In Defense of Gentrification

Market during the day.

Market during the day.

I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle a while back that proclaimed: "gentrification is no longer a dirty word". It aligned with my attitude towards gentrified neighborhoods, a concept most associated with the displacement of poor residents in an area to make room for an influx of new, high income populations. While this has been historically true, it is not so much the case anymore. I think–dare I say it–that gentrification is actually a good thing.

As the article points out, before neighborhoods went through the "gentrification process", these areas were blighted. Buildings were neglected and dilapidated and crime was high. You’d be a fool to go for a stroll around at night.

Now these gentrified areas sport renovated storefronts, apartments and streetscape improvements to create a bustling, pedstrian-friendly area with a vibrant nightlife. Residents and visitors who flock to these areas feel safer walking the streets at night–the whole safety in numbers concept.

Wilshire & Western, Los Angeles

Wilshire & Western, Los Angeles

This is evident in major cities such as San Francisco and New York, who have reported lower crime rates in recent years despite growing populations. Even L.A. has countless areas like Silver Lake, a neighborhood that now has its fair share of boutiques, coffeehouses, restaurants, and hipsters. I’ve been to Silver Lake and Bay Area spots such as S.F.’s Mission District countless times at night and have, for the most part, always felt safe.

No gentrified neighborhood is complete without the trendy coffeehouse.

No gentrified neighborhood is complete without the trendy coffeehouse.

Last December, I went to New York for a week and stayed in a gentrified part of Brooklyn. A lot of it looks like the industrial area it still is today. But sprinkled throughout the neighborhood are eateries, coffeehouses, bars, markets, and subway stations, all within walking distance of renovated apartment studios and residencies. People could be found walking and bicycling day and night.

It doesn't look like much, but the K Street pedestrian mall in Sacramento is bumping at night. Future revitalization projects are also on track.

It doesn’t look like much, but the K Street pedestrian mall in Sacramento is bumping at night. Future revitalization projects are also on track.

The Midtown and Downtown areas in my hometown of Sacramento are also examples of gentrification. Growing up, these areas had weathered buildings and crumbling homes. I was rarely taken to that area because I was told it wasn’t safe. Now Midtown and Downtown have more eating, retail, and entertainment areas that are within the neighborhood of nearby recently-remodeled homes. While there is sadly still crime in Sacramento, a lot of people choose to walk to these amenities.

Some argue that gentrification displaces the poorer residents of the area, which is true. Yes, new housing developments often results in higher rent, making it less likely for low income tenants to live in these areas. But this is typical if you are revitalizing an area. A neighborhood needs to be aesthetically and socially pleasing, and attractive enough for prospective (and financially-stable current) residents to want to maintain a strong sense of community. Plus, it wouldn’t hurt if they had money to support surrounding local businesses. It just makes little sense in attracting the same people who brought the area down in the first place.

On a bathroom wall at a bar in gentrified Old Town Pasadena. The irony is that the hipster who wrote this probably lives in an artist studio in the area.

On a bathroom wall at a bar in gentrified Old Town Pasadena. The irony is that the hipster who wrote this probably lives in an artist studio in the area.

Now I am not saying that gentrification should be the go-to solution to revitalizing a neighborhood. Obviously, community meetings could be held first to identify problems and find solutions. But if there is no community left, or no one wishes to participate, gentrification could be the best answer.

Personally, I enjoy the atmosphere of gentrified neighborhoods and the amenities they offer. And if the robust nightlife of these areas are any indication, I am not alone.

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5 thoughts on “In Defense of Gentrification

  1. I think the arguments against gentrification relate to social justice: when planners and politicians, who should have the best interests of all demographic groups at heart, encourage gentrification, it usually disproportionately benefits people who already have money (investors who redevelop property, subsequent buyers of renovated properties, and new businesses able to afford the higher rents). There is frequently a racial dimension as well; the poor being pushed out are usually Black or Hispanic and the newcomers are usually white.

    That being said, economic growth, whatever its location, is good, right?! I’m sure you can argue for trickle-down economic effects for the displaced people too–perhaps rising property values for current residents meaning they can “cash out.” Also, when historic neighborhoods are gentrified, the influx of cash and interest leads to much better preservation of historic resources. Ultimately, this is just part of the natural progress of urban development: neighborhoods rise and fall–we just have to figure out how to manage it effectively.

    • The sad truth is, no matter how good a planner’s intentions, there will always be a winner and a loser. Naturally, the mindset is to appeal to the greatest number of people while minimizing the ones who are negatively affected. Gentrification is just another fated example of that. But like you mentioned, it is up to the responsibility of the planner(s) to properly manage this unavoidable rise and fall of neighborhoods.

  2. It depends on what your motivations are. I think it’s incredibly important to make neighborhoods better in a way that spreads out the costs and benefits over a lot of different kinds of people. Yes, an influx of more affluent folks can do a lot to improve investment in an under-resourced community and help leverage some of the important ways of improving the aesthetic character of an area, but do you really want to say that certain other people are no longer welcome in a region because essentially they don’t have enough money to buy the right to be there? Maybe you do. I don’t.

    It’s easy for us to plan for what we like and what we value, and we are certainly in positions of power to help make those decisions, as are most of the people with real voices at the table planning with us, but in my opinion to be an ethical planner you have to think about more than what makes you personally feel welcomed and comfortable in a space. It’s your responsibility, along with really examining why you feel that way in the first place.

    • No that’s not what I said. I’m saying that when a neighborhood is revitalized, it will unavoidably attract communities from the outside based on the improvements made. Check out my Part II post where I go into further explanation.

      • Thanks for your second post, I think it helps explain what you were talking about. The last part in particular (the impossible task of trying to maximize benefits while minimizing drawbacks) definitely hits the core of the issue. I’m fully with you that everyone wants better lighting, a more pleasing streetscape, etc. but I think some of the other aspects of gentrification are not as universal, i.e. certain types of high-end clothing stores, a proliferation of coffee shops, etc. aren’t necessarily something that everyone values as something they want to frequent. So there is some complication to the notion of what it means to “better” a neighborhood. Also, I’m not sure I agree that the initial residents “brought the area down in the first place”. Historical mechanisms like redlining, patterns of city infrastructure investment, and the ways in which we used to build pubic housing have a lot to do with why a particular neighborhood may have gone south, in addition to reasons that relate to the actual resources of the people who live there as you mention.

        The other thing I’m sensing (though perhaps you may not have meant this) is a certain idea of the inevitability and naturalness of the effects of displacement. Of course, you’ll likely never have the ability for everyone who wants to stay to be able to stay, and I agree that “gentrification” is a term that can get thrown around pretty generally and negatively when that’s not always the full picture, but there are ways to deliberately put into place mechanisms of housing affordability and business policies that allow for many people to stay in changing neighborhoods as the cost of living increases. I just think that fact deserves a mention here, since the process of revitalization isn’t inevitable or natural either.

        And even though residents may be invited to community meetings and such, there are a variety of reasons why that can not draw people if they have a negative association with the city, don’t have any real understanding of planning, don’t feel comfortable in institutionalized spaces, etc. So that’s what I was saying about the responsibility of the planner to not always put it on the community residents to have to find the solution but rather to incorporate anti-displacement strategies into the entire planning process from the beginning.

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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