Everything about gentrification is controversial — even its definition. One recent study by sociologist Michael Barton compared how the New York Times and researchers used the term to talk about city neighborhoods; he found very little agreement about where change was happening. That’s not the only thing we can’t agree on. Gentrification is painted alternately as a destroyer of neighborhoods or a savior of cities. These competing views are driven in part by misconceptions about what the word means and what it entails. Here are some of the most common.
1. Gentrification leads to lower crime.
Over the past decade, urban crime rates have dropped precipitously. City-watchers often point to gentrification. A letter to the editor in the New Orleans Times-Picayune called “a city getting safer” one of the “chief byproducts of gentrification.” A Mic article attributed a 30 percent crime drop in one Brooklyn neighborhood to the phenomenon. The logic is simple: Poorer neighborhoods tend to have more crime. Gentrification, which brings an influx of wealthier residents, should lower the crime rate.
In fact, studies of the relationship between crime and gentrification have found the opposite: Gentrification often leads to increases in crime. One study found that larceny and robbery went up in gentrifying neighborhoods across the country.
There are at least two explanations for this pattern. The new, wealthier residents might be more lucrative targets for would-be burglars and robbers, perhaps enticing them to engage in more illegal acts. And crime thrives on instability, anonymity and weaker social ties, all of which make it easier for criminals to blend in and less likely for neighbors to look out for one another. Gentrification, by definition, destabilizes a neighborhood.
2. Gentrification causes widespread displacement.
For many, gentrification is synonymous with the expulsion of low-income residents. As urbanist Richard Florida wrote in CityLab, “Displacement can be and is a big issue in places where gentrification is occurring at a feverish pace.” The Charlotte Observer warned that “gentrification may be complicated, but it’s not a myth and neither is displacement.”
Of course, when neighborhoods change, some families do get pushed out. But my research shows that longtime residents aren’t more likely to move when their neighborhood gentrifies; sometimes they’re actually less likely to leave (in part because of the improvements gentrification can bring). In one study, I found that the probability that a household would be displaced in a gentrifying neighborhood in New York was 1.3 percent. A 2015 study in Philadelphia found something similar — that neighborhood income gains did not significantly predict household exit rates.
What distinguishes gentrification is not who moves out; it’s who moves in. In a gentrifying neighborhood, new residents are more likely to be well-off . As a result, the neighborhood’s poverty makeup can shift, even if no one leaves. In 2004, I found that a neighborhood’s poverty rate could drop from 30 percent to 12 percent in a decade with minimal displacement. That’s because gentrification often leads to new construction or to investment in once-vacant properties.
It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of poor neighborhoods across the country aren’t gentrifying. Outside of hot metro areas such as New York, Washington and San Francisco, most poor places stay poor.
3. Longtime residents hate gentrification.
Gentrification has a decidedly negative connotation, often painted as a loss for a neighborhood’s “old-timers.” This idea is amplified by the press. An In These Times magazine article about gentrification in the Big Easy claimed that “when native New Orleanians talk, the topic inevitably turns to conflicts with the new migrants.” In a story about a proposed apartment building in Washington, Bloomberg Views columnist Megan McArdle wrote that “longtime residents were vehemently opposed on the grounds that this would cause gentrification.” New York Daily News columnist Josh Greenman describes this as a “we-were-here-first” attitude.
Of course, some people don’t want to see their neighborhoods change. But often, residents appreciate certain aspects of gentrification. Homeowners stand to gain a windfall as the value of their property appreciates. Increased retail activity brings more goods and services to once-forlorn areas. With gentrification, residents may no longer find it necessary to travel outside their neighborhood to have a sit-down meal or avail themselves of fresh produce.
Whether residents appreciate the changes comes down to two things: the amenities in their neighborhood prior to gentrification, and whether the new services benefit the people who live there. In neighborhoods with severe disinvestment, lacking many retail services that most people take for granted, one may find long-term residents who appreciate gentrification. As the Washington City Paper wrote about the District, “Most longtime residents of low-income neighborhoods don’t clamor for ‘gentrification,’ exactly, but they do want the things it often brings: grocery stores and other retail within walking distance; better transit connections; reduced crime; and attention from the city government.”
4. Gentrifiers are white.
The stereotypical image of a gentrifier is a bearded white guy on a fixie or a young white professional who treats her dog like a spoiled child. One D.C. resident protested white gentrifiers in his neighborhood with lawn signs. Spike Lee has also talked about the phenomenon in explicitly racial tones, asking, “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?” As the website Gizmodo put it, “Across the United States, white infill is associated with gentrification.”
But gentrification is hardly a white thing. In many neighborhoods, middle-class Asians, blacks and Latinos are part and parcel of the process. Millennials and young professionals of all races appreciate the attractions and conveniences of city living. In a 2009 study, I found that gentrifying neighborhoods are more racially diverse than non-gentrifying ones.
There’s another reason for this, too. Kesha Moore of Drew University has shown that professionals are drawn to some low-income minority neighborhoods because of a desire to give back to the communities where they or their parents grew up. In minority neighborhoods that are gentrifying, nonwhite gentrifiers aren’t as noticeable as white ones. And even when we do notice them, we don’t call them gentrifiers.
5. Gentrification happens naturally.
When we talk about a gentrified neighborhood, we may imagine something specific — a bustling street with new coffee shops, boutique clothing stores and artisanal breweries. Gentrification “probably does mean getting a Starbucks or another upscale cafe,” Gizmodo wrote. In fact, the coffee chain is so synonymous with the phenomenon that the Guardian asked: “In gentrified cities which came first: Starbucks or higher real estate prices?”
It’s true that a lot of gentrifying neighborhoods get these amenities. But it’s not inevitable. As sociologist Sylvie Tissot has shown, gentrifiers don’t rely on market forces alone to bring in the types of restaurants and shops compatible with a neighborhood’s new image. The same gentrifiers who are drawn to a low-income neighborhood for cheaper housing might also work to change the area more to their liking. This might mean leaning on police and code enforcers to drive out seedy bars, or pushing policymakers to provide subsidies to businesses that “fit in.” To be sure, market forces help change commerce in gentrifying neighborhoods. But often lurking behind the “invisible hand” are activists and policymakers who wish to nudge the market to produce certain outcomes.
Sometimes, the poor try to use these same levers to change their neighborhoods. Consider Harlem, where residents in the 1970s sought to stabilize their community by luring middle-class homeowners and retail. Their successes may have paved the way for outsiders to invest, move in and spur gentrification. But change began long before the demographic shift.