The Benefits And The Costs Of Gentrification

Gentrification occurs when low-income and dilapidated inner-city neighborhoods, which had previously been abandoned by the middle classes in favor of suburbs, are revitalized by an influx of capital and higher-income, often middle-class residents (Stein 221). Some believe gentrification is a form of urban renewal, as it seemingly improves inner-city neighborhoods and the lives of their own inhabitants. However, it also forces out the original neighborhoods’ residents, potentially into even more dangerous or poorer areas. Gentrification improves diversity, lowers crime, beautifies the neighborhood, and promotes positive economic change within the area. Yet, these benefits are almost always held only for the influx of new residents, not the original population.

Low-income neighborhoods, pre-gentrification, are often considered ghettos. The word ‘ghetto’, traces its history back to 14th century Rome. According to Darity, ‘The translation of the term ghetto originally referred to the Venice Ghetto in the 1300s and areas of town that were originally iron foundries or gettos before being converted to secluded Jewish sections.’ This quote informs readers of the origin of the word ‘ghetto’ and how it influences the use of the word today. Similar to the past, ghettos are often segregated by race or religion. Although not intentionally constructed by the city itself, they can result from discrimination against those minorities. The formation of these communities segregates groups of people from the rest of the area, usually under degraded living conditions, lesser amenities, and increased crime rates. Modern ghettos, to some extent, also have their roots in ‘white flight’, or the migration of middle-class whites from the city to suburban areas in the 1960s. Residential white flight was followed by businesses, which also migrated to the city’s edge or suburban areas. This drew economic activity and jobs out of city centers and into neighboring suburban communities.

Today, gentrification is becoming increasingly more common, as it becomes more and more popular to live in urban areas, especially the city center, relative to suburban or rural ones. In fact, according to Blackwell, after 2007, more than half the world’s populations lived in cities. This number will only increase in the future, as Millenials are attracted to ‘walkable’ and well-connected communities compared to suburban areas. Suburbs usually feature spread out neighborhoods that are distant from the city center and ultimately less walkable. As the population’s demand for housing and amenities increase in these urban areas, space and resources become limited. Thus, housing and amenities prices in the area rise, and marginalized groups of people are forced out of their communities into new and usually less desirable areas. Not only does this affect the original tenants negatively, it also gradually erases the culture and history of the area. This can be seen in a variety of areas, most notably the boroughs of New York City, where the cost of living has risen exponentially in recent years. Many in these communities feel as though the driving force behind their migration is particularly unfair as white flight, the movement that prevented racial integration, previously promoted a large influx of middle-class Americans into suburban areas, to avoid integration with other races. Gentrification occurred as a result of segregation and whether intentional or not, segregates and pushes people out of communities.

Although, this is not to say that the establishment of communities for marginalized groups of people is necessarily negative. If the establishment was facilitated by the group themselves, it can actually become a positive environment that stimulates their own culture. Examples of this include places like Chinatown in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and other major U.S. cities. More contemporary examples of this can be seen in the establishment of LGBT neighborhoods, which create a positive space for an often marginalized group. According to Stein ‘…those sexually oriented to members of the same sex…began to see themselves as distinct types of people and began to form distinct sexual communities.’ Groups of people who are often mistreated, such as the LGBT community, have created their own communities in city centers to foster their own culture, and establish communities that they belong in. According to Millward ‘Existing LGBT ghettos did not necessarily gentrify, but adjacent residential neighborhoods tended to attract gay men seeking access to ghetto amenities, potential sexual partners, and safety in numbers.’ By establishing their own spaces, LGBT people create their own environment of constant acceptance around people who are similar to them.

However, while the establishment of certain neighborhoods created by and for the communities that they serve is not actually gentrification. Some low-income residences are renovated by those whose only objective is to make a profit, subsequently gentrifying the neighborhood in hopes of transforming it into a wealthier community. The key word here is wealthy, the creation of gentrified areas is found in the desire for profit. Proponents of gentrification, claim that the process is necessary to improve the nation’s cities. This point may seem viable on the surface, but in reality, poorer parts of a city have always existed throughout history, and will continue to exist. When one underdeveloped area is made desirable, a new section of said city in a less desirable area will become relatively less desirable.

