Gentrification: The New Colonialism in the Modern Era

By Wharton, Jonathan L. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Gentrification: The New Colonialism in the Modern Era


Wharton, Jonathan L., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Introduction

Within the last fifty years, gentrification has become a serious concern in numerous cities, particularly in North America. While the noted British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term to describe how the middle class "invaded" former working class sections of London in the 1960s, the process breeds exclusivity, marginalization and supposed revitalization for affluent urban newcomers. (1) Gentrification occurs when business professionals or the so-called "gentry class" locate (or relocate) to an urban community resulting in the displacement of low-income residents. Consequently, housing and living expenses increase significantly thereby impacting a variety of long-term residents. Although gentrifying communities experience a number of modern changes (increased policing, improved city services and expanded commercial corridors), so many long-time residents are frequently forced to relocate. Is gentrification the new 21st century colonialism? Gentrification is a continuum of modern man's land and human exploitation. Similar to colonialism, gentrification not only usurps local and economic power to newer and often wealthier residents, there are also implied class and racial components attached to it as well. A number of individuals amass wealth and power through gentrification and they must be further analyzed since they profit from the process and serve as significant players in redeveloping cities, while scores of urban residents are displaced.

Gentrification reinforces capitalism through economic demands (real estate) while at the same time displaces a number of urban inhabitants (local residents). (2) The entire process is largely based on speculative real estate and a rental gap between neighbors when a cadre of elite operatives (developers, realtors, bankers, public officials) allow for renters (though oftentimes owners) to rent or purchase residential space at a premium cost in an effort to turn around depilated or distressed urban neighborhoods. (3) Some see this as a "new frontier" experience to revitalize overlooked communities. (4) While gentrification can lead to positive economic renewal, it more often leads to problematic implications. (5) Among these negative consequences includes the displacement of longtime and a significant number of low-income residents who are consequently priced out of their neighborhoods in exchange for new residents with high incomes willing to pay inflated rents or mortgages. (6) How is this modern phenomenon similar to colonialism? There are interesting parallels since both gentrification and colonialism require an economically empowered few to oversee an operation to economically and politically displace one group for another, while achieving financial gain and political power. While colonialism is considered an antiquated term, it nonetheless suggests disempowering one group of people and empowering another, while at the same time an elite group operates the mechanisms for colonialism or in this case, gentrification, to flourish.

A Genealogy Of The Pre-Gentrification Era

In order to fully grasp the history and politics of gentrification, a brief overview is imperative for further investigation. Modern American cities experienced a rapid shift in population dynamics during the mid-twentieth century. Cities were once vibrant industrial, commercial and residential spaces. Employment, shopping and living were all key elements to these locales. In many instances, however, cities were not the most pristine places since the industrial revolution of the prior century led to environmental degradation and human health problems. (7) In American cities especially, urban areas lost their luster with these negative consequences as well as migratory shifts during the "White flight" era when upwardly mobile middle class Whites (and some Blacks) moved to newly created suburbs. (8)

With the sudden surge of southern Black Americans moving to northern cities during the Great Migration for industrial jobs that many European immigrants once had (between 19401960 in particular), numerous businesses left for nearby suburbs. …

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