Deconstructing Degentrification


Via Arts & Letters Daily comes this excellent post about gentrification over at 2Blowhards. A snippet:

The term "gentrification" was coined in 1964 by a left-wing British sociologist named Ruth Glass. She used the word to refer to what was then taking place in a part of London called Islington. Islington originated as an affluent place, but had become a rough, working-class area. In the sixties, it experienced gentrification. (Actually, it had been experiencing something like it for some years, at least since George Orwell wrote about it after moving to the neighborhood in the forties.) It's where Tony and Cherie Blair and their family lived before moving to 10 Downing Street. (Cherie is said by the London papers to be truly upset that when Tony was elected and they sold their Islington house they got £750,000 for it, while now it is worth £1.5 million.)

Lots of references to Brooklyn, Reason, Jane Jacobs ("Truly, she must be the only writer championed by both Reason and Tikkun"), and more. Whole thing here.


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  1. Great article!

    I liked this: “There are too few neighborhoods right now so that the supply doesn?t nearly meet the demand. So they are just gentrifying in the most ridiculous way. They are crowding out everybody except people with exorbitant amounts of money. Which is a symptom that demand for such a neighborhood has far outstripped the supply.”

    First of all, it’s a thumb in the eye for those twits whose urban experience is limited to “Good Times” reruns, and who insist that nobody wants to live in the city.

    But more important, it gets at the real issue. Nobody thinks it is bad for a neighborhood’s reputation to improve, for its busiensses to get a cohort of customers with more money to spend, or for dilapidated buildings to be rehabbed. Gentrification is a problem when it reduces the supply of affordable housing available to poor and working class and middle class people below demand. But this only occurs because other avenues of supply – the construction of naturally-affordable housing like rental housing, small lot single family homes, or two-to-four family homes that are ideal for owner occupancy – are foreclosed by suburban snob zoning. In addition, the demands of people who have choices and want to live in traditional/urban neighborhoods – the gentrifiers – can only be met in the old cities, because once again, suburban snob zoning and auto-based zoning precludes the construction of neighborhoods that appeal to them.

    The other problem associated with gentrification – the destruction of neighbohood character by the wholesale replacement of one longstanding cohort with a different, new cohort – is also the result of the lack of urban/traditional construction options in the suburbs. If there were 18 neighborhoods in a metro area that provided the urban amenities that attract gentrifiers, rather than 3 or 4, it is much less likely that any one neighborhood would see all of its buildings rehabbed at the same time, and all of its existing residents dispaced by rent increases and condo-ization.

  2. I think one of the critical forces in gentrification in New York that’s somewhat glossed over in the article is influence of the arts.

    It was the artists, actors, musicians and poets in Greenwich village that attracted attention to that area, restaurants followed and it became the hot spot. Rents went up. Some successful artists could stay, but others were forced outward. So some of them moved South of Houston street into abandoned business buildings that nobody wanted, turning large upper open upper floors into “lofts” where they would live and use them as studios. Restaurants, high-class galleries, and pretentious shoe stores followed as everyone then wanted to have a Loft in SoHo. So the artists moved east to the East Village, with punk and piercings, and dance, and performance art, and restaurants followed, and a Gap opened up (but then the artists got really pissed and drove the Gap away). But now the East Village is pretty pricey, so you can start moving SouthEast (where you used to be afraid to go without bodyguards), and you’ll find the avant-garde arts movement… and restaurants are opening up…

    Gentrification through the arts is more than plopping down a commercial development. It’s creating an environment where people want to be, prior to the re-development.

    The arts have a huge, positive economic impact on cities, and artists are happy to work in abandoned storefronts and places nobody else wants.

    New York realizes this, and works to promote and encourage the arts (not just big commercial Broadway stuff, but the fringe stuff as well).

    Chicago also gets a big boost from the hundreds of storefront theatres on the north side. They made a bit of a blunder recently when they sent the inspectors around to shut down many of them (for example, it’s impossible for many of these 50-60 seat theatres that have performances on the weekends at $12 per ticket to pay their rent and come up with the thousands of dollars necessary to remodel the place and provide multiple ADA-compliant restrooms). The city now seems ready to at least work with the theatres to come up with timelines to meet codes. And they should — it’s worth it.

