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The Real Problem with Gentrification

A phenomenon that revived cities can also make them monotonous

Creative Commons/Paul Lowry

A funny thing happened in the half century since Jane Jacobs published her classic treatise excoriating the planning establishment for clear-cutting American cities and replacing eclectic neighborhoods with sterile housing towers: Her vision of urban change won the day. From Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill to Philadelphia’s Society Hill, the neighborhoods that have revived according to Jacobs’ principles became not merely livable, but immensely desirable.

The trouble is, that vision is also giving us a new kind of sterility.

Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities serves as the bible for city-lovers and modern planners, believed that blighted neighborhoods would regenerate organically if left to their own devices. Existing residents would fix up their homes as their economic circumstances improved over time. Drawn by the charms of these diverse, lived-in neighborhoods, newcomers would migrate in gradually to refresh the mix. The rundown districts would, in Jacobs’s lovely phrase, naturally “unslum.”

Today, virtually every older city, save for some unlucky hard cases, can boast at least one turn-around story. U Street in D.C., Lodo in Denver, Highland Park in Pittsburgh. You see the twenty-first century version of Jacobs’s beloved “street ballet” playing out today among the renovated rowhouses in Philadelphia’s Graduate Hospital section, where only a decade or so ago gunshots provided the beat in the background noise:  People leading pets to dog parks, picking up Italian kale at the corner farmers’ market, meeting friends at the local gastropub, admiring the latest yarn-bombed bike rack. The only housing towers going up in these rising neighborhoods have penthouses and lap pools.

But Jacobs’s predictions of multi-generational, multi-race, mixed-income kumbaya hasn’t turned out quite as she hoped. “Unslumming,” she wrote back in 1961, “hinges on the retention of a very considerable part of the slum population within a slum.” Unfortunately, that rarely happens. Today we know the process she described by another name entirely: It’s not unslumming. It’s gentrification, a word that doesn’t sound nearly as quaint or benign. It’s worth noting that the term didn’t come into use until a full three years after the publication of Death and Life, when it was coined by the British sociologist Ruth Glass. Appealing as it sounds in theory, Jacobs’s picture of hard-working locals hammering and spackling their way to an unslummed paradise has proved more romanticized than real.

When I recently asked a half-dozen urban planners to name places revived by indigenous residents alone, they were hard-pressed to come with examples. One reason is that our inner cities are no longer very good at creating, and then retaining, a middle class. Instead, they’ve had to import one. The new, middle-class city-dwellers—in-movers in planning lingo—have excelled at following Jacobs’s prescription to preserve the physical diversity in urban neighborhoods.

The other kinds of diversity? Not so much.

In Philadelphia, where I live, you can stand on certain corners and practically watch the homogenizing tsunami moving across the city, block by block. Just recently I took a stroll into that Graduate Hospital neighborhood to visit Ultimo, a sleek new temple of coffee that everyone is talking about. Up until the 1960s, the area was a thriving African-American center of culture that was home to black icons like the opera singer Marian Anderson and architect Julian Abele, a designer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Then its population began to nosedive. It was the usual story: Houses were abandoned as elders died off and their successful children chose other places to live. Vacant lots and drug houses began to appear.

That’s all changed now. Modern townhouses have been slotted into every available space. Older homes sport custom flower boxes and Richard Neutra-designed house numbers. Cattycorner from Ultimo is a new park just for the pre-school set, funded by new residents. And yet, while the slum is gone, the neighborhood has not unslummed. In 1990, Graduate Hospital was 78.5 percent African American; today it is barely 32 percent. Ironically, many new residents were drawn to the neighborhood by its very roughness, along with its diverse community. “What I worry about,” Andrew Dalzell, the program coordinator for the local civic association, told me, “is that it’s going to become all $700,000 homes. What we need is the right mix, but how do we preserve that?”

No one would argue that Graduate Hospital should have continued on its declining course. But it’s hard to talk about urban revival without wading into issues of race and class. The prototypical gentrified neighborhood was once African-American and the product of forced segregation. At the same time, gentrification has been undeniably good for struggling cities like Philadelphia. With one of the country’s highest poverty rates, it desperately needs the taxes Graduate Hospital residents will pay.

Since the '60s, a lot of the commentary about gentrification has leaned heavily on the plight of the older, minority residents who preceded the in-movers. But gentrification is hardly the worst thing that can happen to a black neighborhood, says Columbia University’s Lance Freeman, whose 2005 book There Goes the ‘Hood examined the phenomenon. African-Americans welcome the quality-of-life improvements that gentrification brings, like plummeting crime rates. Pharmacies and farmers' markets are a vast improvement over drug corners. And for those who own their homes, rising values promise a tidy nest egg.

Contrary to popular belief, the poor don’t always get forced out, either. Freeman’s research concludes that the existing population is no more likely to be displaced in gentrifying areas than anywhere else. But when they do leave, the people who replace them are likely to come from a different demographic—and not just in racial terms.

One of the most striking things about Graduate Hospital’s stroller-clogged sidewalks is the absence of gray hair. Take away the hip cafes and the neighborhood has the air of a freshly-minted ‘60s subdivision.  Jacobs’s ideal was a bit like a children’s storybook version of a city, populated by archetypes. There was the early shift-worker hurrying to the subway before dawn, the retiree watching from the stop at midday, the kids strolling home from school in the afternoon. That mix is hard to find in our gentrifying areas.

It turns out that the old complaint against gentrification, that it drives out minorities, is far too simplistic. Instead, we should be worrying about a different concern: It hasn’t built the diversity that Jacobsian urbanists envisioned, and that cities need. Diversity, in all its forms, is the urban advantage; it’s what lured a suburb-raised generation to 19th century rowhouses in the first place. After all these years of trying to revive their old neighborhoods, what a shame if it turns out that American cities have birthed a new kind of monotony.