What Gentrification Really Is, and How We Can Avoid It

  • 25 Aug 2014
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Photo of Noe Valley, a low-density, high-income neighborhood, by Allan Ferguson

is seen as a rising menace in many cities. The process whereby rich “gentrifiers” move into neighborhoods, driving up property prices and thus driving out those unable to afford those prices, has drawn criticism from activists and planners for years. However, this article by io9 writer Annalee Newitz, first published by io9 as “This is What Gentrification Really Is“, tells us that the issue is not quite the struggle between good and evil that it first appears to be. Gentrification is a process dependent on economy, political climate, and the mercurial nature of itself – and sometimes fighting against it only serves to exacerbate the problem. Find out what we can do in the face of gentrification after the break.

San Francisco’s Mission Street. Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Urban

In many cities, it’s become popular to hate “gentrifiers,” rich people who move in and drive up housing prices — pushing everyone else out. But what’s going on in these rapidly-changing urban spaces is a lot more complicated than that.

We Call Them Aliens

Gentrification is a form of immigration, though almost nobody calls it that. People who gentrify are usually new transplants to a city, changing it to suit their particular cultural needs and whims. That’s why the criticism of gentrification often sounds like a distorted version of anti-immigrant sentiment: “They have changed our neighborhoods; their shops and homes are repulsive; we no longer feel welcome here.” The difference is that the people we call immigrants are usually not rich. Gentrifiers are.

These days, my hometown of San Francisco is the most famous example of gentrification in the United States, and maybe even the world. This is thanks entirely to the insanity of the tech bubble, which has sent the city’s cost of living into the stratosphere and transformed working class, immigrant neighborhoods like the Mission into upper class immigrant neighborhoods.

In the Mission, Latin American grocery stores and dive bars have become boutiques devoted to selling exotic sodas, organic chocolate, and high-end stereo equipment cunningly disguised as hip, retro low-end stereo equipment. Markets where people once spoke Spanish have become cafes where people from many countries use English to talk about mobile apps and cloud storage. Scrawled on sidewalks in the Mission you’ll see graffiti that says things like “die techie scum,” or that blame “trendy Google professionals” for making the area too expensive.

Photo via Affordable Housing Institute

San Francisco’s transformation came to the world’s attention due to a powerful essay by Rebecca Solnit in the London Review of Books. In it, she wrote about how techies have destroyed the immigrant Mission neighborhood she once loved, and depicts the big, white Google buses as mini Death Stars, disgorging their techie workers like “alien overlords.” Though she is on the side of displaced immigrants in this essay, Solnit’s language nevertheless echoes anti-immigrant rhetoric — the word “alien” is the same, only instead of being illegal, these aliens are overlords.

Either way, the message is clear. Locals want the immigrants to get the hell out.

It’s easier to blame the aliens for what’s happened to your city rather than face up to the complicated reality of urban life. City planner Spiro Kostof writes that cities are not static — they are “a process,” always changing over time. Today’s Mission district in San Francisco, for example, was once a working class Irish and German neighborhood. And some of those “alien” techies invading it now come from the same Central and South American countries that its current residents do.

Photo via Kevin Montgomery

The Skyscrapers of Istanbul

Recently I visited Istanbul, a city of over 17 million in Turkey that is undergoing a form of gentrification far more radical than anything in San Francisco. Government-sponsored “urban transformation” projects have led to the destruction of entire neighborhoods, their informally-built homes razed to make way for gleaming collections of high-density towers. Residents are forced out of their homes with eminent domain laws, and are sometimes left with an insignificant financial stake in the new developments — or sometimes with nothing at all.

Urban activist Yaşar Adanali told me about visiting a man who was being displaced from his home in the immigrant Tarlabaşı neighborhood near the city center. This area, once a thriving and diverse neighborhood, has been almost entirely leveled to make way for a new housing development. The man Adanali met was one of the last people still living there, his home precariously balanced next to a massive pit full of construction materials.

