Greystones and brownstones in East Garfield Park, on Chicago’s West Side. A neighborhood in search of revitalization, if not gentrification.
(Note: It’s been a crazy week for me, making new content pretty difficult. But many readers here may also know I’m trying to make a concerted attempt to resurrect pieces from the earlier days of the blog that didn’t get much exposure. In that vein I’m bringing back this piece from March 2014. -Pete)
Someone recently asked me the question, “can revitalization happen without gentrification?”
It’s not an easy question to answer. There are as many definitions of gentrification as there are people with opinions on it. Is gentrification defined as a population increase in a core city neighborhood? Or a rapid increase in home prices for a given area? Could it be the loss of a sense of one community, in favor of a new one? Is it the replacement of low-income residents with high-income residents for an area? Is it the spots where Starbucks, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s deem as the “next big thing”?
Defining revitalization is no less tricky. Any or all of the above definitions could describe revitalization as well as gentrification. It might also include the locations of recent large public investments — parks or plazas, police or fire stations, street extensions or improvements. Or revitalization could be even more subjective, to include things like neighborhood festivals or other community events that create a new spirit for a community.
Given how gentrification seems to be in the news again (I recently wrote about Spike Lee’s comments on Brooklyn’s changes, and gentrification seems to be at the heart of San Francisco’s “Google Bus” controversy), I think when most people use that loaded term they’re using it to define the displacement of one group, usually low-income, and often minority, in favor of another group that is higher income and often not minority. In trying to provide an answer I thought of local examples in Chicago. Kenwood near Hyde Park comes to mind, as does Bronzeville. Through the ’90s, both ranked pretty low in Chicago by most socioeconomic measures (high crime, low incomes, low property values, etc.). Today, Kenwood is above the Chicago median for home prices and incomes and below it for crime, and Bronzeville is nearly there. Bridgeport, the cultural hearth of Chicago’s South Side Irish, might qualify; home prices and incomes are up and crime is down, but part of that is due to an influx of more affluent Asian residents from Chinatown just to the east and Hispanic residents from Pilsen and Little Village just north of it.
Chicago’s Wicker Park/Bucktown and Logan Square, on the city’s Near Northwest Side, come across to me as communities that first revitalized, and then gentrified. I remember both neighborhoods being working-class enclaves in the early ’90s, comprised mostly of residents with Hispanic, Polish and Ukrainian descent. I remember conditions improving in both communities by the late ’90s, but without any real shift in demographics. More stores were opening on previously vacant commercial corridors. Home improvements were more numerous and more visible. Public beautification projects (thanks, late ’90s Mayor Daley) were improving the aesthetics of the communities. Yet the demographics of both neighborhoods hardly changed.
Enter the 2000s and demographic change started to occur. Both neighborhoods became a preferred option for those either priced out or too cool to buy or rent in Lincoln Park or Lakeview. It’s like the revitalization groundwork had been laid so that gentrification could move in. The same process was likely at work in Ravenswood, further north, and might be happening now in Humboldt Park and the Near West Side.
At any rate, community regeneration (maybe that’s a better phrase) in Chicago tends to mirror what’s happening in big cities or metros on either coast. There’s some data to suggest that other Rust Belt cities might have their own unique patterns. Writer Richey Piiparinen wrote in Belt Magazine that Cleveland’s gentrification landscape is maybe a little different than on the coasts:
(I)n the Rust Belt, urban infill is playing out differently. It is not a dichotomous narrative. For instance, demographic patterns in Cleveland are unfolding so that “the gentrifying” areas are becoming at once younger, less white, and more minority. That is, Cleveland’s gentrification is not characterized by whites returning to the city. Rather, it is a process of middle class reinvestment into areas that are diversifying.
For instance, the Cleveland inner-city neighborhoods that gained the most Millennials from 2000 to 2010 included downtown, Kamms Corners, Old Brooklyn, Ohio City, and Edgewater. Outside of downtown, the white population declined in each neighborhood, whereas the minority population increased–with the exception of Hispanics in Ohio City. Specifically, the percent change in blacks for these five gentrifying neighborhoods increased by 75 percent, though the city as whole saw its black population decrease by 13 percent. The Hispanic population increased by 52 percent in these neighborhoods, compared to 15 percent in the city. For Asians the increase was 109 percent, vs. 12 percent citywide.
A similar process seems to be taking place in St. Louis. A recent study there had virtually the same finding. Citing St. Louis’ Central West End as a neighborhood known for “gentrifying”, the researchers found that the neighborhood lost none of its racial — or economic — diversity:
CWE does fit some aspects of the gentrification model. It is located near a major center of professional employment, Barnes Jewish Hospital and Washington University Medical School and the percentage of young people ages 18-34 increased dramatically from 26 percent to 44 percent between 1970 and 2010. But what is striking is that the area is still remarkably diverse both racially and economically – with large numbers of African Americans, Asians and poor people still living in the area.
They go on to describe what may be unique about gentrification in the Rust Belt:
In legacy cities housing markets tend to be “loose” and that may mean that displacement pressures are less severe in so-called gentrifying neighborhoods and that economic and racial diversity may be an asset for neighborhoods rather than a problem.
It could be that the Rust Belt is developing a gentrification model others could emulate.
But back to the “revitalization without gentrification” question. Some time ago I wrote about the impact of “churn” or “flow” for a city or metro, and made the assertion that inmigration is a bigger indicator of economic growth at the city or metro level than absolute population growth (this has been the mantra of geographer Jim Russell for some time, and he’s convinced me). I did a table to describe how a migration-centric view of metros could look; I updated it to include here:
If migration is paramount for city or metro growth, then presumably it would be so at the micro level, for neighborhoods and communities. City neighborhoods — and suburbs — function on “churn” or “flow” just as cities or metros do, and once churn/flow is lost they fall out of favor. A similar table for Chicago neighborhoods might look like this:
So maybe revitalization without gentrification can happen, but it’s only so long before reestablished flows mean greater changes.