Washington, DC is a much different place than it was twenty, ten, and even just five years ago. In fact, many might call it a national posterchild for “gentrification.” But what does that word actually mean? Is it that wealthy people live where poor people use to? That retailers are different, or that vacant lots are now home to apartment buildings? Something else?
For this week's contributor chat, I spoke with Alex Baca, Kristen Jeffers, Joanne Pierce, and Dan Reed about this piece from CityLab's Brentin Mock, who writes “there is no real universal definition or function of gentrification.” The transcript below has been lightly edited.
Jonathan: I have to say, this article says a lot of things i find myself writing in emails with GGWash contributors. Just like… what do you MEAN when you say the word “gentrification”?
Dan (Dan Reed, GGWash Editorial Board member): Totally! If you ask five different people what it means, you'd get five different answers.
Alex (Alex Baca, GGWash contributor): I've facilitated a few different conference sessions about ~gentrification~. The point that I try to get people to reach is that gentrification isn't the problem—poverty is. In the CityLab article, Schlichtman makes that same argument:
“The problem isn't gentrification: It's that my neighbors are getting locked up, or they are being over-policed, or there aren't any schools, or there’s lead poisoning in the neighborhood, or there aren’t any long-term rentals anymore. I think what becomes important is identifying those problems specifically and not sweeping it under, “Well, it’s all gentrification.” [Instead], saying, “Look here’s a problem that’s tangible. We can label it, we can identify it. And we can organize around it—find people in the neighborhood who want to organize around this, make alliances across class, across race.”
Kristen (Kristen Jeffers, GGWash contributor): Exactly and I've written before that we are using sometimes the wrong word for it and that it's not a catch-all
Alex: Yeah, exactly. Using “gentrification” as a stand-in for any of the above does a disservice to those issues. And it distracts us from taking a harder look by allowing us to bemoan “neighborhood change” as the culprit.
Joanne (Joanne Pierce, GGWash Editorial Board member): I think it's impulse to lump it all into one banner because the way all of these individual things connect to each other can make your head spin. They're also harder to explain quickly. The solutions are also complex.
Dan: I think that's one reason why the YIMBY movement has gained momentum, because rightly or wrongly the message that more housing can help fight gentrification is a message that's easy to understand.
Alex: To that point, in some ways I think “build more” is a tough message (a lot of people think that building more means building more “luxury” housing, though luxury is just a marketing term! And that as a result of building new, values will go up). But it's simple, and that's a really great feature. I think some tides are starting to turn and it's starting to become recognized that we really do need a greater supply of housing.
And I mean, A) people aren't going to stop moving, because people live where they can afford and mobility is real (renters move at the same rate, which is unsurprisingly greater than homeowners, regardless of the “value” of neighborhoods and B) them moving, or not moving, is not necessarily going to stop the problems commonly associated with “gentrification” (people can be displaced from really distressed communities!), nor will it bridge the gap in upscaling neighborhoods.
Joanne: People moving in isn't inherently bad and I think it's about time that people stop framing things in that way. There's room for nuance.
I read an article saying that Asian Americans in Silicon Valley have basically taken over one neighborhood and changed it over time. Perhaps it isn't our classic idea of what gentrification is but it's change all the same. Moving isn't the issue. It's stuff like economic forces that make people move to places that don't have as many good amenities like sidewalks.
Jonathan: So at this point, I'm thinking “ok so what is it that we're discussing here?”
Dan: Maybe it helps to talk about what gentrification isn't. For instance, here in Silver Spring a number of new luxury apartment buildings have been built, all on the site of either empty parking lots or empty buildings. People are moving in, but nobody has been displaced. Yet people call it gentrification.
Kristen: Have rents in the older buildings increased though? Have your property taxes increased as a result yet?
Dan: In some buildings, they've actually gone down (after going up). And the retail here has decidedly not gentrified, there remain a large number of Ethiopian restaurants, and many of the new stores that have opened in the past few years have been discount stores.
Alex: I've always postulated that gentrification and displacement are separate processes.
Joanne: I agree with that. You can gentrify and bring in new things where there weren't any people.
Alex: The big q for me is: Can you “gentrify”/bring things like improved sidewalks, more housing, street trees, etc. without displacing people? I'm not sure!
Kristen: That’s the question for me too, Alex. And that gets back to why each city and neighborhood has to have an individual discussion on whatever ails it.
Alex: Yeah! Cities that appear to be changing/upscaling really quickly are the exceptions.
Joanne: I think Route 1 in Alexandria (Fairfax County) will be a good experiment for this in the future. The area is set to expand with BRT and a lot of development. But there are a lot of people who live there in older homes.
Dan: Joanne, that's an interesting point. Nobody may necessarily be displaced by new development in the strip malls on Route 1, but those houses may increase in value and may turn over as wealthier families move in.
I wouldn't say downtown Silver Spring has gentrified even as new housing has built, but the neighborhoods around it have gotten much wealthier.
Joanne: Yeah and I think there's pressure to do it relatively quickly to catch up to the rest of Fairfax County and be more affluent or hip.
Jonathan: Dan, what you just said makes me think that a lot of times, what's happening is people are seeing a disparity in haves and have nots and labeling it as gentrification.
Dan: That's a really good point. and one that describes a lot of places in DC, where rich and poor people effectively share the same space, even if they don't interact with one another
Jonathan: Right. And “gentrification” carries a negative connotation that I think is really just an effort to put a label on social woes that are way hard to solve— and with than have an easy easy fix for them.
