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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Is 'gentrification' always bad for revitalizing neighborhoods?

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 19, 2011

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  a sign in Providence, RI (by: Abbey Hambright, creative commons license)

I undertake today’s topic with more than a little trepidation, since it is by its nature emotionally and, not infrequently, racially charged.  The title is deliberately chosen but somewhat rhetorical, since the answer ultimately depends on one's definition.

Most urban thinkers agree that the massive abandonment and resulting disinvestment of large areas of our cities by the (largely white) middle class, beginning in the 1960s and only now beginning to be reversed in many places, was terrible for cities, for populations left behind, and for the environment.  But many residents whose families remained through those years of disinvestment and until the present day are understandably fearful that addressing these problems by bringing new residents and economic activity into their neighborhoods will only benefit the newcomers while disadvantaging the existing community.  The biggest fear is that current residents will be displaced to make room for redevelopment.

There is a political dimension, too, as African-American and other nonwhite populations gained a majority of the voting power in many districts and cities after whites left.  If the whites return, minorities’ ability to influence civic affairs and protect interests of importance may be diminished.  (Sometimes lost in the equation is that the diminution of the proportion and influence of African-Americans in central cities is due not only to white return but also to middle-class Georgia Ave NW, Washington DC (by: takomabibelot, creative commons license)“black flight” in recent years to suburbs perceived to be safer and with better schools.)

Elections now can be won or lost on these issues, as former Washington, DC mayor Adrian Fenty could possibly attest.  Fenty’s administration pushed school reform, bike lanes, revitalization and streetcars, all of which were to one degree or another associated by many city residents with a gentrification agenda.  Even dog parks became a symbolic issue associated with newcomers in revitalizing neighborhoods.  Fenty (whose father is African-American) was tossed out, with voters split along racial lines. 

After the primary, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy could hardly contain his gleeful contempt for the loser.  He leveled many charges at Fenty in his celebratory column, not all of them unfair in my opinion.  I’m not so sure about this one, though:

“As for you blacks: Don't you, like, even know what's good for you? So what if Fenty reneged on his promise to strengthen the city from the inside by helping the working poor move into the middle class. Nobody cares that he has opted to import a middle class, mostly young whites who can afford to pay high rent for condos that replaced affordable apartments.

“Don't ask Fenty or [former DC school chancellor Michelle] Rhee whom this world-class school system will serve if low-income black residents are being evicted from his world-class city in droves.”

abandoned home, Ann Arbor, MI (by: Voxphoto/Russ, creative commons license)While many would dispute Milloy’s hyperbole, he was nonetheless expressing the sentiments of a substantial part of the city's electorate.  The return of middle-class whites to once-disinvested neighborhoods presents a tough, tough set of circumstances in which it can be hard to remain rational. 

My own belief is that we should be working for revitalization that encourages mixed-income neighborhoods in which new residents and businesses are welcomed while displacement is avoided or minimized.  But make no mistake:  that revitalization must continue to take place in America’s cities.  It is absolutely essential if we are to have any hope of a more sustainable tax base to fund civic restoration and improvement, a more equitable civil society, and a more environmentally sustainable pattern of growth that reduces sprawling consumption of the landscape while bringing our rates of driving emissions down (central locations with moderate or greater density and nearby conveniences facilitate walking, transit, and shorter driving distances).

Regular readers may recall that I have a few favorite examples of neighborhoods that seem to be revitalizing in the right way:  for example, the LEED-ND certified Melrose Commons in the South Bronx; Old North Saint Louis; and Boston’s Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.  In each of these, existing residents are fully committed to their community’s revitalization and to shaping rather than opposing it.  All are achieving levels of success, though the national real estate slump of the last several years hasn’t helped any.

new home, Old North St Louis (courtesy of Old North STL Restoration Group)The truth is that what some badly disinvested cities, districts, and neighborhoods desperately need is some form and degree of ‘gentrification.’  The challenge is to have enough without having too much.

On that point, and also here in DC, Jeremy Borden recently wrote in The Washington Post that residents have formed a community development task force to influence the shape of development along our city’s Georgia Avenue corridor, a major north-south thoroughfare.  Lined with mostly smaller storefronts and mid-rise older buildings, Georgia Avenue was once the scene of mass riots and crime but now is poised for an update.  A historic theater is being restored and a new, mixed-use development under construction will house, among other tenants, The United Negro College Fund.  Kent Boese reported last year on the Greater Greater Washington blog that, for its part, the city is contributing an $8 million “Great Streets” infrastructure upgrade, which will improve and replace sidewalks, install new trash cans and park benches, install “historically sympathetic” street lighting and signals, create textured crosswalks, improve two parks and install green infrastructure to manage stormwater. 

