Gentrification Has Types — Get To Know Them

Cities by gentrification type.  Special thanks to Adam Carstens for producing this map!

Patterns of gentrification vary by city, and the spread of gentrified areas is partly determined by the city’s predominant development form and the historic levels of African-American populations within them.  Gentrification is a nuanced phenomenon along these characteristics, but most people engaged in any gentrification fail to acknowledge the nuances.

Spurred on by the recent debate on the impact of limited housing supply on home prices and rents, thereby “capping” gentrification, (taken on fantastically by geographer Jim Russell in posts like this), I decided to do a quick analysis of large cities and see how things added up.  The analysis was premised on a couple observations of gentrification, one often spoken and one not.  One, gentrification seems to be occurring most and most quickly in cities that have an older development form, offering the walkable orientation that is growing in favor.  Two, gentrification seems to be occurring most and most quickly in areas that have lower levels of historic black populations.  This less noted observation was the thrust of a study by Harvard sociology professor Robert Sampson and doctoral student Jackelyn Hwang, recently described here.  Here’s what they said, after conducting an exhaustive study of gentrification patterns in Chicago:

“After controlling for a host of other factors, they found that neighborhoods an earlier study had identified as showing early signs of gentrification continued the process only if they were at least 35 percent white. In neighborhoods that were 40 percent or more black, the process slowed or stopped altogether. “

 That prompted my quick study.  I wanted to categorize cities by old and new development forms, and low and high historic levels of black population.  To do that I came up with an arbitrary proxy for the age of development form.  Using decennial Census data, if a city reached 50 percent of its peak population by 1940, it was deemed to have an old development form; if a city reached 50 percent of its peak population in 1950 or later, it was deemed to have a new development form.  Here’s a quick example of how this works.   Baltimore, currently with a population of a little over 600,000, reached its peak of 949,000 in 1950.  Baltimore reached half its peak, or about 475,000, by 1890, a time at which it could be said that Baltimore’s form as a city had been firmly established.  Similarly, Austin reached its peak of 790,000 in 2010.  The fast-growing Texas city was half that size in only 1990, a year in which it could be said that its development form was established and the city began to see itself as a major city.  Imprecise, yes, but a decent proxy for examining old and new city development forms.

The second piece of analysis was gathering Census data on central city black populations in 1970.  This decade was chosen largely because it represents the end of the Great Migration, when millions of African-Americans left the rural South for cities across the nation.  By that time the cities which are generally recognized as having large black populations had already been identified, and it’s possible to explore the impact of the migration on them.  I arbitrarily said cities with black populations lower than 25 percent of the total in 1970 had a low black population, and those above 25 percent had a high black population.

Using those two factors, I put together this table of the 64 primary cities over 250,000 in the U.S.:

There are more than a few cities that are exceptions, largely because recent consolidations or large-scale annexations have boosted them into more unfamiliar boxes.  But some patterns are evident, and if you think of these in terms of gentrification, you might be able to make the following general assumptions:

Old Form + Low Black Population = Expansive Gentrification (OFLB)
Old Form + High Black Population = Concentrated Gentrification (OFHB)
New Form + Low Black Population = Limited Gentrification (NFLB)
New Form + High Black Population = Nascent Gentrification (NFHB)

Identifying the examples might be the best way to explain what I mean.  New York, San Francisco and Boston are the prototypical OFLB cities, and gentrification has made its widest impact in these three cities.  Chicago, Washington and Atlanta are the classic OFHB cities, where gentrification is concentrated in certain areas of the city (or region), and eludes the heavily African-American parts of the city.  Phoenix, San Diego and Las Vegas might be the prototypical NFLB cities, all of which came of age with the car as the dominant mode of transport and with few African-Americans.  NFLB cities may also be the leaders and innovators in seeking ways to catalyze their inner cities, with greater tangible investments in public transit and mixed use development.  The relatively few NFHB cities are a distinctly Southern phenomenon, and by all appearances gentrification activity lags behind other cities, with sprawl still the dominant development engine.

