Built Environments #5: The One Where I Argue With Someone Who May Be Dead About Gentrification

I started reading the book about gentrification that was written in 1984. Books about gentrification that were written in more recent times are out of my price range. This book was exactly in my price range by only costing $4.14. The information is nearly thirty years old, but it worth more than $4.14, because I’ve mentioned before how invaluable a firsthand of account of potentially historical events can be. The introduction to “Gentrification, Displacement, and Neighborhood Revitalization” begins their book with an introduction to some terms that often overlap with the term gentrification conceptually.

The book’s authors, J. John Palen and Bruce London, describe the term “gentrification” as being “inappropriate for summarizing the process of upper-status groups replacing lower-status groups in inner-city neighborhoods that had previously experienced “decline.””

Reason number 1:

“The dictionary defines “gentry” as a person of gentle birth; the condition or rank of a gentleman; upper or ruling class; aristocracy; landed proprietors of noble class. Thus the term “gentrification” suggests the return of some sort of landed aristocracy to the inner city from some place outside the urban area.

The best evidence available to date suggests that this not what is happening in American cities…The term “gentry” is historically more appropriate for describing British stratification patterns than American. However, since a process of changing social-class composition of neighborhoods is occurring in both societies (as well as in Canada, Europe, and Australia), we need a term that is not culture specific”.

Seriously? We’re not using gentry, because Americans don’t have a class specifically identified as gentry? Well, first of all that’s not true. Gentry are definitely a part of American colonial history. See what you can’t learn when Google doesn’t exist?   Google “Virginia colonial gentry”. So, that’s settled. But that’s really just an argument about semantics isn’t it? Gentry in its current iteration is used for those with capital. The dictionary defines gentry 20 years later as “wellborn and well-bred people”.

Reason number 2:

“A final criticism of the term “gentrification” questions whether those people who are the “actors” in the process are, in fact, “gentry” even in the broad sense of being upper middle class. Especially in the early stages of neighborhood change, the renovators themselves may be only marginally middle class.”

That’s a fair point actually. If your parents are blue collar workers who don’t have any inheritable wealth and you’re just coming into the middle class lifestyle, you probably don’t want to be called gentry. That’s legit. But there is more than one kind of capital. Never underestimate the value of social capital. It’s easy to end up being the one pushing people out of their neighborhood. Even when you don’t mean to be, you can be an accidental gentrifier. Not to be confused with the horror show that is “Accidental Racist”.

The best definition of gentrification I’ve seen comes from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  :

Gentrification is often defined as the transformation of neighborhoods from low value to high value. This change has the potential to cause displacement of long-time residents and businesses. Displacement happens when long-time or original neighborhood residents move from a gentrified area because of higher rents, mortgages, and property taxes.

Gentrification is a housing, economic, and health issue that affects a community’s history and culture and reduces social capital. It often shifts a neighborhood’s characteristics (e.g., racial/ethnic composition and household income) by adding new stores and resources in previously run-down neighborhoods.

That sounds fair doesn’t it? Gentrification pushes poorer people out. Most people can see the problem with pricing poorer people out of urban centers. The problem is related to access. Access to transportation, access to centralized social services, and access to the benefits of a rejuvenated downtown shouldn’t be limited to people who can afford to pay for a high-rise. That’s what will happen eventually. Gentrifiers get pushed out by richer gentrifiers. Capitalizing on privilege while it lasts is not sustainable.   Your downtown will eventually be universal design-sidewalk to universal design-sidewalk with lovely ginkgo trees planted shading everything. Which actually sounds quite nice but you won’t be able to afford to live there. 

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