Alex: So the Cleveland Fed released this paper earlier this year and it breaks down neighborhoods into different…processes, I suppose you would say. Not stages of gentrification, because the research shows that in most of these cities (Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Columbus) aren't gentrifying; that in fact, they haven't really seen much change. But one term in there is a neighborhood that is “churning,” where people are mobile but property values haven't increased.
Which basically describes where I live and what Dan is talking about. My suspicion is that the signifiers of gentrification are really visible here—restored homes, bougie retail. But if you pull back to look at the property values they haven't increased significantly, and the level of education hasn't increased significantly.
Joanne: I'm curious about whether this is more of a veneer. It seems like there's a lot of outward and visible change but the structural issues remain.
Dan: This is why I am curious to see what happens East of the River here. I am very skeptical that the fast-paced gentrification we saw in Shaw or Columbia Heights will happen there, for a variety of reasons. The same for communities along the Purple Line. Investment will happen, but slowly.
Joanne: Even if it does, does it fix any of the underlying problems.
Jonathan: Dan, I'm curious what your variety of reasons includes.
Dan: EOTR and the Purple Line corridor are more spread out, so there are just more places for people and stuff to go. And those areas don't have the “good bones” (Victorian rowhouses, walkable street grid) that drew people to the west-of-the-river Green Line corridor in DC.
Alex: The pace of this stuff is all extremely weird. People *feel* as if neighborhoods have changed really fast. But I remember TBD (omg remember TBD) writing this piece that was like, “25 Years of Headlines About H Street Changing.”
Anacostia and Congress Heights, I think, could move really quickly. Some of my first blogging on GGWash was done while I was an undergrad at UMD. My thesis was on the potential of gentrification and displacement in Anacostia. I basically took it as not if it would happen, but when.
Dan: When is right, but as you said with H Street, it takes a longer period of time than we perceive it to be.
Alex: Right, exactly. What I would love to see is major public investment in locking down permanently affordable housing, maybe making co-op housing easier, and also building as much as possible before it becomes much more expensive to do so. But that basically means that the city has to act like a real estate speculator, which would, of course, freak people out.
The Plan isn't *unreal*.
Dan: The Plan is very real. For me, I see it the most in the “middle” suburban places where affluent, mostly white folks are either moving closer in or further out.
That was literally The Plan.
Joanne: “Good bones” make me roll my eyes a little. I would love a warehouse loft with exposed brick and historical features original to the artisanal fish monger's break room or whatever….but people go where they can find affordable housing. No shame in going with a home that lacks historical value or unique, original features or a new build.
Kristen: Yeah and my only issue with new homes is lack of quality.
Joanne: Kristen, yep, that's a big concern. Builder grade everything isn't ideal but they know they can get more money from you for upgrades.
Alex: But also! Older houses are not always of better quality!
Dan: The older houses that still stand today are usually the highest quality (and most expensive) ones.
Kristen: Yeah and sometimes that has to do with past waves of neighborhood disinvestment.
Alex: Like…old houses may have been as poorly built as new houses. New houses may be as great as some old houses. I, aesthetically, prefer old houses (I think my house was built in ~1880s), but I think some of that quality has to do with people continuously living in them and caring for them.
Kristen: Alex, you're on the front lines of seeing a lot of older stock that wasn't well built or has been in such disrepair, it's almost impossible to save
Alex: I recently wrote about Akron's housing plan and something that their head planner told me during my interview with him really stuck: That the old houses that people tend of think of as creating neighborhood character are basically as saved as they are gonna get.
But that's another problem on the Rust Belt end of the spectrum, rather than the DC end of the spectrum.
Jonathan: My head is spinning over the question of how all of this is going to read in a post. which kind of makes sense given the thing i think we all agree on is that there's just way more to discuss than a single word can fit…
Alex: Hi Jonathan Good luck editing this.
But I mean, I generally like to say that this is so deep and complex and so relevant to what nearly anyone we know works on that talking about “gentrification” is truly doing a disservice to what's actually happening.
And filtering everything through the lens of gentrification is not helpful.
Jonathan: Dear god I agree.
Dan: That's true. I read about the closing of Town in Shaw this week, and people are saying it's a sign of gentrification.
Alex: The owner sold the building willingly!
Dan: But I remember in 2008 when Town opened, a giant gay club opening at 8th & U felt like gentrification to me!
Joanne: Perhaps we need to treat “gentrification” as Voldemort and just not say it. The issue is more complex and the word doesn't help.
Jonathan: Ask anyone who has pitched me in the last year and they might tell you that i do that already.
Alex: When I copy edited at City Paper I would nearly always circle “gentrification” if someone wrote it and asked them to rewrite it with what they actually meant. Just say what you really mean: affordable housing, or segregation, or lack of access to food.
Jonathan: Alright, let's wrap this up. anyone feel like bundling this all into an easy-to-process little package? easy enough, right? ;)
Kristen: So my last word is that we need to call ills of the area what they are: racism, homophobia, food insecurity, etc. Gentrification is not your catch-all.
Alex: What Kristen said <3
Joanne: I like that. Mine is I that we need to talk about underlying issues that may exist in communities whether or not we see outward signs. Changes aren't necessarily bad but they can hide the problems that haven't been addressed.