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The Fables of Gentrification

A lot of what we think we know about it turns out to be wrong.

Most likely you’ve heard the old Yogi Berra line about the restaurant in St. Louis: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” If Yogi were still around, I wonder if he might make a similar remark about cities: “Nobody wants to live there anymore. They’re too expensive.”

The two Yogi-isms make roughly the same amount of sense. Cities become expensive because people do want to live there. They get even more expensive when there’s not enough good living space to meet the demand. That’s pretty much the whole story. Virtually every attempt to make it more complicated is, well, an unnecessary complication. Why the demand exists, especially among millennials, is a legitimate question. But it doesn’t change the fundamentals.

Still, it’s helpful to take a look at some of the most exotic gentrification theories out there. The economist Joe Cortright recently drew up a list of more than a dozen that have been seriously proposed for why central cities are getting pricey -- why they are gentrifying.

Here are some: too many art galleries; too many gourmet restaurants; too many Whole Foods stores; too much barista-brewed coffee; too many fancy parks; too much school choice. Now, a few of these phenomena do have something to do with the attraction of central cities to affluent young professionals, but they tend to follow the arrival of newcomers with money. They are a response to the demand for urban living, not the cause of it.

Still, as Cortright makes clear, the proliferation of dubious propositions about urban revival has made it difficult to determine exactly what is going on in many of America’s central cities. Just lately, however, a careful study of the whole gentrification issue has emerged to help us separate myth from reality. Titled American Neighborhood Change in the 21st Century, it was produced by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School.

Much of the research is technical, but the conclusions are difficult to dispute: Gentrification is not the dominant feature of American urban life at this point. It is concentrated in a relatively few cities, most of them along the coasts, with Washington, D.C., perhaps the most striking example. Far more urban change is being created by poorer people and immigrants moving to suburbs than by rich people moving downtown.

And actual displacement -- the popular notion of wealthier white newcomers forcing out long-term minority residents -- is even more rare. In virtually every city in the country, for example, immigrants now settle first in suburbs, not in central cities. So they aren’t examples of urban displacement. Nor can the departure of African-Americans from most central cities be taken as a proxy for displacement. This is a group that experiences so much natural churning and movement that identifying true displacement is a difficult task. “It is a mistake,” the Minnesota study concludes, “to classify gentrification-driven displacement as an endemic or universal problem.”

What we can draw from that study is that while gentrification is at its root a simple phenomenon, it can manifest itself in a wide variety of ways within a single metro area, or even a single city. I got a good sense of this recently when I spent a few days in Brooklyn. I wandered through some of the borough’s most intriguing neighborhoods, all of which could be said to have gentrified in some way, but each in a distinctly different fashion.

One of my stops was Clinton Hill, a tiny outpost of century-old Victorian and Italianate homes that sits right next to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the borough’s most iconic black community. Clinton Hill represents the idea of gentrification that many of us carry around in our heads. A generation ago, it was black and largely poor, and many of its brownstones had fallen into disrepair. But it was too close and convenient to Manhattan to stay that way. In the 1970s and 1980s, a smattering of white professionals began moving in and taking a chance on living with what was still a disturbingly high crime rate. Starting in the 1990s, crime began to decline, both on the streets of Clinton Hill and on the subway line that serves the neighborhood. The trickle of middle-class arrivals became a flood. In 2010, African-Americans still represented the largest racial group, but that has changed dramatically since. Today, Clinton Hill has become a rather expensive place to move to. If you walk by one of the neighborhood’s playgrounds, you see a fair number of black faces, but most of them belong to the African women who work as nannies for the white professional homeowners. The remaining black residents say they have relatively little contact with the new white families.

Not far from Clinton Hill is Carroll Gardens, a compact and close-in corner of northern Brooklyn that developed early in the 20th century as a working-class enclave for the Italian immigrants who had jobs at the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard or on the waterfront docks. Its streets were lined with Italian bars, pizzerias and espresso shops. In the past 30 years, it has changed, but not the way Clinton Hill has changed. The hipsters have come, riding their scooters down the commercial streets, shopping at organic grocery stores, stopping in for pastries on their way to work in Manhattan. But the Italian families are still there, and so are many of the family-owned shops that they have operated for generations. I don’t want to make any glib generalizations, but my sense was that the two groups had reached a tacit understanding that allows the neighborhood to function successfully almost the way it did in the old days. The conflicts you read about tend to be within the Italian families whose members disagree about whether to stay put or sell their brownstones for a fortune and split the proceeds.

Then, just a couple of miles away, there is Dumbo, a neighborhood so bizarre that I’m struggling to do it justice. Dumbo (which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), was once a cluster of factories that produced paint, tin cans, kerosene and a whole raft of other industrial products. After World War II, the factories largely emptied out. Very few people were living in Dumbo. Then a smart real estate developer named David Walentas started marketing what was essentially a wasteland to corporations that didn’t want to pay Manhattan rents. Residential towers began cropping up on the empty land that was still plentiful. By 2010, Dumbo’s location had made it a magnet for chic restaurants and high-end shopping of all kinds. The population is growing so fast that it’s difficult to get an accurate estimate of just how many people live there. But the bottom line is that it soon will be (if it is not already) home to tens of thousands of well-to-do residents. And scarcely anyone had to be displaced to create it.

Some version of each of these scenarios can be found in cities in various parts of the country.  But outside the elite corridors on the two coasts, there are more Dumbos than there are Clinton Hills. In the less feverish development taking place in Midwestern cities, for example, most of what’s happening is the revival of unused or underused land.

There is, to cite just one example, the Gray’s Station neighborhood being created from scratch on the outskirts of downtown Des Moines. A single developer plans to build 3,000 living units on 75 acres, at a projected cost of $250 million over the next decade or so. It goes without saying that the central city will never be same again after it is built. Is it gentrification? Yes, of course. The entire central section of the city will be much more affluent in 2030 than it is now. Is that a good thing? Not everyone thinks so. A couple of years ago, an architect warned that downtown Des Moines was becoming “a cocoon for a certain class of people that links them together under a protective web of same thinking and buying, fueled by a niche culture and social media circles.” This was before Gray’s Station, but it will be said again many times in the next few years. It seems to me hyperbolic, if not altogether misleading. You may prefer an abandoned railroad yard to a luxury high-rise. Personally, I don’t.

There are places in this country where poor people are being displaced from neighborhoods that have become much more expensive and exclusive. We need to identify these and try to mitigate the impact. But we also need to know more about the diversity of gentrification and the way it affects different communities. Until we have a clearer idea of that, we are just going to be talking past each other. 

Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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