Starbucks or Whole Foods move into a neighborhood? That's gentrification. Find out that a house sold for an exorbitant amount or that rents at some building doubled? That's gentrification. See bike lanes added to your street, or a rack of bike-share bikes pop up near a busy corner? That's gentrification.

– Pete Saunders, 2017

Gentrification is one of the most controversial issues in American cities today. But as the epigraph above clearly indicates, it also remains one of the least understood. Few agree on how to define it or whether it is boon or curse for cities. Due in large part to this lack of definitional clarity, opinions about gentrification in the past have been largely shaped by the negative connotations and effects of gentrification that have been highlighted by the mainstream media. For instance, according to Duany, “These days, whenever more than a handful of middle-income people move into a formerly down-at-the-heels neighborhood, they are accused of committing that newest of social sins: ‘gentrification’” (36).

Not surprisingly, this negative perception of gentrification on the part of the American public has represented a major, long-term constraint to developing the types of public-private partnerships that can help rebuild the inner cities of many major cities in the United States today. In this regard, Duany concludes that, “This loaded term [of gentrification] -- conjuring up images of yuppies stealing urban housing from rightful inhabitants -- has become embedded in the way many activists understand urban evolution. And the thinking behind it has become a serious obstacle to the revival of American cities” (36). More problematic for proponents of gentrification has been the uptake of this negative view by policymakers and the American public in general. Civic developers have long recognized the challenges that are involved in overcoming a “not in my backyard” mindset, and the residents of even deteriorating neighborhoods may be highly reluctant to allow even positive changes in their communities that may affect them negatively on a personal level. This reluctance, of course, will only heightened when the term gentrification is used without operationalizing what it actually means to the residents and business owners of a given neighborhood. Longtime residents and business owners have a vested interest in their communities, so any perceived threat to their individual interests will naturally be met with fierce resistance.

It is important to note, however, that although this negative view of gentrification has become especially pronounced over the past half century or so, the gentrification process has been a fundamental part of the American landscape since before the fin de siècle. Indeed, gentrification has changed over time and has a history dating back to the early 20th century. But since the late 1970s, gentrification has dramatically reshaped cities like New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston and has had an outsized influence on the political, cultural, and architectural history of cities. Consequently, in any setting, even the mere mention of the word gentrification is likely to start an interesting debate, due to the polarizing nature of this topic.

In recent years, the ubiquity of this phenomenon has garnered a growing amount of attention from policymakers, the media and the general American public, causing a certain shift in its discourse of media and academic evaluation. Through the case study of New York City, this paper will underline the contemporary interpretation of gentrification by analyzing journalistic and academic works. Additionally, it will deconstruct the causes behind its negative connotation and how, over the years, leaders and activists have addressed these negative connotations in order to turn this misguided trend into a constructive revitalization of American neighborhoods.

Although this topic is widely known, few have a succinct or universally accepted way of defining the topic. Authors such as Jackson (2014) summarize gentrification as the process when residents are forced from their homes because of increased rents, or private action from landlords attempting to repurpose/develop their property for higher profits. This summarization, though, limits gentrification to instances where residents are “forced from their homes” with no viable alternatives available, an eventuality that is anathema to the vast majority of Americans.

Other authors such as Freeman and Barconi (2004) focus on the mobility rate of “disadvantaged households.” Here again, Americans are generous people and want to help their fellow citizens that may be disadvantaged, but this view of gentrification fails to determine what type of disadvantage is involved with any degree of specificity. In fact, some people may be considered as living in “disadvantaged households” because they voluntarily elected to relocate from a gentrified neighborhood due to other reasons such as new employment opportunities or changes in family dynamics.

