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Gentrification in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago is not as it would seem

Matthew L. Schuerman has a new book out called, Newcomers: Gentrification and Its Discontents. I haven’t read it. But in it, he argues that “gentrification is all around us.” Hence the title. Will Stancil has an interesting rebuttal to this position as part of his book review in the Washington Monthly. Here’s an excerpt:

Schuerman settles on what he admits is a simple definition of gentrification: the process by which a neighborhood goes from having below-average to above-average incomes for its region. But he never really applies it. While he frequently asserts or implies that gentrification is exploding across cities, he doesn’t say how many neighborhoods actually meet his definition.

As a demographic researcher, I decided to check. Using U.S. Census data, I looked at the share of people in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago living in places that met Schuerman’s definition of having gentrified between 2000 and 2016. In New York, it’s 3.1 percent of residents. In San Francisco, the number is 4.4 percent. In Chicago, it’s 4.8 percent. Needless to say, this does not represent a vast swath. Although the numbers might increase if the time frame were extended, change at a generational pace is far less disruptive than change that takes place over a few years. Using Newcomers’ own definition, the story of urban America is not a tidal wave of gentrification but creeping racial and economic transition.

In fact, this aligns with the growing academic consensus that gentrification is much rarer than is commonly believed. This year alone, there have been no fewer than three national studies into the prevalence and location of gentrifying neighborhoods. (Disclosure: I authored one of these studies, for the University of Minnesota.) Despite using very different methods, all three studies roughly appear to agree that about 10 percent of neighborhoods in metro areas were gentrifying. Research has also tended to show that no matter how you measure gentrification in the urban core, it’s almost always more common to find neighborhoods afflicted by intensifying poverty. Out of the fifty biggest American regions, forty-four have core cities where the population in poverty has grown faster than the overall population since 2000. The only exceptions are New York City, Los Angeles, D.C., New Orleans, Atlanta, and Providence.

This issue of concentrated poverty has come up before on the blog through posts like this one about Detroit. The data is pretty clear: The number of high poverty Census tracts in the US is increasing faster than the number of gentrifying Census tracts (i.e. Census tracts that are becoming wealthier).

So could it be that the problem isn’t actually gentrification? It is that, paradoxically, gentrification isn’t happening enough and more broadly, and that it is leading to rising inequality across our cities. That strikes me as being the greater issue.

Photo by Hardik Pandya on Unsplash

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