Skip to main content

The Problem of Urban Inequality and a Defense of Gentrification

Gentrification is a hot topic. The term 'gentrification' itself has become infamous, even in the circles of people who typically are at the front lines of the gentrifying. The process is typically described like this: Corrupt real-estate developers (usually with inside political connections) target a run-down urban neighborhood where lots of happy (albeit not very wealthy) people live.  Some sort of "land grab" occurs, rich people start to move into the neighborhood and rental prices start shooting up. Long-time residents can no longer afford a modest apartment; long-time businesses leave so that Starbucks and Pinkberry can have retail space. A once-proud neighborhood becomes a yuppie magnet.

The problem is that I don't think it's a universally accurate description of what's happening in America's urban environments. It's a black-and-white way of thinking that only works when it does.

(from flickr user bondidwhat)

Gentrification is sometimes singled out for driving inequality in America's cities. Take a look at this paragraph from Alyssa Katz's new article about New York City in The American Prospect:
In the Bloomberg years, the city has seen its economy bifurcate into extremes -- on one end, high-paying professional employment, largely tied to the financial-services industry and, on the other, low-paying work in retail, health care, and other service sectors. New York is the most unequal city in the country.
Inequality is a problem for society, no doubt. But it's not necessarily a problem that has been caused by cities any more than it has by broader social forces.  Is New York an highly unequal city? Probably. This income distribution map really speaks volumes. Yes, New York is a city where millionaires live next door to the people who cook their food and clean their offices. Yes, New York is a city where million-dollar condo buildings are on the same blocks as subsidized public housing. Is this bad? And for that matter, what's the alternative?

The alternative to New York's rampant inequality is a city like Cleveland. The city of Cleveland, for what it's worth, is pretty equal, at least that's the story the numbers tell. Rich people don't live next door to poor people. There isn't a Starbucks (or any coffee shop) in many neighborhoods. There are virtually no million dollar homes. What you have is a city where rich people don't want to live. In fact, you have a city where many poor people don't want to live, either.

As people rant about rich people moving into and gentrifying urban neighborhoods, they rarely address this question: where should these people live? The suburbs? Gated developments? Another metro area?

Let's imagine we agree that rich people ought to live in the suburbs (as is already pretty much the case in the Cleveland metro). What happens? Job sprawl happens, as executives get sick of commuting for long distances to and move their offices closer to themselves. Social services suffer, since the city struggles to collect income tax from its residents who don't earn much income, or on property tax on real-estate that isn't appraised very high. People who live in the city's neighborhoods dream of leaving for suburbs. As it happens, the first-generation suburbanites get upset and make comments like "the ghetto is expanding outward". Many of those same people pack up and move to another suburb even farther from the city.

Sure, you don't really have inequality in the city of Cleveland. What you do have is a type of "separate but equal" phenomenon in the metro.

(from flickr user edkohler)

Long-time residents of Manhattan's Chinatown or the Lower East Side are understandably justified to be upset if they get priced out of the neighborhood because gentrifiers are moving in. But rich people are moving to those neighborhoods because there is something desirable about them. That desirability is the same no matter how much money you make. Whether you're rich or not, everyone wants to live in a hot neighborhood and nobody wants to pay much to do so.

Many New Yorkers consider the subway system to be one of society's great equalizers. Every morning, an incredibly diverse group of people board trains for an incredibly diverse set of reasons. They ride together. No one gets to where they're going faster than anyone else. It's a very different dynamic than in Cleveland, where the rich drive cars, the poor use public transportation. Even if the rich people wanted to take public transportation, they live in the suburbs, and service stinks out there...

As much as Ronald Reagan's "trickle down economics" has generally failed society, there is some truth to the theory on the micro scale. So many service jobs exist in New York City because there are so many people living there who can afford to demand services. In Cleveland, there isn't much retail around anymore. Instead, most service-level jobs exist is in the suburbs and it presents a unique challenge to people who would benefit the most from them: how to get out there? Many of these jobs wind up being handed out to teenagers who see their income as 100% discretionary.

