The Look of Gentrification

If you think of gentrification as coffee shops and bike lanes then you don't understand gentrification at all. It's about what's inside, not outside.

Review: The Last Black Man In San Francisco - Stephen Miller
“Last Black Man in San Francisco” features a young man who regularly visits his childhood Victorian home in a now gentrified neighborhood his family no longer lives in.

My grandparents’ house was located in a nice neighborhood in Berkeley, California filled with bungalows, Victorians and a few dingbat apartments. I practically grew up there and I have a lot of memories of the neighborhood, but I don’t walk there anymore because it’s been totally gentrified. The Black community I once knew vacated this district largely during the foreclosure crisis. At its peak in 1970 there was 1,000 Black residents there and today that number has dwindled to 285. When my family left the district around 2015 the average house sold for $600,000 - $700,000. Then in just three years those same exact houses—with few or zero improvements—were selling for $1.2 million.

For much of the decade, pundits and activists often cited new amenities as incentivizing gentrification. The cultural dialogue was obsessed with calling every new bar, apartment complex, coffee shop, tech shuttle and bike lane “gentrification.” This discourse left me feeling cold because my neighborhood didn’t have any new coffee shops, bike lanes or luxury condos. The houses hardly looked any different from what they did 50 years ago and the newest apartment was almost a mile away. This was the same situation for all the other gentrified neighborhoods near us as well. Gentrification in my experience was an internal crisis, not an external or aesthetic one.

A recent Vox article discussed the phenomenon of people seeing new buildings and calling them gentrification—despite the buildings being low income housing. I used to work in building low income housing and on two occasions I found people taking photos of my nonprofit’s complexes and calling them gentrification. This conflation of modern architecture as a “gentrification style” was so common that low income builders began erecting signs explaining they were affordable housing.

I’ve seen real people state that improvements to traffic safety is gentrification, as though disproportionately Black and brown people getting mowed down by cars keeps the rents down. An actual supervisor in San Francisco is insisting that removing cars from parks is racist against Black people right now. In Oakland, people argued about whether a bike lane was causing gentrification and whether a $1 rent-a-scooter was hostile to people of color. The scooter narrative died down because it became obvious that the scooter users were largely Black and brown school kids. But the bike lane narrative persisted for quite some time among merchants and nonprofits.

A case study on Oakland’s bike lanes had concluded they were not causing gentrification but the whole concept was just so bizarre. Could a landlord actually increase rents by painting a measly white line and a bike logo on the ground? Do bus-only lanes on Mission Street convince landlords to raise the rents, despite bus riders on average being more poor and non-white than drivers? Are these little, meaningless improvements really the underlying cause of gentrificaiton? That’s what people were suggesting for quite some time despite the lack of evidence indicating it was true.

But if there’s little evidence that gentrification is driven by these changes then why do people make such comparisons? For three reasons:

1) American cities are stuck in a binary of disinvestment and gentrification. Cities tend to diversify when disinvested and become whiter and affluent when they’re economically growing. This is partially due to work entry becoming more difficult thanks to degree requirements, culture fit gatekeeping and referrals. When a large portion of the population are software workers who have degrees or advantageous referrals to get a six-figure salary, then affordability is quickly put out of reach for average households unable to get those jobs making $60,000 in a housing constrained market.

As a byproduct of this segregation, things which appear new and are visible are treated with immediate suspicion and hostility. People are understandably hostile to an influx of money that they see coinciding with displacement, even if they can’t accurately identify the individuals responsible for this inequity (as was the case with the misdirected tech bus protests). The major capital influx of high income employees bidding up existing housing—because no housing was built where they work—is much harder to attack than a hip coffee shop or a condo.

While these problems would be mitigated through an abundance of housing which is a failure of government, companies whose white-collar jobs consist exclusively of highly educated whites and Asians, and whose lowly paid jobs consist of everybody else, ultimately bring much of this resentment onto themselves. Yes, Silicon Valley, that’s you. If the industry wasn’t so non-diverse and inaccessible then the politics of tech resentment wouldn’t be nearly as strong even under current conditions. The same applies to the yuppie-producing prominent finance industry in NYC and white-collar industries in LA.

2) It takes blame off of the actual gentrifiers. Oftentimes I find these aesthetic gentrification narratives being espoused by people who themselves are gentrifiers. Usually they were part of an earlier gentrification wave or are current wave gentrifiers trying to dissociate themselves. Giving people literal objects of gentrification allows for gentrifiers to deflect self-reflection on their culpability in the housing crisis. They don’t have to think about the ramifications of searching for homes in a housing market where they’re outbidding lower income people of color.

Caricatures like skinny white bike bros or some scooter make convenient distractions away from the longstanding unaffordability that the original gentrifiers often created. Many of the first wave gentrifiers had consumed existing housing back when it was cheap, then made it impossible to add more housing to mitigate additional residents like themselves, thus increasing displacement onto incumbents. Bernal, the Haight, South Berkeley, North Oakland—all these neighborhoods experienced this. “I’m the good one,” the first-wave gentrifier insists. “The neighborhood gentrified only after I got here.”

No, the neighborhood gentrified because you got here.

3) Status Quoism. If you’re a business owner or a driver with a regressive belief that everybody needs to drive, a great way to left-wash your obviously pro-pollution belief is to accuse any change that may take a parking space away as gentrification. If you’re someone who just rejects any notion that your city should ever look any different from when you got there, there’s plenty motivation to call literally any and every change gentrification. But these suburbanite tendencies run counter to what a city is supposed to be. Cities are dynamically changing places, not suburbs which were built and sold as static environments.

Gentrification is lot like radiation — you can’t literally see it, you can’t smell it and you can’t hear it, but it’s all around you. The focus on the 2010s tech boom and the culture that came with it always came off to me as somewhat narrow since most displacement occurred during the foreclosure crisis anyways. 33,502 non-Hispanic Black residents left Oakland during the 2000s versus 15,076 in the 2010s. The same pattern of almost twice as high displacement in the 2000s than the 2010s were found in San Francisco (11,645 vs 1,750), Los Angeles (54,602 vs 24,827) and likely most Black enclaves in coastal California. During a decade with far less aesthetic changes than we saw this decade.

Most neighborhoods in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York City have been highly gentrified without any major changes to their built environment. And maybe that’s the actual reason why. Maybe a neighborhood that looks the same as it did in 1950—in a country that has grown by 170 million people since then—might struggle with housing affordability. Hell, the country grew by 46 million in just the last 20 years alone.

As for my neighborhood, it had increased in Black residents consistently since World War 2. Then in 1975 the zoning was changed by the first gentrification wave of homeowners trying to stop dingbat apartments from “deteriorating the neighborhood” with added density. Despite accusations that their goal was to keep Black people out the neighborhood, the group won and it became virtually impossible to add housing there. The Black population subsequently dropped by 25% that decade, followed by a 15% drop during the 1980s, a 24% drop in the 1990s, a 30% drop in the 2000s and now a 14% drop in the 2010s. By the time subprime wiped out what was left of the Black community in the late 2000s, 50% had already been displaced in the decades prior for wealthier replacements.

Those who fought attempts to grow the housing capacity of our old neighborhood got what they wanted: all the same old houses, parks and stores. But at the expense of the people who had lived there in the first place by trading them for new arrivals. Population growth does not require displacement when you prioritize making space rather than the aesthetic of buildings.

If you treat your city like a suburb, then it’ll have the demographics of a suburb.