You can’t spell gentrification without gentry

Gentrification, depending on who’s discussing it, is a lot like pornography: You know it when you see it.

But finding a hard-and-fast definition is difficult. In general, it refers to neighborhoods rising in status and attracting wealthier residents, whose very presence changes it for long-time residents. New businesses move in, rents rise, and perhaps property taxes, sending renters in search of less-expensive apartments and owners in search of relief (or a cash windfall on their suddenly desirable properties).

Whether you consider gentrification market-driven improvement, sharp-elbowed displacement, or something in between, is mainly a matter of interpretation.

The process can be fast or slow, the changes subtle or dramatic. Neighborhoods like Chicago’s Wicker Park were transformed from crime-ridden to urban-upscale in just a few years. Brooklyn, once a borough of New York City known for ethnic working-class neighborhoods, grows more affluent by the year, in part driven by former Manhattanites fleeing staggeringly high living costs.

Director Spike Lee, whose films often celebrated the Brooklyn of his youth, made news early this year with an expletive-spiced rant on the subject, complaining about newcomers to his old Brooklyn neighborhood whining about his jazz-musician father’s music. That led a New York Daily News writer to defend the inexorable nature of urban evolution:

"Over the decades, neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs have gone from being Irish Catholic to Italian Catholic; from Eastern European Jewish to Chinese; from Puerto Rican to Russian; from white to East Indian to African immigrant to Hasidic Jewish; from black, and one economic strata, to black, and another strata. Nobody replaces deer and blades of grass. Everyone replaces someone."

So it is in Detroit, where neighborhoods have changed their ethnic makeup, though nearly all in one direction over the past 50 years, attracting African Americans to vast expanses of the city that were previously closed to them.

While gentrification, and its discontents, will continue to be debated in faded apartments and no-cruelty probiotic tattoo spas across this changing city, a workable solution will emerge only when those in warring camps find common (perhaps rent-stabilized) ground.

As even Joshua Greenman, the self-described hipster who took on Spike Lee, acknowledged, “economic change brings growing pains,” making housing for residents with more modest incomes unaffordable. That, he said, “should deeply trouble most of us.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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chuck jordan
Thu, 08/21/2014 - 3:35pm
Some people call it urban renewal; some people call it urban removal.
Mark Toaz
Thu, 08/21/2014 - 10:45pm
Ever notice that there's rarely many (if any) interviews of anti-gentrification types from Detroit in these fly by night articles? It's because a sum total of about 100 people have actually been displaced by this terrible wretched movement, and all of them were renters. People are so worried about long-term residents being priced out of their homes, when in reality the only areas that are experiencing growth even close to levels that would make for difficult transition are in places where the population didn't exist or was already transient enough to not be concerned about moving. Detroit is way too big to gentrify, and without a downtown full of young people and rich people spending money and paying taxes (which may take decades) Detroit won't be able to continue to improve services to the extent necessary to be appealing to the gentry anyway. This is either a fad, or a sign of legitimate rebound, and long-term residents have the same opportunity to buy low as anyone else.
Wed, 08/27/2014 - 12:45pm
Nancy...please stop with these stories. Detroit is not NYC or SF or DC or LA...just no. You are hindering progress...I have been waiting for this for years. Young people who drive demand...I don't care what race they are, as long as they can pay a decent rent. I hope the "gentrification" accelerates!!!!!!! BTW I am a 30 year old black male.