In fact, regardless of the actual benefits that gentrification brings to deteriorating neighborhoods, the gentrification process itself is widely regarded by residents and the American public alike in its most negative light. This undesirable outcome has been the direct result of the inaccurate and misinformed manner in which the gentrification process has played out in the mainstream media, perhaps because the perceived harms that are caused by gentrification make for more interesting and compelling reading than the modest and even stellar success stories that have been realized in recent years. Part of the problem may relate to the term “gentrification” itself. The etymology of the term shows that it is derived from late Middle English and connotes “superiority of birth or rank,” and most Americans bristle when they are confronted with such affectations. Similarly, the predecessor term “urban renewal” also assumed negative connotations for many of the same reasons that have plagued proponents of gentrification.

Indeed, in many ways, there has been as much focus on developing informed definitions of gentrification in the recent scholarship as there have been studies seeking to identify new opportunities to apply gentrification principles to help revitalize cities across the country. This trend highlights the diversity of definitions that are bantered about…

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…occurring without immediate displacement, suggesting some capacity for longtime residents to stay put and reap the benefits of increased property values — or the production of new housing or utilization of empty units.

In NCRC’s study, conducted by Richardson, Mitchell, and Franco, the data showed displacement in just 22 percent of the neighborhoods that experienced an influx of new people and new money in the time period studied. The rest did not show displacement. These findings suggest that investment and revitalization of poor neighborhoods don’t have to push out the people who lived there before. Moreover, community leaders around the nation have developed approaches to encourage investment and avoid displacement. For instance, New York City offers caps or breaks on property taxes for longtime residents. This is known as a homestead exemption, and it is often offered to help the elderly on fixed incomes remain in their homes even while their home values increase.

Additionally, local governments have found more ways to help people stay rooted in their communities: provide renters with the opportunity and financing to purchase their units; preserve and expand public housing; protect elderly and long-term residents from property tax increases; enforce building codes and offer easy options for renters to report bad landlords; negotiate payment plans with homeowners who have fallen behind on their property taxes; establish community benefits agreements with investors in large projects to ensure that local residents benefit from the investment; offer developers higher levels of density in return for funding more affordable housing units in their projects; establish a loan fund to help small business owners buy their buildings (NCRC, 2019).

Nevertheless, the negative connotations of the definitions of gentrification have made this type of progress slow, painful and expensive in far too many cases where such efforts are desperately needed to help struggling neighborhoods survive. For example, according to Capps (2019), “The conventional wisdom about gentrification is practically set in cement. Often it goes without saying that the drawbacks of neighborhood change—above all the displacement of existing lower-income residents, but also increases in rents and upticks in cultural conflicts—greatly outweigh any benefits” (3). Residents’ concerns over the potential negative effects of gentrification even halted the construction of a second headquarters operation in New York City by Amazon, an initiative that would have otherwise brought thousands of new jobs to the community (Capps).

In the final analysis, it is reasonable to conclude that gentrification is a natural phenomenon for a growing city and displaces characteristics of a city’s resilience. While the process was practiced recklessly in its early decades which earned it a negative reputation, policymakers are making amends and addressing the pressing concerns of gentrification itself. It, therefore, is undergoing a transformation in its connotation. Savvy urban developers would therefore be well advised to take the numerous prevailing views about gentrification into account when formulating new development initiatives and even avoid using the term altogether in favor of a term that more accurately reflects what is taking place…

Sample Source(s) Used


Anderson, Elijah. 1990. Streetwise. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Betancur, John J. “Gentrification in Latin America: Overview and Critical Analysis.” Urban Studies Research 37-41.

Berrey, Ellen C. 2005. Divided over diversity. City & Community 4 (2): 143-70

Black’s Law Dictionary. 1990. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co.

Bostic, Raphael W., and Richard W. Martin. 2003. Black home-owners as a gentrifying force? Urban Studies 40 (12): 2427-49.

Brown-Saracino, Japonica. 2004. Social preservationists and the quest for authentic community. City & Community 3 (2): 135-56.

Brummet, Quentin, and Davin Reed. “The Effects of Gentrification on the Well-Being and Opportunity of Original Resident Adults and Children.” Working Paper (Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia), 2019.

Capps, Kriston. “The Hidden Winners in Neighborhood Gentrification.” CityLab, July 22, 2019.

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