  3. Look for the neighborhoods where the fags and dykes are moving, and invest there.

  4. Thanking you in advance: just a bit of fun, ya silly bitch.

  5. joe, I don’t know if you can pin this ALL on suburban snob zoning. What’s preventing redevelopment of other areas of the cities, near but not within the areas of ‘unslumming’ so that they can’t be turned into those higher density and/or lower cost housing areas? Are there other requirements in areas, like mandatory low-income housing set-asides, or community advocacy groups clamoring for protection from such gentrification? Don’t those also stand in the way of new projects?

    And what if the residents, not just the zoning board, in these suburban communities are vociferously opposed to higher density housing? Currently there’s a development planned off of my development, with a proposal to build duplexes, that’s meeting a ton of community resistance (my suggestion of people buying the land and leaving it wooded tends to fall on deaf ears, tho). How much weight should locals be given in this kind of planning scenario?

    I can certainly understand the incentive to build duplexes, especially given that new townhouses in my area (a Smart Growth Priority Funding Area in Maryland) are STARTING at $280,000. But I don’t think this kind of building is really meeting the low and middle income housing needs. I think we’re so behind on housing supply that it will take a severe bust in the market to even catch up.

  6. If there were 18 neighborhoods in a metro area that provided the urban amenities that attract gentrifiers, rather than 3 or 4, it is much less likely that any one neighborhood would see all of its buildings rehabbed at the same time, and all of its existing residents dispaced by rent increases and condo-ization.

    I strongly disagree that many metro areas have only 3 or 4 neighborhoods with “urban amenities”. What most metro areas DO have is 3 or 4 HOT neighborhoods that get all the attention and make the demand way high. This is a positive thing for people willing to look beyond just the HOT neighborhoods, the neighborhoods overlooked today have great affordable deals and (if the buyer can gamble on the future) will be the hot neighborhood of tomorrow.

  7. Highway,

    “What’s preventing redevelopment of other areas of the cities, near but not within the areas of ‘unslumming’ so that they can’t be turned into those higher density and/or lower cost housing areas?” The biggest thing is, they’re already developed on a city scale.

    So you’ve got 12 acres in an urban neighborhood, divided up into 98 parcels with 117 ownership interests (including condos). To achieve a significant increase in the number of residential units, you need condemnation via urban renewal, which is inherently inefficient, so you end up either replacing working class homes with luxury homes, or using massive subsidies and building Cabrini Green huge in order to make affordability work.

    In terms of big cities contributing to the housing shortage, the only thing that comes to mind is that some cities have much more land zoned industrial or commercial than is warranted, and it sits there empty while the city fathers wait for the huge job creating project that never gets built. Though once again, this is usually a much bigger failing on the part of suburbs than cities.

    But as for cities themselves limiting development density, I’ve got a mote/plank issue. I just can’t see complaining that neighborhoods with 10-20 units/acre aren’t being upped to 30-100 units/acre, while all the surrounding communities max out at 4 units/acre.

    As for low-income set asides, I’ve never seen a city that had them that couldn’t also offer significant low income tax deals and other subsidies. Not, perhaps, the smarterst way to go about things from an economic growth perspective, but it makes it tough to argue that developers are unable to make a buck because of the setasides, and are thus under-supplying.

    As for the NIMBY worries of suburbanites, I think my repeated use of the term “snob zoning” lays out my position pretty well.

  8. joe and highway are able to get into details, but the main, big picture point here, isn’t it?, that we’re NOT talking class warfare. We’re talking governments trying to interfere with individual choices about where they want to live.

  9. its all the need for planning permission

    typical libertarian “insanity” rant, but really the whole failure of cities and the root of most evils is the existence of zoning and local power over people’s use of real property

    your neighbours should have 0 ability to control what you do on your property except as far as it interferes with your influence on the airshed and watershed, where they should be able to extract compensation for your use, but not to restrict it. and hence vamoose to the trots at ACORN, the snobs, the nimbys, the bananas, etc…

    everything, always, comes down to the respect (or lack thereof) for property rights.

    also, jane jacobs is an ignorant leftist twit

  10. Lordy, lordy. Douglas Fletcher and I are in agreement. In fact, the gay community has been the biggest renovator/innovator in bringing back large, forgotten chunks of many, if not all, urban residential cores. The gay community has done more than its share in shoring up tax bases of old industrial cities by providing the initial ideas and sweat equity to change the perception of a neighborhood from dangerous to chique.

  11. Douglas and Gadfly,
    One of my friends lives by this rule. He always get apartments in the “gay” parts of town (he’s a straight, Texan R that hates Bush) because they’re clean, safe, nice and way undervalued.

  12. Thanks! (I took time from all the work Matt Welch is to blame for in my researching his good post elswhere to make this comment.)

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