He told Adanali that his family had come from the Black Sea coast near the Georgian border and moved into the house in 1955. Housing costs in the neighborhood were cheap at that time because anti-Greek riots in the city were driving its previous residents out. Fleeing the attacks, many Greeks sold their homes at below-market rates to new immigrants, allowing this man’s impoverished family to gain a home. Gentrification, in other words, is not a simple story of bad guys displacing good guys. Cities are made up of wave upon wave of such morally gray displacements, some violently coercive, and others eerily quiet.

We Know It When We See It

In the latest issue of Boom, an academic journal devoted to California studies, social geographer Rachel Brahinsky explains, “Gentrification is capitalism playing out in the landscape. It is essentially our economy’s urban form.” She’s talking about San Francisco, but she could just as easily be describing Istanbul — or many other cities that are changing as flows of money translate into flows of immigrants.

And yet, gentrification unfolds differently depending on where it’s happening and when. Politics can be more important than money. In previous eras, gentrification would have been the result of military conquest or regime change. The broad boulevards of Paris, built in the 19th century over the top of so-called “unhealthy” older neighborhoods, were created at the whim of Emperor Napoleon III. When you walk along these beautiful thoroughfares near the Seine, you tread upon the crushed homes of the poor from centuries ago.

Gentrification is only visible to people who know the context where it’s taking place. A visitor to San Francisco might not realize that she was walking through contested terrain, recently changed by gentrification, just by visiting the Mission. But for longterm city residents, gentrification is obvious. We always know it when we see it.

A gentrified street in Paris, L’Avenue d’Opera, painted by Camille Pissarro in 1898

Anti-Development in San Francisco

That said, we don’t always understand it. In San Francisco, residents who resist gentrification do it by blocking the development of new, high-density housing projects. They imagine that the city’s parks and neighborhoods will be destroyed to make way for gated communities of gleaming skyscrapers full of condos. Yet without new housing, as architect Mark Hogan remarks in another essay in Boom, the city’s housing prices will remain “staggeringly high.”

Indeed, San Francisco’s anti-development policies are actually harming the low-income communities they were originally designed to protect. Hogan writes:

The glacial pace of infrastructure projects in San Francisco benefit very few people and risk turning it into a caricature of its former self for tourists and residents rich enough to live in a fantasy, not a living city.

By preventing the city from transforming to meet the needs of new residents, San Francisco risks turning into a place where only the rich can live.

Fearing the kind of rampant high-rise development that people see on a daily basis in Istanbul, activists in San Francisco have gone to the other extreme. And the results are the same: the poor are pushed out to make way for the rich. Our cities need to find another path, somewhere between the trashed ruins of Tarlabaşı and the fantasy city of the high-priced, low-density Mission.

Photo of Noe Valley, a low-density, high-income neighborhood, by Allan Ferguson

Immigrant City

No matter how much you contextualize it, gentrification is often forced on a city by its wealthiest immigrants. Sometimes the government pushes for these urban transformations, which is the case in Istanbul. And sometimes the government tries to thwart them, as in San Francisco. But either way, you’ve got an immigrant class that uses its financial power to buy up real estate by paying prices that current residents can’t afford. Money remakes the city.

But so do immigrants. When different immigrant groups struggle with each other to reshape the city, gentrification is one possible outcome. There are other possible outcomes, too. City planners can manage development so that there is enough room for neighborhoods to grow without kicking anyone out. A recent study revealed that creating income-segregated neighborhoods leads to less social mobility for everyone, cementing us into a rigidly class-divided society. More than anything, we need to prevent neighborhoods from becoming divided by class.

A first step would be to revise our attitude toward immigration in cities. Instead of seeing immigrants as aliens, we should welcome their fresh perspectives, their wealth of new cultural traditions — and yes, their cash infusions. As twentieth century cities swell into twenty-first century megacities, we must make room for all our immigrant populations, rich and poor alike. The only crime is in sacrificing one to make way for the other.

This article by io9′s Editor-in-Chief Annalee Newitz was republished with permission from io9.

