Gentrification: Always a Dirty Word?

Is gentrification the same everywhere?

Gentrification refers to the economic revitalization of urban neighborhoods. More affluent residents move in and more up-scale businesses follow. In the 21st century, gentrification is often a dirty word: code for classism, economic discrimination, racism. Just look at the growing tensions over gentrification in San Francisco, particularly the Mission District, where technology giants and their extraordinarily well-off employees can swing the entire economic fate of a neighborhood in a flash.

But should gentrification be equally vilified, no matter the situation? No matter the city?

First of all, let us not forget that gentrification is not all bad. Using existing--often historic--housing stock to its fullest extent. Crime reductions. School improvements. Economic development. Improvement of community resources like shared spaces and parks. Gentrification is also part of the process of reversing the hollowing out of urban America. White flight and excessive suburbanization ravaged city communities and left abandoned once-bustling urban cores. Bringing reformed suburbanites back into the urban fold is good for the future of a city.

So can we take the good--the revitalization--and skip the evils of neighborhood dissolution and economic force-outs of long-time residents?

What is generally given as the prime evil of gentrification is the elevated rents that push out poorer residents. But what if you had a city whose peak population in 1950 was 860,000+ and now houses just 319,000? What if housing stock was abundant and provided a buffer against rent spikes?

A new report has asserted that gentrifying neighborhoods buck this trend in STL. (The authors call such neighborhoods "rebound districts". They are defined by a large improvement in economic and vacancy trends over the last twenty years after spending time in the bottom half of neighborhoods for at least some time after 1950). These areas maintain minority and poor populations because of "loose" housing markets, i.e. plenty of housing stock. Although demand surges, landlords and developers can tap into previously unused or under-used housing and provide for the new tenants without displacing the old.

Do things stay the same? Well, no. Minority populations still shift. Rents may still rise. If done poorly, gentrification can obscure the neighborhood culture that the affluent pioneers considered so chic. But if done right, perhaps gentrification does not need to be spoken of in hushed tones. Especially in rust belt cities like St. Louis (an aside: apparently "legacy cities" is the new term for formerly-industrial cities on the mend. In other news, I apparently have an entire new website to read dedicated to legacy cities.) the excess housing stock may lead to a different fate for gentrifying neighborhoods than in cities already bursting at the seams like San Francisco or New York.

Look around this city and you'll find scores of boarded up houses. Beautiful brick that has withstood time, but cannot forever. Many buildings are well over a hundred years old and retain a timeless aesthetic and a connection to the city's roots. You'd have a hard time convincing me that we should fight economic and social trends that would fill those houses and bring renewed life to sputtering neighborhoods.