[This is the first of a three part series on gentrification (i.e., the process whereby a once disinvested black or brown neighborhood becomes a predominately white neighborhood that conforms to the tastes of middle or upper class whites).  Although the issues surrounding gentrification and economic development are complex and in many respects beyond our purview, we at Community Frontline believe that we must do our best to educate ourselves and others on these important subjects—even when the issues and concepts are difficult to understand.][1]


“No One Used to Go Over There”

Whenever a neighborhood transitions from being predominately black and poor to being predominately white and middle class, it is common to hear white people say things like “people are starting to move there,” “no one used to go that neighborhood,” and “that used to be a no-man’s land.”

Statements like these imply something: that the people who formerly lived in those neighborhoods—all those years when the neighborhoods were impoverished and disinvested—weren’t people. They were “no one.”[2]

In our view, the phenomenon of gentrification needs to be identified, understood, and addressed because it is not simply a matter of economics—it is also about the definition of “person” and the dignity of those who live in disinvested communities.

If we (consciously or unconsciously) deem members of impoverished communities, with little or no spending power to offer, as being “no one,” then we will treat them as invisible, if not inconvenient, and we will not factor them into our economic planning, let alone allow them to shape the planning.[3]

We have to keep in mind that many of the things that we Americans have gotten wrong over the years have stemmed from our failure to define “person” accurately.  As we all know, the Declaration of Independence eloquently recited as a self-evident truth “that all men are created equal,”[4] yet the term “men” was interpreted to include only those who fit within the socially constructed category of “white.”

This inaccurate definition allowed the majority culture to deem it morally acceptable for African-Americans to be enslaved, denied the right to vote, forced to sit on the backs of buses, and subjected to various other injustices.

One of the most poignant messages widely communicated in recent American history came during the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968 when African-American men, in protest of their unfair working conditions and discriminatory wages, held signs that said: “I am a man.”[5]

But admittedly, gentrification is complicated and difficult to measure.  And we would be remiss to overlook that many city development efforts that might be considered gentrification have at times conferred some advantages on existing residents that those residents might not have otherwise enjoyed.

We must also acknowledge that many “perpetrators” of gentrification often act out of largely pure (or at least not ill) motives.  Indeed, almost all of us have contributed to gentrification in some fashion, even if just by dropping in for an expensive haircut, a trip to the brewery, or a quick cup of craft coffee or, if you’re affluent, working to depopulate or cap development in your own neighborhood.

In addition to being complicated, gentrification is polarizing and the subject of much debate, even among very intelligent people.  Some say that gentrification is, by and large, a good thing—an undoing of white flight and a sign of reinvestment in previously disinvested neighborhoods.[6] Others call it class war or a new form of white flight and say that it’s unjust from top to bottom.[7]

Many holders of this latter view argue that would-be gentrifiers should make no effort to get involved in inner-city communities because they’ll only make things worse. Others believe gentrification is a myth or so rarely occurs that it should not be a high priority issue.[8] Another view is that gentrification—whether good or bad—is inevitable and is merely the natural result of a capitalist economy.[9]

No one is to blame, say proponents of this view, it is “just the way it is.”  And then there are combinations of these views, such as the fatalistic view that believes gentrification is immoral and tragic, but nonetheless inevitable and unstoppable.

In this three part series, we want to explore gentrification honestly and in a way that fits the mission of Community Frontline, which is focused on generating solutions.   In this initial blog post, we will explore the basics.  What is gentrification, and how does it typically play out?


What’s in a Name? Defining Gentrification

The term “gentrification” was coined in 1964 by a German-born British sociologist named Ruth Glass.   The term was a reference to the “gentry” from the English countryside, whom Glass had observed move into and transform certain working class neighborhoods in London.[10]  In her book London: Aspects of Change, she wrote:

One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes—upper and lower . . . Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.[11]

According to research conducted by Peter Moskowitz in his book How to Kill A City, the first mention of the term “gentrification” in the United States occurred in 1969 by a white man living in Brooklyn named Everett Ortner.

