What's Race Got to Do with It? Looking for the Racial Dimensions of Gentrification
Kirkland, Elizabeth, The Western Journal of Black Studies
"White people walking their dogs." This simple sight has eyebrows raised and heads turning, in a predominantly black area of Nashville, Tennessee, which is said to be in the early stages of gentrification. The spotting of white dogwalkers--along with spanking new condos squeezed in between shotgun houses, a razed public housing project, and elegant crepe myrtles and street lamps newly planted alongside the once-bedraggled park--is heralding the vaguely familiar but undeniable transformation that is generally perceived to be, at least in part, racial. In urban lore, the pre-gentrified neighborhood is inhabited mostly by African Americans or other people of color when the rumblings of change begin, and the rumblers are typically white--white, upper middle-class, professional homebuyers, displacing the original residents.
It is, then, astounding that so very little of the scholarly endeavor around gentrification focuses on the issue of race. One might assume that much examination would have addressed the racial dimensions of gentrification, but one would be wrong. Although racial identity is frequently acknowledged in gentrification literature, race as a subject of direct inquiry and serious concern is conspicuously absent from many investigations of gentrification; it is even missing from most published definitions of the phenomenon. The result is that, urban lore notwithstanding, we know little of the ways in which the process of gentrification affects persons differentially depending upon their race, or of the degree to which gentrification supplements and exacerbates the historic and contemporary systems of racial residential segregation. This article reviews the relative handful of outright investigations of the racial implications and impacts of the gentrification process, and suggests that gentrification may well be found to play a significant role in perpetuating and supplementing the racist, segregating systems that have formed our residential landscape.
Definition of Gentrification
A considerable amount of time, space, and academic credential has been devoted to defining gentrification, since the term was first coined in the 1960s. In the course of scholarly investigation of this phenomenon, the definition has been refined in numerous ways, all of which incorporate an essential nod to gentrification's inherent class transformation. In The Encyclopedia of Housing, gentrification is explained as "the process by which central urban neighborhoods that have undergone disinvestment and economic decline experience a reversal, reinvestment, and the in-migration of a relatively well-off, middle- and upper-middle-class population" (Smith, 1998, p. 198). Likewise, gentrification has been defined as "the replacement of low-income, inner-city working-class residents by middle- or upper-class households, either through the market for existing housing or demolition to make way for new upscale housing construction" (Hammel and Wyly, 1996, p. 250). The concept encompasses nonresidential urban change as well, and may thus be expressed simply as "the production of urban space for progressively more affluent users" (Hackworth, 2002, p. 815). Gentrification is also characterized as fundamentally a struggle between a community's use value--the many facets of worth of the neighborhood to its original residents--and the exchange value of the property therein (Perez, 2004). Aside from abstract definitional phrases, academicians also refer to the more obvious, recognizable aspect of gentrification: a certain nebulous but know-it-when-you-see-it perspective that takes into account the lived experience and observations of urban dwellers and users. For example, the appearance of a Starbucks coffeeshop has been described as a siren of gentrification, and part of gentrification is the change in the essential character and flavor of a neighborhood (Kennedy and Leonard, 2001).
Regardless of the numerous and varied attempts at explaining the phenomenon that is gentrification, the literature continues to acknowledge the difficulty of defining gentrification, and the definitions themselves continue, for the most part, to omit reference to race and ethnicity. The general concept of gentrification holds that the people moving in to a gentrifying area are usually white, and the residents who move out are typically people of color (Alejandrino, 2000; Kennedy and Leonard, 2001; Bostic and Martin, 2003). Regardless, however, of commonly held conceptualizations of gentrification, it is the rare characterization of gentrification that names race as an explicit component (see Smith, 1996, describing revanchists as middle-class white folks); the racial element of gentrification is perhaps most notable for its very absence from scholarly definitions of gentrification and for its absence or merely cursory mention in much of the gentrification research (see, e.g., Vigdor, 2002; Hackworth, 2002). As others have noted (e.g., Atkinson, 2003), the racial dimension of gentrification has been underresearched.
