Jesse Mumm, PhD.
Gentrification is the process by which a new class of higher status residents appropriates a geographic area leading to the displacement of lower status residents. While this seems a simple and direct definition, there are few words in the English language so contested, and few concepts as chronically manipulated or misrepresented (Lees, Slater & Wyly 2010 & 2008). The radical sociologist Ruth Glass coined the word ‘gentrification’ to describe what was already happening to central London in the early sixties. She defined gentrification as “an upper-middle class takeover” of “[s]habby, modest” housing “upgraded” into “elegant, expensive residences” that are “enormously inflated” in “status and value” until “all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced” and “the whole social character of the district is changed” (1964: xviii-xix). Gentrification is happening in most US cities, most European cities, and throughout Latin America and parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, especially where income inequality by race or class divide cities into upscale versus impoverished terrains. Gentrification is often denied or presented in the misinformed discourse of ‘a little good and little bad,’ precisely because to identify oppression and displacement is to recognize that race and class inequalities still determine who has a right to community in a democratic society and who does not. The ‘statuses’ and processes’ in the definition may be wildly varied from place to place, but in the US this generally involves city policies, local political collusion, and real estate capital re-concentration in conjunction with a largely white middle class rental and buyer market. Over years these factions actively work together to remake and rebrand urban neighborhoods and artificially inflate local real estate values, which becomes the main lever for forcing longer term residents—who tend to be largely people of color—to relocate to avoid higher taxes and rents.
If there is no ‘gentry’ as a group, and no process by which they actively displace others, then there would be little use for the word, and some of its most common code words might be more appropriate: improvement, rehabbing, redevelopment, restoration—all of which omit human social actors. Yet gentrification is not natural or inevitable—neither rain nor astrology—but rather a thing people do to other people. Its effects in Chicago include increasing homelessness, decreasing affordability, chaos in local school systems, increasing violence paralleling increased local income inequality and gang territory disruption, and all the attendant economic stressors of shifting more of the wealth of the poor toward the landowning classes. The deeper subjective burden of losing social networks, community fabric, crucial institutions, and paths and places of meaning, through no fault of their own, is now the subject of a growing literature on the violence of displacement.
In the United States the overwhelming majority of gentrified neighborhoods were artificially devaluated by the white market and the real estate industry as they became majority black or Latino in the middle of the twentieth century. I argue in my work that gentrification in Chicago reveals distinct white and non-white racial histories, relies on a “racial fix” in the speculative housing market, produces new profits from past racism, and effectively generates new forms of flexible racism based on what I call “intimate segregation” (Mumm 2008, 2016 & 2017). Rather than creating places of social integration as often sold or promoted in city policy, gentrification instead reinforces race and class divisions, disrupts and destroys established working class communities, and engages the white middle class in leading parallel lives in proximity to people of color they largely ignore. Gentrification in present day Chicago and other US cities has also been one central impetus for black and Latino communities to reexamine their social and political capital and to resist displacement by organizing directly on behalf of the right to community.
Glass, Ruth. 1964. London: Aspects Of Change. Centre for Urban Studies: 3, London: MacGibbon & Kee.
Lees, Loretta, Tom Slater, & Elvin Wyly. 2008. Gentrification. New York: Routledge.
———-. 2010. The Gentrification Reader. New York: Routledge.
Mumm, Jesse. 2008. “Redoing Chicago: Gentrification, Race, and Intimate Segregation,” North
American Dialogue, Society for the Anthropology of North America, April 2008, 11(1): pp. 16-19.
———-. 2016. “Gentrification in Color and Time: White and Puerto Rican Racial Histories at
Work in Humboldt Park,” CENTRO Journal, 28:2, December 2016, pp. 152-189.
———-. 2017. “The Racial Fix: White Currency in the Gentrification of Black and Latino
Chicago,” Focaal: The Journal of Global Anthropology, accepted for publication, forthcoming late 2017.