Ortner had founded a nonprofit called the “Brownstone Revival Committee,” and had started publishing a magazine dedicated to convincing other middle and upper-class white people to move to Brooklyn.  In one of the magazine’s articles it was written that “Gentrification is not ‘genocide’ but ‘genesis.’”[12]

Over time, many different definitions of gentrification have emerged.  Usually, the definition assigned to gentrification reflects the particular aspect of gentrification that the definer is focusing on.  Here are some examples of definitions:

  • “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. The term is often used negatively, suggesting the displacement of poor communities by rich outsiders.”[13]
  • Gentrification is “the transmutation of a neighborhood that comes when wealthy residents move in and their presence and their dollars force the prior existing residents (who have a lower income) out of the same neighborhood. . . . In America, gentrification generally looks like this:  the intentional systemic whitening of a previously black or brown neighborhood.”[14]
  • “Gentrification commonly occurs in urban areas where prior disinvestment in the urban infrastructure creates opportunities for profitable redevelopment, where the needs and concerns of business and policy elites are met at the expense of urban residents affected by work instability, unemployment, and stigmatization. It also occurs in those societies where  a loss of manufacturing employment and an increase in service employment has led to expansion in the amount of middle-class professionals with a disposition towards central city living and an associated rejection of suburbia.”[15]
  • “[G]entrification is the transition of a community from low-income or working-class status to middle-class or affluent status, largely through in-migration.”[16]
  • “[T]he underlying meaning is the shift in a neighborhood’s population from predominantly low income or working class to predominantly middle or upper class.”[17]

Although gentrification has a certain “know it when you see it” quality, for the sake of clarity, we will define the term for purposes of this blog series to refer pejoratively and generally to the process whereby a once disinvested black or brown neighborhood becomes a predominately white neighborhood that conforms to the tastes of middle or upper class whites.


How the Sausage Gets Made:  Typical Gentrification Process

Every city, and indeed every neighborhood within a city, is unique. And the way a neighborhood changes over time is affected by numerous factors.  Nevertheless, at the risk of oversimplification, here’s an attempt at a sketch of how gentrification tends to happen:

The Backdrop to the Process

  • For reasons we’ll discuss a little more in a later blog post, suburbanization and white flight happened in the 40s, 50s, and 60s (and beyond, to some extent). The introduction of GI bills and federal mortgage loan initiatives benefiting white families enabled and incentivized white families to obtain mortgage loans and buy homes in the suburbs.[18]
  • Fairly simultaneously, there was a boom in the American economy that coincided with an increase in industrial and manufacturing jobs. Immigrants and African-Americans moved into the inner cities to work at these blue collar jobs.[19]
  • Eventually, the American economy began changing from an industrial-and-manufacturing-centered economy to more of a service-and-information-centered economy. This caused many within the inner city communities to lose their jobs and experience other economic hardships.  Property values in the inner city began to drop.  Many residents chose to stay and be faithful to their neighborhoods while others had to stay due to lack of financial options.[20]
  • These and other factors have converged over time in many American cities to present a situation where there are, on the one hand, inner-city neighborhoods with low property values and disinvestment, inhabited primarily by black and brown communities, and, on the other hand, suburban areas or old-money neighborhoods with a wealth of resources and significant corporate investment, inhabited primarily by white communities.