Anti-gentrification critics can focus so much on housing that I fear they sometimes miss the bigger picture. Giving poor people access to cheap rent is a noble goal; giving them access to opportunities is entirely another. "Affordable housing" has become the anti-gentrification buzzword because, after all, who wouldn't like cheaper housing? But our society still looks down on service-sector jobs. "Working at McDonalds" has become synonymous with an inability to obtain more meaningful employment. It's not surprising that people are reluctant to advocate for more of these positions.

One necessary-to-mention point is that Cleveland does have three neighborhoods that are considered to be gentrifying (Downtown, Ohio City and Tremont). If I were going to look for a place to live in Cleveland after I graduate, it would be one of those neighborhoods; but they're still relatively inexpensive places to live comparatively and the pace of gentrification seems to be moving at a snail's pace compared to what's happening in New York, Chicago, Washington or a host of growing cities.

The bottom line is that issues surrounding gentrification are complex. There are undoubtedly situations in which private developers take advantage of a neighborhood and the people living there. There are other situations where gentrification can do a great deal of good for a city. Inequality will exist as long as American society will tolerate it. Reducing it should be a goal for society, but not necessarily the burden of individual cities.


I agree with the general point you make here, Rob, "in defense of gentrification"--though I think it's more of a critique of anti-gentrification people, and less an actual defense of gentrification (however broadly defined).

You're totally right that gentrification--most often defined as an influx of affluent and/or middle class white professionals into previously poor, majority-minority neighborhoods--does not necessarily, if ever, result in mass displacement and skyrocketing rents. In fact, such rapid social change is, apparently, not very common at all, and many other forces and/or migration patterns facilitate demographic swings.

Still, we might be a little quick to jump in defense of this flooding of new capital and resources into previously under-served neighborhoods. Take Chicago, for example. The near southside neighborhoods of North Kenwood and Oakland are experiencing black, "buppie" gentrification, but long term residents are benefiting from much. Local services--especially the supermarkets--are highly segregated by class. Hyde Park had a similar dynamic for a while. I've been living in West Town, a poor-ish/hipster neighborhood on the westside, and the same dynamic is apparent here--I mean, the white yuppies and hispanics even go to different dry cleaners! In other words, everyone isn't universally benefiting, though I agree with you that the opportunity is greater.

In general, I think there are many different kinds of gentrification, some bad, but many good for local communities. Nevertheless, social segregation can trump the presence of new resources, in some cases.
AndrewBW said…
I think its important to remember that gentrification is a long, ongoing process. Neighborhoods don't go from "not gentrified" to "gentrified" overnight. At one point in the process, gentrification may prove to be tremendously beneficial to the original residents of a neighborhood, bring new people and the money to solve long-standing problems. At a later point those new people may so overwhelm the original residents that they force the original residents out, changing the character of the neighborhood completely changed. Where you are on that continuum and whether you're one of the original residents or one of the newcomers - or whether you're more sympathetic to one side or the other - colors how you see the process.
Cavan said…
Well said. The "anti-gentrification" is just NIMBYism in another form. It's just a fear of change, and a desire to control. Since the NIMBY tends to have no new ideas, the only way to try to exert control is to say "no."

There has been a lot of that same talk happening in DC (and in Baltimore to a lesser extent). Many long-time residents then note that the city services are the best they have ever seen after "gentrification." It's amazing what an expanding tax base can do for providing services.
Austin said…
When white people move out of the city to avoid crime and terrible schools they are criticized for taking the tax base with them. When white people move into the city they are criticized for increasing the tax base. People just need others to blame for their failures.
цarьchitect said…
From what I’ve been hearing, Ms. Katz’s book is total crap. I am definitely sympathetic to the people who are displaced by rising housing costs – but her arguments about authenticity and stratification lack the context to make them meaningful.

The authenticity argument is a little more obnoxious – it’s like she chased hipsters around for a few years, when they were going after the galleries in Williamsburg. But people didn’t move into Harlem because it’s authentic. They went there because it’s cheap, has great public transit, and the buildings are amazing. Nobody went there for the bodegas and the chess (and otherwise) hustlers.

