The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

More on the Gentrification Typology

Map of gentrification typologies.  Source: Adam Carstens

It’s way past time to revisit the gentrification typology I wrote about in August.  This was by far the most popular thing published on this blog, and it would be worthwhile to see if I can make any more sense of it.

Let’s start with my opening salvo on this in August:

Patterns of gentrification vary by city, and the spread of gentrified areas is partly determined by the city’s predominant development form and the historic levels of African-American populations within them.  Gentrification is a nuanced phenomenon along these characteristics, but most people engaged in any gentrification fail to acknowledge the nuances.

That sounds good, and I think most people intuitively would acknowledge that some type of gentrification activity is taking place in their city, but the New York/Washington/San Francisco experience is not exactly universal.  Today I hope to tie up some loose ends that were left from the original post — 1) explaining what I mean by the loaded term that is “gentrification”, 2) why I think city development form and historical black population matter as factors that can anticipate gentrification, 3) expound on the typologies I describe and 4) explain how some of the outliers came to be.

Here’s the typology graphic I used in the earlier piece:

On to the definition.  Many of the working or popular definitions I see for “gentrification” tend to go straight to the social aspects and outcomes of urban redevelopment.  Using this approach, gentrification can mean the gain of housing units for the affluent at the expense of low-income housing.  Or it can mean the transformation of a downtrodden commercial strip into an upscale and trendy, walkable shopping district.  Those are things that happen, but they are latter stage outcomes of the process.  To me, gentrification starts long before these things become notable to others, and leads to my definition.

I choose what I see as a more socially neutral definition for gentrification.  I see gentrification as the transformation of low-income areas into higher income areas, via migration.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Using this definition, two things stand out.  First, the very nature of the transformation I describe gives the leg up to older cities, because their neighborhoods have been around long enough to go through several cycles of development.  Younger cities, particularly those whose primary growth came after World War II, cannot be expected to have the same type of place transformation because they have not endured as many development cycles.  Their time will come.  Second, from the standpoint of those who love cities, this should be viewed positively.  Over the last 75 years, most U.S. cities were places where the poor had been effectively warehoused in favor of suburban development, leading to the loss of jobs in cities, declining tax revenues, and spiraling negative social outcomes.  At a minimum this transformation should be viewed as a chance for cities to provide more opportunities for low-income residents, and generate revenue that can more directly aid the poor in their midst.

Why gentrification happens, and why I think an older development form and historically low black population contribute to accelerated gentrification, is rooted in how I see the process starting in America.  Gentrification appears to have first emerged as a post-war alternative response to mid-century suburbanization.  Beat Generation artists and writers gravitated to the parts of cities where they thought their work would flourish.  The staid and homogeneous suburbs that were being developed at the time did not fit that profile, but the emptying apartment buildings, lofts and store spaces of the city at the time certainly did.  Rapid suburbanization was creating a vacuum in cities in the 50’s and 60’s, and the first group filling the void were those seeking what would then be considered the new alternative environment.  That environment was old instead of new, gritty instead of clean, chaotic instead of controlled, open instead of closed.  They were followed by successive waves of people whose subsequent moves broadened the appeal of the city — as countercultural center, as affordable housing alternative, as entertainment venue, as an easily accessible place to their downtown job, as an authentic place compared to the sameness of the suburbia from which many came.  With each wave the income and/or wealth of the new inhabitant increased a little more, and the demands of each group changed the urban landscape.

But even “alternative” has its limits, and the foremost socio-cultural divide in our nation is race.  It’s worth noting that while diversity has often driven gentrification decisions, black residents have not always been the beneficiaries.  That’s why I argue that in addition to an old development form, low historical black populations figure into the location and pace of gentrification.

The clearest example I know of on this topic was cited in the original post.  Harvard sociology professor Robert Sampson and doctoral student Jackelyn Hwang studied long-term trends of gentrification activity in Chicago:

Sampson and doctoral student Jackelyn Hwang used Google Street View to scour thousands of streets for signs of gentrification. Their findings were stark. After controlling for a host of other factors, they found that neighborhoods an earlier study had identified as showing early signs of gentrification continued the process only if they were at least 35 percent white. In neighborhoods that were 40 percent or more black, the process slowed or stopped altogether.   