The Role of Developers, City Governments, Banks, and Other Businesses

  • Once a center-city neighborhood becomes economically depressed, developers willing to be patient can snatch up properties for pennies. In 1979, a geographer named Neil Smith came up with what is known as the “rent gap theory.”  The basic idea behind the theory is that capital will go where the rate of potential return (i.e, the potential for a profit) is the highest.  The rent “gap” is essentially the difference between the value of a piece of property in its current state and the anticipated value of the property after it is developed.  The larger the gap, according to Smith, the higher the likelihood of gentrification.[21]
  • So, developers buy cheap commercial or residential properties in the neighborhood. Sometimes, during this “snatch up” process, developers approach homeowners in the neighborhood and offer to pay the homeowners cash for their homes.  Even if the sale is not a particularly lucrative deal for the homeowner, it is often difficult for cash-strapped residents to turn down a handful of cash.  (Note that in many disinvested communities there are several properties that are not owned by residents but by landlords who live outside of the community.”)
  • Besides low prices, numerous other incentives emerge for developers and other business to take interest in the neighborhood. For one thing, a neighborhood in close proximity to a downtown business district is an attractive location for a business wishing to establish a central hub.[22]  Furthermore, development in affluent neighborhoods, whose members have substantial political influence, is sometimes capped, limiting developers’ abilities to build new developments in those economically stable neighborhoods.[23]
  • Strong incentives also come from the city government, whose leaders are usually eager to increase their city’s property tax base, sales tax revenues, and tourism dollars, by attracting suburban folks to move back into the city or other non-residents to move to the city. The city government might implement policies and initiatives that offer tax subsidies and abatements or other benefits to businesses willing to come to certain designated neighborhoods.  The city might approve zoning changes as part of this development process, and it might also begin to commit certain city services that have been lacking in the designated neighborhoods, such as repaired sidewalks and roads.
  • As a city begins to pour resources into a once disinvested neighborhood and developers start to show interest, then banks gain the confidence to lend to businesses interested in going into the neighborhood. Once the banks start lending, then more businesses get in the game, and economic development starts to take off.
  • At first blush, this seems like a 100% good thing for the existing residents: new restaurants, amenities, and other forms of “TLC” are coming to their neighborhood.  But keep in mind, the new businesses are not marketing their products and services to the existing residents (who often have very limited spending power), but rather they are marketing their products and services to people outside the neighborhood in an attempt to attract the higher-spending people to move into the neighborhood and bring their disposable incomes with them.  This is why, for example, one can find a new restaurant with decoration, music, and menu items preferred by upper class white tastes located in a neighborhood whose residents are virtually all lower-income and African-American.
  • Moreover, it must also be kept in mind that, prior to gentrification, many neighborhoods were disinvested and ignored, but not for lack of trying on the part of the longtime residents. Those residents might have been complaining about the roads for years, but the roads weren’t fixed.  They might have sought loans to start business or renovate buildings, but those loans were denied.
  • Sometimes pro-gentrification policies elucidate this dynamic. For example, “[a]fter Hurricane Katrina, the state [of Louisiana] designated Freret [a neighborhood in New Orleans] a cultural district, allowing businesses opening along this strip to receive tax incentives—exemptions from income taxes for artists, tax credits for rehabbing storefronts, and the like.  Only new business were eligible, not long running ones . . . .”[24]   So, the new gastropub gets the tax break, but the barber who’s been in the neighborhood through thick and thin does not.
  • In certain cities, natural disasters or other major events have apparently made these initial phases of gentrification more expedient. In New Orleans, for example, it was Hurricane Katrina.  In Detroit, it was the city’s bankruptcy.[25]

The Role of New Residents, Entrepreneurs, and Creatives

  • Meanwhile, at some point in this process of development, new residents—what some call the “pioneers”—begin to move in. Stereotypically, these are the artists or the hipsters.  They start a coffee shop, a wine bar, or an art gallery.  Or they buy homes they perceive to have character and potential or build new homes on charming lots.
  • Eventually, others follow. Young white families begin realizing that the suburbs are no fun—the burbs are far away, full of traffic, and often lack charm or rich culture. After a couple of brunch visits to the restaurants started by the “pioneers” of the gentrifying neighborhoods, these new white families begin to think, “I could live here.”
  • With the influx of these new residents and businesses, the existing demographics and cultural landscapes of the neighborhoods change. We will discuss the implications of gentrification a bit more in a later post, but basically what starts to happen is that those who previously lived in the neighborhood begin to move out or are displaced.  Sometimes the displacement is direct (e.g., the residents’ apartment building is sold and demolished, the residents are evicted due to rising rents, or the residents are forced to sell their house because they can no longer afford the property taxes).  Sometimes it is less direct (e.g., the residents no longer feel welcome in their neighborhood, or they see the writing on the wall and want to be proactive).  At the same time, of course, new demographics are populating the neighborhood and bringing their culture, and new restaurants and other neighborhood centers emerge.
  • Ironically, eventually come the upper class, and the artists and hipsters themselves end up getting priced out of the neighborhood. A new cycle of gentrification occurs, and the neighborhood increases in affluence and becomes even more exclusionary.

Note that the gentrification process is dynamic and not linear.  The aforementioned phases do not always operate in any particular order or necessarily even occur at all.  Sometimes city policies are the first step.  Sometimes pioneers moving in are the first step.  Sometimes developers take the first step.

Apparently, scholars have for years debated whether gentrifying forces are consumer-driven (i.e., developers build it because consumers want it) or production-driven (i.e., people come because developers built it for them).

It is outside the scope of this paper to participate in that debate, but we wanted to flag it to illustrate that it is sometimes difficult to identify the chicken and the egg in the context of gentrification.[26]

As alluded to earlier, however, gentrification doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  In the next post, we will take a quick detour through some historical context.


[1] Community Frontline is a relatively diverse brotherhood of men and includes numerous individuals as part of its network.  Not every person who is part of Community Frontline necessarily shares all of the views set out in this blog series.

