What We Talk About When We Talk About Gentrification

It’s Time to Get Specific When Discussing Urban Change

June 11, 2014

Principal, NBBJ

@UrbanMorphology

As cities lift themselves out of the Great Recession more and more articles touch on the phenomenon of gentrification, it bewilders me that everyone speaks as though it is understood widely. But I don’t think it is. When urban change is talked about, the word “gentrification” drops in like an unwelcomed neighbor. It bulldozes over the sensitivity needed for a productive conversation about neighborhood redevelopment. All too often, it stirs up emotions and a contested battle between “us” and “them” begins.

As a Housing Committee co-chair eloquently noted at my recent Community Board meeting, “If you say gentrification, then you are implying that our neighborhood was once a slum.” For many, the word implies marginalization. It suggests long-term residents and culture displaced from neighborhoods like Fort Greene in Brooklyn.

When we talk about gentrification, we deserve to be more honest about what we really mean. What is actually happening, and how do the circumstances differ from place to place? We cannot continue speaking about it divorced from its intrinsic forces — where it comes from, who or what it displaces, where it happens, and when.

Are we thinking of displacement based on income level? Higher rents and cost of living increases? If so, then we should talk about new and renovated construction, which can mean a lot more than modernized buildings — it can result in more affordable housing opportunity.

Crown Heights West Rezoning (Courtesy nyc.gov)

Crown Heights West Rezoning (Courtesy nyc.gov)

Are we talking about industrial and manufacturing decline, which decreases the number of well-paying jobs and alters the livability of the city? We should be talking about the land use changes that are recommended by our own public agencies and elected officials. Cities must fight to remain competitive in a global economy, but as they reinvent themselves, now more than ever, many community businesses find that celebrating localness gives them an edge. The key is economic diversity.

Are we talking about parking and public transit? When a single-car parking spot is voluntarily exchanged for a bike corral in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is this an act of gentrification, as some residents have claimed? We should be talking about transportation access. When we want greener transportation alternatives, sometimes we can confuse the matter with a sign of gentrification.

Are we talking about architectural styles? If a property owner wishes to upgrade and renovate using a modern architectural language in a historic district, is this a sign of gentrification? We should encourage signs of new investment, and we should celebrate the human instincts of thinking and making. This is healthy and necessary for people in the city.

So when we talk about gentrification, we must consider that cities constantly change. We need to remember that both new and old residents, both “us” and “them,” care about the environments in which they live and work, and that both sides have wisdom and lessons to teach the other.

Some places do witness change at a different pace than others, but what we really need to think about is how and why the city needs to change. How will we as a society navigate demographic trends, economic opportunities, freedom of enterprise, and our own creative individual expression, capacities and desires? We need to separate these issues and stop calling it “gentrification.” We can start by talking about what we mean.

Banner image courtesy of Flickr.

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