When it comes to talking about urban change, words serve their purpose, until they are considered inadequate, wrong or just go out of style. “Slum” and “urban renewal” for instance. Usage of these terms peaked in the second half of the 1960s, but then faded. Could it be we’re beginning to see a similar downturn for “gentrification”?
Sociologist Ruth Glass“coined “gentrification” in 1964 . “Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts,” she wrote of a downtrodden district in London, “it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.” Glass’s word focuses on the shifting “social character” of communities—poor neighborhoods becoming upscale destinations.
A year before Glass introduced the term, Nathaniel Burt wryly noted in Philadelphia Gentleman: “Remodeling old houses is…one of Old Philadelphia’s favorite indoor sports, and to be able to remodel and consciously serve the cause of civic revival all at once has done to the heads of the upper classes like champagne.” Burt understood “the Renaissance of Society Hill” was “just one piece of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle” with the potential “to transform the city completely.” But a one-word shorthand for that complex puzzle? Not for Burt.
City planner Edmund Bacon preferred “renewal” in his 1962 film, Form, Design and the City. But, according to Denise Scott Brown, Bacon put too much emphasis on retailing and on “a certain kind of ‘center city living’ as expressed by Society Hill … its coffee bars, tree lined streets, cobbled squares.” Such amenities appealed more to “sophisticated intellectuals and professionals” than to anyone else. Anyway, Scott Brown concluded, they are “only part of the story.”
But the cat was soon out of the bag. The popular press and the public came to love the idea of gentrification. In October 1977, the Inquirer introduced the word on page one: “Gentrification is an imposing word for a process familiar to all Philadelphians,” wrote Richard Ben Cramer, “especially to those who lived 20 years ago in Society Hill, or 10 years ago near the art museum or more recently and Queen Village… A neighborhood close to Center City, filled with poorer residents, mostly renters, is suddenly “discovered” by middle-class people who rush in to buy and renovate the houses in the area. The run-down neighborhood suddenly becomes attractive. Higher-priced shops and restaurants open. The sidewalks, gardens, curbs, even the streets themselves are better tended. And the poor? Well, the poor go elsewhere.”
In the year following Cramer’s story, “gentrification” appeared five times in the Inquirer and the Daily News. In 1979 and 1980 it was used 25 times. Between 1981 and 1990, “gentrification” had become a staple of urban discourse, appearing more than 500 times. Just “as Ruth Glass intended,” noted social scientists, gentrification “simply yet very powerfully” captured “class inequalities and injustices”—even if some preferred the term for the wrong reasons. It implied the existence of a privileged “gentry” bored by their suburban experiment, willing to return to the city for less foliage, but a richer quality of life. Popular opinion assumed gentrification would, in time, significantly transform the entire city.
The term gained credibility and legitimacy as an accepted shorthand for the cycle of disinvestment, decline, reinvestment and revival. Public and planners came to believe that gentrification’s cycles of disinvestment and reinvestment were desirable and sustainable—a viable model for urban change.
As evidence, advocates presented the soaring values of Society Hill real estate, which rose nearly 250 percent during the 1960s alone. Discussions quickly turned to “what would become the next Society Hill”? Queen Village? Fairmount? Northern Liberties? But those were only three neighborhoods in a city with scores more, most lacking proximity to Center City.
Critics saw gentrification as “pompous and irrelevant,” an “anti-vernacular” “Trojan horse for post-industrial sustainability.” Neil Smith’s close look at data on the newcomers to Society Hill in the 1960s revealed that the vast majority were not the suburban “gentry” being re-urbanized, but folks from other city neighborhoods. Only 14% came from suburbia. Smith concluded that “the so-called urban renaissance has been stimulated more by economic than cultural forces.” When it came to making a “decision to rehabilitate an inner city structure, one consumer preference tends to stand out above the others—the preference for profit.”
How had this flawed shorthand made its way into the heart of the urban lexicon? In “Walking Backwards to the Future,” researchers suggested that perhaps the original, heady promise of a dual upgrade in class and investment was the result of “too many glasses of chardonnay … shared between researcher and gentrifier.”
Today, more and more, studies discussing gentrification include commentary suggesting counter-intuitive, even contradictory findings suggesting that it is not the defining experience in Philadelphia, or most American cities. One recent Pew study found that only 15 of Philadelphia’s 372 residential census tracts gentrified from 2000 to 2014, and that these tracts tended to be contiguous with, or near, Center City. Meanwhile, “more than 10 times that many census tracts—164 in all—experienced statistically significant drops in median household income” during the same years.
In other words, after more than half a century, “gentrification” may finally be fading as the reliable, accurate and useful description for urban change. Instead, we should be examining the more complicated “broad array of influences” and those, for the time being, are averse to shorthand.
[Sources include: Denise Scott Brown, Review of Form, Design, and the City, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 28:4, 1962; Richard Ben Cramer, “Back to the City, London Style,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 9, 1977; Susan Mayhew, A Dictionary of Geography, (Oxford University Press; 5th ed.2015); Dylan Gottlieb, “Gentrification,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, (Rutgers, 2014); Neil Smith, “Gentrification,” The Encyclopedia of Housing (Willem van Vliet ed., 1998); Neil Smith, “Toward a Theory of Gentrification: A Back to the City Movement by Capital, not People,” in The Gentrification Debates: A Reader (Routledge, 2013); Tim Butler and Chris Hamnett, “Walking Backwards to the Future—Waking Up to Class and Gentrification in London,” Urban Policy And Research, 27:3, 2009; Philadelphia’s Changing Neighborhoods—Gentrification and other shifts since 2000 (PEW Report, May 2016).]