Gentrification 301: Beyond the Basics

“Gentrification” is a loaded term, bemoaned by most, resisted by many, and championed by more than a few – especially real estate developers. While healthy cities change all the time, the dislocation of the less fortunate and their replacement by the wealthier has become a major factor in every city over the past fifty years. The trends have reshaped neighborhoods, framed politics, and led to social and political movements. Gentrification has likewise become a focus for academic research, policy studies, and a lens through which urbanism is understood.

What does gentrification mean? For Matthew Schuerman, a journalist who recently wrote a book on the subject, gentrification is the process by which poor neighborhoods become wealthy neighborhoods. It is a useful grounding, for it bypasses loaded expectations. His work, Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents, is a nuanced study of gentrification in three cities. Schuerman’s take, guided by close local research, reveals the complex factors that can lead to gentrification. It is not a simple process, as his work with primary sources and detailed investigation reveals.

Newcomers zeroes in on Brooklyn, from Brooklyn Heights through Park Slope, the Mission District of San Francisco, and to a lesser degree, Cabrini Green in Chicago. Schuerman’s historical periods starts after World War II and extends through the early 2000. This is not a study driven by tables and statistics. Instead, Schuerman works through local neighborhood groups, planned developments, and the politics of land use and government support or resistance. While broad societal and economic changes took place nationally, the particular shape, pace and feel of gentrification is affected significantly by local conditions. Schuerman offers the reader some, but not much, of those national factors.

Schuerman takes pains to avoid snap judgments or easy generalizations. He neither champions increased property values nor romanticizes less wealthy neighborhoods. What we learn about are the multiple steps, rarely in one direction, by which these neighborhoods became wealthier. He makes sure that we understand that “gentrification” has become a conduit through which other political issues and concerns gain oxygen and burn bright. Gentrification can be a fighting word.

Newcomers makes one give pause when it comes to the changes in cities. That’s a valuable gift. The book is a very welcome study shining a light on a complicated social, economic and political process. In so doing, he teases out the relationships between the local and the larger. That helps explain why policy rarely achieves its stated aims. Schuerman is to be commended for a deliberate and carefully crafted book teasing out a complex phenomenon.

David Potash


A dear reader wrote to me about this post with a query: “But what do you really think?” It is a fair question, for while I stand by every word in the post (it is all what I think), the issue of gentrification cannot help but stir strong feelings.

What Schuerman’s book and other writing has convinced me that “gentrification” is probably better understood as a particular subset of economic dislocation. The Genus is expansive, from gentrification to planned communities to urban renewal, and is woven deeply into our core belief that market-driven decisions are the most effective and efficient. Most, though, believe that some countervailing forces are appropriate and needed to soften consequences. Consequently, I believe that if the massive dislocations taking place on a daily basis in our cities are to be addressed through countervailing forces, it is necessary to consider policy and practice holistically. For example, the gentrification taking place in Chicago’s northwest side is part of the same processes that have contributed to the disinvestment on Chicago’s west and south sides. A wonderful topic for more research and, one would hope, action.

Chicago’s Lincoln Park – A Study of Changing Neighborhood

Cycling through Chicago neighborhoods, walking in this fascinating city, I often wonder about its development. Who built what and why? How did we end up with our city of neighborhoods, our parks, our nodes of this and that? The architecture, the public and private spaces of this city, are extraordinarily interesting. Add to that the city’s rich, vibrant and often troubling history and even more questions arise. Why are we so segregated? Why are some parts of the city so wealthy and others so much less so? It doesn’t seem to have much to do with geography. There’s no elevated part of the city that overlooks the rest. Chicago is a flat metropolis and public transportation, while important, does not offer a guarantee of an improved infrastructure or a healthier neighborhood.

Are there two inexorable neighborhood trends in the city: gentrification with exclusion or under investment with poverty?

Recently I read a short volume that helps to answer these questions, at least in one Chicago neighborhood. Daniel Kay Hertz’s The Battle of Lincoln Park: Urban Renewal and Gentrification in Chicago is an accessible study that could be considered local history. Read it carefully, though, and it offers more. It is a case study, a window into how politics, racism, and economics intertwine in the creation of our built environment. Hertz is a Chicago native who knows his way around the city’s economy and politics. He’s a reliable guide in this book, which unpacks and questions the dynamics of gentrification. It is well-written, thoughtfully considered and chock full of smart analysis. My greatest complaint is that it is light on maps. They would have given the book even more punch.

Lincoln Park is a community on the north side of Chicago, bordering Lake Michigan. In the years after World War II, it was a dynamic neighborhood filled with a diversity of backgrounds, incomes, races and economic activity. Though certainly not edenic and clearly suffering from the long-term effects of the Great Depression, Lincoln Park had much going for it. It appealed to artists and other creative types after the war. Knowingly or not, deep changes were coming. It is from these first influx of post-war residents that Hertz starts his story. He follows them, and the shifts in the neighborhood, for the coming decades. There’s increased movement by white middle class people, a push for urban renewal and slum-clearance, which disrupts neighborhoods, and the organization of community groups who preach inclusivity while promoting practices that drive less affluent community members out. All of this happens in phases, usually connected to broader economic trends. By the 1960s, the neighborhood has greatly stressed, particularly as a vibrant and politically active Puerto Rican community was displaced. Those changes led to violence and riots.

Architecturally, multiple-family dwellings are replaced by single family homes. This brings in new types of families and excludes those with lesser means. The population dips as wealth ticks up. Federal dollars speed up the rate of transformation. A few large developments shape the community further, each of which involve “clearance”, or removing buildings of less property value, under the flag of “improving the community.” These are highly contested politically charged affairs. Hertz stresses, though, that the underlying transformation is steady and ongoing, with or without the big projects proceeding. From 1945 to 1970, the span of this book, Lincoln Park is the site of significant and long-lasting change. It has continued, too, as have changes and gentrification in many other parts of the city.

Hertz does a good job presenting different perspectives from the neighborhood. He’s very interested in giving voice to those that were not able to exercise much political power. Gentrification can cause real pain and harm. It can also bring benefits to an under-resourced area. Ultimately, Hertz is less concerned about policy and more in telling a story of the built environment. Hertz pays close attention to who did what and why during those years. It begs the question of economic gain and problematizes the idea of a “nice” neighborhood. That is a loaded issue, particularly when one considers who is determining it and why. There is much more to community than property values. Or large single-family houses. Reading his book and walking Lincoln Park, it is much easier to understand the neighborhood and, importantly, to think about how other neighborhoods have and are changing. It calls into question what people think of as community and why. That is a very important question, one we need to continue to address if we are to have a healthy city.

David Potash