Sunday, August 5, 2007

Race & Redevelopment I: Gentrification

In light of my recent epiphany that I need to figure out a way to make my research relevant and interesting, I am posting my first entry concerning one of the topics that I am researching: who would consider moving to redeveloped neighborhoods in Chicago and why would they consider those neighborhoods. This is the first section that describes the central role that "gentrification" has played in framing the debate.

The term “gentrification” was coined by Ruth Glass in 1964 to describe the process of working class Londoners being displaced by the wealthier “gentry” and changing the face of London as people knew it. The term, over the next four decades has been used widely in academic research as well as finding its way into the popular press and everyday vernacular. The popularity of the term as well as the subject probably has a great deal to do with the fact that the process is one that is incredibly visible. Cities, particularly those in the North American industrial “steel-belt” across the Great Lakes and Northeastern regions, were declared to be doomed in the late 1970s and 1980s. Although the reasons why cities were following this trajectory has been a cause of great debate, and included some combination of economic transformations from a manufacturing to service-based economy, the racial segregation of metropolitan areas and the concentration of poverty, there was a fairly universal agreement on the fact that cities were in a state of despair. Throughout the 1990s and the first years of the 21st century, however, many of those cities formally thought to be doomed have seen a resurgence with residents coming “back” to cities.

Perhaps it is because people’s homes and neighborhoods have such an intrinsic value to them as to make them “a special sort of commodity” [1] that so much attention has been garnered by the transition of neighborhoods from poor to rich. Or, perhaps it is because the polar change in this transition was so unexpected from what was predicted in the 1970s and 1980s for American urban centers. Yet, the fact is that gentrification has taken one of the leading roles in understanding urban theory both academically and in every-day life.

And, while most evidence points to the fact that migration to suburbs has outpaced that to cities, it seems appropriate that gentrification should be a major component of urban theory given the fact that it is such a visible and recognizable feature of contemporary urban contexts. But, in absolute numbers, gentrification is not a trivial occurrence, either. Two researchers, Elvin Wyly and Daniel Hammel, have found that the size of the "urban underclass" which guided much academic and political debate in the 1980s and 1990s (think: welfare reform), is about the same size as the number of people involved in gentrification.

But, I think that another key element to understanding gentrification in the U.S. context is the fact that there is a strong racial component to gentrification in the United States. As the national economy of the U.S. shifted from a manufacturing to a service base, U.S. central cities were not only divided economically, but also racially. Because of explicit racial policies of And, while many people claim that this is largely due to white flight following the urban riots in the late 1960s, the process actually began much earlier and simply increased the rate at which white flight was occurring (for a great analysis of the 1967 riot in Detroit, read Thomas Sugrue's Origins of Urban Crisis). Whether this racial division was the direct consequence of urban economic restructuring or was primarily the result of high levels of racial segregation in most northern and eastern industrial cities is a matter of debate. What is true, either way, is that the poor urban residents in most northern and eastern cities that are likely to get displaced in the process of gentrification are African Americans. In fact, the perception that white people displace people of color as a process of gentrification is so pronounced that two researchers studying predominantly African American neighborhoods where gentrification is occurring noted that their informants mark the existence of gentrification to the time that they saw white people buying houses in their neighborhoods[2].

While gentrification is certainly an important component of the urban environment that needs to be understood to fully comprehend the contemporary development of urban environments, I argue that it is important that gentrification not become the only lens through which urban development is considered. The paper that I am working on currently describes why I think that this is the case and how, in some ways, thinking about gentrification—particularly the context in which gentrification is viewed in the U.S.—can be problematic both for understanding what is shaping residential choices among metropolitan residents and it limits the possibilities of potential urban reform. I am working on writing that part up now, and so will let you know why I think that this is the case in a following post.

[1] Logan, John R. and Harvey L. Molotch. 1987. Urban Fortunes: The Political Economy of Place. Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press. [return]
[2] One of the studies is an article written by Mary Pattillo (for those interested, I have included the entire citation) who studies the North Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood in Chicago. She has very recently published a book, Black on the Block, expanding on that study and which I have not yet had a chance to read. The citation for her article is: Pattillo, Mary. 2003. "Negotiating Blackness, for Richer or for Poorer." Ethnography 4(1): 61-93.
The other study was conducted by Lance Freeman who studied communities in Harlem and the majority-black neighborhood of Clinton Hill in Brooklyn. If anyone is interested in urban issues and wants to read an incredibly written book, I would recommend it to anyone: Freeman, Lance. 2006. There goes the 'hood : views of gentrification from the ground up. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.[return]


dave3544 said...


