Gentrification refers to the process in which members of a highly educated, professional class move into formerly working- or lower-class city districts, populated largely by members of minority groups. The term gentrification derives from the European concept of “gentry” and the “gentry class” and suggests, historically, a class whose manners, tastes, and sense of leisure, refinement, and gentility mirrored and emulated the values and habits of the aristocracy.
Contemporary discussions of gentrification take on added importance because of the American ambivalence toward cities as centers of cultural, political, and economic life. If, as Georg Simmel suggests, cities are the greatest representation of societal culture and civilization, they also represent heightened diversity, crowds, noises, anonymity, and a loss of privacy. For these reasons, members of the middle and upper classes have historically sought refuge beyond city boundaries for more space and to engage in activities with members of their own class. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, a series of political, educational, and economic changes occurred that significantly affected the health and prosperity of many U.S. cities. These changes would play a dramatic role in urban gentrification.
First were the government programs in the post-World War II era to address the housing shortage created by returning veterans and the resultant baby boom. These set in motion a suburban building boom that enabled builders to construct housing developments on vacant land outside the cities and hundreds of thousands of families to buy an affordable home of their own. In the years to follow, shopping centers, office parks, and industrial parks would move outward also, all of which would have a negative impact on most cities.
Next came the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, initially directed toward the South, but which, under the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, applied likewise to northern schools. This increased the outflow of white middle-class residents who sought refuge outside city limits where integration was not mandated. In the 1960s a series of urban riots further accelerated a white exodus and led to the growth of series of satellite suburbs encircling cities and towns. As “white flight” occurred, a simultaneous inflow of blacks came into many U.S. cities, as well as tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans into the New York metropolitan region. This demographic shift had an almost revolutionary impact on the political, economic, and cultural landscape of U.S. cities.
Cities faced several problems. As homes and apartment buildings built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries began to age and deteriorate, cities were losing their tax base: the white middle class. The influx of mostly rural blacks and Puerto Ricans, and the existence of the small, black middle class in most U.S. cities, could not offset the lost tax revenues caused by white flight. Furthermore, President Eisenhower’s massive highway construction program made it possible, and easier, for whites to move back and forth between their residence in suburbia and their workplace in the cities from which they had exited.
Urban politicians and businessmen appealed to the federal government for assistance in reshaping their cities and for relieving the traffic jams that resulted from suburbanites (many ex-city dwellers) traveling back and forth between work and home. As a result, in the 1960s and 1970s, cities across the country initiated massive urban renewal programs and built intra-city expressways that destroyed historic and long-existing neighborhoods and communities, homes, churches, community centers, and schools. Some areas not in the path of renewal and expressways were also affected, as cities sought to upgrade building codes, especially those concerned with plumbing and electrical wiring. This became an expensive venture, especially for apartment building landlords or working-class people who had inherited the family home and could not afford the expenses of bringing their properties up to contemporary code standards.
As a consequence, cheap housing—in comparison with escalating suburban home costs—became available in the inner cities. This enticing inducement attracted two groups that spurred on the gentrifying process: ex-urbanites wanting to return to the city and young, highly educated professionals. As they grew older, the ex-urbanites, now empty nesters, sought a more intense interaction with people, activities, and institutions which in the aggregate could only be found in cities. The second group, nicknamed “yuppies,” worked in the cities’ banks, businesses, colleges and universities, and hospitals. These childless couples and single individuals loved city life and its amenities—theaters, restaurants, parks, museums and galleries, and shops—and did not want the hassles of long commuter drives. Also, unlike the previous generation of white middle-class parents, those with young children in the late 20th century had model schools, which many cities created largely to retain their small and dwindling white middle class. Some of these model schools were excellent and enticed many parents to move into cities and have their children attend one of them.
Consequently, with loans, savings, financial gifts, or money borrowed from family members, these groups began a massive remodeling program to reshape old communities and create new ones. They moved into old, often dilapidated buildings, many just shells, and spent millions to refashion some of the old Victorian homes and brownstone buildings back to what they were 50 to 70 years ago. The results were impressive; eyesores disappeared, street activity and safety returned, and the neighborhood economy thrived.
But the gentrification process came at a human cost. From urban renewal to the building of expressways, the poor were shuttled from place to place, often with their new housing more dilapidated than the old. Poor and minority communities, who had complained for years over the lack of sufficient streetlights and the invisibility of police patrols, now saw an abundance of both in these gentrified neighborhoods and communities. In addition, men not involved with drugs, who would congregate peacefully on corners and stoops, with gentrification now found themselves harassed by the police, who demanded that they move on. And working-class and lower-middle-class renters and owners who had lived in their neighborhoods for years often faced insurmountable financial stress as their rents and real estate taxes increased. Once the gentrifiers improved their properties, higher rents and property taxes followed. Thus, for many whose income did not match the increased expenses, the only choice was to move away. In some cities, such as Charleston, South Carolina, the gentrifying process grew to such an extent that it became virtually impossible for even middle-class blacks and whites to purchase homes in the peninsular portion of the city. Instead, the middle class moved to the area west of the Ashley River, whereas the working, lower classes moved to the less expensive and not yet gentrified city of North Charleston.
Because gentrification is intricately linked to matters of class, race, and ethnicity, this process has its pluses and minuses. Had urban politicians and the state and federal officials been more attentive to matters related to housing in inner cities, the consequences of gentrification in certain cities might not have been so detrimental to inner-city residents. The question is whether it is necessary to destroy a community in order to save it. Upscale buildings and restored homes unquestionably revitalized the cities, but holistic urban planning might have prevented destruction of the sense of community among low-income people and the networks around which they built their lives.
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