Several important new projects are also on the table, including major redevelopment on the site of the famous but recently closed Walter Reed Army Medical Center; a campus plan for Howard University, along with the nearby Howard Town Center development; and a controversial Walmart.

  Georgia Ave NW, Washington DC (by: Elvert Barnes, creative commons license) 

The Georgia Avenue Walmart, one of four likely to be built in DC, could unfortuntely pose a threat to just the kinds of businesses that the city and residents are hoping to attract and support.  An economic impact analysis prepared by Public and Environmental Finance Associates and filed with the city found that “there is every reason to anticipate” that the store “will cause substantial diversion of sales from existing businesses in . . . immediate and nearby neighborhoods, and from elsewhere in the District,” particularly increasing the probability that existing supermarkets could close as a result of lost business. (The report does not appear to be online, but I was furnished with a copy.)  Nonetheless, the city’s planning office has found the proposal “not inconsistent” with the city’s comprehensive plan, and is allowing the massive store to go forward, apparently concluding that economic impact is not an issue the office was allowed to consider in the review process.

In other words, if citizens really want a community-oriented process for revitalization, they need the city to fix the planning and zoning process pronto.

More hopeful for Georgia Avenue, perhaps, is a report that the city is considering building the corridor’s new streetcar line, which had been back-burnered, sooner rather than later.  In the meantime, the community development task force has created a history trail and is sprucing up blank walls with murals and empty storefronts with art projects.  The idea is to bring a sense of pride and progress that will make the neighborhood more pleasant while helping to attract the right kind of investment.  “We do want new people along Georgia Avenue,” one of the task force leaders told Borden, “But we want to make sure that the people who want to stay can stay and shape Georgia Avenue in the way we want.”  I'm hoping that the task force will be a strong, responsible, and influential voice as new businesses and people come to the corridor.

  art on Georgia Ave building (mural by Helina Metaferia, photo by: Elvert Barnes, creative commons license)  art on Georgia Ave building (mural by Helina Metaferia, photo by: Elvert Barnes, creative commons license)

Even at best, though, revitalization can be messy, as well as dependent on the legal framework and economic context in which opportunities are presented.  And the reality is that the “middle class, mostly young whites” disparaged in Courtland Milloy’s election gloating are going to be critical to any urban resurgence.  In his always-thoughtful blog Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space, Richard Layman describes some of the reasons:

“[F]or the past 20 years . . . DC's black population has been dropping--in large part as the black middle classes decamped to the suburbs, abandoning the city, just as the whites had done in the 1950s.

“If not for an influx of white and Hispanic residents, DC's population would have steadily declined over the past 20 years because of black outmigration.”

While I haven’t researched the numbers to discern the extent to which Washington’s changing demographics reflect those of other cities, I think they suggest a truth likely to be universal:  mixed-income housing with streetcars, San Francisco (courtesy of Reconnecting America)We need cities capable of attracting new residents with incomes that can strengthen the tax base and support new economic activity, while at the same time being strong and hospitable enough to hold on to existing residents.  And we must provide both groups with the services and amenities required to meet their needs.  Is that too much to hope for?  I think that getting there is going to be a rough and rocky road, but I am optimistic for the long run.

Fashioning the more equitable, prosperous, and sustainable cities of the future will require more, not less, revitalization and more, not fewer, new residents.  But it will also require providing high-quality affordable housing in neighborhoods where revitalization is occurring.  It will require bringing existing residents to the table early and often in the planning process, but to help shape good neighborhood development, not to prevent it.  And, where wounds over gentrification exist, we must take steps to heal them, because divisive rhetoric only hurts everyone involved and, ultimately, the viability of our communities.

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Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.

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urbandataOct 19 2011 10:38 AM

A rise in rental costs on one property, or the restoration of a particular building, is not in and of itself a bad thing.

But many would argue that making any policies without accounting for their full impact, or excluding segments of the population from that deliberative process, is clearly wrong -- the "all policy is health policy" approach.

There is a lot of research out there on the pros and cons of gentrification to any particular population. To establish the positives and negatives of this process, you would need to decide which specific factors are most important to your analysis / study area, or create an model to study net social benefits, including the impacts that gentrification may have on long-term problems such as social exclusion.

Although the process of gentrification also can benefit a wide spectrum of people, both residents and non-residents, as Walks and Maarinen (2008) seem to suggest in their cross-city study (cited within ), there is a difference between short term and long term change:

"Contrary to the assumptions linking gentriļ¬cation to social mix, [our] results suggest that if allowed to run its course, gentrification is likely to reduce neighbourhood levels of social mix and ethnic diversity."

However, one of the more macroeconomic issues to consider, from the perspective of the regional interest as a whole, is the fact that regions that do not have any gentrification may become stagnant. Stagnation can lead to continuing disinvestment and therefore fewer shared resources available to tackle the underlying issues.

