Magazine article The American Enterprise

Three Cheers for "Gentrification"

Magazine article The American Enterprise

Three Cheers for "Gentrification"

Article excerpt

These days, whenever more than a handful of middle-income people move into a formerly down-at-the-heels neighborhood, they are accused of committing that newest of social sins: "gentrification." This loaded term--conjuring up images of yuppies stealing urban housing from rightful inhabitants--has become embedded in the way many activists understand urban evolution. And the thinking behind it has become a serious obstacle to the revival of American cities.

"Affordable" housing isn't always what cities need more of. Some do, but many need just the opposite. For every San Francisco or Manhattan where real estate has become uniformly too expensive, there are many more cities like Detroit, Trenton, Syracuse, Milwaukee, Houston, and Philadelphia that could use all the gentrification they can get. The last thing these places ought to be pursuing is more cheap housing.

Gentrification is usually good news, for there is nothing more unhealthy for a city than a monoculture of poverty. As Reuben Greenberg, the African-American police chief of Charleston, South Carolina, has said, "Urban problems are caused not by poverty, but by the concentration of poverty." Gentrification rebalances a concentration of poverty by providing the tax base, rub-off work ethic, and political effectiveness of a middle class, and in the process improves the quality of life for all of a community's residents. It is the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Opposition to gentrification often starts from the assumption that it is artificially induced, and controllable. But with few exceptions, neither of those things are true. There have been a few examples where the power and resources of governments were used to try to force revitalization of decrepit parts of cities. Two famous examples are the harbor area of Baltimore and the West Side of Manhattan. In Baltimore, the city created a multitude of entertainment, sports, and cultural venues at Baltimore Harbor. In New York, the catalyst was the building of Lincoln Center in the early 1960s. But in those places, and other cities as well, force-feeding gentrification was expensive, slow, and only partially successful. So induced gentrification has been rare.

By contrast, examples of spontaneous gentrification--improvement that takes off without municipal intervention--are legion. New York has undergone a continuous sequence of these, beginning with Greenwich Village and proceeding to SoHo and all the subsequent Hos. Elsewhere around the country, it is hard to believe today that the real estate of Georgetown, Beacon Hill, Charleston, Santa Fe, or Nob Hill was ever down; but so it was, before spontaneous gentrification. South Florida, in just 20 years, has witnessed the gentrification of Coconut Grove, Miami Beach, and the scrappy old town of Key West. Each of these transformations was driven not by planners but by individuals discovering the excellent urban qualities of the place. The government caught up later, sometimes trying to take credit, often interfering with the natural cycle.

Spontaneous gentrification begins surreptitiously, when a first wave of poor but savvy pioneers discovers the urban allure of a hitherto decrepit area. These are usually students, artists, gays, and other self-marginalized social groups. Such folk have been characterized by sociologists as the "risk-oblivious." With their creativity and sweat they demonstrate that old lofts and townhouses are habitable, indeed charming. They transform ratty bad-food joints into ratty good-food joints. This first wave produces social more than economic or physical gentrification.

By the time the corner stores are stocking olive oil, the area is noticed by a second wave, characterized as the "risk-aware." These people are able to invest in renovation not just with sweat equity but financially. They expect to secure loans, and therefore must satisfy the building codes and permits that the first wave probably ignored. …

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