Ultimately, there is one way to make housing more affordable, and that is to build more housing. Inclusionary zoning bonuses help, but simply legalizing urban density and even encouraging it is the best way to lower the cost of housing.
B. P. Beckley said…
Well, I'm glad to see someone explicitly defending gentrification in Cleveland, but the situation in somewhere like NYC or DC really is different and maybe you can't make the same judgements with regard to those places.
But in Cleveland, gentrification is the only known alternative to continued decline.
The one exception I can think of to this in Cleveland is Little Italy ... that may be the area of Cleveland that comes closest to the traditional anti-gentrification narrative that you have ably described. On the other hand, I think people have been moving out of Little Italy to the suburbs for decades, just like they have everywhere else in Cleveland.
Anonymous said…
I think the broader question to ask is, "Why are the existing residents so poor?" Sure, they need affordable housing, but they also need to have their current service-sector jobs pay a lot more.

I believe that if these residents had enough money to funnel into their existing homes and neighborhoods, the neighborhoods wouldn't be ripe for gentrification. This can't come from risky mortgages, but from a broad-based rise in salaries. Or, as Katz would probably support, a huge and sustained public housing investment.
Rob Pitingolo said…
I didn't intend this post to be a direct criticism of Alyssa Katz's TAP article - I merely used one of her quotes because I think it's a well-written summary of one of the main arguments against gentrification.

The real takeaway from Katz's article is that things could get very ugly in New York if real-estate developers start going bankrupt and landlords start defaulting on their properties. Admittedly, it's a complex issue that goes beyond the scope of this blog post.

Popular posts from this blog

In Praise of Southwest's 'C' Boarding Group

A few weeks ago I saw a tweet from someone complaining that their Southwest Airlines boarding pass had been assigned A20 (meaning they would be at least one of the first twenty passengers to board the plane). Apparently this person though they should have been assigned a higher number, less their flight experience be considerably spoiled.

Despite the complaints, Southwest has resisted demands to assign seats on its flights, a decision which I personally applaud. I'll admit that I was skeptical when they rolled out the newest boarding procedure, assigning both boarding groups and a line number; but in hindsight it seems like one of the best operational decisions they've ever made. If nothing else, it effectively eliminated the infamous "cattle call" whereby fliers were getting to airports hours in advance and sitting in line on the floor as if they were waiting for the midnight showing of the new Star Wars movie.

When I was an intern at Southwest Airlines last winter, I…

So You Want to be a Southwest Airlines Intern?

My personal website must have pretty decent SEO - because in the past year, I've received about two dozen emails from aspiring Southwest Airlines interns looking to draw on my experience in search of their own dream internship. In the past two weeks alone a few new emails have already started rolling in...

(from flickr user San Diego Shooter)

If you've found your way here, you might be hoping for the silver bullet; a secret tip that will propel you above the competition. Unfortunately, I do not know any inside secrets. I can only share my experience as an internship candidate about two years ago and, rather than responding individually to future emails I anticipate to receive, I hope that potential interns will find the information posted here valuable.

Understand: Southwest Airlines is a very unique company. The corporate culture at Southwest is truly unlike that of nearly every other company. But you probably already knew that, since it now seems mandatory for every management,…

Commuting Meets Technology

I'm finally out of the dark ages. I got an Android smartphone over the weekend and have since been in the process of exploring the Android apps market.  One thing I've immediately noticed is the really wide range of usefulness in the apps. For example, the WeatherBug app is fantastic. It automatically determines your location and gives you exact conditions for that location. On the other end of the spectrum, Google's Goggles app is supposed to be a type of 'visual search' where you snap of photo of something and Google searches for it. In each of my attempts to use it, the app hasn't returned any search results. I even took a photo of a bottle of Pepsi (figuring it as a common houseful item) and got nothing.

Somewhere in the middle is this app called Waze. Have a look at their 'guided tour':

Some people might look at it and comment on the amazing evolution of technology or on the incredible value of social networks. To me, Waze says something important ab…