- One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences [...]. Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.
Gentrification can be a politically contentious issue. Gentrification highlights the instability of renting, whereby people might be forced to move away from newly desirable areas because the rent has now gone higher. Usually this conflict is limited to the local level and therefore many who live outside urban areas may not be aware of it. In response to gentrification pressure, cities in which there are more renters than owners often pass rent control ordinances.
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Reasons for gentrification
Explaining why gentrification occurs is not easy.
Early explanations of why it occurs saw a conflict between the production-side and consumption-side arguments. The production-side argument, which is associated primarily with the work of geographer Neil Smith, explains gentrification through economics and the relationships between flows of capital and the production of urban space. Smith argued that low rents on the urban periphery during the two decades after World War II led to a continuous movement of capital toward the development of suburban areas. This caused a 'devaluation' of the inner city capital, resulting in the substantial abandonment of inner-city properties in favour of those in the periphery, and a fall in the price of inner-city land relative to rising land prices in the suburbs. This forms the basis for Smith's rent-gap theory, which he described as the disparity between "the actual capitalized ground rent (land value) of a plot of land given its present use and the potential ground rent that might be gleaned under a 'higher and better' use" (Smith, 1987b, p. 462).
Smith believed that the rent-gap theory was the necessary piece of the puzzle to explicate the process of gentrification. He argued that, when the rent-gap was wide enough, developers, landlords, and other people with a vested interest in the development of land will see the potential profit to be had by reinvesting in abandoned inner-city properties and redeveloping them for new inhabitants. This effectively closes the rent-gap and leads to a higher and better use of the land.
The de-industrialization of the inner-city is seen as a prerequisite, which is often coupled with the growth of a divided white collar employment sector, one part of which is engaged in professional/managerial positions which follow the spatial centralization of capital. This is a product of corporations requiring spatial proximity to reduce decision-making time.
The consumption-side theory, on the other hand, has gained more credibility as an explanation for gentrification. Researchers that support this argument generally view the characteristics of gentrifiers to be of greater importance in the understanding of gentrification.
The emergence of a 'service-class', that is, a group of people — generally between the ages of 25 and 35—with a high disposable income and service-oriented jobs in the urban core that they want to be close to, commute-wise, is one of the primary tenets of the consumption-side theory of gentrification. This emergence is partly a result of the shift, in much of the Western world, from a manufacturing-based economy to a post-industrial, service-based economy.
Demographically speaking, Western cities are seeing a growing percentage of 25–35 year-olds in the inner-city (urban) core. Other demographic shifts are occurring as well; there is a lessening of gendered divisions of labour, and people are waiting longer to get married and have children (the DINK—Double Income No Kids—syndrome). Additionally, urban researchers are seeing an increase in the number of single women professionals living alone in gentrified areas.
Gentrification, as an aspect of gender studies discourse, has not been studied extensively, but researchers have discovered that women and gay men have had at least some impact on the gentrifying process in older, inner-city neighbourhoods. Women are seen to be gentrifying in response to different patriarchal structures; women are seen as being potentially forced by oppressive class relations related to their gender into moving into the inner-city, as opposed to deciding on moving there as a result of locational preference. The breakdown of the notion of male as breadwinner/female as domestic, as higher education becomes more accessible to women, has also contributed to the movement of single women into the inner-city.
Gentrification can increase the property value of an area which can be positive for city officials and the middle class. Unfortuntely this same rise in property value can be devastating to those in the lower income groups.
Gays as "gentrifiers"
Manuel Castells's seminal work on gays as "gentrifiers" in San Francisco has revealed a pattern, replicated, to some degree, in other North American cities, as "many [gays] were single men, did not have to sustain a family, were young, and connected to a relatively prosperous service economy" (Castells, 1983, p. 160). Additionally, gay men (sometimes called "guppies" — Gay Urban Professionals) tend to choose inner-city neighbourhoods as places to live because of the lower cost of housing in these areas, their accessibility to jobs in the downtown core, and their proximity to gay social networks (which are generally found in inner-city cores), but their larger disposable incomes allow for them to "fix up" their homes and increase property values. The movement of gays into an area is sometimes seen as a domino effect—once a few "pioneers" move in, a wave of gays (and bohemians/hipsters) eventually follows, driving up property values and rents, until the process is repeated again, somewhere else. This is particularly evident in cities like New York City, where it has become prohibitively expensive to live in Manhattan, so a group of pioneers (usually artists) moved out to areas such as Park Slope or Williamsburg (in Brooklyn) or Hoboken, New Jersey, which were once "run-down, inner-city neighbourhoods." These areas become desirable to yuppies and other hipsters because of their "bohemian flair", thus beginning gentrification and increasing property values and rents. This forces the very people who helped to make these places "unique" and "different" to move out to adjacent areas (such as Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn or Jersey City, New Jersey), where the process continues.
A similar phenomenon can be seen in Los Angeles. Adjacent to Hollywood is an area called Los Feliz, which for the last decade or so has been seen as a desirable area for its hipster community. As gentrification has occurred here with property prices rising, there has been a migration out to other adjacent areas, such as Silverlake, Eagle Rock and Highland Park. In many cases, a prominent early sign that the migration is occurring is that owners of popular hipster hangouts will start opening new establishments in these areas.
- Castells, M. (1983) "Cultural identity, sexual liberation and urban structure: the gay community in San Francisco" in M. Castells, The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements (Edward Arnold, London) pp. 138–170.
- Smith, N. (1987b) "Gentrification and the rent-gap", Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77 (3) pp. 462–465.