Toward a More Useful, and Accurate, Definition of Gentrification

Recent studies have called into question the predominant narratives on gentrification. A more precise definition of the term as it works in the United States is required.

May 6, 2019, 11:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Beverly Hills

Beverly Hills has expressed gentrification concerns to oppose proposed statewide upzoning legislation. | AnjelikaGr / Shutterstock

Henry Grabar surveys the latest evidence of gentrification and displacement as trends in neighborhoods around the country and notes two dynamics:

All three of those reports bolster the conventional narrative about urban change in America, which is that urban neighborhoods are getting whiter and wealthier, sometimes at the expense of longtime residents. Yet all three emphasize that, statistically, those changes run very much against larger currents of metropolitan change. The most likely story, for most Americans in most cities, is that their neighborhood is getting poorer and less white. There is no city in the country where low-income people are more likely to live in a neighborhood that’s getting richer than one that’s getting poorer.

Grabar is basing that summary on three recently published studies of demographic and neighborhood changes: one by the New York Times, one by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and one by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School.

The three new studies emphasize the need for us to keep two ideas in our heads at once: Gentrification is real and is sometimes accompanied by displacement. But most neighborhoods are either rich and getting richer, or they are just getting poorer (mostly the second).

Digging into each of the studies for specific geographic examples, and using Beverly Hills as a star example, Grabar builds the case that too many cities claim the specter of gentrification, and it is a major obstacle to land use reforms such as SB 50 in California.

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