The Gentrifying World

Writing Paper 3, WRIT150, Writing Seminar on Globalization

It happened after the war. In the 1950’s and 60s, the post-war economic boom dramatically changed the dynamic of cities forever. Throughout the US, city planners, social movements, and government policies paved vibrant, urban cores teeming with dense city avenues and bustling boulevards filled with storefronts, into something starkly different. The advent of the interstate highway system which enabled the urban sprawl of suburbs, coupled with the widespread effects of the Civil Rights movement, led to the disinvestment and emigration of populations en masse from urban centers. For decades, blighted by population loss, abandoned buildings, and the concept of ‘white flight’, inner cities languished in crime, disinvestment, and emptiness. However, the populations who entrenched and remained gave these inner cities life, and a soul to hold on to. Fast forward to the 21st century, and once again, the socioeconomic fabric of cities is completely reversed.

Gentrification occurs when a neighborhood, which has previously experienced a severe loss of investment, and population loss, receives an infusion of outside capital investment, bringing with an influx of wealthier people, white-collar jobs, and a distinct change of a neighborhood’s culture and character. Of the varying effects of gentrification, this worldwide phenomenon leads to profound socioeconomic inequalities and the displacement of minorities and the impoverished across cities, cultures, nations, and races. Often characterized by a drastic change in the streetscape and the types of businesses that occupy a city, gentrification often leads to a radical shift in the social fabric of that neighborhood. However, this culture shift is not simply the influx of characteristic ‘aesthetic’ coffee shops, high-end ‘hip’ retailers, and chain stores such as Starbucks and Nike, because gentrification also leads to the marginalization and the displacement of the original residents of that neighborhoods. In a sense, young professionals and suburbanites are foreigners in the downtown city centers and inner-city neighborhoods that they occupy. Although gentrification has some economic benefits to a city, it leads to profound economic inequalities, the displacement and entrapment of ethnic, lower-income minorities from their original homes in inner-city neighborhoods and revives deeply rooted socioeconomic conflict and tension among cities around the world.

Gentrification leads to a sinister effect on native residents of the neighborhoods affected. This phenomenon, known as entrapment, occurs when a rapidly gentrifying city ‘locks in’ a certain lower-income neighborhood, rendering it impossible to expand and relocate to other alternative neighboring areas in a city. In cities around the world, socioeconomic movements such as the influx of artists and galleries, government ordinances such as incentives and tax breaks have turned around the economic fortunes of inner-city neighborhoods, as multimillion dollar investments, lucrative companies and talented workers with high amounts of earning power and discretionary income have poured in. However, many neighborhoods have not been so fortunate, and have not received the infusion of capital and social investment that the surrounding areas have. Involuntary immobility occurs when minorities, the homeless, and those who constitute the ‘forgotten’ population, are priced out of their surrounding wealthy neighborhoods, and cluster in a centralized inner-city neighborhood, unable to expand or move. In short, the world around these populations has simply passed them by. However, involuntary immobility not only applies to the residents, but also to the accompanying social services that provide crucial lifelines for these populations. Geoffrey De Verteuil, a professor in urban studies at Southampton University, showcases this pressing issue through his study on inner-city communities in Los Angeles and London. “over half (57 per cent) of all facilities experienced involuntary immobility or entrapment… large Downtown Skid Row emergency shelters (with up to 1000 beds) faced a blunt choice: either become entrapped or disappear entirely, since no other neighborhood would accept such a burden” (De Verteuil).

 

His research shows that city center locations are attractive for volunteer social organizations and services but are most vulnerable to gentrification, as rising rents and property values force them out of their existing places. In the 55 sites interspersed throughout Los Angeles and London, he discovered that each cities’ social services either experienced displacement or entrapment due to the forces of gentrification. In many cities around the world, the density of social services concentrates poverty in high-density areas that the government services and officials often choose to ignore. They pretend that these clusters of people don’t exist, and simply build around them. In Los Angeles, Skid Row epitomizes the phenomenon of entrapment, as social services have clustered. The Guardian, a British news publication, chronicles the origins of Skid Row and how government policy shaped its growth into the ‘homeless’ capital of the US today: “the fateful decision to concentrate county resources for the homeless downtown, in the area that would become Skid Row. More than 70 non-profit and government organisations participated in this grand project of centralization” (Marshall). This source shows the development of the neighborhoods around the LA area, and how gentrification also leads to the concentration of social services around a single neighborhood, drawing in less fortunate residents into that specific region, entrapping them there. These people, which often include the homeless, ethnic minorities, and immigrants, often lack the opportunities, and the upward mobility to improve their livelihoods. They have been priced out by rising real estate values in the neighborhoods around them. Throughout the world, this could not be more evident. For example, in Los Angeles, home prices and rents have skyrocketed in many downtown neighborhoods such as South Park, Arts District, and Bunker Hill, surrounding neighborhoods such as Westlake, and Skid Row. In Cincinnati, rapid inner-city gentrification isolated the notorious Over-The-Rhine, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the country. These neglected neighborhoods have yet to see significant investment or even gentrification, yet are still profoundly affected by the development that seemingly envelopes them.

