Gentrification: truly as evil as purported?

Photo by Sara Schmitt

After the 1950s, suburban culture dominated the United States as the government invested in the Federal Highway Program and the Home Ownership Act in the post-war economic boom. Romanticised ideas about personal grass patches and vehicle ownership meant many people were moving away from urban centers. The increased popularity of urban culture we see now is largely a modern phenomenon.

Although the majority of Americans still live in the suburbs and will continue to do so for a long time, cities are slowly embracing density. They are investing in public transport and high-rise housing. As a result, the demographics are changing. That in itself should not come as a surprise. Cities are dynamic and change is indicative of a healthy ecosystem. However, the increase in demand for urban housing translates to an increase in the value of urban property. Many of the residents in these neighborhoods live in poverty conditions and cannot keep up, leading to their displacement. An influx of wealth into an urban neighborhood, whether private or public, is now often associated with displacement, creating a controversial reputation for the word “gentrification.”

The demographics and economic structure of urban centres has been evolving since they have existed. In the wake of World War II and the Civil Rights Movement, American cities experienced a phenomenon now known as “white flight.” Schools were officially desegregated and as more blacks from the South and Eastern European migrants began moving into American cities in search of opportunity, white people emigrated on a large scale in favor of more racially homogeneous suburbs. The federal government at the time encouraged suburban lifestyles, catalyzing the process.

The country’s economy soon went through major restructuring and the manufacturing jobs and opportunities that were open to those left in the cities were now gone. Discriminatory policies meant it was legal for minorities to be restricted to certain neighborhoods by property dealers who did not want middle-class white people, intolerant of practical desegregation, moving away. A lot of the infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods that were dominated by minorities crumbled and we were left with cities ailed by concentrated poverty.

It does not come as a surprise then that gentrification is such a controversial topic. And in many situations, it deserves the hateful reputation it currently holds. Extreme low-income neighborhoods have been commonly found in urban centres since the 1960s.  When young newcomers push out older residents who have formed ties to the community, it infuriates everyone except the gentrifiers themselves. Especially when the people who are pushed out are sometimes minorities who were pulled in when discriminatory property laws prevented them from moving elsewhere.

It is easy to blame incoming “hipsters” and corporations supposedly pouring money into these neighborhoods for the rising rents that old tenants now owe.  However, displacement is not unique to gentrified housing. In fact, households in gentrifying neighborhoods have a lower chance of being displaced than those in high-poverty ones that are not developed at all. Gentrification is often blamed because its effects are also drastic and easy to observe. Poverty, however, is insidious.

Atlanta has also been evolving significantly in the past few decades as neighborhoods like Cabbagetown, West Midtown and Old Fourth Ward have been transformed through public art projects and investments in new housing and retail. The city’s BeltLine project and the development of Ponce City Market has attracted further investments in certain areas. It also means some people can no longer afford to live there.

However, many of the investments and rising rents result from public investments instead of private corporate ones. When an area gains access to public transport, new schools and increased police coverage, property values are bound to go up and many residents may not be able to keep up.

The auspicious increase in public investment may lead to increased pressure from new residents to continue the trend and it might result in the gentrification of a low-income neighborhood into one with mixed-income households. There is nothing morally wrong with this change in the dynamics of our cities because existing low-income residents often benefit from gentrification. They may have access to better public transport, education and greater chances of income mobility if they reside in an integrated area versus one with concentrated poverty. Seventy five percent of high-poverty neighborhoods in 1970 were still high-poverty in 2010.

It is important to see that displacement solely due to recent gentrification is often a indicative of a much bigger problem. That is, economic inequality, institutionalized racism and concentrated poverty in cities. Gentrification itself, especially that which occurs due to public investment, usually increases the quality of life for existing residents along with creating room for new ones.