As with every argument, there are obviously at least two sides, if not more, to the story. This is no less true with gentrification, especially when you’re approaching it from a more theoretical standpoint.
Take, for example, the above photo. It’s of a place called the Samuel House in East London, UK. It was set to be demolished to make way for new buildings during a wave of gentrification. However, it still housed residents, including some artists. Those artists took it upon themselves to photograph the existing residents and post their head shots on the outside of the building, giving faces to the people whose lives were unwillingly being changed by the forces of gentrification.
So with that example setting the tone, let’s discuss the arguments against gentrification:
The idea here is that when a bunch of people move in and gentrify an area, causing the local property values (and therefore property taxes, rents, and other cost of living points) to increase, it prices out the existing occupants of the area, who are typically lower or working class. While this is touted as unintentional, some argue that it’s very much a part of the gentrification machine — to weed out the people who could be seen as lesser by making it too expensive for them to continue to live in the area, a phenomenon known as economic eviction.
People are protective of both the locations and the ways that they live. So when a wave of gentrification appears, many existing residents will become upset when presented with changes to either aspect. If say, the area has been declared a historical neighborhood after some rehabilitation, that means new rules and laws exist to keep a certain aesthetic throughout the area, which means residents who perhaps can’t afford the changes or repairs necessary to remain in compliance can be held legally responsible for the disparities, potentially racking up fines, court fees, and for renters, face eviction. So residents may feel compelled to retaliate (or sometimes make the first strike) with protests, vandalism, and arson. This can lead to not only dangerous situations, but police and fire department fatigue and indifference, leaving little protection from the law for either side.
Real Estate Deception
Once gentrification is in full swing, many landowners, real estate agents, and business investors will try to capitalize on the new-found sensationalism of an area by inflating home and business space pricing astronomically. In some municipalities, rent-control situations may arise to help alleviate such concerns, but more often than not landlords will find ways to tack on extra fees or use intimidation tactics to get long-established tenants to move, allowing them to rent the same space for much more money to someone considered more desirable, i.e. second-wave gentrifiers.
Not surprisingly, there are fairly clear distinctions observed between the demographics of gentrifiers versus those of the existing residents. While most of the existing residents are of mixed origins, such as the elderly, racial minorities, blue collar workers, people on government assistance, single parent households, etc, the wealthy gentrifiers tend to be either ex-suburban empty nesters or gay and/or lesbian couples. Obviously bias exists on all fronts when these groups interact, and often times the ugliest sides of people will emerge as racism, homophobia, and ageism (to name a few) directed at one another.
The strangest thing about gentrification is that once the first-wave gentrifiers have established a creative colony of sorts that attracts more business and arts-appreciative neighbors, the tides begin to change. The new wave of gentrifiers, who typically are wealthier than the first-wavers, being to complain about the lifestyle traits congruent with an artistic life, such as loud music at late hours for example, and begin to complain and push local communities to pass noise ordinances to stop the very kind of activities that helped to shift the area in the first place. Thereby the artists end up moving on to other spaces, and much of the original “cred” of an area is diminished, leaving not much more than an overpriced neighborhood with corporate storefronts on every corner where local shops and galleries once stood.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on both sides of this argument in the comments, and don’t forget to come back when we discuss the intricacies of gentrification and DIY.