The New York Times is not so good at identifying gentrifying neighborhoods

A new study compares what neighborhoods were pegged as gentrifying by the New York Times and academics based on census data. There was a discrepancy:

The study, by sociologist Michael Barton of Louisiana State University, examines the differences between neighborhoods that the Times has identified as “gentrified” or “gentrifying” in the past three decades, and those identified by Census data and major academic studies. He finds a wide – and concerning – gap between the neighborhoods that social scientists call “gentrified” and those to which the Times affixes that label

To get at this, Barton’s study used a LexisNexis database search to discover which New York City neighborhoods the Times identified as “gentrified” between 1980 and 2009. He then compared these neighborhoods to those identified as “gentrified” according to measures used in two classic quantitative studies. The first study, published in 2003 by Raphael Bostic and Richard Martin, identified gentrified neighborhoods based on median incomes. Their method sees gentrified neighborhoods as those that saw their median incomes grow from less than 50 percent of the metro median to more than 50 percent of it. The second strategy, based on a 2005 study by Lance Freeman, identifies gentrifying neighborhoods based on a broader set of changes in income, education and housing. For Freeman, gentrified neighborhoods are those that started with median income levels below those for the city as a whole but then where educational levels and housing prices rose to be greater than the city’s. Barton’s study focuses on gentrification in New York City neighborhoods and is based on data for the 188 neighborhood areas identified by the Department of City Planning.

The bottom line: Barton found considerable differences between the neighborhoods the Times identified as gentrified and those identified by the quantitative studies…

What jumps out here are the large swathes of the city in which significant neighborhood change goes ignored by the Times. The Grey Lady was much more likely to peg gentrification in “hip” neighborhoods in Manhattan and adjacent parts of Brooklyn (like Williamsburg) than in the Bronx and Queens, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s. Generally speaking, the gentrifying neighborhoods discussed in the Times lined up more neatly with the more restrictive method used by Bostic and Martin than it did with Freeman.  Still, as Barton writes, “the association of both census-based strategies with the New York Times were moderate at best.”

I was recently looking at some classic “growth machine” literature (Urban Fortunes by Logan and Molotch) and here is an explanation they might suggest: newspapers generally are interested in promoting urban growth. This is because they are interested in building their subscriber base which puts more eyeballs on advertisements which means they can charge more. So, if “hip” neighborhoods are identified by the Times and more people in these young, educated places buy the newspaper that claims they are participating in something hip, the Times comes out ahead. Yet, chasing these younger demographics and the latest monied scene may not match up with accurate reporting on neighborhood change.

This finding may also highlight some significant differences in gentrification patterns. A quick influx of young, creative class whites may mark one neighborhood but income growth (and other positive factors) may be related to a slower process and/or featuring non-whites, non creative class types in other neighborhoods. It is not as if all neighborhoods in major cities with less-than-average incomes have an equal probability of gentrifying as there are numerous factors at work.


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