This is my second go at a comment here, my first one suffered a tragic blimp accident, so forgive me if thoughts are a little scattered as I try to recreate old-brain while new-brain wants to have a say.

I don't know much about gentrification as an issue of study, but I know a little something about what it is like to be a young professional and thinking about moving to an urban area, thereby completing the transformation to the dark side.

For me, the main attraction of moving into a predominately black/poor neighborhood would be the availability of cheap housing stock that has features that I am looking for. I like older houses, but can't afford one in a white neighborhood or one that has been fixed up (already gentrified), so my options are cheap housing in black neighborhoods or the 'burbs.

Of course, I am aware of the many, many layers of complexity that go into gentrification, but in many ways it is going to come down to an economic decision. If I don't want to face a lengthy commute, the only way i can afford housing will be (if I move to a city, that is) to buy cheap housing in the city. Cheap housing in American cities is in black neighborhoods.

As far as gentrification displacing African Americans, this raises an interesting question about how much responsibility an acquirer of property house to the people that lived there previously. If I am looking to buy a row house in DC in a predominately black neighborhood or even a mixed neighborhood, should I assume that the previous occupants of my row house were poor black renters who were forced out because the white landlord wanted to make a profit while there was still a chance? How much should the purchaser of a property be responsible for the means by which that property became available?m Even if I, as a white professional, have no obligation to find out about the particular circumstances of a particular piece of property, then does my knowledge about the general circumstances of gentrification obligate me to live in the suburbs, participating in white flight, so as not to be complicit in the destruction of African American communities?

(In Oregon residential property is seen as a very safe investment and values are expect to always climb. Urban housing stock is obviously different and buying a house in an American city is a big risk).

dave3544 said...

That last paragraph there was a note about a whole different thought that I didn't finish, but then posted, sorry.

Mike3550 said...

Dave, sorry about the comment troubles - I hate when that happens.

I think that what you are saying regarding the price of housing is right on. BUT I think that there is one big difference between you and most white people: you are willing to consider living in a neighborhood that is not predominantly white. For you, location matters more than your racial preferences, which is not true for most white people. This is not to say that white people are outright racists in the sense that they endorse the KKK; but for a variety of reasons, communities that are predominantly or even more than nominally black (this is not as true for Latina neighborhoods) are not desirable to most whites which can lead to disinvestment and institutional discrimination against African Americans.

More importantly, though, I think that this brings up a separate issue which is directly related to your question on the morality of gentrification. When you say:

If I am looking to buy a row house in DC in a predominately black neighborhood or even a mixed neighborhood, should I assume that the previous occupants of my row house were poor black renters who were forced out because the white landlord wanted to make a profit while there was still a chance?

I don’t think that it is necessarily about blacks or whites being forced out. For all you know as a buyer, the renter moved out and the landlord was looking to sell the home. But the fact that you would be buying a single property from an individual landlord as an individual home buyer for your house is different than what drives the most egregious inequalities of gentrification.

What really makes gentrification devastating is when landed capital invests huge sums of money and transforms the neighborhood. These are people who have no particular use value for the community (unlike you and your family) and only see the property as an exchangeable commodity. Then, it becomes impossible to find housing, prices are driven by speculation and risk, if at all possible, is to be minimized through sweet-heart deals with city hall and a lack of willingness to rent or sell to anyone who may “destabilize” the exchange values of properties surrounding that individual. Given the historical discrimination (particularly in housing) experienced by African Americans, this means that it will be difficult for them to meet these requirements if they are attempting to buy a house and seen as nothing more than a nuisance to be removed to somewhere else if they are renters.

The process is difficult, though. If enough people who are white move into a neighborhood such that others who are less tolerant than you and your family, then this can encourage the development and speculation by small start-up real estate developers which, in turn, leads to investment by large real-estate developers backed by conservative banking institutions. THEN the real fun starts.

dave3544 said...

Okay, you are obviously describing a much more institutional form of gentrification than I was, which is good because I don't know much about it.

I was reacting to this thought in your post:
What is true, either way, is that the poor urban residents in most northern and eastern cities that are likely to get displaced in the process of gentrification are African Americans. In fact, the perception that white people displace people of color as a process of gentrification is so pronounced that two researchers studying predominantly African American neighborhoods where gentrification is occurring noted that their informants mark the existence of gentrification to the time that they saw white people buying houses in their neighborhoods[2].