Why would any of this matter?  Nationally, the gentrification debate is defined by the experiences of the OFLB types like New York, San Francisco and Boston.  There, the issues are rapidly growing unaffordability, concerns with displacement and growing inequality.  But the gentrification debate is quite different in OFHB cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta, where seeking ways to more equitably spread the positive benefits of revitalization might lead such discussions.

In other words, it’s not exactly correct to look at what’s happening in Los Angeles or San Diego, or Baltimore or St. Louis, in the New York-San Francisco-Boston context.  Different forces and different experiences are creating different outcomes in each city, and if we want to understand how to look at gentrification’s impact, we need to understand its foundations.

9 thoughts on “Gentrification Has Types — Get To Know Them

  1. How do things change if you reclassify New York as OFHB? By 1970, there were already lots of Puerto Ricans in the city, facing the same discrimination as non-Hispanic blacks but not classified the same; since then, there's also been a Dominican influx. As the city began to gentrify in the 1980s, the white neighborhoods, or the black and Hispanic neighborhoods that abutted white neighborhoods (e.g. Alphabet City/East Village), gentrified first. Nowadays, gentrification is pushing out into historically black and Hispanic areas, like Harlem and Bushwick. It's skipping areas that are too far and poor, like Eastern Brooklyn and the South Bronx, but presumably it will get there eventually, same way it got to Harlem (and nowadays the Bronx is more Hispanic than black).

    The importance of this reclassification is that New York, Boston, and San Francisco have a key commonality outside your typology: they're all very rich. The same is true of Washington, where we similarly see gentrification in large expanses of the city. Now, Washington has higher crime rates than the other three, which may make whites more afraid of black neighborhoods, but I don't know in enough detail how white Washingtonians think of Anacostia vs. how white Brooklynites think of Bed-Stuy; for what it's worth, white Manhattanites are largely unafraid of 125th Street. That said, I've never heard white Bostonians express fear of Dorchester or Roxbury, and yet those neighborhoods have what's by my standards laughably cheap housing. Likewise, the Bronx is actually getting less white, because both the inner and the outer color lines in the city are moving outward, and the inner color line is still in Manhattan while the outer one is in the Bronx and southern Westchester.

    In this picture, the cause of gentrification is high incomes (in today's context, signaling a demand for inner-urban living) spread among a fixed amount of housing. NY/SF/DC/Boston have the most amount of wealth, hence the most demand for urban living among the wealthy. Although US incomes are stagnating, incomes among the top 20% or so are rising, and the top 20% or so are enough to fill the inner areas of the biggest cities. So these cities aren't fundamentally different from Chicago, LA, Houston, etc., and eventually Chicago, etc., will look more like them.

    If I wanted to exceptionalize one city, I'd make it SF, where a major cause of gentrification is the impossibility of building housing in Silicon Valley, where the tech jobs are. NY, DC, and Boston are surrounded by equally intransigent suburbs, where people think apartments = poor minorities = ew, but those suburbs aren't the huge job draws that Silicon Valley is. Google's Boston-area headquarters is in Cambridge, not on Route 128.


  2. Alon, first of all thanks for the thoughtful comment. I don't know if I could ever see New York reclassified as a OFHB city, in part because of the reasons you suggest — a constant flow of immigrants that makes the city unique among US cities. New York's blacks have made a cultural and social impact on the city and throughout the nation, but New York has never had a period where it had a strong white/black dichotomy like the ones in the OFHB category. Being the immigrant port of entry for more than a century and having the first and largest influx of Hispanics on the East Coast makes the city quite different from others.

