March 16, 2015

Debates Surrounding Gentrification

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

Recently a friend asked me if gentrification is ever a good thing. The question arose from a conversation regarding the ongoing gentrification of the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago; a place where I grew up and where much of my family still lives. In answering the question, I realized that sociology helps to both make sense of this changing neighborhood and also consider how Pilsen relates to other communities across the U.S. that are also dealing with the effects of gentrification.

The Pilsen neighborhood has historically been home to waves of working-class immigrants. The mid-1800s attracted German and Irish immigrants who worked on the creation of what is now Ogden Avenue. After the Great Chicago Fire, Bohemian, Czech, and Lithuanian immigrants settled in the area to work in the local lumber yards, mills, and rail yards.

Bienvenidos a Pilsen

Starting after World War I, Mexican immigrants who also worked in the local steel mills, rail yards, and factories began slowly immigrating to the neighborhood. It wasn’t until the demolition of Mexican enclaves to create the new University of Illinois at Chicago campus on the Near West Side during the 1950s-1960s that Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants became Pilsen’s dominant ethnic group..

It was during this time that my father’s family moved out of an apartment on Taylor and Halsted Avenue to a second floor apartment on 19th and Racine on the Eastern end of Pilsen. This process of one ethnic or racial group replacing another is what sociologists term natural or ethnic succession. Succession is the process by which an (im)migrant and/or ethnic group moves to an older, affordable part of a city and create an ethnic and/or racial enclave. As members of the group acquire a higher income, they move out and make way for another wave of (im)migrant groups to replace them. Gentrification, however, is not the same as natural succession.

Cermak Avenue Business District

Residents within a natural or ethnic succession model choose to move out of a neighborhood when their increased incomes increase, their social and cultural ties expand, and/or they move into new industries for work. Within a gentrification model, however, existing residents are displaced due to rising rent and property taxes.  

18th Street Business District

What is gentrification?

British scholar Ruth Glass first coined the term in 1964 to describe the process of higher income residents moving into traditionally working class neighborhoods and changing them into up-scale areas. Often this was accomplished through demolition and redevelopment, or through upgrading the housing stock via invested capital. Early models focused on the different stages of gentrification due to renovations of housing and the creation of new developments. Later models incorporated a political economy and Marxist element to understand the ways that land was devalued to make way for gentrification to occur.

While the debates around gentrification’s have raged, opposing camps have emerged to grapple with the positive and negative impacts of gentrification. On the one hand, scholars such as Lance Freeman in There Goes the ‘Hood argue that gentrification invigorates decayed neighborhoods via redevelopment initiatives and diversified economies.

At the same time, some scholars argue that because it increases property values, decreases crime, beautifies areas, and attracts fun and trendy businesses, gentrification can economically, socially, and culturally uplift existing residents. It some ways, gentrification can be seen as a way to increase social capital among existing residents who are able to remain in a gentrifying neighborhood.

In my visits to family in Pilsen, I appreciate the growing access to organic and specialty foods at the local supermarkets. And I’m glad that I no longer have to drive to the “north side” for a night out at a trendy and youthful bar. Instead I can hang out at Simone’s, Pl-zen Bar, or Harbees.

On the other hand, scholars such as Neil Smith and Loïc Wacquant argue that this rosy picture neglects the very real threat of displacement and the loss of social and cultural capital for existing low-income residents. It assumes that redevelopment is good for all parties involved, that the existing “decay” of the neighborhood is due to residents’ neglect, ignores strides and improvements that existing residents have made to their neighborhoods, and does not take into consideration rising rent costs and property taxes that many low-income residents cannot afford.

In addition, these scholars argue that pro-gentrification advocates ignore the process of the state to continue to oppress disadvantaged low-income groups. Neighborhoods that are home to low-income residents are often left to decay by politicians and city officials who fail to invest capital and/or time into maintaining, upgrading, or developing the areas until developers target a specific neighborhood as the new hot place to live.  

Located just fifteen minutes from Chicago’s central business district (known as “the Loop”) and directly adjacent to University Village and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) campus, Pilsen follows a gentrification model of city and developer-led redevelopment to attract higher-income residents. Yet, it is not a “decayed” neighborhood. It includes several amenities such as the International Museum of Mexican Art, a stable housing stock, numerous churches, restaurants, bakeries, the landmark Café Jumping Bean, parks, two business districts that are home to many locally-owned shops, an industrial corridor, community-based nonprofits and civic associations, public art, and is home to the largest family friendly summer festival in the city, the Fiesta Del Sol.  Many residents feel that it is this bustling vibe of the neighborhood combined with new developments that are leading to ongoing gentrification.

