How Can we Revitalize Urban Neighborhoods without Gentrifying Them?

By: Taz Loomans

“While you all are dining out at fancy restaurants, some of us are struggling to find a cheap meal,” says Dannette Lambert, a community organizer and resident in Oakland, California. This pretty much sums up the problem of gentrification, which is when wealthy newcomers completely transform a lower-income urban neighborhood into a yuppie or hipster haven, pricing out and pushing out original residents, who made the place interesting in the first place. Gentrification is the major issue facing urban core revitalization today. As urban living becomes more attractive and fashionable, long-time urban residents are watching with mouths agape as their corner stores turn into expensive organic markets, their apartment buildings become “quaint”, “vintage” and more expensive, and their Asian grocery stores become froyo joints.

But urban neighborhood revitalization isn’t all bad. It generally results in reduced crime, new investments in buildings and infrastructure, and increased economic activity. The problem arises when these benefits are largely enjoyed by wealthier newcomers and not as much by the people who had lived in the neighborhood for a long time.

What is Gentrification?

Gentrification is “a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture,” according to Benjamin Grant, an urban designer, city planner and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Grant breaks down the effects of gentrification into four areas:

1. Gentrification affects demographics in several ways. It increases median income, causes a decline in the proportion of racial minorities, and reduces  household size as low-income families are replaced by young singles and couples.

2. Gentrification affects real estate. It increases rents and home prices, and in turn results in a higher number of evictions. It also encourages rentals to be converted into condos and the development of luxury housing.

3. Gentrification affects land use. Usually, it curtails industrial uses and bumps up office or multimedia uses. It also makes way for the development of live-work “lofts” and high-end housing, retail, and restaurants.

4. Gentrification affects culture and character. The look and feel of urban neighborhoods change when new ideals about what is desirable and attractive, including standards (either informal or legal) for architecture, landscaping, public behavior, noise, and nuisance come to play.

Gentrification and Race

Historically, gentrification has been the cause of painful conflict along racial fault lines. New arrivals in “improved” neighborhoods tend to be wealthier whites, often displacing established minority populations.

But many argue that gentrification is less about race and more about economics. Shani O’Hilton in her piece, Confessions of a Black Gentrifier says, “’Gentrifier’ can’t be equated with ‘white person.’ After all, most poor people in this country are white. The gentrifier is a person of privilege, and even if she doesn’t have much money, she’s got an education and a network of friends who are striving like she is, and she has the resources to at least try to get what she wants.” So anyone, regardless of race, posits O’Hilton, can be a gentrifier.

Others insist that race is squarely at the center of gentrification. Kenyon Farrow, community organizer, communications strategist and writer, says there is no such thing as a black gentrifier. He asserts that gentrification is just a modern-day extension of historic anti-Black racism dating back to the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, which includes lynchings done to usurp land owned by blacks, urban renewal projects from the 1940s to 1970s and the recent foreclosure crisis which disproportionately affected black women homeowners. He asks why black middle-class residents drive down property values when they move into white neighborhoods, even when they make similar or larger amounts of money. And he asks why black middle-income people choose more often to live in black mixed-income neighborhoods instead of white middle-income neighborhoods.

In Portland, where I live, inner city neighborhoods have been in the gentrification process since the mid-1990s and at the same time have experienced a huge increase in the white share of the population. In the Mississipi District, for example, the white share of the population went from being 50.6% in 2000 to being 70.7% in 2010. Even if there isn’t causation here, there is definitely a noticeable correlation in Portland’s gentrification process with an increase in the white share of the population.

How Can we Revitalize without Gentrifying?

So where does this leave us? How can we reap the benefits of urban revitalization without experiencing the negative displacement effects of gentrification? This is the ultimate question that cities all over the country and the world are facing as more and more people want to live in cities. Below are some ideas about how to revitalize without gentrifying:

On the policy scale:

1. Push fine grained development instead of large, mega-block developments. When large developers are the primary landowners and the only players in the development game, gentrification happens more quickly as profit trumps community concerns. [Source: James Gardner]

2. Encourage self-investment. When people begin to invest in their own homes instead of government targeting a specific location for investment, this acts as revitalization without the ill-effects of intense investment in a neighborhood. [Source: James Gardner]

3. Implement blanket city policies for revitalization, rather than piecemeal reactive policies intended to halt displacement. Blanket city policy puts in place the effect of “a rising tide lifts all boats” whereas targeted geographically-based policies can result in pockets of gentrification. [Source: James Gardner]

On a personal scale:

4. Recognize everyone who lives in your neighborhood as neighbors, and respect them, even if they’re homeless, drug dealers or prostitutes. Work together with people who have been living in your neighborhood longer than you have, instead of viewing them as a problem. [Source: Dannette Lambert]

5. Don’t try to make over existing urban neighborhoods into the posh suburban look and feel you may be used to. Respect and maintain the eclectic, diverse and colorful vibe that attracted you to the urban neighborhood in the first place. “You don’t gain culture by eating a burrito. You gain culture by engaging in a real and meaningful manner with the person who makes the burrito,” Lambert reminds us. [Source: Dannette Lambert]

6. When organizing, include everyone. Make sure your neighborhood organization reflects the socioeconomic and racial demographics that it represents. [Source: Dannette Lambert]

7. Fall in love with your neighborhood and city for what it is, not for what you want to change it into. [Source Dannette Lambert]

Taz Loomans is a sustainability, urbanism and architecture journalist. Find her blog at BloomingRock.com.

Photo Credit: Photo by the author.

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One Response

  1. Byron Sampson says:

    Very well done and thank you. The issue is complicated and filled with a myriad of topics that need further investigation. Economics is probably the largest in that the development community will consider pro forma and ROI over the finer grain social aspects of a project. The banking and investment community is concerned with net returns and short timeframes for profit. The strategies for urban renewal from investment to social/community engagement needs to be reframed so that it is mutually beneficial for all parties. Not all developers are evil!!!

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