The Gentrification Panic

The media’s obsession with a handful of trendy neighborhoods obscures the real story of urban America.  

Gentrification is all around us,” declares Matthew L. Schuerman in his new book, Newcomers. “It’s in the neighborhoods we walk through, the conversations we have, the blogs we read.” That will ring true to many college-educated professionals living in the core of booming cities like New York and San Francisco. To this class, gentrification is the dominant experience of living in an American urban center. But what about everyone else?

Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents
by Matthew L. Schuerman
University of Chicago Press, 320 pp.

Human beings, who exist at the scale of the neighborhood, have trouble understanding the full scope of urbanized America. The United States contains 107 metropolitan areas of at least a half-million residents. The largest member of that vast patchwork, New York City, contains more than eight million people within its limits, but that’s less than 4 percent of America’s overall metro population. Other cities that loom nearly as large in the national consciousness are much smaller. San Francisco is home to less than one-half of 1 percent of the country’s metro population. Neighborhoods themselves are fractions of a fraction. San Francisco’s famous Mission District makes up one-twentieth of the city. Less than one in every hundred New Yorkers lives in sprawling Park Slope. 

And yet, Schuerman, an editor focusing on urban development at the New York public radio station WNYC, tries to unpack the history of urban change through a focus on a handful of these neighborhoods. In the end, his method illustrates the peril of trying to understand American cities by looking at only a few unrepresentative examples. 

Newcomers mostly sticks to well-known locales. Schuerman describes the decades-long history of economic transition in the Mission and Park Slope, plus New York’s Brooklyn Heights, SoHo, and DUMBO: famous areas virtually synonymous with gentrification. He also spends time in Chicago’s public housing system, particularly the infamous Cabrini-Green project, well-trodden ground for housing and urban policy scholars.

Schuerman proves an able neighborhood historian, with an eye for detail that makes familiar terrain feel unexplored. In the early chapters, he follows residents, community leaders, and developers from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s as they work to build, and then preserve, their urban enclaves. In the late 1950s, competing neighborhood associations face off over urban renewal in Brooklyn Heights, with the area’s old guard favoring a Robert Moses plan to demolish row houses and replace them with a wall of high-rises. Elsewhere, Schuerman finds compelling stories in the day-to-day complications that self-styled “urban pioneers” faced while building their communities. The Park Slope Food Coop is unable to distribute its food fast enough to keep it from rotting, while the neighborhood’s brownstone homeowners form a tactical alliance with the municipal gas company. Dianne Feinstein, the mayor of San Francisco at the time, pulls aside a Mission community leader to ask why Latino youths don’t assimilate better: “Why set yourself apart?” 

Even working within its narrow scope, Newcomers does an excellent job of conveying the many forms neighborhood “upgrading” can take. Brooklyn Heights was bohemian from the get-go, and young professionals quickly acted to protect its character, implementing New York’s first historic district. By contrast, gentrification rolled through Park Slope slowly, as the first middle-class arrivals sought prospective buyers to rehabilitate nearby brownstones. DUMBO was a sparse industrial quarter, targeted for wholesale and rapid transformation by investors. The Mission built a thriving and multinational Latino community that persisted well into the twenty-first century. Despite the different histories, a theme emerges: Neighborhood economic rebirth is the product of both intentional intervention and residents’ own hard efforts.

But does this tell us about gentrification more generally? Gentrification itself is a notoriously fuzzy term. Almost everyone agrees that it encompasses some mix of a place becoming wealthier, whiter, better educated, and more expensive, but these don’t always happen together. There is little consensus about which factors are required and which are simply side effects. There’s also a dispute over the connection between gentrification and the displacement of poor people. In many economically growing neighborhoods, the low-income population does not fall by much. This can happen because new investment leads to new, higher-density housing, or because the area was a deserted industrial quarter to begin with, such as New York’s DUMBO. 

Schuerman settles on what he admits is a simple definition of gentrification: the process by which a neighborhood goes from having below-average to above-average incomes for its region. But he never really applies it. While he frequently asserts or implies that gentrification is exploding across cities, he doesn’t say how many neighborhoods actually meet his definition.

