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Gentrification 101: Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

Alex Kanegawa |
October 6, 2014 | 8:10 p.m. PDT


Gentrification turns poor communities on their heads, depriving residents of their houses, businesses, apartments and community spaces. (Sara Newman/Neon Tommy)
Gentrification turns poor communities on their heads, depriving residents of their houses, businesses, apartments and community spaces. (Sara Newman/Neon Tommy)
Here’s a question I get asked frequently and still have an incredibly difficult time answering: “What is gentrification, exactly?”

To put it simply, the answer isn’t simple.

You may have heard the word recently on the lips of your progressive-minded friends, perhaps bemoaning USC’s renovation of University Village and the impact it will have on the local community. Vaguely, you might get the sense that it displaces the poor and underserved from their homes and businesses, making room for hipsters and bohemic neoliberals to rent out newly renovated lofts and invite the attention of large chain stores (or small cafes that make artisan toast and the like, whatever).

Or, you might have a completely different notion, that gentrification is actually what gives historically poor communities a chance to become upwardly mobile, developing decrepit, blighted areas into gleaming bastions of safety, providing opportunities for the disenfranchised to pull themselves up by their bootstraps within a clean, aesthetically pleasing environment.

Let’s dial it back a bit and start from the beginning. 

Gentrification is, in the broadest terms, when a wealthier class of people arrives in a “socioeconomically disadvantaged” urban neighborhood, causing a spike in rent and property values, along with gradual shifts in the local culture. On one hand, this turns poor communities on their heads, depriving residents of their houses, businesses, apartments and community spaces. On the other, it shifts investment towards the development and infrastructure of blighted areas (especially in the context of Los Angeles), stimulating economic growth, creating new jobs and reducing crime.

The caveat is that most of these changes are to the benefit of the wealthier transplants, not the marginalized undesirables who came before, and that, additionally, there are a number of racial dimensions to this process that turn it into more than a money issue. From profiling by law enforcement to the disproportionate degree of poverty in communities of color, gentrification is a race issue by design, occurring most frequently in ethnic urban areas such as Echo Park, Boyle Heights, Harlem, the Mission District, Washington D.C., Atlanta and even USC’s South Central neighborhood. By the numbers, gentrification affects poor people of color more profoundly than any other group, and no, this isn’t a “white people versus the angry swaths of minority people” thing, where social justice activists are looking to make everyone else feel guilty for drinking pumpkin spice lattes or securing an affordable lease on a cozy studio apartment. There are gentrifiers of all colors (see this article on "the black gentrifier" and this one on the so-called "Chipster" phenomenon) and this is just as troubling, if not more, in the context of increasingly stratified, volatile urban environments. On both sides, the ideological conceit that lies behind this gentrification war, as we’ll call it, is: how can we build better places to live?

Gentrification was originally coined in 1964 by sociologist Ruth Glass to describe a slightly different phenomenon from what we see today. She outlined the relationship between urban regeneration in London and the displacement of blue-collar workers, which would be adapted and refined by geographers such as Neil Smith and David Ley. Smith noted that following World War II and white flight to the suburbs, urban areas became desolate and devalued, causing an influx of poorer immigrants. This thinking gave way to the theory of rent-gap, where the price of land as dictated by its current use was much cheaper than its potential under “better use,” and could be exploited by developers for profit, leading to the rampant gentrification trend we see today. Conversely, Ley would go on to argue that gentrification has more to do with the types of people moving in, rather than just the whims of the market; the “bourgeoisie” (a fancy Marxist term), by nature of not being working-class laborers, alter the makeup of an area by virtue of their needs and desires, which edge towards non-essentials, such as entertainment, arts, leisure and aesthetic beauty. Collectively, this all shapes the framework of gentrification as we interpret it now, and gives us a starting point from which we can address the myriad issues associated with its progression.

