What Do 'Newcomers' Mean For A Neighborhood? The History Of Gentrification In The U.S.

Dec 6, 2019

Gentrification has touched cities across the United States, from New York and the Bay Area, to Pittsburgh and Albuquerque.

The rapid transformation of some urban neighborhoods has become an incendiary cultural topic, attracting fierce opposition from anti-gentrification activists.

But Matthew Schuerman, author of “Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents,” has looked at the decades-long trajectory of gentrification and argues in his book that it’s not an inherently negative phenomenon — unlike the displacement that accompanies it.

Gentrification is “really just a process by which a neighborhood goes from being, say, a little [below] the median income for the area to above,” he says. “You’ve got to think of it as a neutral phenomenon like gravity, or wind, or rain. They can get you really wet and be really damaging … or if you figure out how to harness those elements, then you can actually, maybe, turn it into something to your benefit.”

His book details the roots of gentrifications across New York, Chicago and San Francisco, from the community organizations that fought to preserve buildings in old neighborhoods to the government officials that saw the forces of gentrification converging on their cities and kept the door open for an infusion of cash.

Schuerman says he starts his history of gentrification in the late 1950s “because that’s when this group of people in Brooklyn Heights really were self-conscious about wanting to live in the city” rather than follow their white counterparts to the suburbs.

Those urbanites opposed urban renewal, the wholesale demolition of slums and subsequent replacement with large, concrete buildings. They also saw themselves as “pioneers” who were “civilizing the urban frontier,” Schuerman notes.

“And I don’t think they realized at the time how racist that might sound to people,” he says. “But I think looking back on it, we really question that sort of language and that attitude, as if these neighborhoods were not good neighborhoods or functional neighborhoods beforehand.”

Interview Highlights

On the focus on preservation by early gentrifiers

“They wanted to restore the buildings. They thought differently sometimes about the neighborhoods, although some of them really appreciated the diversity, the vibrancy that they found in these city neighborhoods as well. It almost became a problem, though, too much of a good thing, as the gentrifiers moved into these neighborhoods, sort of overwhelmed them. And then many, many years later have started to push people out.”

On the role of city leaders in the early stages of gentrification

“They were pretty hands off about it. And that’s what’s interesting, is that it’s more a question of what they didn’t do as opposed to what they did. A lot of the problems with urban renewal, for example, or where people placed public housing in this country have to do with things that public policymakers, government leaders did. But [with gentrification] it was more that some mayors saw this coming … and they thought, ‘This is fantastic. It doesn’t take any public money at all. People are reviving the city on their own.’”

On gentrification in Chicago, including the “Cabrini Green” housing project

“There are plenty of examples in Chicago where gentrification did happen in sort of the more traditional way, where you have an old neighborhood like Old Town or Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, etcetera, [where] people move in [and] privately renovate it. But I wanted to look at what happens when you take an entire public housing complex and you try to, in essence, gentrify it. [City leaders] didn’t use that name. They didn’t see it as gentrifying it. They wanted to break up that concentrated poverty. They were trying to solve a problem and undo all the mistakes of the past. But they sort of used the spirit of gentrification and the dynamic of it basically by moving a lot of low-income people out of there to other places and then inviting middle- and upper-middle-income people in. And the most amazing thing is just that these class lines persisted even when people were intentionally integrated with one another. They built these buildings so that there would be no difference in the apartments where they were placed. They all look the same whether they’re subsidized for low-income people or whether they were market rate. And nonetheless, these class differences really came out. There has been a lot of tension and resentment since then.”

On where we are right now in the history of gentrification

“There was a study by Governing magazine that basically looked at gentrification, found that between 2000 and 2010, one out of every five low-income urban census tract had gentrified [compared to only 9% during the 1990s]. So well, we’ll wait and next year after the census data comes out, we’ll see. But it certainly seems like it’s accelerating. I get gentrification alerts, Google alerts from places like Auburn, South Carolina, Buffalo, New York, places that you would never think would gentrify are experiencing that now. … The biggest issue, though, is that it so often it seems like every city discovers gentrification all over again. They pretend or they act or maybe they genuinely didn’t see it coming and they have to reinvent the wheel. When in fact, if you look back in the 1970s, when people became conscious of gentrification, a lot of those solutions that are being presented now were actually presented 40 years ago.

On increasing the housing supply as a solution to displacement caused by gentrification

“I think that increasing the supply has got to be part of the solution. Absolutely. One problem is, though, that when new units are built, they always enter the high end of the market. Developers will build luxury units unless they’re subsidized. So it takes a long time to have this filtering process where it will actually help people in the middle-income or lower-income strata. And that’s not happening fast enough. So the experts that I’ve consulted recommend some sort of mixture between new market rate and new subsidized housing.”

On the story of René Yañez, the late Mexican-American painter and one of the people Schuerman wrote about who was affected by gentrification

“He was an artist in San Francisco, and he helped make the Mission District sort of what it is today in many ways. He started the mural movement. He co-founded an art gallery. He encouraged and fostered this sense of Chicano, Latino identity for the mission. And lo and behold, when a neighborhood becomes attractive in that way, it also becomes the target of gentrification. We all want to live in nice, vibrant, diverse, different sorts of communities. So, unfortunately, he was threatened with eviction. He fought mightily. The fact that he had such deep and extensive roots in the community no doubt helped. He got the media on his side. He got government officials on his side, and he was able to survive his final years in his same apartment.”

On the people who say gentrification has made their neighborhood safer

“Is gentrification good or bad? No, it’s sort of a neutral sort of thing. It’s a question of how do you tame it so that, let’s say, you’re not pushing people out, but you are able to get the infusion of cash and wealth that you need to improve a neighborhood. But that also raises the question, why is it that white people need to move into a neighborhood before a city starts paying attention to it? I mean, I know it’s not literally that case, but … when you read the academic literature, you actually sort of see that academics are saying, actually one of the benefits is that the people who stay, the low-income people who stay in these neighborhoods, they get better schools, they get better trash pickup, they get better police protection. And that’s got to raise some questions, too.”

On the centrality of race to the issue

“It’s a big part of it. … Race has certainly exacerbated the tensions that we see around gentrification. And also, if you think about like the African American renter in a poor neighborhood in the 1960s or ‘70s, let’s say this person has enough money to buy a house, but they can’t buy an apartment or a house in their neighborhood because of redlining. Banks won’t lend to them, nor can they move outside of their neighborhood because there are real estate agents who won’t show them homes there, [that’s] also discrimination. They end up continuing to rent. And now that we see gentrification affecting these low-income black neighborhoods, these are the people who are most vulnerable because they have not put down the roots. They’ve not owned their homes. And homeownership is one of the best ways to resist gentrification.”

Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtParis also adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: ‘Newcomers’

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.