Talking Honestly About Gentrification: A Commentary

When discussing social phenomena, there are various ways to approach it. One can talk around a matter, or analyze it by looking at more than one side. Gentrification is one issue, that no matter what, people will continue to discuss passionately. Attempting to belittle the experiences of those who have been most impacted by these economic changes.

To make it more explicit, this writer is referring to a piece written in Slate titled “The Myth of Gentrification”┬áIn reading through the piece, I find it dismissive and tone deaf. You are welcome to read it for yourself, but that is my assessment. From the very beginning, the sub-title says that gentrification is “not as bad for the poor as you think” Okay. Did the writer ever ask any of “the poor” about their experiences?

The author consults economists, sociologists, but has little to say of those who are directly affected by this economic change. Charts and graphs can say much, but they do not substitute for people’s lived experiences. Talking honestly about gentrification requires us to go beyond this window dressing.

It means honestly talking about unsavory practices by greedy landlords, harassment by housing officials, and open, deliberate neglect.

It means discussing the increased police presence that often accompanies gentrification and what that represents in communities of color that are already over-policed to begin with.

It means exploring the reality that resources that pour into neighborhoods that were not there before are often not brought with the intention of improving the entire community- but meant to cater to newer, more affluent residents. It is much deeper than any passing snide remark made about the new bistro or coffee shop that took over the mom and pop grocery store. To many, gentrification amounts to what resembles high intensity economic warfare.

No amount of deflecting will change that in the minds of those who experience gentrification first hand. Another glaring problem with much of the discourse is that, it often overlooks the lived experiences of working class people. Rendered voiceless, invisible, and irrelevant, the people who find themselves pushed out economically also find their voices marginalized in the conversation.

Residents resent that it takes new people to come in for the community to receive desperately needed resources. The fact that this occurs means that its not a matter of whether it was possible to improve the lives of people in deprived areas, it confirms that the political and economic will was the factor. That is a sore point of contention, that will not be papered over by retiring the term gentrification.

What should be retired, is this notion that not discussing the matter in a pre determined way will resolve matters. As long as the costs of living rises while pay does not, there will always be those who are more affected by deliberate price gouging. As long as people use the cover of a “melting pot” to justify gentrification, it will only lead to more deflection. That is what we need less of, if we are to address the problem.

-Marc W. Polite




  1. I very much enjoyed your article.

    My aunt, who I guess you could classify as “first wave” upper/middle class to move into park slope in Brooklyn in the mid-80s, I used to visit her a lot in the early/mid-90s and the neighborhood was fairly well diversified in terms of race but was squarely working class although it was a little threadbare and occasionally dangerous it was a nice neighborhood. I move away from the area for a long time and then moved back to the northeast and went to visit her around 2008 and several times after… The change was dramatic, what was once a neighborhood that was an iconic “slice of real ny” had turned into a plasticine playground for the upper/middle class and their hipster kids, all of the bodegas save for one were gone as well as diners, tradesmen supply shops, florists, etc. The racial diversity of the neighborhood is non-existent and the only working class people in that neighborhood were the ones who had jobs at the “organic, gmo-free, free-range, artisan” businesses that had popped up. Sitting on the stoop I used to talk with people from the neighborhood who just walked by and want to chat or bum a smoke and now if you sit out there you get turned up noses from women pushing their kids around in $800 strollers because you smiled at them, guys in suits worth more than I make in a year and “new age” people who act like you are emitting a neuro-toxic chemical weapon because you have a smoke in your hand.

    Originally I am from Buffalo (which is an extremely working class city) and right now there is a “rejuvenation” spurred mostly by young, middle-class, hipsters happening and relatives just extoll the virtues and I keep trying to warn them that they aren’t in the right economic bracket to enjoy the benefits and it might seem great but make sure you don’t sell the soul of the city just to make it look pretty.

    I look at gentrification as a surface level symptom of what is really happening; while some people look at it from a racial point of view and it is at some level, I think at the level where “flesh meets flesh” you have racial struggles between people who still see color and while beneficial to keep racism alive to create disunity it is not nearly as systemic as it once was. If you look back far enough in history you tend to find at the core of ethnic/religious/national divides is a fabricated social mechanism to justify unethical economic mechanisms. I think the accurate point of view is that gentrification is a sign of those economic mechanisms laid bare by the dissolution of those social mechanisms due to widespread unacceptability that divided people by race/national ancestry/religion/gender. Education is the new mechanism and the new battleground and education is all predicated upon money, those who have it and those who don’t and it is what people should really focus on rather than gentrification which is just a symptom of a much larger problem.

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