The term “gentrification” turns 50 years old

The term gentrification emerged in 1964 and the phenomena has been much discussed and studied even as it names varied experiences:

In 1964, British sociologist Ruth Glass was seeking a word to sum up what she saw happening in the London borough of Islington, where creative young professionals were suddenly re-appraising the neighborhood’s Georgian terraces and intimate squares. Islington had previously lost its 17th-century grandeur and in its post-war years had become the domain of working class, largely West Indian immigrants. Glass captured the class phenomenon playing out in the streets of cities by adapting the British-ism “gentry” into a process-inflected term, gentrification.

But while gentry traditionally refers to those seated just below nobles in a Jane Austen novel—wealthy people who profit from land ownership—Ruth Glass’s gentry was more of a middle class liberal arts intelligentsia. “These people aren’t necessarily the rich,” explains Sharon Zukin, author of Naked City and professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, who has chronicled the evolution of gentrification across decades. “They are people with cultural capital: artists, writers, teachers, professors, etc. By the 1950s and early 60s, that group of people begins to appreciate the urban environment in a way that other middle class people do not: the old houses, the crowded streets, the social diversity, the chance to be bohemian, and also to be around lower class people of all different backgrounds—the very factors that were driving the more mainstream middle class out of cities.”…

The media’s infatuation with surveying the consumption habits of gentrifiers—arguably, captive readers of such articles themselves—is illustrated in the high frequency with which the word “gentrification” appears in Times articles. The word’s prevalence parallels periods of prosperity, underscoring the close connection between gentrification and consumerism.

Certainly discussing lifestyle trends is more entertaining than reconciling displacement caused by deep-seated social and racial inequality. In this new media landscape, cultural posturing, alarmism, and realism converge without offering answers to what a post-gentrification city might look like. “Who knows what the future holds?” asks Zukin. “Fifty years from now, I think there’s a strong and frightening possibility that after long waves of investment and disinvestment, you’ll have large swaths of the city where the rich are hunkered down, and large parts of the map where poor people can’t afford to live and nobody else wants to live there.”

Interesting overview. A relatively localized term – from a specific neighborhood in London and drawing upon English terms – ended up in wide use to describe similar yet highly contextualized processes in many Western cities. Certainly, neighborhood change has occurred in numerous places as whites with either economic or cultural capital moved in and pushed others out. But, responses to these changes vary from politicians who tend to welcome more wealthy or educated residents, businesses who see new markets, developers who see new demand for buildings and land, the media who like turnaround stories, residents who like getting cheaper housing as well as “living on the edge,” and, as this summary hints, the displaced residents who often don’t have much of a voice in the whole process.

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