 

Many economists, citizens, and government officials pose the argument that gentrification brings about overwhelmingly positive economic changes to the city. The arrival of new businesses, commercial and residential developments, and the overall beautification of the city leads to economic growth and boosts a cities’ profile within its regional and national economy. It also attracts new workers, especially white-collar jobs, and also companies that relocate from city suburbs and also from other regions. This leads to an infusion of investment and people into a city, and new life is breathed into a region once abandoned and neglected. Around the world, redevelopment of inner cities has led to the turnaround of cities’ economic fortunes. New York was once a seedy brothel of a city in the 1970s, teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and dealing with widespread crime and a declining population.  However, due to widespread police reforms, urban rezoning, economic redevelopment, and the revitalization of public spaces and services, New York City reinvented itself and took its place once again as the premier world city. Once languishing in steep population decline throughout the 1970s, the population of the Big Apple grew by 2 million, and the aggregate metro-area income doubled from $600b to $1,200b in 2013 (Silver). Around the globe, rapid economic redevelopment has rescued city cores from the depths of crisis, reducing poverty rates and unemployment, and lifting income levels, tax revenues, and their overall profile on the global stage. Within these recoveries, the rising tide of city revival also lifts the cost-of-living, housing prices, traffic congestion to precipitous levels. From Canada to China, city skylines have been redefined.

However, more often than not, an influx of wealthier people into a city leads to a profoundly negative impact on the existing residents, who have markedly different livelihoods and cultures. In many cases, friction is created as both groups adjust to their new circumstances and learn to coexist. Furthermore, this convergence of worlds and societies leads to a socioeconomic clash that the existing residents, including the ethnic minorities and the less-fortunate tend to lose out on. This phenomenon is prominent around the world, and transcends nations, because cities are the lifeblood of today’s economy, and their development is crucial to the advancement and the mechanisms of the globalized economy that the vast majority of humans partake in. Gentrification is the defining phenomenon in urban centers around the world. Although it leads to the diversification of cities, and economic growth, it pushes out the large swathes of population, while entrapping thousands more in surrounding areas; areas in which the economic development and growth has not touched. Yet. In places where gentrification has taken place, it has benefited many with new opportunities, a change of scenery, and newfound diversity, but has also cost many more their homes, jobs, communities, and most importantly, their livelihoods.

Cities around the world are littered with specific examples of gentrification. Within their histories, neighborhoods are earmarked with the shifting winds of urban development. Gentrification also leads to the displacement of minority groups and introduces profound social and cultural change to the communities in which it takes effect. Many argue that gentrification leads to the loss of a communities’ soul. Spike Lee, a famous New York filmmaker, encapsulates the tension faced by many facing gentrification: “why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better (Ray and Almasy).” However, his profanity laced tirade railing against the forces changing Brooklyn’s development simply represent one voice in a sea of voices facing sweeping changes to their surroundings around the world. Throughout the world, activist groups become cynical to the idea of any form of urban development because of the way a neighborhood often becomes overrun by outside development inconsiderate to the original cultural and social makeup of said neighborhood. From the ‘hip’ corner coffee shops to the towering skyscrapers, new replaces old, and as a result, housing projects, family-run businesses, and the vintage streetscape are displaced.

