Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

The Gentrification Effect

Does the return of a neighborhood mean its culture and the poor have to leave?

In the spring of 1968, race riots broke out in Washington, D.C., following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The burning and looting destroyed the city's inner-city economy and cultural life. For decades, the U Street Corridor, once the social hub of African-American life in Washington, barely functioned.

Today, however, the neighborhood is experiencing a renaissance, with nightclubs, restaurants and condominiums replacing empty lots and shuttered buildings. In other cities, once forgotten neighborhoods have been bouncing back as mostly young people discover the excitement of urban life.

But sometimes the city neighborhoods aren't so much returning to life as changing a way of life. Working-class neighborhoods in top-tier cities are feeling the pressures of gentrification as the demand for loft apartments, well built row houses and heavily trafficked commercial areas outstrips the supply, pushing up rents, forcing the poor out and letting the middle class in.

To some people, these changes are robbing cities of their authenticity, no matter how gritty or unsafe the neighborhoods may have been. Single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, bodegas and 99-cent stores are authentic. Starbucks, designer loft condos and wine shops are not.

San Francisco's Tenderloin district has stayed authentic thanks to the support of nonprofits that have bought up the numerous SROs in the neighborhood, providing the poor with cheap housing that no one else wants. But rampant crime and vice have become a growing problem (see Street Fight, Governing, May 2010), forcing the city to finally try to rein in the Tenderloin's less romantic lifestyle. Yet the efforts to crack down on crime have raised heated debates on whether the Tenderloin can be cleaned up without changing it.

The latest battle over urban authenticity has erupted in New York City, where the poor, middle class and rich have rubbed shoulders for centuries, thanks to the Big Apple's dense urban grid. Sharon Zukin, a sociology professor and author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, points out that key New York neighborhoods are in danger of losing their authenticity to gentrification, none more so than Harlem. Today the ghetto around 125th Street is being transformed as urban professionals move into renovated brownstones and apartment buildings.

Zukin and other anti-gentrifiers call for more government involvement to control rents and set zoning laws that limit the development of high-rise towers in small-scale neighborhoods. They want to slow down what they see as the rapid and wholesale transformation of gritty neighborhoods into glitzy oases that cater only to the urban affluent. At first glance, her argument seems elitist in some ways, a type of nostalgia that relies on government regulation that may not produce the desired results.

But the poor and working class are part of the urban fabric too. They work at unsung jobs, and they rely on a city's supply of affordable apartments, transit and inexpensive retail stores to meet their modest needs. Unlike other income groups, the poor have far fewer options when it comes to living outside the city. Perhaps it's time to change the argument about urban authenticity. It shouldn't be about gentrification or nostalgia, but about giving all sectors of society the authentic opportunity to live the city life.

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
Special Projects