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Sustaining Neighborhoods: What Is Gentrification?

What does "gentrification" mean to different people?

In this post, we’re interested in thinking more deeply about what we really mean when we talk about “gentrification.”


We asked artists, as well as panelists participating in Sustaining Neighborhoods (a workshop and panel on artists, neighborhoods, and affordable housing at La Casa Azul Bookstore) for their definitions of gentrification.


Definitions of “Gentrification” from artists:

  • “Politically and economically triggered migration that results in change in population mobility”
  • “Rate of change”
  • “In my view, gentrification is when market forces take priority over community cohesion and stability. By which I mean, the market drives rent in one area past the threshold of what artists and other mid-low income (yet quite privileged) folks can pay. These folks then move to a neighborhood that is low rents, and also has a community dependent on those rents staying low. Since the newcomers can pay slightly more the rents go up, and with them, new businesses move in that cater to these more affluent (but far from rich) newcomers. These changes in the neighborhood then attract people who can pay slightly more, but want the indulgences that the first wave of newcomers supported, and the cycle continues until the area (rents, but also grocery stores, bodegas, social spaces, etc) are out of the price range or comfort range of the original residents. There are many other factors that play into it (landlords vs. homeowners for one example) but I think it’s important to understand that for many involved in the system(s) of gentrification it is not a deliberate choice to be the source of gentrification as much as it is a lack of understanding of what they can do to combat it. In Crown Heights we’re fighting this battle daily, and there is certainly a feeling of inevitability that can get quite depressing, for both the long-time residents and the newcomers.”


Other thoughts shared with us:

  • Accelerated demographic change
  • Rate of new development, services or infrastructure in relation to a neighborhoods ability to afford housing because property values go up.
  • Everyone wants a new or upgraded park, plaza, services or amenities in their neighborhood, but at the expense of being displaced because home is no longer affordable?
  • When is it succession, when is it displacement?
  • Problems of cities with growing populations versus rust belt city problems.
  • What is the opposite of gentrification? Disinvestment, urban decay
  • Gentrification = city makes the initial investments of installing massive infrastructure (trunk water mains, distributions water mains, sanitary sewers and combined sewers). Developers create new development in preparation for a change in population density. For example: rezoning the Brooklyn waterfront.
  • When the big pipes come in sparsely populated areas…watch out!


Definitions of “Gentrification” from panelists:

Adeola Enigbokan (artist, Archiving the City)

The term gentrification originally referred to the colonization of a poor or working class inner city area, by the middle or upper classes ‘gentry,’ implying the spatial, physical, economic and cultural transformation of an area. However, at this moment in New York City, much like the term ‘hipster,’gentrification has become a catch-all for complex and ambivalent emotions, which people wield against each other like a weapon. It encompasses feelings of both guilt and retribution. It is associated with a deep sense of hurt springing from the unavoidable injustices that are built into contemporary life in a hyperfinancialized global city. At the same time gentrification is invoked as a label for “the other,” “the new,” or “the strange,”or “the unfamiliar” as it is encountered in the appearance of an oddly-dressed new neighbor, or a coffee shop with a rustic decor.


Moses Gates (Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development)

I don’t really have a definition personally, and I’m pretty sure ANHD as a whole doesn’t have an official definition. Even the fact that the various contributors are submitting their own definitions speaks to the vagueness of the word, and how much of the discussion around neighborhood change, stabilization and increasing costs living has a tendency to end up as a semantic discussion of what “gentrification” means.


So I’d say “what is gentrification” is kind of the wrong question, or at least one I don’t have an answer for. I would ask what’s a good and equitable vision of neighborhoods and housing in New York, and how do we get there? ANHD’s vision is one in which New Yorkers of every neighborhood have good, safe, and affordable housing choices. I know that’s a bit of a generic answer – I’ll definitely expand Saturday on how we think we get there in the context of the discussion going on.

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