The Gentrification Of “Gentrification”

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Emily Badger suggests chucking the word:

Even researchers don’t agree on what “gentrification” means, let alone how to identify it. (And this is to say nothing of its even more problematic derivative, the “gentrifier.”) … The definition matters… not purely for linguistic nit-picking, but because we seldom talk about gentrification in isolation. More often, we’re talking about its effects: who it displaces, what happens to those people, how crime rates, school quality or tax dollars follow as neighborhoods transform. And if we have no consistent way of identifying where “gentrification” exists, it then becomes a lot harder to say much about what it means.

Badger has me convinced, but I’d push further: “Gentrification” has taken on a life of its own as a lifestyle-section problem. The same language gets used to discuss concerns that a neighborhood has become unaffordable for poorer residents as to lament the fact that a favorite (pricey) coffee shop or boutique has closed its doors to make way for a chain store. NIMBY complaints hide out under the socially-acceptable – noble, even – guise of anti-gentrification advocacy.

This conflation of problems is not new, but when I read a NYT op-ed over the summer by a prominent restaurant owner, who was pointing out that because of rising rents, he may have to… change the location of one of his high-end Manhattan restaurants, I started to think that perhaps it’s gotten out-of-hand in recent years. Of course, The Onion was on the case in 2008, with its “Report: Nation’s Gentrified Neighborhoods Threatened By Aristocratization.” At any rate, Benjamin Schwarz addressed the phenomenon with great precision in 2010:

It’s entirely reasonable—in fact, humane—to argue that the state must ensure decent living conditions for its citizens (and God knows we are terribly far from that situation). But it’s a wholly different proposition to argue that, in the name of what [Michael] Sorkin calls “the protection of … the local” and to forestall “a landscape of homogeneity,” the state should create the conditions necessary for favored groups—be they designers, craftspeople, small-batch distillers, researchers, the proprietors of mom-and-pop stores—to live in expensive and fashionable neighborhoods or boroughs. That effort would ultimately be an aesthetic endeavor to ensure that the affluent, well-educated denizens of said neighborhoods be provided with the stage props and scenery necessary for what [Jane] Jacobs and her heirs define as an enriching urban experience.

So these are really two additional problems with “gentrification” – that it’s used by the rich to protest the arrival of the even-richer, and that it’s sometimes code for saying that a neighborhood has gone tacky, touristy, mall-ish, i.e. that it’s become more accessible. I’m not sure any of this is reason for scholars of urban planning to abandon the term, but the time has probably come to treat it with skepticism in magazine articles, social-media posts, and the like.