Since the 1970s, the urban development process known as gentrification has made a dramatic impact on many American cities. To some, gentrification signifies progress and neighborhood improvement; yet many longtime residents of low-income neighborhoods believe that gentrification does more harm than good. As with many modern social issues, however, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At its core, the term gentrification generally refers to “the transformation of neighborhoods from low value to high value,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Gentrification can occur on a small or large scale, and it can fundamentally change a city or neighborhood, and not always for the better. No matter the initial goal of gentrification, the process often results in a sizable shift of a neighborhood’s unique character, as well as the displacement of rooted residents who can no longer afford to live in the area.
Further, gentrification can affect numerous aspects of daily life, from health and safety to housing prices, property taxes, and beyond. Let’s take a look at the various side effects of gentrification in U.S. cities, and what can be done to address it in the future.
Where is Gentrification Prominent?
Interestingly, the concept of gentrification can be found throughout history. But the term itself is a more contemporary invention, generally attributed to the British sociologist Ruth Glass. In 1964, Glass observed working-class Londoners being pushed out of their homes in the wake of new construction. According to Glass, gentrification is a continual process that “goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”
Few cities across the U.S. have been left out where gentrification is concerned, but particular communities have been hit harder than others. Brooklyn, one of the five boroughs of New York City, has dealt with the side effects of gentrification for decades. A raging 1979 fire in Brooklyn’s notoriously dangerous Bushwick neighborhood spawned an almost complete rebuild, with gentrification serving as the ultimate goal.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans and much of the Gulf South in 2006, gentrification became synonymous with “recovery.” But in rebuilding parts of the historic city, much was lost: Housing prices skyrocketed, and many long-time residents lost their homes. At the same time, investors scrambled to purchase damaged properties, converting hundreds of single-family homes into short-term tourist accommodations.
Balancing Safety, Security, and Community
In both Brooklyn and New Orleans, gentrification is a racial problem as well as a social one. In fact, researchers have determined that post-Katrina gentrification has likely served to worsen racial disparity within the city of New Orleans. As of 2015, many of the city’s historically Black neighborhoods, including Bywater, the Irish Channel, and Treme, the oldest African-American neighborhood in the U.S., are now majority white.
And in Brooklyn, five separate neighborhoods saw an undeniable shift in regards to racial makeup between 2000 and 2010. Bedford, Williamsburg, and several other neighborhoods saw notable increases in white residents during that time frame and, simultaneously, a significant decrease in Black and Latino populations. Brooklyn is now considered among the most gentrified areas of New York.
Despite clear-cut evidence of resident displacement and racial inequality, proponents of gentrification often tout improved safety and lessened crime in neighborhoods that have been rebuilt. Yet studies indicate that gentrification doesn’t always correlate with greater personal safety. An analysis of 14 gentrified neighborhoods across the U.S. determined that gentrification has “no significant effect on rates of property crime” and may only marginally impact personal crime rates.
As such, rather than succumbing to gentrification, residents of low-income neighborhoods can do their part to reduce crime without the need for a heavy police presence. One of the most significant ways to make your neighborhood safer is by fostering a sense of community. Crime and suspicious activities are much easier to spot when the bulk of neighborhood residents are actively keeping watch, monitoring single-family homes and businesses alike.
The Business of Gentrification
And where businesses are concerned, gentrification has wide-reaching implications. For starters, the increased property values typically brought about by gentrification can cause undue hardship on small business owners. Businesses that were barely scraping by before a neighborhood rebuild may not be able to afford increased rent and/or cost of living.
As a result, locally owned businesses may ultimately be displaced by larger corporations that can afford higher rent costs. In areas where gentrification is rampant, small businesses are overwhelmingly shuttered in favor of chain stores and major franchises. To combat gentrification, small business owners should work to maintain their traditional modelsand originality to better stand out in a sea of cookie-cutter shops and restaurants.
The driving forces behind gentrification run the gamut from natural disasters to simple capitalism, or the desire to turn a profit. But despite the seemingly noble ideas behind the process, it isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem on the surface. The beautification of cities brought about by gentrification doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Indeed, the effects of gentrification are wide-reaching and come with plenty of negatives, from increased racial disparity to the displacement of long-standing residents and small, locally owned businesses.