The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Gentrification Around the Nation

Scene from Chicago’s University Village neighborhood, better known as Little Italy.  Source:

I can’t believe it took me as long as it did to find this, but Justin Davidson wrote an excellent piece back in February on gentrification in New York called Is Gentrification All Bad?  Early on, Davidson makes a point that I think is central to New York’s experience with gentrification, and what distinguishes it from other varieties across the nation:

“Yet gentrification can be either a toxin or a balm. There’s the fast-moving, invasive variety nourished by ever-rising prices per square foot; then there’s a more natural, humane kind that takes decades to mature and lives on a diet of optimism and local pride. It can be difficult to tell the two apart.”

As I read through the piece, it occurred to me that the NYC gentrification experience is quite different from that of other cities.  Whereas in New York there are spots where gentrification seems to sprout up in scattered, unlikely places, in other cities the experience is more like a wave.

I see a few factors involved in the different types of gentrification.  If I were to take a stab a guessing what drives the gentrification process in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and the SF Bay Area  — perhaps the seven cities where the process is most evident — here’s what I see being the differences and the drivers:

Geography: New York, Boston and the Bay Area all have physical landscapes that make land a hotly contested commodity.  Water and rolling terrain constrain the supply, driving up land costs and changing the nature of the gentrification game.  Philly, Washington, Chicago and LA (to some extent) don’t have the same constraint.  Geography is what made NYC, Boston and the Bay Area already have the highest densities in the nation, and it plays a role in the gentrification process.

Job Center Location/Transit Access: New York, Chicago, Boston and Philly all seem to be oriented toward very strong downtowns, while LA, Washington and the Bay Area all seem less so.  Gentrification tends to spread along transit lines that lead toward job centers.

Entrenched Housing Patterns: Sort of related to the geography point, but also owing to differences in city migrations, some cities have strong housing patterns that have been influenced by the landscape and migration patterns.  In New York, for example, I see the competition for land resulting in numerous areas with high-income and low-income residents living in close proximity; same in the Bay Area.  Meanwhile, Chicago, Philly and DC have more land available for development, and there’s a sense that high-income residents can self-select to other parts of the city.  Because of that, discussions are different there than elsewhere.  I also tend to think the discussion is different there because African-Americans comprise higher percentages of the population there than in New York, Boston, LA and the Bay Area.

The Curious Bay Area: To me the Bay Area is the greatest curiosity in terms of gentrification, because of its unique geography, unique core city, and unique job center location.  The suburban Silicon Valley is the economic driver there, yet San Francisco holds many of the amenities that its workers hold dear.  And the physically small geographically constrained city of San Francisco ramps up competition for its land.  Imagine if in New York, Wall Street was based in Westchester County instead of lower Manhattan, and the different patterns that would result.  Physically constrained Manhattan would still be Manhattan, but what’s taking place in Brooklyn now would not occur, and there’d be greater calls for affordable housing (which would be resisted) in Westchester.

Gentrification is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Update: Ta-Nehisi Coates nailed it on the Chicago style of segregation in his most recent post at the Atlantic.  When I talk about entrenched housing patterns, this is exactly what I mean, and Chicago was not alone in this:

“Throughout the 20th century—and perhaps even in the 21st—there was no more practiced advocate of housing segregation than the city of Chicago. Its mayors and aldermen razed neighborhoods and segregated public housing. Its businessmen lobbied for racial zoning. Its realtors block-busted whole neighborhoods, flipping them from black to white and then pocketing the profit. Its white citizens embraced racial covenants—in the ’50s, no city had more covenants in place than Chicago.

If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination.Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn’t need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise.” 

Emphasis added.  We often think we’re making decisions of our own volition, but we’re not.  

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