Last month, Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ produced a very interesting series about gentrification in Chicago entitled There Goes The Neighborhood. The series features five interesting stories about the Chicago gentrification landscape, but also includes data from the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement to look at the historical trends of neighborhood revitalization, and to begin to develop a cogent definition for gentrification.
I found the series enlightening, the data extremely useful. For several years I myself plugged away at the development of a gentrification index, one I called a Livability Quotient, that would not only spot where strong revitalization activity was happening but anticipate — even predict — where it would happen next. It’s safe to say that I failed in that venture, but the Voorhees Center has put together a sound tool to identify revitalization trends in Chicago.
As for the series reporting, I found that it failed to stray very far from the conventional gentrification narratives that, quite honestly, don’t fit Chicago all that well.
Gentrification to most people is just like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography — he said he may never be able to adequately define obscenity, but “I know it when I see it.” That generally works fine, but the problem is that the gentrification narrative was established in the cities that experienced the first wave of urban revitalization — New York, San Francisco, Boston. Too many people have adopted the emotions and mindsets that emerged as those cities went through their revitalization challenges, without considering how unique their own cities’ conditions are. Here are the primary mindsets, all identified to some extent in the series:
Newcomer angst — Is my decision to locate in this neighborhood hurting others? Is my desire for certain amenities causing this neighborhood to lose the character and authenticity that brought me here?
Activist rage — Gentrification is undermining the stability of our low income and working class neighborhoods! Cities are selling themselves out to the highest bidder in the name of progress!
Low income fear — We want to improve our neighborhood, but not so much that we don’t recognize it anymore. We wonder how much is too much, and when we reach a point of no return. Rising rents scare us.
In each case, the underlying concern is about displacement. Newcomers wonder if they displaced someone, activists organize to stop displacement, low income residents are wary of displacement.
This is where I depart from most urbanists and paraphrase Gordon Gekko — gentrification, for lack of a better word, is good.
There are two reasons I believe this. I spent the first half of my planning career trying to catalyze the revitalization of impoverished communities. I sat across the table from developers, offering them everything we could to subsidize the most meager of developments, and they would frequently tell me no. I often heard the pleadings of neighborhood residents who said, “why can’t we have a nice sit-down restaurant in our neighborhood? Why is there no drugstore, or supermarket? What can you, Mr. Planner, do about that?”
In seeking an answer to that question, I found the other reason for that statement. In my career-long research of distressed communities, I found some subtle distinctions in them that gave me clues as to what was holding many of them back. There are some poor communities that are immigrant settlement points and have a transient nature to them. They rely on the continual influx of new residents and maintain a sense of vitality that often belies their economic status. Think of Pilsen or Little Village in Chicago. There are other poor communities that might not be an immigrant jumping off point but are no less poor or transient. Some working class neighborhoods, like Bridgeport, or Wicker Park from 25 years ago, fit that mold as well. Then there are communities that, once the poor moved in, the community stagnated. It declined. It collapsed. Why? Because no one came after them. The community lost its transience and in doing so lost its vitality. There are neighborhoods that became as cut off from prosperity as an oxbow lake is from a rejuvenating stream. This can be summed up in one word — churn. And I’ve found that revitalization cannot happen without churn.
We have to be careful, because this is the future that we wished for. Neighborhoods are now experiencing the churn they need to revitalize.
This brings me to the last point, which WBEZ raised in the series and receives scant attention. Why don’t black neighborhoods gentrify?
This is the conundrum that I’ve been faced with. Many of the commenters to that linked article say crime is the primary reason for not considering neighborhoods that have the physical qualities they desire. But is it really? My wife grew up in Wicker Park in the ’80s and will be sure to tell you that crime was rampant during her childhood. In fact, her family moved away largely due to the crime at the time.
I imagine it’s a function of the crime you understand versus the crime you don’t, and the people you understand versus the people you don’t. My wife was a black girl growing up in a largely Puerto Rican and Polish Wicker Park, and the urban pioneers who moved in were able to shield themselves from the crime, or even willing to tolerate it until more like them moved in. That doesn’t seem to be the case in black communities. In fact, there’s research, which I’ve cited before also, that in neighborhoods with considerable black populations, gentrification stalls or never starts at all.
That definitely goes against the general New York/San Francisco/Boston gentrification narrative, and should cause us to look at each cities’ individual experience with revitalization.