What is gentrification?
The words gentrify and gentrification in their modern sense came about in the 1960’s, and both have their origin in the word gentry. Gentry, a permutation of the old French word for gentle, had become a word for those people of high rank or nobility as early as the 1300’s. So today when we talk about gentrification, the insinuation is that something is being improved by and for a class of higher people.
It is a process that takes time and the label gentrification is often not stuck onto the project until the very end, when it is obvious what overall changes have befallen the original neighborhood.
So what’s the problem?
Gentrification certainly has its benefits: it cleans up dilapidated areas, improves neighborhood economies, and there’s usually a lot more Starbucks to go around. However, the term has an almost universally negative connotation. Why is that? Let’s talk about displacement, the most obvious and oft-lamented side-effect of gentrification:
Displacement refers to people being forced from their homes, usually for economic reasons resulting from a concentrated government effort, like a gentrification project.
How does gentrification cause displacement?
When a richer group of people move into a gentrified neighborhood, the physical neighborhood gets better: property values increase, buildings get renovated, and streets get shiny new pavement. This makes property values rise and low-income residents can no longer afford their rent. The neighborhood looks better, and in many ways is better, but it’s not really the same neighborhood anymore, is it?
How pervasive is displacement?
Studies on the human behaviors during and after gentrification have been inconclusive over the years. Only in the last two decades have any long-term studies been completed, often with mixed results. For example, studies have linked gentrification to both increased and decreased crime rates.
Estimates for displaced persons also vary from study to study. While most studies show it may not be as pervasive as commonly thought, even the lowest estimates show it is real and it happens to thousands of people every year.
Is displacement the only drawback?
While studies have found that displacement from gentrification might not be as prominent as people think, it’s not the sole problem that comes from short-sighted improvement projects. Gentrified communities are likely to spend more time and money on attracting an affluent citizen base than on community programs that their poorer residents might need. For example, why spend resources on a small, local health clinic when your neighborhood is trying to attract the sort of people who can easily afford a trip downtown to the actual hospital? It’s not improving a neighborhood so much as pasting a new community over the old one, like one might paint over an ugly accent wall.
What about Beloved Streets of America?
At its heart, BSA cares for improving the lives of those who live on impoverished MLK streets. Every step in the process of renovating St. Louis’s Martin Luther King Blvd. has been crafted to help help the community that is already there. There is a key difference in BSA’s approach to community renovation: building from the ground up. Gentrification begins by attracting new, richer community members and waits for benefits to trickle down to low-income residents, if they ever do. BSA starts by assisting those who need it the most, knowing that a strong base is what will support true, sustainable growth within the community.
BSA understands that people are the ‘neighborhood.’ When we think of renovation, we must think of more than bricks and pavement.