After decades of disinvestment and decline, American cities have become desirable places to work and live, especially for young adults in their 20s and 30s. Bloggers, journalists, and authors have documented this trend in cities, both large and small.
Investment and development have followed this population movement into cities and anticipated its continuance. This has raised the concern and sometimes ire of activists, cultural critics, and longtime residents. Once a term relegated to academic discussion, gentrification has entered the vernacular. Rarely does a week pass when I do not read or hear a story detailing the gentrification of a neighborhood or an entire city.
People take strident and vocal positions on gentrification. Political ideology, nostalgia, and entitlement often inform such opinions. Historical facts and economic critiques fall by the wayside. Regardless, a change is happening in many neighborhoods and cities. This change is real.
In 2005, I moved to my current neighborhood in Jersey City. At that time, my neighborhood was a quiet working-class neighborhood, almost evenly divided between whites, largely of Irish, Italian, and Polish descent, and Hispanics of various nationalities. South Asian and Arab residents rounded out the population. Within the past twelve years, I watched the neighborhood main street lose a Polish grocer, an Italian deli, a quality jeweler, and other “old-timer” businesses. Many blocks deteriorated with the housing crash and the neglect of slum lords. Corner bars closed. A strong working-class neighborhood starting becoming a poor one.
Within the past five years, the composition and texture of my neighborhood has changed again. Volunteers organized a farmers market in a local park, fostering a sense of community among many newer residents and providing them a with place to meet one another. In addition to providing quality, local food, the farmers market built social capital within the neighborhood and among its citizens.
New businesses have opened on the main street and elsewhere in the neighborhood. An Argentinean bakery sells sweets, quiches, and coffee. A former cop bar transformed into a delightful tavern and bistro. These new businesses are clean and well-designed and pride themselves with good service and products. More savvy, long-established businesses have spiffed up themselves and experimented with their menus and inventory. Interestingly enough, the customer bases of all these businesses reflect the demographics of the neighborhood, demonstrating that most residents want nice places wherein to shop and dine, regardless of background or income.
On my own block, four houses and apartment buildings have been purchased in the past year, and the new owners are working hard fixing them up. (In the process, I’ve been shamed to spend more time on my own home.) Less trash collects in gutter, and fewer people hang out on the corner at night. My street looks more inviting than when my wife and I purchased our home seven years ago.
Is it wrong to want a nice cafe where one might enjoy a coffee and a book for an hour on a weekend morning? Is it wrong to be excited to have a nice restaurant within walking distance to bring a date or a friend? Is it wrong to fix up your home?
The point of my anecdotes and my rhetorical questions is that gentrification is a nuanced, complicated phenomenon—especially at the neighborhood level–and that change is a part of any city. Neighborhoods experiencing zero change and investment are stagnant at best. In most cases, they are impoverished, failing, and even dangerous.
Is gentrification happening in my neighborhood? Yes. Instead of arguing whether it’s good or bad, desirable or undesirable, residents should marshal their political and social capital to define the contours of change and find a method to maximize its benefits for all the neighborhood’s citizens, both old and new.
How? That remains a question without a clear and easy answer. That’s the present challenge.