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An introduction to gentrification Part II

By Brian Doucet
June 24, 2008

Part I of this article provided a definition of gentrification and outlined the production, or supply-side theory as to its cause. It argued that gentrification was a back to the city movement of capital, rather than people.

The second major theory as to the causes of gentrification argues that changes in demand, particularly amongst the middle classes, are fuelling gentrification. The main proponent of this side is David Ley, a Canadian geographer. The post-industrial city is characterised by the rise in service- and financial-based, white-collar professional employment. It is this group of people, who generally work in the central city, who fuel gentrification. They choose to live in the inner-city for a variety of reasons. Many want to live closer to work, and not face lengthy commutes. The appeal of urban living (being close to restaurants and bars, culture, living in an urban community etc) also attracts many middle-classes to settle in cities. This can be particularly true for younger people, often referred to as ‘yuppies’ (Young Urban Professionals). Demographic factors also play a role, such as delaying having children (sending you kids to a poor quality inner-city school in your neighbourhood is not an issue if you do not have children), or more women in the workforce, are also important. The city also represents a liberating space compared to the suburbs, and gentrification can be viewed as a rejection of suburban norms and constraints. Finally, changes in aesthetic values, with a growing importance on older properties with ‘original features’ have placed a higher monetary value on older houses with such features.

Some of today’s most gentrified neighbourhoods began their transformation as artist, hippie, or alternative communities (think of Haight Ashbury in San Francisco or Yorkville in Toronto). Because of their low rents and property values, artists, and other groups could move in relatively inexpensively. Some authors argue that this opened the doors for both capital and the middle class to invest and move into these areas. These alternative, bohemian and artistic communities would set the stage for further waves of gentrification which would transform the neighbourhoods even further into affluent symbols of middle-class success.

Proponents of gentrification argue that neighbourhoods improve as they gentrify. Population returns, property values increase and new life is injected into what were decaying and neglected parts of the city. Very few people would argue that the Harlem of the 1970s and 80s was an ideal place to live. Many buildings that had fallen into disrepair are restored and as gentrification occurs in older areas, historic houses are preserved. Many governments see gentrification as a way of regenerating poorer neighbourhoods and brining more wealthy people into the city.

However, for many of the area’s lower-income residents, gentrification can mean displacement from their homes and their communities. Even those who are not displaced can feel its effects; the threat of being displaced, or witnessing friends and neighbours being forced to leave, can disrupt the social cohesion of the area. Therefore many of the benefits that gentrification can bring to a neighbourhood, are not enjoyed by many of the original residents; few of Harlem’s poor residents are able to take part in its revival. So what may seem a prosperous and successful revitalisation may only hide the continuing inequalities of the city. By deconverting multi-unit houses back to single-family homes, gentrification leads to a loss of affordable housing, particularly for those most vulnerable. Homelessness is therefore another, more hidden outcome of gentrification. It should be noted that displacement not only affects the poorest residents of a neighbourhood. Many of the early wave gentrifiers, particularly artists, also become displaced as neighbourhoods become transformed from artistic or bohemian enclaves, to solidly middle- and upper-class districts.

For urban geographers, gentrification is an area where the discipline has made a significant contribution to both the academic theory, and urban policy. Geographers are at the forefront of gentrification research and debate. However, the process, as well as the very word itself, conjures up a whole host of meanings. To some, it represents a saviour of cities, the promise of a trendy urban lifestyle (complete with a Starbucks on the corner), or the careful preservation of historic homes. To others, it represents the affluent triumphing over the working-classes, displacement, and a loss of one’s community. It is no wonder that geographers Mark Davidson and Loretta Lees, from King’s College London, referred to gentrification as “perhaps the most politically loaded word in urban geography.”