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There Goes the ‘Hood: a nuanced take on gentrification

It was May 6, the day of the bi-annual Clinton Hill House Tour, an emblematic sign of gentrification, as visitors paid $20 to troop into lovingly restored mansions and converted industrial spaces in a neighborhood that still houses many lower-income residents. Those collecting tour maps could also pick up a brochure for the new Forté luxury tower rising in nearby Fort Greene.

The final stop on the tour was in the southeast portion of Clinton Hill, not far from the official (though shifting, in the eyes of some real estate promoters) border with blacker, poorer Bedford-Stuyvesant. Nearby, outside a laundromat on Fulton Street, a black woman and a black man, middle-aged and apparently working class, were having a conversation loud enough to overhear.

W: I’m not coming back. They assholes.

M: People that work here?

W: No. The others. They new to the neighborhood and they acting like we visiting.

Race and class

The racial identity of their antagonists was unclear, but the class identity was not, and the episode encapsulated some tensions explored by Lance Freeman, a Columbia University academic, in his 2006 book, There Goes the ’Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up, based on interviews in two mostly-black neighborhoods, Harlem and Clinton Hill, where in recent years higher-income residents, black and white, have moved in.

(Here’s an NPR interview with Freeman. For another take with a similar title, note the recent exhibit on gentrification in Crown Heights, titled There goes the neighborhood!, at Five Myles.)

Freeman, who is black and teaches in Columbia’s graduate school of urban planning, is no apologist for gentrification, though some of his previous research has been criticized for too sanguine a take on displacement. His interviewees present a mixed view. (Crucially, in Clinton Hill, all are either homeowners or residents of rent-regulated housing, so they're not at direct risk of displacement.)

He writes:
Residents of the 'hood are sometimes more receptive because gentrification brings their neighborhoods into the mainstream of American commercial life with concomitant amenities and services that others might take for granted. It also represents the possibility of achieving upward mobility without having to escape to the suburbs or predominantly white neighborhoods.

Yet the long history of disenfranchisement, red lining, and discrimination also inspires a cynicism toward gentrification that might not be evidenced elsewhere. Though appreciative of neighborhood improvements associated with gentrification, many see this as evidence that such amenities and services are only provided when whites move into their neighborhoods. Moreover, many see these improvements as the result of active collaboration between public officials, commercial interests, and white residents.

Indeed, they appreciate some new everyday stores, the neighborhood’s physical appearance, and the government’s responsiveness in providing services such as trash pickup and public safety (and, if homeowners, the steady rise in the value of their homes). DeKalb Avenue, now a restaurant row in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, was “kind of scary,” one resident observes, and Myrtle Avenue until recently merited its “Murder Avenue” moniker.

Potential threats

On the other hand, even if they don’t feel personally threatened by displacement, residents recognize that friends and relatives, who might have previously wanted to stay in the neighborhood, have been priced out, and may feel that longstanding institutions, like local churches, are threatened. So there's a role for government in managing that change, as noted below.

And, as with the episode I observed, they feel less comfortable in public, wondering at shifting norms and who controls public space, even alienated by upscale retail outlets that clearly cater to "new" people.

In his book and at public events, Freeman has provided examples of that: what middle-class homeowners see as unsavory loitering may just be longtime residents hanging out on the block (though the cops are more responsive to the former); what the law considers an open-container violation, a man drinking from a beer can on the stoop, is seen by some residents as hypocritical when down the block wealthier newcomers can sip their more expensive beer at a licensed sidewalk café; and, at a building divided into rentals and increasingly-expensive condos, barbecuing in the public spaces becomes forbidden.

Yesterday, in a New York Times Real Estate section feature (LIVING IN/Central Harlem) that somehow managed to omit mention of the neighborhood's housing projects, we learned of another such conflict, in which a group of musicians jamming in a nearby park, as they have done since the 1970s, caused residents of a new co-op nearby to complain to the cops. A compromise was reached; the musicians agreed not to play near the street.

Displacement effects

Freeman’s previous study had shown that poor residents and those lacking college degrees actually were less likely to move if they lived in a gentrifying neighborhood. As Daniel Treiman wrote in his review of the book in City Limits, “While this piqued his curiosity, the book unfortunately does not shed much additional light on this counterintuitive finding.”

That 2004 paper, co-written with Frank Braconi of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council, is called Gentrification and Displacement, and it covers several New York neighborhoods during the 1990s. I suspect that the study downplays signs of impending, if not actual displacement.

While affordable housing—remember that term?—is defined as costing 30 percent of household income, many in the city pay half their income in rent. Indeed, Freeman and Braconi point out that the average rent burden for poor households in gentrifying neighborhoods was 61%, nearly 20% higher than those outside the neighborhoods, at 52%.

They refer to that latter number as “still problematic” and, at a panel discussion last year, Freeman called the 61% figure "astronomical."

So there may be a tipping point of sorts. Even if a poor household wants to stay in a gentrifying neighborhood, and sacrifices to do so, doubling up or making an arrangement with a sympathetic landlord, at some point they just can’t afford it—and, since 1999, unregulated rents and housing values have risen steadily in neighborhoods like Harlem and Clinton Hill.

I asked Freeman whether he thought that ever-increasing rents would lead to more displacement. He responded, "I think there probably is some tipping point, although I’m not sure what it is. I too have wondered whether I would get the same results if I repeated the study with later data. When I get a chance, I plan to pursue this question."