[2] Peter Moskowitz, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood, New York: Nation Books, 67 (2017) (hereinafter, “Moskowitz”); Eric Ishiwata, “We Are Seeing People We Didn’t Know Exist”: Katrina and the Neoliberal Erasure of Race,” in The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans, ed. Cedrick Johnson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011); Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, Little, Brown and Company (2011) (“Rhodes-Pitts”).

[3] Moskowitz, at 67-68; Rhodes-Pitts.

[4] https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

[5] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/memphis-sanitation-workers-strike

[6] See Tom Slater, “Gentrification of the City,” Chapter 50 in The New Blackwell Companion to the City, 579 (May 11, 2010 Proof) (discussing different views) (hereinafter, “Slater”) (citing Vigdor, J., “Does gentrification harm the poor?” Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs, 133-173 (2002); Freeman, L., and Braconi, F., “Gentrification and displacement: New York City in the 1990s,” Journal of the American Planning Association 70(1), 39-52 (2004); McKinnish, T., et al., “Who gentrifies low-income neighborhoods?” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. W14036 (2008)); see also, e.g., “In praise of gentrification,” The Economist (June 21, 2018), available at https://www.economist.com/united-states/2018/06/21/in-praise-of-gentrification

[7] See Adam Hengels, “Political Privilege and Class War in the Urban Housing Market,” Foundation for Economic Education (March 17, 2017), available at https://fee.org/articles/political-privilege-and-class-war-in-the-urban-housing-market/ (“Hengels”).

[8] See, e.g., John Buntin, “The Myth of Gentrification,” Slate (Jan. 14, 2015), available at http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/01/the_gentrification_myth_it_s_rare_and_not_as_bad_for_the_poor_as_people.html

[9] See Jeanne Haffner, “Is the gentrification of cities inevitable – and inevitably bad?,” The Guardian (Jan 16, 2016) (discussing views), available at https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/jan/16/gentrification-inevitable-bad-urban-change

[10] Moskowitz, at 31; Slater, at 571.

[11] Ruth Glass et al., London: Aspects of Change, London: MacGibbon & Kee, (1964), quoted in “50 Years of Gentrification: A Timeline,” NextCity, 2014.

[12] Moskowitz, at 31.

[13] Benjamin Grant, “What is Gentrification?”  Flag Wars, PBS (June 17, 2003), available at http://www.pbs.org/pov/flagwars/what-is-gentrification/

[14]  Cole Brown, “Gentrification: Trading Spaces,” Humble Beast 101, available at https://thewitnessbcc.com/gentrification-trading-spaces/ (“Brown”).

[15] Slater, at 572.

[16] Pete Saunders, How to Understand Gentrification, Forbes (Aug. 29, 2016), available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/petesaunders1/2016/08/29/understanding-gentrification/#7117327635ec

[17]  The Pew Charitable Trusts, Philadelphia’s Changing Neighborhoods, at Gentrification and other shifts since 2000 (May 2016), available at https://www.pewtrusts.org/-/media/assets/2016/05/philadelphias_changing_neighborhoods.pdf

[18] Moskowitz, at 110-115; Brown.

[19] Brown.

[20] Brown.

[21] Moskowitz, at 37-39; Neil Smith, “Gentrification and the Rent Gap, in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vo. 77, No. 3, at 462-65 (Sept. 1987).

[22] Brown.

[23] Hengels.

[24] Moskowitz, at 60.

[25] Moskowitz, at 45-68, 77-90.

[26] For other summaries of the gentrification process, you might check out the “four stages of gentrification” as explained by MIT urban studies professor Phillip Clay, under which:

  1. A few pioneering gentrifiers move into a neighborhood followed by a rush of more gentrifiers.
  2. Corporations such as real estate companies and chain retail stores, seeing an opportunity to profit from the arrival of the pioneers, become the main actors in the neighborhood.
  3. Middle class gentrifiers start assuming more prominent roles—sitting on committees and community boards, promoting the neighborhood to outsiders.
  4. The process becomes completely top-down wherein the only entities powerful enough to change and hypergentrify an already gentrified landscape are corporations and their political allies.

Moskowitz, at 32-34, Phillip L. Clay, Neighborhood Renewal:  Middle-Cass Resettlement and Incumbent Upgrading in American Neighborhoods (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1979).

Moskowitz adds a fifth.  He says there’s a precursor to all of these stages in which a municipality opens itself up to gentrification through zoning, tax breaks, and branding power. See Moskowitz, at 35