What We Really Mean When We Say Gentrification

The focus on gentrifying communities has, in many cases, eclipsed the similar problems facing more stagnant neighborhoods.

2 minute read

September 14, 2021, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


J / Flickr

What is gentrification? Jerusalem Demsas attempts to define this slippery term, whose use has steadily grown since the 1990s, and assess what people really mean when they use it. Coined in 1964 by sociologist Ruth Glass "to describe the process of 'middle class liberal arts intelligentsia' moving into her primarily working-class London neighborhood," gentrification has, in the eyes of most Americans, come to signify the displacement and other negative impacts of redevelopment and neighborhood change. The Urban Displacement Project defines gentrification as "a process of neighborhood change that includes economic change in a historically disinvested neighborhood — by means of real estate investment and new higher-income residents moving in — as well as demographic change — not only in terms of income level, but also in terms of changes in the education level or racial make-up of residents." Planetizen defines gentrification similarly, as "a process of neighborhood change, usually resulting from an influx of relatively wealthy, white residents to a neighborhood."

But this focus, argues Demsas, obscures the fact that "the core rot in American cities is not the gentrifying neighborhoods: It is exclusion, segregation, and concentrated poverty." As activists focus on the changes happening in working-class neighborhoods, "[w]hite, wealthy neighborhoods that have refused class and racial integration have successfully avoided much scrutiny," says Demsas. "While stagnant, segregated neighborhoods are an accepted backdrop of American life, fast-changing, diverse neighborhoods and the culture clash that accompanies gentrification are the battlefield where all the disagreements come to the forefront."

All of the problems people worry about when they invoke gentrification — displacement, police action against people of color, lack of investment, predatory landlords — are also present in segregated neighborhoods, often even more so.

Demsas concludes, "it becomes clear why we focus on gentrification while the unseen culprits (segregated enclaves) are able to avoid controversy: Gentrification is the most visual manifestation of inequality in urban life." But displacement and disinvestment harm non-gentrifying communities at similar–or even higher–rates, suggesting a need to broaden the lens through which activists and policymakers view urban poverty.

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