The breakneck pace at which American cities are changing is matched only by the volume of anxious chatter about what these changes mean. As the post-World War II notion of good living is flipped on its head — cities are now desirable, suburbs are not — residents of major American cities are witnessing a shift that has wracked them with disorientation and discomfort in equal measure.
The exact paths of gentrification vary, but the general trend is similar across the board: As big cities accrue more wealth and become more central to the economy, lower-income neighborhoods quickly grow more expensive and their poorer residents are expelled — and nobody knows if or when it will stop.
Writing for the New York Times, Héctor Tobar considers the sunny side of these transformations. In a piece entitled "Viva Gentrification!" Tobar explains that while his own instincts and liberal orthodoxy obligate him to stand for policies that keep rent prices manageable for all, he has also found something unexpected to celebrate: diversity.
Using the example of Los Angeles' Highland Park, he describes the joy he and his wife (who grew up in the neighborhood) have taken in observing how a community that has been homogeneously poor and Latino for decades is now having a taste of something different — upper-middle class trendsetters, most of whom are white. Tobar sees the new arrivals as a symbol of hope. Chic new cafes and art galleries hold the promise of multicultural mixing, and the neighborhood's segregated schools may end up seeing some new faces. As for the prospect of Highland Park's residents being priced out of the neighborhood, Tobar insists that the area is so saturated by working class Latinos that there's no need to worry for now.
While attempting to find the bright side in gentrification is noble, Tobar's argument is unpersuasive for several reasons.
Ephemeral diversity: Celebrating cultural diversity in a poor neighborhood in the process of being gentrified is a bit like cheering on the string ensemble as the Titanic sinks: You're focusing on a minor and fleeting pleasure while avoiding an unsettling reality. Barring some major changes in the way that cities and real estate developers collectively benefit from lightning-fast surges in rent prices, trends suggest that the coexistence of poor and working-class residents and yuppie gentrifiers is usually short-lived.
As Ben Adler at Grist notes, New York's East Village was once a bastion for Latinos, who made up over 68% of the population in 1980. Today the neighborhood is richer, less than 25% Latino — and the majority of residents are white.
On a citywide level, we see the same effect. In the second half of the 20th century, Washington, D.C., was known as "Chocolate City" because of its vibrant black community, which once comprised over 70% of the population. Just a generation later, the city is far more affluent and white, but no longer majority-black, and the exodus of African-Americans shows no signs of slowing.
Diversity should indeed be celebrated, but in the case of gentrifying low-income neighborhoods, experience suggests that it's only a matter of time before a new kind of privileged homogeneity sets in. Unless mayors and the real estate industry are forced to think differently about the purpose of a city, this process of replacing one kind of uniformity with another will continue.
The new perks aren't for the locals: Secondly, Tobar's excitement for what Highland Park's new faces bring is an illustration of the dangers of championing the idea of diversity without asking harder questions about how to make communities more inclusive. He fails to ask who exactly the neighborhood's new services are for.
Tobar describes a bakery jacking up its prices, but doesn't dwell on who that makes life harder for, and to whom it makes no difference. In his imagination, the neighborhood is better because a Mexican construction worker in Highland Park can now unwind over gourmet coffee with a white designer at a stylish new cafe.
But the reality is that the reason that construction worker is living in that neighborhood in the first place is because he can't afford gourmet coffees at stylish cafes. Their arrival isn't a welcome sign of improvement as much as a sign of the neighborhood's impending unaffordability.
Business thrives, but education doesn't: Tobar sensibly writes that "no one wants to ... attend a racially segregated school." But a number of studies show that the newly arrived residents have various means of opting out of the poor-quality local schools, if they have children at all.
A 2013 study on Chicago's public schools found that gentrification did not improve schools' academic quality or socioeconomic diversity. The study found that richer residents either did not have children, sent them to private institutions or were able to use choice policies to send children to schools outside of the neighborhood (which were more affluent and had whiter populations).
"'School choice' is often a hallmark of cities looking to entice white and middle-class residents," Nikole Hannah-Jones recently wrote at Grist. "City officials strike a Faustian bargain with gentrifying parents that if they agree to buy into lower-income, segregated neighborhoods they need not send their children to the same under-resourced and struggling schools as their neighbors."
In fact, as Hannah-Jones points out, gentrification can even harm local residents' schools. Since enrollment in local public schools goes down as new residents either don't have children or send them elsewhere, funding for them can also drop.
Tobar's interest in seeing Highland Park enriched by people from different walks of life is understandable. The problem is that there's a great deal of evidence that newcomers in these situations don't benefit low-income people. The new arrivals mark the beginning of higher rent and offer no quick promises for better education. By the time the neighborhood has the chance to address these problems, it's likely that all the people who needed assistance the most will be gone.