As a demographic researcher, I decided to check. Using U.S. Census data, I looked at the share of people in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago living in places that met Schuerman’s definition of having gentrified between 2000 and 2016. In New York, it’s 3.1 percent of residents. In San Francisco, the number is 4.4 percent. In Chicago, it’s 4.8 percent. Needless to say, this does not represent a vast swath. Although the numbers might increase if the time frame were extended, change at a generational pace is far less disruptive than change that takes place over a few years. Using Newcomers’ own definition, the story of urban America is not a tidal wave of gentrification but creeping racial and economic transition. 

In fact, this aligns with the growing academic consensus that gentrification is much rarer than is commonly believed. This year alone, there have been no fewer than three national studies into the prevalence and location of gentrifying neighborhoods. (Disclosure: I authored one of these studies, for the University of Minnesota.) Despite using very different methods, all three studies roughly appear to agree that about 10 percent of neighborhoods in metro areas were gentrifying. Research has also tended to show that no matter how you measure gentrification in the urban core, it’s almost always more common to find neighborhoods afflicted by intensifying poverty. Out of the fifty biggest American regions, forty-four have core cities where the population in poverty has grown faster than the overall population since 2000. The only exceptions are New York City, Los Angeles, D.C., New Orleans, Atlanta, and Providence.

Put bluntly, Schuerman’s assertion that gentrification “is all around us” is empirically unsupportable. But it’s telling that even a housing journalist would have this perspective. Almost by definition, it is members of the urban professional class who are the most likely to be exposed to affluent neighborhoods in the late stages of gentrifying. Among movers and shakers in media and politics, gentrification may truly seem to be everywhere they go. Often, it’s because they’re bringing it with them. 

Precisely because it disproportionately affects influential city residents—and because it puts a human face on an otherwise abstract process of neighborhood transition—the conflicts that accompany gentrification tend to dominate urban policy, even in cities where poverty and lack of investment should be more pressing concerns. Newcomers addresses and describes many such conflicts: over displacement, housing costs, the pace of economic growth. Mission District activists fight off encroachment from tech companies and even oppose a subway stop. Wealthy Brooklyn transplants try to stop demolition of existing homes. Schuerman describes the growth of an anti-displacement movement in Philadelphia that takes the form of activism against new development, liquor licenses, and lost parking. One prominent anti-displacement advocate testified to Congress about the Community Reinvestment Act, striking a critical tone: “Our overall concern is not reinvestment so much as reinvestment for whom?”

But something’s missing. Schuerman depicts gentrification opponents as Cassandras, unwisely ignored until too late. It’s hard not to notice, though, that the anti-gentrification activists in the book share something in common with many of the gentrifiers: Once they feel ownership over their neighborhood, both groups fight to clamp down on development and neighborhood investment. In other words, to jaded modern eyes, both sides’ concerns sound more than a little like “Not in my backyard.” 

NIMBYism is driven by a variety of factors, including prejudice, suspicion, and a powerful parochial resistance to change of any kind. Newcomers doesn’t mention it at all. Strangely, Schuerman does discuss pro-development YIMBYism—“Yes in my backyard”—which seeks to reduce housing costs by loosening zoning laws and flooding the market with new development. But Schuerman seems mostly to reject this view, expressing skepticism that new units could come online fast enough to significantly lower housing costs, or that enough could even be built, both of which might be described as NIMBY-adjacent positions. 

Once again, the book’s neighborhood scale narrows its perspective. Gentrification is fed by new wealth, but at the level of a city, the pool of wealthy potential residents is finite. Not every city or neighborhood can gentrify indefinitely, because you’d run out of moneyed residents long before you ran out of city. 

What is not finite, however, is fear. Worry over gentrification can extend far beyond the thing itself. Schuerman writes that “there is no sign the pace of gentrification, nor the vigor of the backlash, will subside soon.” But his book mostly provides evidence for the second part.

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Will Stancil

Will Stancil is a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School.