Gentrification is natural. Neighborhoods change over time. Different groups move in and out, businesses change hands, land uses shift. But just because change is normal doesn’t mean it’s natural. What drives middle-class residents into working-class and minority communities? What policies, economic forces, and cultural dynamics propel these changes? What makes it profitable and desirable? The answers lie everywhere from city zoning practices to historic redlining and racial segregation policies to a capitalist system of private property where housing is an investment and an asset. There may be a wide array of forces that encourage gentrification, but they are all human-made.
Gentrification is good for the city. It’s hard to argue with some of the changes that come with gentrification: renovated housing, clean parks, cute local businesses. A darker reality lurks under the surface. Those renovations may have begun with reno-victions, booting people out of their homes to allow landlords to jack up rents. The clean park might have been home to unhoused people, who were rounded up with heavy-handed policing and forced into crowded, unsafe shelters or out of the city altogether. A charming new café may have displaced a low-cost diner where locals have gathered for decades. While many welcome the sanitized, homogeneous face of the gentrified city, this change comes with a tremendous cost paid by the city’s most vulnerable communities.
Gentrification is caused by hipsters and artists. Artists have been categorized by some as “first-wave gentrifiers,” ushering in a new vibrancy, while hipsters’ particular tastes in coffee, craft beer, and organic products are blamed for changing the “vibe” of the neighborhood. But do these folks really have the capital or the clout to create the large-scale transformations that characterize gentrification today? Artists don’t build condominiums, and hipsters don’t tear down public housing. Yes, these groups signal changes that may lead to gentrification. However, we should be more concerned with the actions of landlords, developers, and city politicians.
Gentrification happens at the neighborhood level. In the 1960s, the first observers of gentrification noticed that middle-class homeowners seemed to “tiptoe” into neighborhoods and gradually alter their social character. Today, this quaint picture has been erased by gentrification in the form of massive “urban revitalization” projects. These changes can bring rapid influxes of new residents, a completely new physical environment, and major cultural shifts. Neighborhoods are affected, yes, but the forces driving this are operating at city and even regional levels, pushed forward by powerful actors in industry and government.
Gentrification is all about class. Class is right there in the name: The “gentry” take over and transform neighborhoods with their wealth and status. Working-class communities are objects of gentrification because the real estate is cheap and the profit potential is high. However, in many places, these conditions are created because of racist housing and immigration policies that “ghettoized” non-white communities and prohibited investment in those places. Today, the “working class” being displaced includes high numbers of women-headed households, recent immigrants, and racial minorities. Gentrification’s biggest winners are those who control the development and real estate industries, a group that is mostly white and male. It is no longer adequate to say that “gentrification is about class.”
Gentrification improves minority neighborhoods. Those in favor of gentrification suggest that racialized, inner-city neighborhoods will experience reinvestment through an influx of wealthier, white homeowners. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to support this “trickle down” economic claim. While some homeowners see their property values rise, this can lead to displacement as property taxes and other expenses also climb. And what about renters and public housing residents? In cities all over the world, people describe a hostile takeover of their communities by white or other dominant racial groups who seek to quell the sights, sounds, flavors, smells, and activities of longtime residents. These residents report feeling like strangers in their own neighborhoods.
Gentrification is the new colonialism. Words like colonization, invasion, pioneering, frontier, and settlement have long been used in academic and popular descriptions of gentrification. Activists have even decried gentrification as “the new colonialism.” What these metaphors miss, however, is that the “old” colonialism is still here. In settler-colonial and post-colonial cities, Indigenous peoples are struggling to claim basic rights to inhabit territories stolen centuries ago. In this context, gentrification is not a “new” colonialism; rather, it furthers the ongoing displacement of Indigenous peoples by expanding the ownership of land by individuals, governments, and corporations.
Gentrification helps women. Feminists have long argued that city life is preferable for women. The close proximity of employment, schools, services, and transportation makes it possible for women to juggle their multiple roles as carers and workers. Gentrification, as a “back to the city” movement, would seem to be a solution for women’s woes. But any good feminist will stop and ask, “Which women benefit from this, and which women don’t?” Some very privileged women may “win” at gentrification, but women are over-represented among renters, public housing residents, single parents, low-income and part-time workers, disabled people, and other social and economic groups who are threatened by rising housing costs and the loss of affordable housing.
Gentrification is unstoppable. The greatest trick gentrification ever pulled was to convince the world it couldn’t be stopped. Even among its critics, a defeatist attitude can prevail. Cities have thrown up their hands and claimed that measures such as rent control, tenant’s rights, and anti-eviction rules “simply don’t work,” without bothering to explain why or to look for other strategies. Activists have struggled to learn from one another’s work in different cities, as stories of successful pushback against gentrification rarely reach the national news. It is possible to counter the bulldozer of gentrification, though. Whether it’s strategies that “pump the brakes” or halt it in its tracks, communities have found ways to hold on to affordable housing, local business, cultural uniqueness, and more without gentrifying. It is long past time to stop playing dead in the face of gentrification and to stop believing the lie that it’s inevitable.
This excerpt from Gentrification Is Inevitable and Other Lies by Leslie Kern (Verso, 2022) appears with permission of the publisher.
Leslie Kern is an associate professor of geography and environment and director of women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University. She is the author of Sex and the Revitalized City: Gender, Condominium Development, and Urban Citizenship.