Gentrification: A Tangled Web of Cause & Effect Research Paper Starter

Gentrification: A Tangled Web of Cause & Effect

(Research Starters)

Gentrification is a process by which marginal urban neighborhoods are rehabilitated and revitalized by incoming middle- and upper-class residents. Gentrification proceeds in stages and involves a complex web of causes and factors. Largely monolithic supply- vs. demand-side arguments have presided over the history of theoretical sociological discourse about gentrification, but a growing body of work in the field portrays the intricate interplay between supply- and demand-side behavior. Capital investment, cultural reproduction, status, as well as class conflict and other hazards such as residential displacement are examined in the case of the Village-Northton neighborhood, drawing on a 14-year ethnography of an inner city Philadelphia community of the 1970s and 1980s.

Keywords Central Business District (CBD); City Planning; Community Development; Cultural Capital; Decentralization; Demand-side Analysis; Displacement; Economic Capital; Industrialization; Land Use Theory; Marginalization; Middle Class; Social Capital; Social Reproduction; Status; Supply-side Analysis; Urban Morphology

Gentrification: A Tangled Web of Cause


British sociologist Ruth Glass (1964) first coined the term gentrification to describe "the residential movement of middle-class people into low income areas of London" (Zukin, 1987, p. 131). The concept of gentrification does not characterize singular events in which middle-income households choose to relocate to lower-income neighborhoods. When this process unfolds in collective action, however, and when it results in the spatial, social, economic and cultural conversion of a neighborhood from a depressed and marginal area into a middle-class ecology with renovated homes, increased property values and service sector activity, this conversion is called gentrification (Zukin, 1987).

The gentrification process is generally recognized to occur in waves (Ley, 1996; Rose, 1984; Smith & Graves, 2005). Marginal gentrifiers are the first on the scene. Typically this first wave is comprised of artists, childless couples, single parents and others who are looking for novel and/or affordable housing options within close range to the city- pioneering people who invest sweat equity into their homes, raising their property values and attracting a rising tide of interest in the area by other speculators, both large and small (Ley, 1996; Rose, 1984). Second and third waves of middle-class and affluent gentrifiers wash over the area, raising property values higher, "successively upgrading the neighborhood's aesthetic, class and property value position" (Smith & Graves, 2005, p. 404), often at the ultimate exclusion of the marginal gentrifiers who "braved" the area first.

Urban Morphology

One thing is for sure: cities change. As industry and occupational choice evolve over time (from agricultural, to industrial, to service-based, to information-based, and so on), we can expect the character of our cities to evolve accordingly. This happens in many ways: physically, in the demolition of factories and subsequent erection of high-rise office buildings; or demographically, in the influx of sector professionals seeking access to city housing. Certainly at this time in history, with the pervasive presence of globalization and the deepening of the information age, we can expect that the very nature of our cities will continue to undergo dramatic changes reflective of evolving economic restructuring. Residential overturn that results from this "macro" or long-term industrial change is referred to as residential replacement (Newman & Wyly, 2006), which is regarded as an inevitable phenomenon.

To be sure, gentrification takes place in the context of these "macro" changes in industrial history. Properties and neighborhoods in which gentrifiers eventually settle would be neither as affordable nor as attractive were it not for the rise and fall of the postindustrial city. When capital flows away from one area (e.g. a once-thriving central business district) and towards another (e.g. the suburban front), the first area declines in value (Smith, 1996; Zukin, 1987). The wedge between actual and potential value encourages reinvestment of capital pursuant to commercial and individual interests (Smith, 1996) and the seeds of gentrification are sown.

Alongside its perceived benefits-urban revitalization, increased property values and tax revenue, historic preservation, and the attraction of service economy-gentrification also produces very harmful effects. The residential overturn resulting from gentrification is more acute than the residential replacement that arises from industrial and economic evolution. Gentrification targets specific neighborhoods, pushing out existing residents and creating a decreased "ability of low-income residents to move into neighborhoods that once provided ample supplies of affordable living arrangements" (Newman & Wyly, 2006, p. 26). The problem of gentrification is that it causes the systematic displacement of already marginal people, pushing them into greater marginality, instability and itinerancy.

