Academic journal article Michigan Sociological Review

The Broadening Conception of Gentrification: Recent Developments and Avenues for Future Inquiry in the Sociological Study of Urban Change

Academic journal article Michigan Sociological Review

The Broadening Conception of Gentrification: Recent Developments and Avenues for Future Inquiry in the Sociological Study of Urban Change

Article excerpt

While gentrification remains one of the most commonly documented and studied phenomena in urban sociology, scholars remain largely divided-half a century after the concept was introduced-on a number of central questions, from the proper ways to observe and measure the process to the degree to which the process has spread throughout the nation's cities and even to the proper way to define and conceptualize the process (see Brown-Saracino 2010; Lees, Slater, and Wyly 2008).

Underlying many of these debates is the politics of gentrification-specifically, the question of whether, on balance, gentrification provides a net benefit or net detriment to cities and their various users. In recent years, sociologists studying gentrification have struggled to come to terms with Tom Slater's (2006) broad condemnation of contemporary gentrification scholarship, in which he criticized scholars for being insufficiently critical of the process, treating it too frequently "as a sign of a healthy economic present and future for cities across the globe" (p. 738; see also Davidson 2008; Shaw and Hagemans 2015; Slater 2009; Wacquant 2008). While Slater's words have reverberated throughout the gentrification literature (the article has been widely cited since its publication), they have had relatively little practical impact upon the course of empirical gentrification scholarship within mainstream American urban sociology. Some have rejected Slater's criticisms outright (e.g., Freeman 2008). More frequently, though, even as American urban sociologists have repeatedly affirmed Slater's criticisms, his prescriptive program for future gentrification research-involving a stronger focus on "rent increases, affordable housing crises, class conflict, displacement, and community upheavals" (Slater 2006:746)-remains elusive within mainstream social science research on urban social and economic change.

Meanwhile, in recent years significant research has documented the widespread economic ascent of American cities and neighborhoods. Urban redevelopment and upgrading have been uneven in nature, but neighborhoods of varying types and characters (including those housing people with very low incomes), located in cities of varying size and geographic location, witnessed substantial gains in economic status through the 1990s (Ellen and O'Regan 2008, 2011) and the first decade of the twenty-first century (Owens 2012). Yet while the spread of economic and demographic change has been thoroughly documented, some scholars have been reluctant to label the trends in economic ascent as "gentrification" or have been quick to distinguish "gentrification" from other types of urban change that, while still reflecting rising affluence, do not, for one reason or another, qualify as gentrification (Ehrenhalt 2012; Ellen and O'Regan 2011; Owens 2012). This eagerness to distinguish gentrification from other non-gentrification-related patterns of economic ascent likely reflects a dedication to pure, rigorous analysis and classification, as well as scholarly reluctance to get involved in contentious political debates, but it may also be interpreted as a symptom of the "eviction of critical perspectives" identified by Slater (2006). These attempts at clearly delineated classifications result in narrower formulations of what counts as an example of "gentrification," tending to limit the application of the "gentrification" label to patterns of economic ascent that occur in the largest, most "global" cities; that are situated geographically at the neighborhood level; that are spearheaded by young (generally childless) professionals; and that, primarily via the ensuing increase in the cost of housing, have the effect (either realized or potential) of contributing to the displacement of lower income residents who had previously lived in the neighborhoods under consideration.

Patterns of urban change that do not conform to those strictures have often escaped the "gentrification" label; in practice, however, gentrification does not consistently reflect these stereotypical characteristics. …

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