Posted on April 15, 2019

Where Gentrification Is an Emergency, and Where It’s Not

Brentin Mock, City Lab, April 5, 2019

Ron Daniels, president of the Baltimore-based civil-rights network Institute of the Black World 21st Century, assembled a group of some of the foremost African-American social-justice advocates, thinkers, and influencers to Newark this weekend for an emergency summit on gentrification. The emergency is that too many white people have been moving back from wherever they fled to into inner-city neighborhoods that have been culturally and racially defined as black communities for the past few decades. This white invasion is an “insidious onslaught” to African-American life as we know it, as Daniels spelled out in a blog he penned last November, and so walls must be built, or rather, policies must be built to stop the occupation.

Wrote Daniels:

“Development” in Washington, D.C., the original “Chocolate City,” has displaced thousands of Black people, forcing them to move to surrounding suburban areas; the prosperous central city neighborhood and Black business district in Seattle, Washington has vanished as Blacks have been forced to flee to Tacoma and other outlying cities where housing is more affordable; in Los Angeles, the Crenshaw Subway Coalition is vigorously resisting a subway extension that would spur gentrification in one of the most storied communities in Black America; in neighborhood after neighborhood in New York City, from Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx to Harlem, gentrification is rapidly displacing hundreds of thousands of Black people.


“The supposed ills of gentrification — which might be more neutrally defined as poorer urban neighbourhoods becoming wealthier — lack rigorous support,” reads a June 2018 article in The Economist. “The most careful empirical analyses conducted by urban economists have failed to detect a rise in displacement within gentrifying neighbourhoods.”

That doesn’t mean that Daniels and the dozens of big policy thinkers gathered in Newark are wrong, though. In fact, there is plenty of data to support Daniels’ claim that it is a crisis, to a certain extent. Close to 111,000 African Americans were displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods in cities across the U.S. between 2000 and 2013, according to a recent report from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and most of that displacement has occurred in the cities that Daniels named above.

New York City had by far the largest number of census tracts that saw huge jumps in education levels, median household incomes, and median house values in the 2000–2013 time span, which was how NCRC researchers defined gentrification for the report. Los Angeles was second behind it, followed by Washington, D.C., which had the highest percentage of gentrifying tracts — 40 percent — of all major cities. Seattle is among the top 10 cities identified for high “gentrification intensity” (measured as percentage of all tracts gentrified), with 20 percent of its neighborhoods having undergone radical economic change.

{snip} In D.C., more than 20,000 people moved out of gentrifying neighborhoods between 2000 and 2013 — ”enough to fill the new soccer stadium built where some of them lived,” reads the report. For New York City, the number is close to 15,000.

Overall, neighborhoods that experienced gentrification and displacement in that time span averaged a loss of 593 African Americans per tract. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Jacksonville, and New Orleans saw well above that average (the New Orleans caveat being that faulty Hurricane Katrina policies displaced many black residents).


Seven cities carried half of the gentrified tracts the researchers found nationally. Just 4 percent of all cities had more than five gentrified tracts, meaning most cities experiencing gentrification were only seeing it in a handful of neighborhoods. Just over three-quarters of all cities experienced no gentrification at all.


“I think the emergency is that there is widespread disinvestment in low-to-moderate income communities to start with,” said Jason Richardson, NCRC’s research and evaluation director and a lead author of the report. “It’s all related to the same core issues, which are disinvestment in communities that periodically are seeing shifts into these periods of hyper-investment, and that’s what becomes gentrification.”

Meaning: gentrification is more a symptom of neighborhoods being sheltered, isolated, or redlined from economic growth. In fact, a report that NCRC issued last year found that 75 percent of neighborhoods that had been marked “hazardous” in the Home Owners Loan Corporation redlining maps of the 1930s are still some of the most economically struggling communities today. These neighborhoods aren’t dealing with gentrification or displacement, but that’s only because no one is spending any bucks in them to begin with. But that’s not to say that gentrification is not a serious problem.


So while gentrification and displacement may only be happening in a few areas, they are creating exigent challenges in the lives of those affected. {snip}