    But this exercise wasn't really about explaining gentrification as it exists today, but explaining what conditions existed that allowed gentrification to develop and spread. It was also about thinking of social perceptions of cities at a critical time in US history — the end of Civil Rights era and the New Deal economy at roughly the same time. Perceptions of cities following the wave of riots in the late 1960s was of out-of-control ghettos coming to your neighborhood, and that factored into decisions on whether to remain in the city or decamp for the suburbs. I don't mean at all to suggest that suburbanization was entirely motivated by race, especially when jobs moved there, cheaper and more modern homes were available and the expansion of highways facilitated suburban development. But race was often part of the calculus, and I maintain that the higher the percentage of blacks in a given city cira 1970, the more it did factor into the decision making process.

    What New York, San Francisco qne Boston shared circa 1970 was a lower overall black population when compared to other large US cities. I think that afforded residents of those cities to do two things as the disruptions of the period took hold. One, because of the smaller black populations, if conflagrations did arise residents were able to say it happened “over there”, often far from where whites lived. And more broadly, residents of these cities did not “write off” large expanses of them (or in some cases, the entire city) as lawless or unsafe.

    I argue that in Chicago, Philadelphia and even Washington, urban unrest was never an “over there” thing to white residents circa 1970. It was a “right here” thing, causing a different dynamic. In their cases the white population more or less retreated to certain areas of the city, and future gentrification activity sprung largely from those areas.

    As far as wealth goes, that's an outcome of gentrification, not a cause. It may seem strange to say now, but there was far less difference in incomes between San Francisco and Detroit than there is today. DC's wealth in particular is a recent phenomenon, really over the last 25-30 years as the federal government expanded.

    Bottom line, I think there's a fairly strong correlation between race and gentrification progress.


  3. DC's median household income seems to have been high for a long time. I seem to recall that the book Between Justice and Beauty the author notes that Washington had a higher median income than either New York or LA during the 1940s. I'd love to see a complete time series on that.


  4. It's interesting that so many OFLB “Expansive Gentrification” cities are in the Midwest – 10 out of 16 if you include Kansas City, Omaha, and Buffalo. It sort of contrasts with the general perception of Rust Belt cities as deteriorating and heavily black (although a few cities such as Buffalo have acquired larger black populations after 1970). I wonder why these cities aren't known for gentrification like New York or Boston. Do their weak economies (or small size) discourage large-scale gentrification? Or is there more under-the-radar gentrification that is happening in these cities?


  5. The attitude I'm seeing from the New York of the 60s and 70s, on Mad Men and in conversations with older people who have moved to the suburbs, is that black people in New York were very much a right here phenomenon. The Upper East Side abuts Harlem, and people from both neighborhoods knew (and still know) exactly where the color line lay; white Upper East Siders wouldn't dare venture north of 86th Street back then. In the Bronx and outer Brooklyn there were similar fears, of blacks from neighborhoods farther in coming to their areas and bringing crime. The 1977 blackout had riots. The city may never have been just white and black, but Puerto Ricans were cataloged together with blacks when it came to white fear of crime, and the same is true of Dominicans today. The gentrification that started in the 1980s built itself from a handful of neighborhoods, all in the same area, like the Village and SoHo, and that was because the closed factories could be turned into lofts. The Upper West Side also had gentrification, eventually linking up with Morningside Heights, but it's usually treated very differently, I think mainly because the gentrifying social class there was bourgeois rather than bohemian. Whatever it is, what's happening in Brooklyn and Astoria right now is an outgrowth of the Village and SoHo, and not of the Upper West Side, and I think the same is true of the beginnings of white influx into Harlem (which I purposely do not call gentrification, because Harlem rents began rising well before white people moved in).

    The per capita income story, at least in San Francisco and Detroit, follows exogenous technological and economic developments. The Bay Area's per capita income exploded in the tech bubble, crashed when it popped, and has recovered since; SF, which is less tech-dependent than Silicon Valley, has accordingly had smaller swings. Detroit's per capita income grew at the same rate as that of the rest of the US, but in the 2000s, the American auto industry collapsed, and Detroit saw negative per capita income growth, while less auto-dependent Rust Belt areas, like Upstate New York, rebounded from previous declines. Until the 2000s, only Detroit proper was declining, while the suburbs were healthy.