But going off of what Ley was saying about aesthetics and non-essentials, it’s important we don’t get hung up on this idea of appearance or character as the controversy. Yes, it’s lamentable to see small businesses replaced by chain stores or premium-based outlets, but it’s never been just about authenticity or atmosphere. There are deeper problems in our communities, related to resource denial, environmental degradation, dwindling educational opportunities, lack of transit access and violence. Gentrification perhaps eradicates these issues within the physical area itself, but it doesn’t make the problems go away or solve their roots—if anything, they become relocated, shoved out to another impoverished area, out of sight, out of mind. Current residents not only don’t see their lives improved as a result of gentrification, but also find themselves at an even further disadvantage, becoming more and more enveloped in the staggering poverty gradient of cities. These residents are often forced to migrate to other blighted areas that have it just as bad, if not worse, meaning that an influx of new residential hopefuls exacerbates the poverty, crowdedness and overall strain on wherever they’re forced to transplant. Skid Row is a classic example of a vessel that takes in late-stage gentrified communities, being that it possesses one of Los Angeles’s largest homeless populations; however, with no small amount of irony, even it’s starting to experience the scrutiny of gentrifiers these days. 

It isn’t always a bleak, “kicking the little guy when he’s down” situation, however. Rent control exists as a means of stabilizing what’s otherwise an incredibly volatile market, limiting the degree to which landlords can raise their prices annually; in Los Angeles, it is enforced under the Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which caps all increases at 3 percent per year for buildings constructed after 1976. (This explains why developers have such a vested interested in older structures created before that date, as they can alter the pricing as they see fit.) There’s also a strong push for a certain percentage of affordable housing units to be built in gentrifying areas, and with the recent minimum wage increase, there may be more opportunities for low-income wage earners to find their place.

There are silver linings to both these policies—massive silver linings—especially in the context of this city, but they both deserve in-depth treatments, rather than an abbreviated summary of their various issues. Proponents of gentrification will also argue that city governments can benefit from gentrification trends, finding themselves with more permanent residents than renters, which has the potential to lead to greater stability, less vacant property and stronger businesses, which feeds more money back into the system that can potentially be used (or not be used) to aid the public. 

In all frankness, however, trickle-down economics is not a successful formula, and when you look at the way gentrification has evolved over the years, it’s basically those principles applied to urban development, with smatterings of racist fever-dreams thrown in. We’ve established that “cleaning up” the neighborhood involves clearing out the people who already settled there, because there’s a need for a new, fiscally competent population that’s perceived as important or worthwhile. We've also established that the vast majority of gentrifying neighborhoods are largely people of color. See where I’m going with this? Spike Lee has a great, expletive-filled response, if you’ve got 10 minutes to spare:

For those that didn’t watch, here’s an important excerpt.

“So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!”

Contrary to popular conservative philosophy, being poor isn’t an easy thing. Being poor isn’t about how much you can get away with to avoid doing the work that makes everyone else rich. Being poor isn’t about exploiting welfare systems with the same strategies that the rich and “successful” use to make their fortunes. When poor people living in poor conditions experience crime, violence and decay, it doesn’t occur by virtue of them being poor; there’s far more at work than simple false equivalencies. And when you consider the narrative of the inner city, from whatever you see on TV to however you project that on to people you see, it’s not hard to see that this is about the black and brown folks who embody the urban poor more profoundly than any other group.

This is not a constructed myth, nor a call for pity or guilt; the important thing is to recognize the lived experiences of others and examine your role in its reproduction. For example, I am a gentrifier by nature, coming from an educated middle-class background, attending a prestigious university in the middle of the city, purchasing frivolous things from businesses that have no vested interest in supporting the local economy. In many ways, I embody the same qualities as the worst gentrifiers, who have enough capital to affect a region’s transformation profoundly, but not the power or stakeholdership to truly subvert the oppression of the communities that inhabit them. In being conscious of these ills, it’s maddening to know how easy it is to be a part of the problem, making it all the more vital that we make precise and intentional decisions about our lifestyles, lest it truly becomes more than a war of attrition.

Now, is there an alternative to gentrification? I’ve provided some basic talking points, but this is about as easy as the conversation gets, and there’s a lot of technical back-and-forth that goes into intelligently addressing the problem. As the writer of this piece, I have a pretty strong opinion on one end of the spectrum, but I’m not above seeing that this isn’t an either-or situation. With the growing disappearance of the traditional middle-class and global economic stratification, even wealthier populations several degrees above the poverty line are facing financial woes, the impact of which may be difficult to predict.

Again, the big question is: how can we make better places to live? But more importantly, can we make better places to live that are equitable, desegregated and ultimately sustainable for the future? At this point, I’m not sure I have an answer.

Contact Contributor Alex Kanegawa here; and follow him on Twitter here.



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