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Tracing the History of an Idea as 'Gentrification' Turns 50

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In 1964, British sociologist Ruth Glass was seeking a word to sum up what she saw happening in the London borough of Islington, where creative young professionals were suddenly re-appraising the neighborhood's Georgian terraces and intimate squares. Islington had previously lost its 17th-century grandeur and in its post-war years had become the domain of working class, largely West Indian immigrants. Glass captured the class phenomenon playing out in the streets of cities by adapting the British-ism "gentry" into a process-inflected term, gentrification.

But while gentry traditionally refers to those seated just below nobles in a Jane Austen novel—wealthy people who profit from land ownership—Ruth Glass's gentry was more of a middle class liberal arts intelligentsia. "These people aren't necessarily the rich," explains Sharon Zukin, author of Naked City and professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, who has chronicled the evolution of gentrification across decades. "They are people with cultural capital: artists, writers, teachers, professors, etc. By the 1950s and early 60s, that group of people begins to appreciate the urban environment in a way that other middle class people do not: the old houses, the crowded streets, the social diversity, the chance to be bohemian, and also to be around lower class people of all different backgrounds—the very factors that were driving the more mainstream middle class out of cities."

The architectural integrity of these neighborhoods came at a steep discount, making them more alluring for those who were able to work around the redlined districts to renovate homes. Hence the apocryphal tales of naïve New York bohemians who snatched a brownstone in Greenwich Village, then Brooklyn Heights, and soon Park Slope, long before these areas were publicized as up-and-coming. "Bear in mind that in the 1960s and 70s, brownstone houses, whether on the Upper West Side or Brooklyn Heights, were regarded as being obsolete," notes Zukin. "Working class people put aluminum siding on these houses in attempts to modernize them."


[New York City's Meatpacking District in 1985 (left) and today (right). Photo via Curbed NY.]

It didn't take long for real estate developers to realize that there was money to be made where proto-gentrifiers had been. And this epiphany wasn't unique to cities like London or New York: a 1976 study by the Urban Land Institute found that nearly half of the 260 cities with a population over 50,000 had undergone gentrification, defined as a marked expansion in middle-income housing in the form of rehabilitated single-family dwellings, mostly in historic districts, initiated by affluent, educated young professionals with "an increasing desire for the kind of cultural and intellectual pursuits which are generally found only in the central cities—performing arts, museums, libraries, seminars, etc." The report argues that the wave of gentrifiers "are establishing a new investment climate." Tellingly, the findings focus on "the potential for middle-income housing for white" people, underscoring the racial demographics of gentrification.

"Fifty years from now, I think there's a strong and frightening possibility that after long waves of investment and disinvestment, you'll have large swaths of the city where the rich are hunkered down, and large parts of the map where poor people can't afford to live and nobody else wants to live there."—Sharon Zukin

"By the 1980s, New York and other major cities saw the recovery of the real estate market, which took over as the main impulse of displacing individuals in neighborhoods," explains urban designer and Hunter College professor Thomas Angotti. Ever wealthier young professionals decided they wanted to call brownstones and lofts home. Artists were replaced by art aficionados, drawn by what Zukin calls the ABCs of gentrification: art galleries, boutiques, and cafes.

Before long, municipal governments registered that revamping swaths of the city meant more cash in their coffers. So policymakers' attention shifted from demolishing city centers for highways and public housing to granting historic district designations, investing in fixing "broken windows" and, most importantly, rezoning and offering tax exceptions in fringe areas. "In the 1990s, we have a gradual shift from individual actions of people moving into old neighborhoods to the city government saying, 'It's not just the market that should facilitate gentrification—it should be the state and city government that helps that along,'" explains Zukin. Gone were the soft politics of the early gentrifiers' aesthetics in favor of location, location, location.

Only a few scholars have attempted to quantify the community relocations that gentrification causes. "In public policy circles," explains Angotti, "there's a refusal to incorporate displacement"—the departures of prior residents—"into the analysis of the discussion. Nobody counts displacement." But there are academic outliers: Lance Freeman, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University, tapped national databases on housing movements, and in his published work on Harlem and Clinton Hill found that, as neighborhoods gentrified, residents were more likely to move to less expensive homes nearby than to leave for less desirable areas.


[Photo of Fort Greene via Getty Images.]

