Thinking About Gentrification

As I’ve been contemplating a career in urban planning, I’ve thinking a lot about gentrification. After all, gentrification could be a harm urban planners cause in their work. That curiosity led me to read There Goes The ‘Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up. The book’s author, Lance Freeman, is a professor of urban planning at Columbia University; he happens to be black and live in the gentrifying Clinton Hill neighborhood of New York City. Freeman lays out the goal of more fully considering the perspectives of the poor residents of gentrifying ghettoes since they are frequently regarded as victims soon to be displaced but seldom are even asked their opinion or considered as agents of change in their own neighborhood. Ultimately, Freeman concludes that gentrification is more complicated than the rhetoric, bringing both stressors and opportunities. Harnessing it for good is a lot more productive than trying to stop it in its tracks, which is nearly impossible.


Freeman sketches the history of Clinton Hill and Harlem. Harlem is an interesting case study and perhaps anomaly in that it became a predominantly black neighborhood partially by accident after a speculative real estate bubble burst and landlords found they could only rent out their units if they loosened their discriminatory practices and opened their buildings to black renters. Of course, whites later tried to take back their hoity-toity development when the economy improved. In 1904, white Harlem landlords tried to evict blacks, but blacks organized and black realtor Phillip Payton Jr. bought up many buildings to protect their status in the neighborhood and evict whites to retaliate. So, as Freeman said: “Thus it came to be that African Americans occupied one of the choicest sections of New York City.”

The history was truly illuminating and perhaps it’s telling that Harlem, the Capital of Black America developed not by government action but by blacks taking advantage of the slightest of openings presented by a series of failed real estate speculations by white developers. In other words, whites helped blacks more by mistake than they did on purpose. Redlining and other forms of economic discrimination ended up reversing Harlem’s fortunes in the postwar period and the neighborhood was ravaged with drug violence and arson and partly abandoned.

Establishing the base of history, Freeman delved into the qualitative interviews he conducted with long time residents of Harlem and Clinton Hill. He did see the backlash and resentment toward gentrification in his interviews, but there was also appreciation for the greater amenities gentrification brings and occasionally for a hope for a more heterogeneous neighborhood. Among interviewees there was much anxiety about displacement but not many people had actually been displaced as of yet.

The ability of poor residents to weather the tide of gentrification was in part particular to New York City’s advanced affordable housing policies including rent regulation and housing co-ops where poor residents are allowed to buy their apartment rather than just rent. Seattle does not have such advanced and progressive practices and has seen many blacks displaced from its historically black neighborhood, Central District, to the point less than 20 percent of the neighborhood is now black after being more than 50% black two decades years ago. Neighborhood leaders are trying to rise to the occasion and have a a stronger say. The Union Street Business Association is trying to buy one prime piece of real estate at 23rd and Union and develop it in a more community oriented way, but they face an uphill battle.

Each corner of 23rd and Union is being redeveloped in the heart of the Central District. Photo by Kelly O/The Stranger.

Each corner of 23rd and Union is being redeveloped in the heart of the Central District. Photo by Kelly O/The Stranger.

Consequently, it might not be possible to generalize the resiliency of New York City’s black neighborhoods to the rest of the country. But Freeman’s prescription for maintaining affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods should help harness the potential of gentrification. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) would divert the gain in property tax revenues to building more affordable housing. Inclusionary zoning, which require new housing developments to set aside a portion of units to be affordable to moderate income households, would also help.

Instead we get a Seattle City Council that is currently contemplating draconian anti-density regulations thanks to conservative old fogey Democrat council members Rasmussen, Licata, and Godden who sit on the influential Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee and hi-jacked a bill with eight anti-density amendments. We get a socialist city council member, Sawant, who not only voted for two of the anti-density amendments, but also sponsored a bill to decrease the transportation levy. It’s a topsy-turvy world.


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