Cite: Annalee Newitz. "What Gentrification Really Is, and How We Can Avoid It" 25 Aug 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 23 Nov 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=540712>
  • Chris A.

    Live in a suburb? Sprawler!
    Live near urbanity? Gentrifyer!
    Live in a city? Yuppie Scum!

    The best solution is to live nowhere!

    • Rick M.

      I’m a San Francisco native and lived in the Mission District for over 20+ years. This article is the sad truth. The tech boom which started in the late 90′s destroyed the Mission and the city, my city.

      • Russell

        It’s this kind of attitude that’s the problem. This whole idea of “my city” b.s. that people in SF decry in republicans who want to build a fence along the Mexican border but then promote to keep tech people out of SF.

        You’re just as much as an immigrant as anyone else in that city; unless you happen to belong to one of the native American tribes that existed in California before Europeans arrived, your ancestors came over in a wave that forced the previous occupants out (and most likely in a much more violent fashion).

        The article even specifically mentions how the Mission area was an Irish/German neighborhood before it’s current iteration – what do you think happened to all those residents? You, yourself, are just another immigrant in a long chain to have forced the previous inhabitants out. Acting like the current makeup of the Mission is now is how it’s always was is just plain ignorance.

      • Octopus Garden

        2014 – 20 = 1994
        Soooo you lived in SF for a couple of years before the tech boom started destroying “your” city? Cities change, new people move in and out as time passes, get over it. How do you think the ancient romans would feel about seeing their culture reduced to tourist attractions today? Do you think the modern romans would care?

      • Rick M.

        @Russell I infact do belong to Native American tribes and I’m also of European decent along with Irish/German. How dare you make yourself a gentrification judge. I think your Organic Grande Latte is waiting for you on 22nd and Valenica. Make that a double.

  • Mr Kibbles

    “Urban Planner” ha, I can’t think of a more useless human being. It’s like if the government had a “social justice” branch…

    • Shawn Allen Dressler – Urban Planner

      Thanks for your thought, Mr. Kibbles. It was like if a preschooler had access to an ArchDaily blog…

  • kyle

    Its important that neighborhoods are built so people to move into different socioeconomic groups without moving out. A person should be able to moving into a nicer house without leaving the neighborhood.

  • Jeff K

    This piece fails on multiple levels, and its use of logic precludes good journalistic essay writing. Its weak use of metaphors-gentrifier=immigrant is supposed to draw us into solidarity with the gentrifier. One could just as easily use the term colonizer. In almost all literature produced about gentrification, colonialism is a far more apt comparison than immigration. The blatant refusal to recognize class difference and the agency it provides to one side and not the other is a gross misjudgment, and ignores entire bodies of research about gentrification, that stretch back for decades.

    A better approach to this piece would be to look at the impacts of gentrification-i.e.,
    is it a tide that raises all ships (a valid discussion to have), as opposed to relying on weak metaphor based loosely around the author’s conception of immigrant as a more neutral term, and anecdotal evidence from one person met in Turkey (a bizarre comparison to San Francisco in the first place).

  • Peter Ehrlich

    This is a complicated topic. The City of Miami has many very rough and very crime filled neighborhoods. The rents in those areas for awful nasty apartments are high. If pioneers and investors move in they take incredible risks. (I know from experience). Improvements, so-called gentrification, can be very beneficial. Lemon City in Miami is the beneficiary of 15 years of effort.

  • Steven

    Well I don’t really see how we Can avoid it.

  • D. Toumani

    Framing gentrification-critics as beeing anti-immigration is not the best way of discussing this matter.

    As long as properties can be used as investment objects there will be speculation. Wether it be done from private citizens or companies doesn’t matter. Only those financing, owning, selling properties have an interest in rising prices.

  • erbil coskuner

    They are not displacing people in Istanbul who are originally the inhabitants of the region but giving back a very important part of the city back to those who know how to appriciate the metropoliten life of a thriving city..

  • Dizzy Starchitect

    Best article I have seen on archdaily