In this sense, some cities may want to adopt the perspective that, given the fact that neighborhoods are always changing and either receiving new investment or becoming disinvested-in, it is possible that some interventions into the market, especially those that seek to discourage or stall these changes, may create long-term impacts that are even worse than the negative impacts caused by the change itself.

I think that to determine whether gentrification is "wrong," you would have to look through the lens of broader social issues such as health equity, Economic Inequality, racial wealth gaps, impacts of "double jeopardy" and social exclusion, and housing regulations.

Some public policy organizations have developed neighborhood modeling techniques, mapping protocols and toolkits to try to ensure that the positive impacts of major changes, such as new Public Transit stations, can be used to benefit the community as a whole and not just result in gentrification without other social benefits.

For example:

Mapping Susceptibility to Gentrification: The Early Warning Toolkit

T. CaineOct 19 2011 02:36 PM


Kudos to trying to tackle a very complicated issue. I think there are a lot of good points here and I largely agree with your stance. Communities that are truly dilapidated need new forms of investment for refurbishment and revitalization. In my mind, these municipalities can have so far to go that they are actually in the least danger of crippling effects of gentrification.

The tough part of gentrification for me is that it is *a* result of many things that we want to accomplish: cleaner active streets, higher property values, elevated standards of living, improved public space, etc. I think gentrification is rather dangerous in the cities and townships that aren't struggling, but are in the process of continuous "improvement." The real cost here can not only be attracting the wealthy at the expensive low to middle income residency, but moreover the sacrifice of local culture in deference to larger, mainstream entities with more money and weight to throw around.

Looking at neighborhoods in New York, the East Village is certainly not a "cheap" place to live by national standards, but it is also not SoHo or Tribeca. Nevertheless, Manhattan has finite volume which means that it's likely that property values over the entirety of the island will continue to climb over time. There are already brownstones being demolished to pave the way for newer, taller buildings with more square footage. At what point will it no longer be the East Village? It's not just a class issue, but a built environment and programming issue as well.

The Meatpacking District is another great example. Like you, I have written about the Highline with praise--I consider it one of the most successful urban parks I've ever been to. On the other hand, there are only a few real meatpacking business still left there--considered by some to be the source of the original charm of the district's origins, having meat unloaded by day and bars/clubs by night. Is that okay? Certainly a value judgement.

My problem with gentrification is the destructive nature it can have on urban identity. After all, the Old Navy on 34th Street is pretty similar to the one on 18th Street, which isn't a far cry from the one in DC, or Boston, or Syracuse, or (fill in the blank). Even so, however, if demand is rising and growth is strong it doesn't seem like an easy thing to stop while avoiding the stagnation that the comment above touched on.


Kaid @ NRDCOct 19 2011 02:59 PM

Commenters: No commercial pitches, please. I've had to delete a couple for that reason. Thanks.

Erik KuglerOct 20 2011 12:10 PM

Here's an example in the center of the city where the new residents are connecting with existing residents and businesses to try to unify the community:

Alicia HaoleOct 21 2011 03:52 PM

Cities face the challenge of building enough units of many types housing so that demand is met. Limiting supply will guarantee that working people can't live there. And we all know that diversity is critical to a healthy city.
However, affordability has to be re-defined to recognize the economics of place. Someone who spends 40% of their income on housing but only 5% of their income on transportation is better off than the suburban "affordable" house that takes 30% of income in a place that makes transportation costs eat 20% of income. But banks, hosuing advocates, etc. would call the first outcome "unaffordable" under current rules.

LindaOct 22 2011 12:11 PM

"In other words, if citizens really want a community-oriented process for revitalization, they need the city to fix the planning and zoning process pronto."

Timely post. As one member of a task force formed to help update our 30 year old planning documents I really appreciate the pull quote above.

I will be forwarding this along to my fellow task force members as well as our city representatives.

Jamaal GreenOct 25 2011 01:59 PM

I think the most important part to take from this post is to have potentially affected communities in the process from the very beginning. In fact, ideally, it should be lead by those communities. The principal objections to gentrification reflect the powerlessness of the targeted communities to do anything about it. Often these communities have been ignored or take for granted by city government and their land and space are seen as open commodities by property developers who often have the ear of city government.

Courtland Milloy may have been hyperbolic in his column but his critiques ring true. Politics is often about talking to the right people and assuring them that you have their concerns at heart and you take them seriously. Fenty didn't always do that. In aggregate, he did a lot of good for the city, but he ignored the base that helped to put him in office and that he must answer to. And let's not pretend there aren't real class and racial issues that are swept under the rug. You have areas of the district that have historically been home to blacks and were centers of black culture and history. The only sign now that you have of that importance are condo towers named after jazz greats and people don't feel like the development is to help them. Until these issues are addressed folk will always stand against a lot of these development projects.

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