More recently, Harvard professors Jackelyn Hwang and Robert J. Sampson used Google Street View to track the changing demographics of 2,500 blocks within shifting Chicago neighborhoods. They codified visible indicators of loitering, decay, and luxury densification to gauge a street's degree of gentrification. Their precise coding translates aesthetic cliches into measurable change, and those changes include marked racial migrations—that is, black residents being displaced by white residents. The study offered proof that "gentrification" has become a 21st-century synonym for racial tension, even though displacement is often obscured by development.

By the 2010s, it became clear that nothing about gentrification is clear. Lena Dunham spoke of the specter of artsy friends having to move to Tampa, Spike Lee wanted to boot boulangeries out of Fort Greene, and the former president of Georgia became a slacker refugee in Williamsburg. Such anecdotes are the meat that feeds Times "Sunday Styles" trend pieces.


[The frequency with which "gentrification" appears in Times articles. Data via NYT Labs.]

The media's infatuation with surveying the consumption habits of gentrifiers—arguably, captive readers of such articles themselves—is illustrated in the high frequency with which the word "gentrification" appears in Times articles. The word's prevalence parallels periods of prosperity, underscoring the close connection between gentrification and consumerism.

Certainly discussing lifestyle trends is more entertaining than reconciling displacement caused by deep-seated social and racial inequality. In this new media landscape, cultural posturing, alarmism, and realism converge without offering answers to what a post-gentrification city might look like. "Who knows what the future holds?" asks Zukin. "Fifty years from now, I think there's a strong and frightening possibility that after long waves of investment and disinvestment, you'll have large swaths of the city where the rich are hunkered down, and large parts of the map where poor people can't afford to live and nobody else wants to live there."


[The Weeksville Heritage Center. Images courtesy Caples Jefferson.]

To see an alternative to this gentrification apocalypse, ride New York City's 4 subway train to its eastern terminus. Architecture firm Caples Jefferson just recently opened the Weeksville Heritage Center, an L-shaped building that stands across from a row of preserved 19th-century homes attributed to one of the first communities of emancipated African Americans.

The firm is unique for its dedication to building approximately half of its work in communities underserved by the design profession. Though the new building's design is thoroughly contemporary, it is an example of how architecture can provide a counter-narrative in areas threatened by gentrification. The two-story scale respects the extant structures. The tone of certain tiles and nuanced ornamentation evokes the users' shared history without resorting to kitsch, acting as a respectful gateway to the preserved historic homes several yards away, while also housing exhibition and performance spaces, sandwiched by administrative and archival quarters above and below. The final product was Caples Jefferson's third design iteration, balancing voices from both the local community board and the city's design commission. "We wanted to create a building the community's children and grandchildren would find helpful for all of their activities," explained Caples. "We designed the spaces so that they're memorable but also flexible, so that people can project their own aspirations into the varied volumes and take them into different directions over time."

This summer at the Weeksville Heritage Center, the Digital, Interactive, Visual Art, Sciences (DIVAS) for Social Justice organization hosted a day camp for 7-12-year-olds, and it wasn't the typical kid's art or science camp—this was gentrification camp. Many of the participants came from families that are longtime residents of Bed-Stuy. Explains DIVAS director Clarisa James, "We taught them about gentrification—the positives, the negatives—who's affected, and then we would have an open conversation." Simultaneously, the campers were trained in technology like robotics and digital media.

After some serious on-the-ground investigation, including photo documentation and speaking with local residents, the participants were tasked with conjuring actual solutions to the displacement associated with gentrification. "Some of their ideas were, if there's an abandoned space, let's make it a green space," says James. "Or, if the neighborhood is going to change anyway, how do we bridge the old people with the new people? Maybe we have community dinners."

To visualize their findings, James and her team developed a lesson plan with Google SketchUp to teach the children about 3D printing. Soon, the camp participants were recreating their brownstones in polymer miniature, which they then arranged on a massive diorama of the neighborhood, blanketed with a heat map indicating the sections most threatened by displacement. Currently on view at the Weeksville Heritage Center, the display demonstrates a wholly new way of debating gentrification: through the hands and voice of the generation that will inherit cities with uncertain futures when it comes to spatial equality.

· How 'The Real World' Was Really the Story of Gentrification [Curbed]
· Gentrification coverage [Curbed NY]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]