Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Gentrification: Building Diverse Communities?

Mikael Pelz


By Mikael Pelz

July 14, 2014

This article is the first installment in a series on gentrification.

The word “gentrification” evokes contradictory meanings and emotions. Gentrification can refer simply to a process of transition in which an outside group of residents such as young professionals, artists, or new homeowners move into a specific neighborhood and remake it. However, this same process is frequently associated with displacement of long-term residents from different backgrounds and with fewer economic means. Because of this latter connotation, some are opposed to all forms of gentrification. But they often overlook the benefits associated with these geographic transitions and miss the fact that change is at the heart of a vital urban center. Gentrification’s benefits and losses are best evaluated when we look at specific instances where it has taken place, and when we weigh various considerations with an eye toward creating diverse and participatory communities. 

My wife and I recently took a road trip through the South. On this excursion, we stopped in several cities, including Greenville, Nashville, Lexington, and Louisville. In each of these cities, we experienced once-neglected urban places enjoying revival with boutiques, restaurants, coffee bars, parks, and art galleries. In most cases, these new developments represented a cultural expression of these communities—they celebrated a common heritage, created open public spaces, or channeled a new generational identity. Equally impressive was the pride of the residents of these places; they boasted about what their city now offered. In our home city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, we have also seen the rebirth of previously blighted historic neighborhoods and the rise of thriving business districts.

Most research on gentrification suggests its changes result in safer neighborhoods, more economic opportunities, and more responsive public services. Still, we must acknowledge that these positive transitions can be accompanied by dislocations.[i] Current residents may be forced to move because they cannot afford to live in their new surroundings. Moreover, gentrification can threaten the indigenous social fabric of a neighborhood as the dominant ethnic, economic, or religious character of a place is challenged. While recent research suggests the extent of both displacement and social disintegration has often been overstated, neighborhoods may nevertheless experience a sense of loss in this transition. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of gentrification is that it reflects the deeper problems of race in the United States. As Spike Lee put it, “Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Brown Heights, for the [school] facilities to get better?”

How can we reconcile the opposing realities of gentrification? In her recent book, Naked City, Sharon Zukin offers a framework for balancing these contending goals and provides a workable solution to the tensions of gentrification. She argues that the continuous reinvention of communities reflects a desire for urban authenticity-- the personal and subjective notion of what it means to be urban. We can readily evaluate these claims of authenticity, the most compelling of which embrace origins and new beginnings, the native population with the hipsters, historical structures with modern buildings. New cultural trends, design, and ideas can be celebrated alongside the history, cultural heritage, and long-time residents of a neighborhood. Neighborhoods can change but continue to be rooted. According to Zukin, “a city loses its soul” when this continuity between old and new is broken.

Zukin’s framework for understanding gentrification also has the potential to encourage one important virtue of the city—diverse communities. In the words of Jane Jacobs, such diversity “sprout[s] strange and unpredictable uses and peculiar scenes...This is the point of it.” But perhaps the greatest potential in this transition is also its greatest challenge: to build an organic community of people with different pasts and backgrounds. While gentrification often generates racial and economic tensions, it also has the unique capacity to bring diverse people together in neighborhoods in ways that can collectively address these challenges. Here churches, businesses, nonprofits, and community organizations can play a unique role as facilitators of a dialogue in which neighbors share their experiences, listen, and learn from each other. As political scientist Diana Mutz has remarked, democracy has a future only if citizens “come out of their bunkers and start talking.” 

The next articles in this series will examine specific examples of gentrification and discuss its complexity by drawing on lessons learned from developers, churches, and citizens.

-  Mikael Pelz is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College.

[i] Atkinson, R. (2003). Introduction: Misunderstood Savior or Vengeful Wrecker? The Many Meanings and Problems of Gentrification. Urban Studies, 40(12): 2343-2350.

- Freeman, L. (2005). Displacement or Succession? Residential Mobility in Gentrifying Neighborhoods. Urban Affairs Review, 40(4): 463-491.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”