Some contemporary literature concerning urban African-American and Latino/a communities provides rich depictions of neighborhoods situated squarely in the path of urban redevelopment (e.g., Gregory, 1998; Perez, 2004; Villa, 2000). Still, there is a need for an explicit examination of the racially differential impact of gentrification and the relationship of the gentrification process to the racial/ethnic characteristics of the gentrifying neighborhood, and questions about what race has to do with gentrification abound. How, for example, are residents of different races affected differentially by the process of gentrification? Are the ground-level forces of gentrification--the tactics used by gentrifying agents, or the urban development processes brought to bear by pro-gentrification policies--exerted differentially as to race? Are different racial groups displaced at different rates, and do they resist displacement with different degrees of success? Shy of displacement, are nonwhite original residents of gentrifying areas disproportionately harmed by gentrification? Looking beyond the household level, what are the racial impacts and outcomes on the neighborhood from gentrification, and how is the gentrified community transformed, or not, in a racial sense? How, then, are our cityscapes transformed by the racial aspects of gentrification? For the most part, scholars will give a nod to race--e.g., "Racial tension has been an important subtext of gentrification in many revitalizing neighborhoods" (Vigdor, 2002, p. 138)--but proceed to define, measure, and theorize the causes and impacts of gentrification without further reference to racial experiences and outcomes. It has been posited, indeed, that "much of the gentrification debate is actually a coded reference to the contestation of blacks and whites for urban space", and asserted that analyses that fail to consider race and the "shifts over time in racial as well as class composition within neighborhoods" are incomplete (Massey, 2002, p. 175, 176). The failure of gentrification studies to attend to race and ethnicity has been called "a huge omission" (Rivlin, 2002, p. 178).
Consequences to Original Residents--Displacement and Other Harm
If gentrification at its core is about class transformation, then implicit in that neighborhood change is, arguably, the displacement of original, lower-income residents (Kennedy and Leonard, 2001). Importantly, if widely held beliefs are true that the original residents who are most impacted negatively by gentrification are African Americans and other people of color, and if displacement is the most drastic consequence to original residents, then a failure to adequately study displacement is tantamount to a failure to adequately study the racial element of gentrification. Displacement is the most notable consequence of gentrification, and is generally understood as the process "whereby current residents are forced to move because they can no longer afford to reside in the gentrifying neighborhoods" (Freeman, 2005, p. 463), or, as alternatively defined, "when pressures on the housing market from affluent groups create inflated rents and prices which can push out the low paid or unpaid over time" (Atkinson, 2000a, p. 307). Gentrification, as distinguished from urban renewal, occurs relatively gradually, effecting a slow reconfiguration of the residential and consumptive aspects of a neighborhood, and displacing residents who cannot afford rising rents, rising property taxes, and higher costs of more upscale businesses, or who get evicted by landlords acting on the increasing exchange value (Perez, 2004).
Evidence of the extent of displacement varies greatly (Bostic, 2003), but early in the examination of the phenomenon of gentrification, "[a]necdotal reports of displacement and the demographic changes that were obviously taking place in gentrifying neighborhoods led many to believe that displacement was a widespread phenomenon and the engine behind demographic change in gentrifying neighborhoods" (Freeman, 2005, p. 464). Studies of the displacement effect of gentrification that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s include the following: one national study estimated that between 1.7 and 2.4 million people were displaced by private redevelopment in 1979, consisting primarily of tenants, the poor and female-headed families; a study of New York City estimated that between 10,000 and 40,000 households were displaced …
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Publication information: Article title: What's Race Got to Do with It? Looking for the Racial Dimensions of Gentrification. Contributors: Kirkland, Elizabeth - Author. Journal title: The Western Journal of Black Studies. Volume: 32. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2008. Page number: 18+. © 1999 The Western Journal of Black Studies. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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