    There are data series going back to 1969 on the BEA's website.


  6. This bit from the original PS article is interesting:

    “The squawking about greater density and housing supply allows more white people to follow other white people into the city, thereby exacerbating racial segregation.”

    To me it reflects the 'damned if you do, damned if you don't predicament foisted upon all those evil “gentrifiers” by detached “social justice” commentators. Move into black urban neighborhoods? Evil! You're taking away housing from rightful “original”* inhabitants! Pass over black urban neighborhoods for already-gentrified ones, and perhaps call for increased supply in the latter precisely to avoid demand spillover into ungentrified neighborhoods? Evil! You're exacerbating racial segregation!

    *Actually, the true “original” inhabitants are long gone, but whatever.

    The moralizing and posturing over what young urban transplants “should” be doing is sickening, not only because it's hopelessly contradictory, but also because there's a double standard: there's no social justice “squawking” when a black urban neighborhood prefers to stick together for cultural/social/economic reasons, but when young transplants 'clump' together for the same reasons, they're quickly condemned by the perennial grievance industry. So what's the politically correct thing to do, guys? If young transplants broaden the range of neighborhoods to settle in, aren't they committing the unforgivable crime of gentrification? If they gravitate to already-gentrified (mostly white) neighborhoods – and in turn avoid gentrifying black neighborhoods filled with “rightful original” inhabitants – aren't they being racist? Damned if you do, damned if you don't!

    Maybe the social justice industry would be taken seriously again if it stopped trying to make everyone feel guilty for every little thing. Reality is people tend to stick with others with whom they have a lot in common, and no amount of guilt-tripping will change that. For example, Russell concludes that “some neighborhoods are too black to be desirable,” but perhaps these neighborhoods don't *want* outsiders:

    “Several of my friends have scoffed at this trend and traded their own yuppie hipster Williamsburg for Bushwick, an area of Brooklyn struggling to remain 100% black. Guess what. It doesn’t go well. When phenomenally naïve Canadian immigrant and long time drinking buddy Dan Morrison picked up the paper and saw $650 a month for rent, he jumped on the subway and headed over. He got off the train, paper in hand, and almost immediately, a woman in a phone booth interrupted her conversation, poked her head out, and yelled, “Oh I KNOW you ain’t moving to THIS neighborhood.” His two-block walk was littered with dubious glares and when he eventually got to the “For Rent” sign, a loiterer on the stoop cut all the pretense and bluntly stated, “Don’t move here.” Dan did an about-face and got back on the train.”


  7. Upon rereading my post, I admit it comes off as combative, but my only intention was to reflect the frustration over all the contradictory “do this, no do this, no don't do that, do that instead” lectures coming from the gentrification analysts. So the recent crop of articles chastising young people for complaining about a purported lack of supply in hot neighborhoods at the same time as other – mostly black – neighborhoods with “good bones” languished was annoying, because they seemed to imply that young people *weren't* exploring these neighborhoods when they perhaps have already tried.

    Anecdotes like the one above are a dime a dozen. On one hand I suppose we could see “irony” in this situation by observing it as a neat 21st century inversion of the racism blacks experienced when they tried to move into white neighborhoods, but the underlying issue is still troubling and essentially the same as it was in 1950: how do you integrate into a neighborhood that – seemingly – doesn't want you? Do the hecklers of outsiders perhaps represent only a minority of residents? Should transplants be tougher-skinned and work harder to forge bonds with their neighbors? (As should existing residents!) Should we expect every transplant or longtime resident to do this, and should it be surprising if most prefer to cluster where this long, complex effort is unnecessary? (Not just in “hot urban neighborhoods” but in neighborhoods of all kinds in all places.)