Take the case of DUMBO in New York (short for Down Under The Manhattan Bridge Overpass), a popular neighborhood in Brooklyn that has seen extreme increases in price and development as of late. This is due to the location and nature of the neighborhood, along with the fact that New York City is becoming increasingly expensive to live in as demand for real estate has increased. DUMBO is characterized by its waterfront views, high prices, and newly developed housing. Though, it is proximal to low-income areas of Brooklyn. As more wealthy, predominantly white families moved in to the neighborhood, the local elementary school became extremely overcrowded. This led city officials to redistrict school zones, which in turn, sent many children from the DUMBO neighborhood to a nearby, racially and ethnically diverse, majority low-income elementary school. School officials found that the students who moved to the new, lower income school actually developed positive change in themselves and the community. The most significant being that the students often worked harder and smarter, along with becoming more empathetic, understanding, and less prejudiced, as maintained by Kamenetz. This proves how diversity in schools is beneficial for everyone. Cities can learn from changes like this, diversity in cities (established by the prevention of gentrification and segregation) is good for communities in the same way that diversity in schools is.

Many claim that gentrification’s good outweighs its bad. Benefits include drops in the crime rate, improved health and sanitation, and higher median price in the area. On the surface, the revitalization of dilapidated neighborhoods via gentrification sounds perfectly fine in fact, beneficial. Yet, after taking a closer look, its flaws become visible. Darity states ‘detractors of gentrification suggest that gentrification benefits persons who in-migrate and are able to use their greater discretionary income to take advantage of depressed housing markets at the expense of existing, poor ethnic minorities who are often forced out of their homes because they cannot afford to live in the newly renovated, higher-taxed neighborhoods.’ So, revitalizing low-income neighborhoods is good for new residents, yet devastating for residents that are already living in the area. Ultimately, gentrification is a negative and unfair practice and its negatives far outway its positives.

One may ask ‘how can we regenerate urban neighborhoods, whilst benefiting both sides of the argument?’ This question is heavily debated and has with many different (often opposing) answers. The best solution theoretically, would be to promote racial integration in the area without drastically changing rent levels. Evidence as to how racial integration positively affects an area and individuals in said area can currently be seen throughout the U.S. An example of this can be found in the aforementioned neighborhood of DUMBO. As noted above, it was found that children from the DUMBO neighborhood who transferred to the historically low-income, racially diverse school performed the same, if not better than their peers at their previous elementary school. The historically low-income school pulled a majority of its students from a nearby public housing project.

Needless to say, children from the DUMBO neighborhood’s economic situations were vastly different. ‘There’s evidence that corporations with better gender and racial representation make more money and are more innovative’ (Kamenetz). Considering that America is predicted to be majority-minority by 2044, coincidentally when today’s elementary school students will be in the workforce, getting used to diversity may become a competitive advantage or even a necessity (Kamenetz). These results apply nationwide, on a much broader scale. According to Kamenetz, white students had approximately the same test scores whether they went to a school that was overwhelmingly white or one that was overwhelmingly black. ‘Middle-class and white Millennials realize that their children are growing up in a very different country, demographically, than previous generations’ (Wells et. al.). According to Wells, Fox, and Cobo, a majority of public school K–12 students in the United States are people of color for the first time since the founding of the nation. As the country becomes increasingly diverse, employers, parents, teachers, and many others believe that diversity in schools is extremely important. So, these changes are positive. The purpose of all schools is to provide an education, and that education becomes more valuable when the school’s student body models the real world. Students can also learn about various different cultural practices, religions, traditions, or subtle differences while also sharing their own. This promotes understanding and tolerance of those different from oneself.

As to how to stabilize rent prices in areas vulnerable to gentrification, city government could intervene by passing legislation that limits massive increases on rent and building renovation turn-around times. This would give time for the neighborhood to adjust and prevent big changes from happening instantly, as a means to keep the median rent price at a stable level. Communities should establish their own rules, regulations, and plans to prevent gentrification. According to Bonk, ‘the 1970s also saw other urban renewal programs including urban homesteading. Old abandoned houses that had fallen into city ownership were sold at low cost to individuals interested in restoring and living in them.’ This quote describes a successful way to renew urban areas without gentrification. By selling homes at a low cost to buyers who were interested in restoring and living in them, the creation of a community, rather than the desire for profit alone became the primary incentive.

Most of the benefits that gentrification provides are obtained by the gentrifiers themselves, not the original members of the community. An area that undergoes gentrification not only wipes away its history and culture, it also displaces the original residents of the community. Gentrification can be combated through many different means, though a direct approach is the most efficient. As urbanization increases (especially in densely populated areas) there may be no more neighborhoods to gentrify. In the future, low-income communities could be forced further and further out of the city as time goes on, eventually spreading out into far-off, near-city communities or suburban areas.