Photo by sebat85 on Flickr.

Yesterday, Erik Weber, David Garber, and Eric Fidler reacted to the NPR story about two people who chose not to live in Anacostia. In our discussion, other contributors had some broader thoughts about displacement, gentrification, and the difference between the two.

Alex Baca writes:

There is no stable definition of gentrification. Ask anyone—your neighbor, your colleague, your parents, your friends—and you’ll wind up with explanations that feel the same, but just don’t quite match up.1

One thing common to many definitions of gentrification, both in academic and popular discourse, is that it often becomes a synonym, or at the very least a signifier, for the process of displacement.2

Gentrification and displacement aren’t the same and should not be inextricably linked as frequently as they are, because it is possible for a neighborhood to “gentrify” without substantially displacing its long-term residents. Part of this thought is drawn from the fact that there is little quantitative work or research done on displacement.3

There are no exit surveys when one sells their house or ends their lease, so there is no real way of telling precisely why someone has left, and whether or not they left against their will. Say a son or daughter of a home’s original owner, who has since passed away, sells the property because they aren’t personally interested in it or, say an apartment complex is bought, developed into condos, and sold at prices far out of the range of the inital residents.

Both scenarios look like displacement once they’re said and done, but they are wildly different. So, discussions of displacement, and whatever’s causing it, inevitably become based on our personal experiences and anecdotal evidence, because we’ve got nothing else to work with.

Gentrification has also come to imply long-term, poor African Americans kicked out of their neighborhood by unsympathetic, middle-class whites. If you, as I do, consider gentrification a class-based, rather than race-based, process (it is, after all, about who can afford the mortgage), then this trope loses some of its steam.

Veronica Davis says:

Somehow somewhere, gentrification has become a code for “young, middle-class white people” moving into the a poor, black neighborhoods. In my examination of “Gentrification East of the River, I explored how it is disingenuous to discuss the concept of “gentrification” without acknowledging that people move in and our of a community for many reasons and based on personal preferences.

There have been articles on the influx of white residents in DC and the impact on neighborhood demographics.  In my Hillcrest sub-neighborhood of Fairfax Village, most of the new residents are young, professional and black.  Neighborhoods in Ward 7’s Southeast have seen an increase in young, white families moving into the single family homes.  Some of them relocated from other parts of the city in search of a larger house and a lawn.

It’s important to point out in these middle class neighborhoods, many white families didn’t leave during the era of “white flight” to the suburbs.  Is a white middle class family purchasing from a black middle class family “gentrification”? Or is it just a family making a decision to sell and another family making a decision to buy?

1 It’s true in academia, too: Loretta Lees’ Gentrification borrows heavily from Neil Smith’s The Revanchist City when defining the word, but winds up with something quite different. In Turf Wars, Gabriella Gahlia Modan sticks her perceptions in a footnote. Alexander von Hoffman, in House by House, Block by Block, doesn’t even bother with saying what it is or isn’t at all.

If the academics can’t agree, no wonder common discourse has trouble with consistency, too! I find that the best way to address gentrification is to assume everyone has their own, intensely personal, definition of what it is and how it works.

2 The exceptions on the academic side are Alexander von Hoffman and Lance Freeman.

3 Lance Freeman’s There Goes the ‘Hood is the only example I know of. In it, Freeman finds that long-term residents of a micro-area of Harlem have chosen to stay in their neighborhood, rather than leave, because the amenities they’ve waited for finally began to arrive when the neighborhood “gentrified.”

Alex Baca has worked in journalism, bike advocacy, architecture, construction, and transportation in DC, San Francisco, and Cleveland. She's written about all of the above. She currently runs UHBikes, Cuyahoga County's bikesharing system.

Veronica O. Davis, PE, has experience in planning transportation, urban areas, civil infrastructure, and communities.  She co-owns Nspiregreen, LLC, an environmental consulting company in DC.  She is also the co-founder of Black Women Bike DC, which strives to increase the number of Black women and girls biking for fun, health, wellness, and transportation.