What’s Wrong With Gentrification?

At least there was one upside to the downturn: It brought gentrification to a thudding halt. Because gentrification, as we all know, is a dirty word, and one that never tastes more sour than in the mouths of the people who practice it. n+1, the literary journal of the Brooklyn renaissance, headquartered in the rigorously revitalized Dumbo, just published two tut-tutting pieces on the subject: a book review titled “Gentrified Fiction” (en garde, Jonathan Lethem!) and an essay, “Gentrify, Gentrify,” which decries the annexation of Brooklyn into “Ikea-hoods” and calls on gentrifiers to (somehow) “ally with the displaced.”

Displacement is understood, of course, to be gentrification’s primary evil consequence. Housing prices balloon; boutiques and bistros blossom; and before you know it, some bearded dudes in vests have bought the local bodega and opened a saloon festooned with taxidermied animals. Thank God that’s all over, right?

Back in 2003, Lance Freeman, an associate professor of urban planning at Columbia, wanted to find out just how much displacement had occurred in two predominantly black, rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods: Clinton Hill and Harlem (Freeman’s home). But “much to my surprise,” he wrote in his book There Goes the ’Hood, he didn’t find any causal relationship between gentrification and displacement. More surprising, he found that “poor residents and those without a college education were actually less likely to move if they resided in gentrifying neighborhoods.” How does that square with our beliefs about Ikea-hoods?

Often lost amid our caricatures of benighted hipsters invading a blighted neighborhood is the fact that without gentrification, you’ve simply got a blighted neighborhood. “The discourse on gentrification,” Freeman writes, “has tended to overlook the possibility that some of the neighborhood changes associated with gentrification might be appreciated by the prior residents.” Freeman contrasts the late-century decline of Harlem with the conditions of the Lower East Side (or Harlem) decades earlier. Early urban slums were bustling and overcrowded, and thus could sustain a wide range of services. By contrast, Harlem lost 30 percent of its population in the seventies alone. Such neighborhoods became penal colonies of poverty, drained of population, services, and hope. Which explains, in part, the lack of displacement when gentrification improbably arrived. Once these neighborhoods improved, people opted to stay if they possibly could.

Not everyone, of course, could stay. As neighborhoods gentrify, buildings are sold, landlords raise rents, and some people are forced out. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to wait for the dual bugaboos to arrive before you get a decent grocery store or adequate police patrols. It’s ironic, though, that after the white-flight disasters that climaxed in the seventies, most people agreed that our cities’ only hope was reintegration, both racial and economic. In parts of gentrified Brooklyn in the last decade, this actually started to happen.

For a neighborhood, or a city, abandonment is a death sentence. Gentrification—especially when coupled with intelligent urban policy—can serve as a reprieve, even if it arrives in the form of guilt-wracked hipsters and yoga studios. And it’s why cities from Buffalo to Braddock, Pennsylvania, are trying to spark similar renewals by luring artists and creative small businesses. These efforts are easy to dismiss or caricature as well; no doubt someone in Braddock has already opened a saloon with antlers over the bar. Yet the ailing cities that save themselves in the 21st century will do so by following Brooklyn’s blueprint. They’ll gentrify as fast as they can.

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What’s Wrong With Gentrification?