I am familiar with the hostility that white people can encounter when they move into a black neighborhood or that "gentrification" as an issue generates. Among lefty whites out here, moving into a gentrified neighborhood is seen as akin to personally kicking a black family out. Then there are all the issues of perceived or real culture appropriation/modification/destruction.

Have you read the article in Mother Jones on this topic? I stumbled across it last night and started to read it, but put it down because I didn't want it to influence this discussion.

Mike3550 said...

No, but I'd be interested in reading it. Is this the article that you were talking about?

The other thing that is really difficult about the conversation is that gentrification happens in so many different ways in different places. In some areas (like SoHo), the gentrification actually kicked out small manufacturers, not residents. In others, like Harlem, suddenly people are making money off of flipping houses that for decades received no attention at all. For decades, Harlem was ignored; now, with the "second Renaissance" everyone loves Harlem -- as long as it doesn't include any of the current residents.

The problem in most places is that systematic disinvestment by landlords, city governments and businesses led to a point where the property was worth very little. Now, because of proximity to work or other reasons (that is actually what my research is looking at), the very people who made the place undesirable for the residents are now turning around and making a mint off of the very fact that they didn't disinvested in those communities for years.

Speaking of Harlem and progressive-but-not-too-progressive types, there is a huge fight in Harlem over Columbia expanding into a park that community activists fought decades to obtain. The Prez, Lee I-love-black-people-and-was-lead-
action-supreme-court-decisions Bollinger is defending it and saying, "of course anyone from the community is more than welcome on Columbia's campus anytime." Uh, huh. Somehow he doesn't see the contradiction (or maybe there isn't one) between supporting affirmative action and performing an affirmative role in Columbia's own community. But now I am ranting, so I will stop...

dave3544 said...

Oh rant away! Here's an idea for Columbia, anybody living within 5 blocks of the park (how come we automatically know that Columbia will get the park? Where is the grad union on this?) gets to attend Columbia for free.

The article I was thinking about about is here. Sorry I didn't href

dave3544 said...

Alright that didn't work.

It's called "Go Forth and Gentrify."

You should also check out J. Anthony Lukas' "Common Ground" which spends part of the book looking at a couple who moved into a black neighborhood and met resistance from the locals when they tried to get involved.

You might also want to check out the MoJo article titled "Not in My Backyard." In my mind it is linked to the gentrification issue as an example of the powerful 'this is my home, good or bad' thinking that can play into this issue.

Mike3550 said...

I can't find the original article that talked specifically about the park itself, but the gist was that Columbia (which sits on the southern side of Morningside Park) wants to expand and will, in the process, essentially trap the park in the middle.

Here is a description of the project from this article (unfortunately behind NYT's subscription wall):
The designer, Renzo Piano (the architect of the New York Times' new headquarters), sought to maximize green space, including parks and walkways, which the school says would be open to the public.

But, I think that this is the part that is most telling. In an article from a week earlier, this is what might have sparked the controversy:
That year, violent protests erupted after the university proposed building a university gymnasium in Morningside Park with separate entrances for students and residents of the predominantly poor, African-American neighborhood.

And, the most priceless part is what Bollinger had to say about it:

''Everybody who lives there will be better off,'' he said last summer. ''Everyone is pleased with the way Columbia has dealt with them.''

While I might give him the fact that he might be speaking of the tensions and not the people of West Harlem when he referenced "them" (having known good people who have been misquoted in the past), I can't believe that he says that "everyone is pleased." By that, he means everyone that he cares about.

Oh, yeah. And, in order to accomplish this development over the objections, the University is going to use eminent domain (under the authority upheld by the Kelo
decision) to eliminate all small industry and most affordable housing in the area.

Andrew said...

Hi Mike, I just noticed this post...interesting discussion. Yeah, Columbia's history in West Harlem and Morningside Heights: what an example of eternal recurrence. There were plans and proposals that were drawn up in the 1940s and the 1950s for the appropriation of the areas of West Harlem that are now being purchased and claimed by Columbia. Serious movement on these plans started up in the 1960s only to be sunk by the Morningside Park gym riot and student takeover of 1968. Even if plans get buried for decades, neighborhoods have an institutional / territorial memory built into them, it seems.

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