Gentrification Theory

What forces drive the gentrification process? For what ultimate reason do people seek to gentrify inner cities? Two major theories have constituted much of the academic discourse on the root causes of gentrification: the supply-side interpretation and the demand-side interpretation (Zukin, 1987), which one might also loosely conceptualize as capital investment theory and sociocultural reproduction theory, respectively.

Gentrification by Capital Investment (Supply-Side Interpretation)

When city centers decline there arises the opportunity to re-invest in properties whose fair market value has decreased. The rent-gap theory explains the lucrative nature of investing in undervalued properties-whose depreciated value will ultimately rise and/or which can be indefinitely subsidized by rental income. This is a sound financial strategy for those with the means for sustaining long-term investments, but at what cost? As Zukin (1987) states:

In our time, capital expansion has no new territory left to explore, so it redevelops, or internally differentiates, urban space. Just as the frontier thesis in US history legitimized an economic push through "uncivilized" lands, so the urban frontier thesis legitimizes the corporate reclamation of the inner city from racial ghettos and marginal business uses (p. 141).

This is a very Marxian interpretation: that an underlying economic restructuring creates the conditions out of which all subsequent gentrifying choices, decisions and preferences are intoned (Zukin, 1987). In this view, gentrification is seen to fit into the model of production and consumption, where the opportunities to "consume" property, goods and services as gentrifiers—and the very existence of the role of gentrifier—are the result of production strategies intended to benefit the interests of capital expansion.

Gentrification by Individuals or Collective Action (Demand Side Interpretation)

Economists, sociologists and urban planners have all contributed to the discourse about residential location theory (RLT)—which tries to identify and explain patterns in people's preference and decision-making with regard to dwelling location. The market approach to RLT contends that the selection of housing location functions largely on what the market will bear and can be articulated along an axis, with travel cost on one end and housing cost on the other (Phe & Wakely, 2000). According to Phe and Wakely, "It basically states that, given an opportunity, a perfect mobile household would move to a plot where it can satisfy its spatial requirements while paying acceptable transport costs" (p. 7). The choice of gentrifiers—often comprised of very mobile families-confounds this theory with spatial requirements that are unconventional by comparison to these standards, and with gentrifiers' motivation by factors such as historic preservation (Zukin, 1987).

The demand-side approach interprets gentrification as a social or cultural creation. Zukin (1987) affirms that:

Culturally validated neighborhoods automatically provide new middle classes with the collective identity and social credentials for which they strive (cf Logan & Molotch, 1987). The ideology of gentrification legitimizes their social reproduction, often despite the claims of an existing population (p. 143).

Phe and Wakely (2000) examine the role of social status in the decision-making process with regard to residential location. In societies with stratified class structure, the selection of housing is one means by which people express power in the form of economic capital, social capital and cultural capital. In this way, the selection of housing identifies us with a particular group, thereby differentiating ourselves from other groups.

In this demand-side interpretation, we observe how gentrifiers choose to gentrify based partly on a "historically, culturally conditioned perception of the significance of place" (Phe & Wakely 2000, p. 10, cf Bachelard 1995 and Tuan 1961). Phe and Wakely (2000) remind us that dwelling places are more than just the sum of their physical properties. This is something that anthropologists and philosophers have seen throughout the ages-that people at different times and civilizations have selected housing based on the meaning culturally ascribed to it.

Gentrifiers are attracted not only to the "bricks-and-mortar" architectural beauty of older homes in inner city areas, they are drawn in by the cultural and historic significance of place-and by their desire to restore these kinds of homes and places to a version of their former glory. Through this process of identifying and rehabilitating homes and...

(The entire section is 4339 words.)