Sampson goes on to say this:

Sampson said the key finding “is that the predominantly black, seriously discriminated-against neighborhoods in Chicago and many other American cities aren’t reaping the same benefits from the transformation of cities. In one sense, this is a paradoxical result, because there is evidence that diversity and mixed neighborhoods are the ground floor of gentrification, but this paper shows there are sharp limits to that.”

But here is Sampson’s killer quote, and the one that relates most directly to my gentrification typology:

“There’s a limit to where the change is happening, and that’s why we have persistently poor neighborhoods. If we think of neighborhoods as having a social hierarchy, the ones at the top stay at the top, while the ones at the bottom typically stay there. The ones in the middle can go in either direction, but it depends on their racial and ethnic makeup.”

Emphasis added.

That brings us to a broader description of the gentrification typologies.  The original post outlines my approach for determining old development form:

…I came up with an arbitrary proxy for the age of development form.  Using decennial Census data, if a city reached 50 percent of its peak population by 1940, it was deemed to have an old development form; if a city reached 50 percent of its peak population in 1950 or later, it was deemed to have a new development form.   

And for determining whether a city had a historically low black population:

The second piece of analysis was gathering Census data on central city black populations in 1970.  This decade was chosen largely because it represents the end of the Great Migration, when millions of African-Americans left the rural South for cities across the nation.  By that time the cities which are generally recognized as having large black populations had already been identified, and it’s possible to explore the impact of the migration on them.  I arbitrarily said cities with black populations lower than 25 percent of the total in 1970 had a low black population, and those above 25 percent had a high black population.

That led to the following typology, illustrated in the table at the opening of this piece:

Old Form + Low Black Population = Expansive Gentrification (OFLB)
Old Form + High Black Population = Concentrated Gentrification (OFHB)
New Form + Low Black Population = Limited Gentrification (NFLB)
New Form + High Black Population = Nascent Gentrification (NFHB)

And here is how the typology matrix looks with more detail:

I think the descriptions make things clearer and accurately describe the archetypal cities in each group.  Virtually all of Manhattan and chunks of Brooklyn have transformed for low-income to high-income places, and San Francisco and Boston have seen the transformation of many working-class communities.  Gentrification activity covers large swaths of those three cities.  Meanwhile, Chicago’s gentrification activity is primarily located along the north and near south lakefront, Washington gentrification activity does not venture very far from Northwest DC, and Atlanta’s growth seems to be anchored north of downtown and beyond.  Many western cities are relatively new to the gentrification game, and some southern cities seem to be firmly rooted in the suburban model.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that this typology is fluid and quite dependent on the policy decisions of cities.  That created some of the outliers listed above, and could create shifts for cities in the future.  For example, the data suggests that Milwaukee and Buffalo would fit the expansive gentrification profile of say, Seattle or Minneapolis, but the truth is their current form might look more like those in the concentrated gentrification group.  I’d argue that Milwaukee and Buffalo gained significantly larger black populations after 1970 and fell into the pattern of the concentrated gentrification types.  Meanwhile, several cities, including Indianapolis, Louisville, Columbus, Dallas, Houston and even Fort Wayne have undertaken aggressive annexation policies or became consolidated with county government to vault themselves into another grouping.  Pre-1970 Indianapolis, for example, prior to the city-county consolidation called Unigov, might have been considered an old form/high black population city that ultimately would have put it in the concentrated gentrification category like nearby Cincinnati.  Annexations in Dallas and Houston push both cities toward the new form.

Finally, a city like Los Angeles might have the opportunity to vault from its current limited gentrification status to expansive because of its investment in public transportation.  The LA Metro’s investment in subways, light rail and bus rapid transit may provide the opening for more transit-oriented development, and leading to the transformation of more of LA’s low and moderate income communities.  

The lesson here is that typology is not destiny.

2 Responses to “More on the Gentrification Typology”

  1. T.

    I think you also have to factor the concentration of wealth in a city's metro. The three archtypes for Expansive Gentrification, New York, San Francisco, and Boston all have some of the highest concentrations of high income jobs in the country in their metropolitan areas. Washington DC does as well and while I am not personally super familiar with the city my impression is that it may have also be reaching the point of Expansive Gentrification. Milwaukee and Buffalo on the other hand, do not



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