What counts as gentrification?

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In response to what I wrote about gentrification not driving low-income minorities from their neighborhoods, the reader tegwar raises a very good point: What exactly do we mean by “gentrification?” He writes:

I’m a touch underwhelmed on first glance. They define gentrifying neighborhoods as those which were in the bottom quintile by income in 1990 and experienced an increase of $10k in average income by 2000. That is an impressive step in income, but I’m not sure that’s what we mean by gentrification. That increase would appear to have only moved a neighborhood up to somewhere near the 40th percentile of neighborhoods at best. My question: Do we think of gentrifying / gentrified neighborhoods as those still below the median income? Is that really when we see the white yuppie class flowing in?

I guess I’m just not sure they set their marks on gentrification quite right. Does gentrification involve the poorest neighborhoods simply becoming less poor or do we mean taking the neighborhood more toward ‘upper middle class’?

It is a very sticky wicket, the business of defining gentrification. McKinnish, Walsh and White do use a pretty broad definition. I’d agree with that. Trying to narrow it down further, though, can raise other problems.

In Lance Freeman’s 2005 study, a neighborhood had to meet the following criteria to be considered gentrifying:

1. Be located in the central city at the beginning of the intercensal period.

2. Have a median income less than the median (40th percentile) for that metropolitan area at the beginning of the intercensal period.
3. Have a proportion of housing built within the past 20 years lower than the proportion found at the median (40th percentile) for the respective metropolitan area.
4. Have a percentage increase in educational attainment greater than the median increase in educational attainment for that metropolitan area.
5. Have an increase in real housing prices during the intercensal period.

That combination of characteristics is definitely more thorough—and may better fit a gut understanding of gentrification—but the problem with it is that when you line everything up, “gentrifying” neighborhoods between 1990 and 2000 actually saw a slight decrease in median household income. That doesn’t feel right either.

I think part of the issue is that we already have a vivid, anecdotal understanding of what gentrification is, and that every time we say that word we summon a host of politicized connotations. I wonder how the debate would change if we instead started calling it “localized economic betterment.”

And in direct answer to your question, tegwar, yes, McKinnish, Walsh and White did see an inflow of white, college-educated people to the neighborhoods they defined as gentrifying. Three different cohorts—20-to-40-year-olds with no children, 20-to-40-year-olds with children, and 40-to-60-year-olds—all moved into gentrifying neighborhoods at significantly higher rates than they did into similar neighborhoods not considered to be gentrifying.