Larger meaning

A Boston Globe review of Freeman’s book and others on the topic, by Columbia professor Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, points out, “The long-held truism of gentrification -- namely that inner-city residents and their leadership will vocally oppose the redevelopment of their neighborhoods -- needs revision.”

He notes, “The popular lament over the horrible living conditions in the ghettos of the 1980s and 1990s failed to take into account those who were buying up property and establishing a productive presence during these tough years -- the working class, immigrants, and unionized workers who had well-paying jobs in transportation, parks, law enforcement, and other city agencies.”

Mary Pattillo's Black on the Block, written by a black sociologist who moved into a “historically poor and predominantly African-American community rapidly gentrifying,” shows how Chicago is behind Brooklyn. Pattillo and fellow gentrifiers are often “sandwiched between empty lots and dilapidated, low-income housing projects,” but such luxury of space no longer exists in Brooklyn.

While in Chicago, most whites won’t move into a black neighborhood, in New York, that depends on the housing stock; Harlem and Bed-Stuy, for example, have become places to buy. (The Times's headline on the Central Harlem article was "A Neighborhood Worth the Big-Ticket Investment.")

Reviewer Venkatesh points out that, while “it is the black middle class moving in and buying real estate, the physical infrastructure of their neighborhoods is being rehabilitated by white-owned firms that get the lion's share of the city contracts. Thus, the net result is that middle-class blacks have become brokers, helping to ease the path of mostly white-controlled real estate firms that wish to reclaim undervalued inner-city neighborhoods.”

What to do

Freeman suggests that the wave of gentrification needs management “to help us achieve a more equitable and just society.” He notes that it “would be a supreme irony if those who were once confined to neighborhoods like Harlem can no longer afford to live there,” especially since they endured the bad old days. Also, he suggests that housing security is a value unto itself, and wholesale gentrification in neighborhoods like the ones he studied can generate cynicism and resentment.

That all suggests that gentrification is much easier when there’s vacant land to add buildings. Otherwise it can turn into a zero-sum game. Unmentioned, but another potential zero-sum effect, might be adding affordable housing but with the tradeoff of "extreme density," as with the Atlantic Yards plan.

Freeman’s wary of extremes:
One doesn’t have to be a Marxist, however, to recognize that whatever its efficiencies, the market can produce outcomes that are not socially desirable. Conversely, one doesn’t have to be a libertarian to realize that the market produces choice, dynamism and wealth. The most pertinent debate seems to be how to strike a balance between allowing the market to do its thing while correcting for some of the undesirable outcomes inherent in market capitalism.

Thus he suggests two strategies, one quite familiar to New Yorkers, one not. In inclusionary zoning, which has been deployed already, new housing developments must set aside some units for low- and moderate-income households. The idea is to share the wealth allowed by upzoning for increased density.

His more unusual idea concerns tax-increment financing (TIF), which is usually an economic development strategy and, in fact, has been applied to the financing of sports facilities. The idea is that new taxes generated should be plowed back into the neighborhood to subsidize housing and ensure that gentrifying neighborhoods maintain socioeconomic diversity. The design of such a program, however, might be complex.

Where has that worked? Freeman pointed me to the Illinois Tax Increment Association, which may be a partial model, but seems to be focused on overcoming blight, conserving old structures, or creating industrial jobs--not capturing increased housing value generated by gentrification.

As Freeman writes;
What gentrification can do is help minimize the extent to which various aspects of quality of life are dependent on one’s class. Because so many things are dependent in part on where one lives—primary education, exposure to crime and environment. Hazards, access to decent and healthful food—the quality of one’s neighborhood can affect life outcomes.

Focusing on the neighborhood

At a discussion held in June 2006 on housing displacement, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Brooklyn, Freeman suggested that the change was more noticeable because those who moved--as people often do, for various reasons--were replaced by people who did not necessarily share their race and class.

He reiterated a theme of his book:
In general, affordable housing policy has not necessarily tried to focus on those neighborhoods that are experiencing gentrification. They are either focused on neighborhoods that are already very poor, or there might be some policy described to de-concentrate poverty, but I think if we’re concerned about displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods or preserving affordable housing opportunity in those neighborhoods, I think we need to think about targeting affordable housing to those neighborhoods.

Another tactic might be the belated revision of the 421-a tax break, which has subsidized luxury construction in most parts of the city without requiring affordable housing and, in those areas where affordable housing was part of the tradeoff, did not require it on-site.


  1. Norman - This is an excellent post. I really enjoyed reading Freeman's book as well as Pattillo's articles leading to Black on the Block.

    One interesting thing about Freeman's and Pattillo's books, however, are that both are about neighborhoods where most of the gentrification has been by African Americans. While there certainly are white people moving into both Harlem and Clinton Hill, both Freeman and Pattillo take great pains to demonstrate that these are primarily African American neighborhoods with an African American "gentry". I think their work also goes a long way to show how there are intra-racial conflicts (in fact, Pattillo makes it one of her main points) as well as inter-racial conflicts - which have dominated the conversation about gentrification and, along with the points that you draw in your review, not to over-simplify our perceptions of what is happening in neighborhoods like Clinton Hill, Harlem or North Kenwood-Oakland, Chicago.


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