The Upside to Gentrification?

January 22, 2014 § 6 Comments

I read an interesting article on NPR.org this morning, about gentrification.  Based on recent research from Columbia University and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, gentrification may not entirely suck for low-income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods.  The Columbia study looked at displacement in Harlem and across the US, calculating how many low income people moved out of their neighbourhoods when gentrification occurred.  Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank looked at the credit scores of low income people in gentrifying neighbourhoods.  In the first case, researchers found that people didn’t necessarily move out, in fact, low income earners were no more likely to move out of a gentrifying neighbourhood than a non-gentrifying one.  In the case of the Federal Reserve Bank, the credit scores of low income earners actually improved with gentrification of their neighbourhoods.

Not surprisingly, I find these kinds of studies slightly disarming.  Lance Freeman, Director of the Urban Planning programme at Columbia, expected to find that displacement was a common occurrence.  But he is still cautious to note that gentrification can and does indeed lead to displacement.

Most studies, at least most I have read from a wide variety of disciplines, lay out the reasons for displacement with gentrification: higher housing costs, higher food costs, higher taxes (if they own), amongst others.  In my experience of living in gentrifying neighbourhoods, the cost of gentrification is obvious on the street, as the original residents get marginalised as cafés, hipster clothing stores, and yuppy restaurants open.  There is no place for them to go, and the coffee shops and bodegas they used to frequent close down.  However, it is also obvious that people stay.  In part, they are helped by things such as rent control, or dedicated low income housing.  And, at least from my own anecdotal evidence, mixed-residential neighbourhoods are certainly friendlier, more community-based, and generally nicer to live in.

Last weekend, there was a story in the Boston Globe about a Southie woman, Maureen Dahill, who ran for State Senate, but lost gloriously, in large part because she supported the right of LGBT groups to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Dahill ran for office in order to attempt to bridge the gulf between “new” and “old” Southie, between the yuppies, artists, and hipsters, and the old Irish.  Dahill, a native of South Boston, works in the fashion industry, her husband is a firefighter. In other words, she was the ideal candidate for the role.

What I find interesting, aside from the fact she was trounced in the election, was the discussion in this article about the gulf that exists between the old and the new in Southie.  And this is something that is overlooked by quantified research studies such as the Columbia and Federal Reserve Bank ones.  However, what they add to the discussion is that there are those who remain, who refuse to leave for a variety of reasons.  The job now is to, if not attempt to emulate Dahill’s failed campaign (the Globe notes that from the get go “there were many who didn’t want any part of her bridge-building.”  The article doesn’t identify which side of the gulf this resistance came from.

At any rate, it is refreshing to see researchers attempt to explore the myths of gentrification, but I would also caution that we do not need a neo-liberal backlash that leads us to conclude that gentrification is good, it’s the best thing that can happen to us.  We must still discuss the human costs of gentrification, we must still fret over the plight of low income earners in neighbourhoods where rents go from $500 to $3,000 a month in short order.

 

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§ 6 Responses to The Upside to Gentrification?

  • Brian Bixby says:

    I have to wonder, after looking at the article you cite, what the mobility rate is for poor people, and how that compares to those well-off. And while the second study suggests that some of the old residents benefit, I have to wonder if that is true for only the better-off of the old residents, who may be the only ones who can afford to continue living in the neighborhood.

    • That’s something that occurred to me, too. At least anecdotally, from what I saw living in those kinds of neighbourhoods, and from my own experience growing up poor, there is class within a class, and the truly marginal, they move much more often. My guess is those who remain in these neighbourhoods are those who can afford to, or at least almost afford it, due to owning their home, rent control, etc.

  • Lorraine O'Donnell says:

    I wonder how this would play out in Montreal. I’m seeing lots of the old-new divide in the Verdun neighbourhood but there are also common spaces — a couple of restaurants, the community centre etc. Or so it seems.

    • Well, my thinking about gentrification largely comes from having live in the Pointe for so long, and Saint-Henri in between. The new/old divide certainly existed there, and as I was writing about the new businesses that open where old ones were, I was actually thinking about Centre St. from Charlevoix down to Shearer. I have a series of posts on life in the Pointe on this blog, “Living in a Gentrifying Neighbourhood,” I think there’s 5 parts to it.

  • Allison says:

    From my work in the social housing community in Toronto, sane gentrification was welcomed in communities. The company was rebuilding/renewing a variety of buildings, and tried to bring in banks/grocery stores/community centres etc. In very poor neighbourhoods, many of these core businesses had fled, filled in by cheque cashing places, corner stores & dollar stores. The first 2 gouge the poor w/big fees, and high prices on food because of economies of scale. So bigger was better in these instances. We did want to encourage mixed use/other income levels to move in. What we didn’t want was to have all old housing knocked down to make way for super luxury condos. More stores & ‘gentrified’ food places do help in a small way with jobs for the tenants as well. It’s not a cure for all ills, but it’s not to be discouraged either.

    • That’s just it, the sane redevelopment. From my own work in Griffintown, as both an activist and a scholar, sane gentrification was what was wanted, but it was not what was given. The Pointe, the neighbourhood I lived in, started to experience slightly more sane redevelopment as I was leaving in 2012, about 5-6 years into the gentrification process there. There is a big grocery store in the neighbourhood, and one more a 15 minute walk away, etc. But, yes, development of a mixed use neighbourhood does, I think, solve some, not all, of the problems of gentrification.

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