According to a report compiled by Winifred Curran and Euan Hague at DePaul University, developers are particularly attracted to Pilsen because most of the land is zoned for 3-flat town homes (RT-4), yet many of the homes on these lots are single-story. This mismatch in zoning means that a developer can buy a single-story, RT-4 zoned home, demolish it, and then rebuild a larger 3 flat condominium building without having petition the zoning board for a change.

While there may be new and diverse amenities added to the mix of what already existed in Pilsen, many existing residents feel the pressure of increased property taxes and residential rents. These increases arise both from new housing developments, some of which are marketed as spaces for “elite living,” and a changing demographic that includes higher-income individuals. My mother has seen the property taxes on her home increase 150% since 2000, a friend had to close her bookstore because her commercial lease increased 30% overnight, and friends, colleagues, and family members have been priced out of Pilsen as housing costs have risen. While this is solely anecdotal evidence about the effects of gentrification, these examples highlight the very real frustrations and fear that existing residents experience when they are faced with drastically increased rents and property taxes.

Sometimes these frustrations are directed at the new in-movers (whether they are residents or new businesses). Other times, residents petition local politicians for development projects that are more inclusive of the existing populations. This latter point reflects the difficulty with gentrification. Again, it is not simply a matter of one population moving in, but rather a targeted (re)development policy that includes city officials and developers that purposefully attempts to attract higher-income residents into specific areas.

Some scholars, particularly William H. Simon, and Daphne T. Greenwood and Richard P.F. Holt, provide models for (re)development within low-income communities that do not lead to gentrification or displacement. Versions of these models, known as the New Communities’ Program and Testing the Model, are currently in place in Chicago, and even in Pilsen. While Pilsen is experiencing a level of gentrification (that was slowed due to the Great Recession), it is also experiencing levels of what is known as community economic development. This raises a few questions about the future demographics of Pilsen and complicates the idea of whether gentrification is good or bad.

While I initially found the question of whether gentrification is ever a good thing difficult to answer, by using a sociological lens, I realized that it's not a question of right or wrong, good or bad, but rather, what are the consequences?


We all think we know gentrification. Generally speaking, the process of gentrification is often described as resulting from two primary effects. The first is that new policies and development result in an increase in property values and cost of living within an existing urban neighborhood. The second is a population migration characterized as an in-migration of new residents—usually white, middle, and upper-class (hence “Gentry”)—followed by the out-migration of the original residents, often lower-income. The resulting mix of migration patterns ultimately changes the culture and character of the neighborhood.

The problem with this common narrative is not that it’s incorrect. The steps described are accurate, but the issue is that the narrative finds a simplistic causation between development and out-migration. I don’t believe there is one, at least not directly. Further, by finding that simplistic causation, the narrative sets up the false conclusion that to be “pro-development” is to, in turn, push the out-migration of original lower-income residents, leading to the vilification of urban development and developers as well as the use of economically inefficient price controls. Once we begin to accept that gentrification is more complicated than a single cause followed by effect, we then can and should begin to ask what else is at play in the process and begin to see causation from income rather than development itself.

Hello, I'm a SBCC student and I am doing a response on this article for my sociology class.
I found this article to be a very interesting. I thought it was a well articulated discussion of the positive and negative sociological perspectives of gentrification. I also agree with the author Gonzales that both theories of gentrification do not prove that it is right or wrong but steer the discussion along the lines of attempting to understand the consequences of gentrification. I chose this article because, the neighborhood I grew up in is also currently going through the process of gentrification. I grew up in the mission district of San Francisco, and when I was a child in the early 2000’s my neighborhood was very different from today. New development has dramatically changed the culture within the neighborhood among shops and customers, and has also displaced a fair number of families and peers that I personally knew growing up in the mission. The treatment of civilians by police has also changed, as a Mexican American named Alex Nieto, was shot by police on the street he grew up (which has dramatically changed) on while he was unarmed.
There are many anecdotal examples of gentrification in my the Mission District, but the main problems are rooted in the large separation of classes, or class stratification, that can only be addressed by an overall systemic change. I think that gentrification is a symptom of greater social and environmental inequality which should be addressed by our government. I think that gentrification could be a positive thing, if it was done with laws in place to protect the families and low-income households that currently reside in the neighborhoods that higher income residents wish to move into. If there was less social inequality and class and a wider acceptance of a variety of cultures and values, then a positive boost for development and the economy in low income neighborhoods, could possibly produce fewer negative effects for the residents.

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