    Still, I think the type classifications in this post are very useful. I'd agree that the NYC, San Francisco, and Boston gentrification narratives are quite correctly *not* the appropriate narratives to analyze the gentrification debates in, say, Philly, Baltimore, or Chicago. But the tricky part is, in the latter cities, what exactly would it mean to “seek ways to more equitably spread the positive benefits of revitalization?” ALL the gentrification-angsting articles out there conclude with similarly-vague statements without ever getting into (realistic) specifics.

    Oddly enough, it seems to me that Speck's wildly-misinterpreted “urban triage” concept could perhaps be one of the most useful tools for expanding gentrification's benefits to underserved and overlooked populations: fix up and improve what already has “good bones” before adding any new stuff! In the urban context, this may be as mundane as improving the existing grid of bus lines connecting various neighborhoods rather than putting money into toodly, infrequent trolleys connecting hotels to waterfront casinos. Or overlaying lighter “pink codes” on long-struggling urban commercial streets to reduce regulatory burdens on minority businesses rather than doing the expensive five-b's (bollards, brick sidewalks, banners, benches, and berms) on a handful of downtown tourist shopping streets.


  8. Also, apart from Jacobs, has there ever been a thorough analysis of how some physical barriers – like highways and railroad corridors – may result in some neighborhoods being overlooked in an “out of sight, out of mind” predicament, especially in cities outside the NYC-SF-Boston anomaly where the pressure for large-scale leapfrogging of gentrification over physical barriers isn't really there? (I.e. Manhattan leapfrogged into Brooklyn and Hoboken, but it'll probably be some time before Philly leapfrogs into Camden.)

    That is, some neighborhoods might be overlooked not because they're being avoided, but because potential transplants quite literally *don't know that they're there* because *they never have to travel through them for regular social/economic interaction* and therefore never get to see their potential value. This is perhaps why Jacobs warned against the popular planning notion of “cities of neighborhoods” composed of cozy, self-contained urban “villages” separated by deliberate barriers. Physical barriers might exacerbate our forgetting that certain neighborhoods exist – what else to explain this bizarre dichotomy between Mt. Vernon and Johnston Square in Baltimore:

    On one side of the highway you have a highly-desirable neighborhood, and if you walk *just one block* over the highway you'll enter a neighborhood that looks as if it was bombed. Has the endless complaining about high rents in Mt. Vernon been the result of peoples' simple unwillingness to move into seemingly-adjacent neighborhoods desperately in need of investment, or are there geographic obstacles to incremental gentrification moving one rowhouse over at a time?

    I'd argue the latter: the spread of renewal seems to follow the path of least physical resistance; up from Mt. Vernon across the Penn Station “bridge” into Station North, then east rowhouse by rowhouse into predominantly black Greenmount West…
    …and now it's just beginning to creep down Greenmount into Johnston Square in a roundabout circle that avoided the shorter – but harder – leap across the JFX.

    Likewise gentrification spread west from Mt. Vernon into Seton Hill, but stopped abruptly at the chasm that is the State Center/MLK Blvd/McCulloh Homes Chinese wall. If those are redeveloped, it'll probably – finally – spread into Upton too; it'll be interesting to see if the “why are you avoiding black neighborhoods?” accusation will be replaced by the “why are you gentrifying black neighborhoods?” accusation!


  9. I would add the observation of Edward Glaeser that you can not build slums. You can only build normal housing that deteriorates into slums. We tend not to think of gentrification in terms of physics but no building was designed to last forever. I'm sure that the builders of NYC's aging rent controlled buildings would be astounded to come back 80-100 years later and still see them in use. They never designed them to last that long and probably expected them to be torn down long before their physical life was over (just as the builders tore down the existing buildings to build theirs). To me personally gentrification is just a code word for the mid-life renovation of property. When it is done in a high cost, high demand area like NYC the net result is that the poorer, unable to pay the renovation costs without massive subsidies, depart and the richer, who can afford the renovations, move in.


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