Evidently, examples of gentrification are found all over the world. They just manifest themselves in different ways. The Guardian, a renowned British news publication, aggregates and chronicles cases of gentrification and its effects from around the world. Headlines professing the systemic inequalities and oppressions of transcend societies, cities, and countries. In Portland, a 70-year old carpenter watches as neighborhoods, once full of character and culture are being overrun by cookie-cutter ‘cereal box’ buildings and says that: “We are currently building our way to hell”. In London, a once-homeless citizen witnesses the seemingly-unstoppable disappearance of affordable housing and asserts that “It [gentrification] has created a class and race divide”. In Lisbon, an inner-city resident watches as entire communities are evicted as landlords convert historic apartment housing into short-term rentals and hotels for tourists. He asserts: “This is a turning point. The city is becoming an entirely segregated, exclusive place. Local and national governments are doing nothing to stop this happen… it is very difficult to fight the power of money.” From Lisbon to London, the intentions of ‘urban renewal’ have radically transformed into “urban impoverishment” (Perry). What lies behind these shining new apartment complexes, swanky art galleries, hipster coffee shops, and gleaming skyscrapers is the forgotten past, reduced to dust in the wind, taking with it the people who once made staked their entire lives in it. The minorities, small business owners, and the hardworking blue-collar workers once inhabited, sustained, and made these communities. The power of money has taken their entire life away from them.

In many other regions around the world, state-backed gentrification is commonplace, as government power overpowers any existing community, as they utilize their market power to remake entire cities in their ‘modern’, 21st century image, by completely tearing down and rebuilding swathes of streetscape. In China, thousands of miles away from the boroughs of New York, older homeowners are finding themselves embroiled in a losing battle for their inner-city ‘hutous’, which are hundred-year-old housing blocks in large cities. State-backed developers displace these residents, and then tear down these hutous. In the place of these historic homes rises towering office blocks and luxury apartments, adding to the burgeoning density of these rapidly growing Chinese cities. David Ley and Sin Yih Teo, who are both professors in urban planning, encapsulate the dramatic shifts in populations in Far East cities in their case study of Shanghai and Hong Kong.

“In Shanghai traditional neighbourhoods of lilong housing have been demolished and their populations displaced; municipal statistics identify the uprooting through redevelopment of an extraordinary 750,000 households, close to 10% of the metropolitan population, in only 10 years, from 1995 to 2005” (Ley and Teo). The sheer scale of people, buildings, and factions of society being displaced in Shanghai displays the impact the forces of unrestrained government-backed development have on existing neighborhoods. Streets filled with activity, thousands of livelihoods holding hundreds of years of history are teared down, seemingly overnight, and in their place, rise shimmery, glass boxes filled with corporate tenants and luxury home owners.  Similarly, in cities around the world who are ruled by more authoritarian governments such as the UAE, India, Malaysia, and China, state backed gentrification of cities leads to the oppression of the forgotten minority, swept aside for the 21st century world city.

 

Gentrification is the defining issue of our generation. It transcends our cities, our environments, our living spaces, and affects all of the people we interact with. The trajectory that cities around the world will reshape social interactions, the economic fortunes of all the people inhabiting them, and the urban fabric of what the vast majority of the world’s population resides in. Inner-city redevelopment has redefined cities around the world, from the Rust Belt post-industrial hubs of Detroit and Cleveland, to the global economic powerhouses of London and Los Angeles. However, the economic growth cities experience leads to the marginalization of lower-income, less-fortunate minority residents of the region. Displacement and entrapment are simply a few of the factors experienced by the original residents of the neighborhoods affected. Gentrification is still a relatively new issue and many cities have only begun their respective development trajectories. Responsible development is paramount in ensuring a bright future for people of all races, ethnicities, occupations, and income levels.

 

     Sources

  1. De Verteuil, Geoffrey. “Evidence of Gentrification-Induced Displacement among Social Services in London and Los Angeles.” Urban Studies, vol. 48, no. 8, 2011, p. 1563.

  2. Marshall, Colin. “The Gentrification of Skid Row - a Story That Will Decide the Future of Los Angeles.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Mar. 2015.

  3. Sanchez, Ray, and Steve Almasy. “Spike Lee Explains Expletive-Filled Gentrification Rant.”CNN, Cable News Network, 27 Feb. 2014.

  4. Ley, David, and Sin Yih Teo. “Gentrification in Hong Kong? Epistemology vs. Ontology.” Vol. 38, no. 4, 2014, pp. 1286–1303.

  5. Guardian, and Francesca Perry. “'We Are Building Our Way to Hell': Tales of Gentrification around the World.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Oct. 2016.

  6. Silver, Nate. “New York Is 85 Percent Better Than LA (According to Aggregate Personal Income in the Metropolitan Statistical Areas).” FiveThirtyEight, FiveThirtyEight, 20 Nov. 2015.