Complicating the Gentrification Discussion

By Andrew Goddeeris, Online Publications Editor, Vol. 20

“Gentrification” is simultaneously (1) difficult for urban planners and economists to quantify and explain and (2) commonly debated by people of a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. It takes on different connotations for different people, but one common image is that of young, typically white, typically relatively privileged people moving into an area with a large racial minority population and over time raising property values in a way that displaces that minority population. In some cities, like New York City and Washington, D.C., this has happened on a broad scale. There is a tendency, however, amongst many to label certain events or perceptions of in-migration as gentrification (taking on an understandably negative connotation here), when in fact displacement may not be happening at all. Nevertheless, “gentrification” continues to capture the attention of many social justice advocates and urban planners, and our collective understanding of the phenomenon requires constant discourse.

A new study introduces research that shows that perhaps a far bigger problem than gentrification (measured as Census tracts shifting from majority-minority to majority-white) is extreme poverty and racial inequality. Far more Census tracts have remained mired in extreme poverty or slipped into extreme poverty than tracts have dramatically shifted racial composition, and the study and subsequent articles on the subject have argued that the more pressing concern is seriously addressing and ameliorating this inequality.

This post should not be construed as support for the articles mentioned, but it is intended to complicate the dialogue surrounding gentrification, and to push people like myself who are deeply concerned about social justice and inequality in American cities to be more purposeful and deliberate when we talk about these issues.