Are whites the only gentrifiers?

I have a lot of questions about gentrification and race.

Specifically about the relationship with black and white people and the creation of neighborhood change.

Are their different versions of gentrification within different racial communities?  Is there room for diversity? Can neighborhoods gentrify and retain their minority populations?

Or is the white demographic essential?

If a neighborhood goes from poor and black and uneducated to middle or upper class and black and college educated, has gentrification taken place? Is this situation even possible? Does it ever occur?

If it doesn’t occur, is this because of lack of economic clout or because people from disadvantaged races are more cognizant of avoiding displacing their neighbors? Are blacks more mindful of their choices? Inclusive? Kind? Or do they simply lack the funds, as has been suggested, to perpetrate massive change? Do they lack the power?

If white people want to move into a diverse or predominantly black, immigrant, non-white neighborhood, they can, and without giving up their accustomed amenities. The pattern is familiar: artists are followed by amenities (coffee shops, theaters, galleries, nice grocery stores, boutiques, fashionable restaurants, trendy retail), which are followed by more people who have the money to follow the trends (young and then middle aged, as the neighborhood grows in affluence and the perception of crime is diminished).

But if black people who have succeeded in the conventional sense, with college educations, good-paying jobs, families and stable lives, decide to move into lower-class neighborhoods populated by people of their own race does the pattern shift? Do young black artists move into poor neighborhoods and then attract the amenities that support their status? If they do, will white people follow? The answer both questions is, ‘no.’

The aversion white people have to predominately black neighborhoods has been proven in multiple studies. Most recently, Robert Sampson and Jackelyn Hwang of Harvard University scoured Google Street View for evidence of gentrifying elements such as construction, new infrastructure, graffiti, litter or beautification efforts in Chicago census tracts. Their finding: black neighborhoods do not gentrify.

Janet Smith, a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, studies neighborhood change. She helped create a Gentrification Index to support her claim that black neighborhoods do not attract investment from businesses or government agencies and, therefore, cannot gentrify.

But why, why, why? I know the black middle class exists. They have buying power. They are important to our economy. A study published in the Journal of Urban Economics suggests that low-income neighborhoods with high proportions of both white and black residents maintain the number of black residents even after gentrification. The black middle class is not immune to acting as a gentrifying force.

And yet it does not.

White people are members of the only race that plays a prominent and predominate role in gentrification. We are the reason sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term gentrification in 1964, as she witnessed diverse inner-city London enclaves overtaken by young professionals with the time, energy and money to reinvest in the neighborhood. Glass observed displacement of “all those who cannot hold their own—the small enterprises, the lower ranks of people, the odd men out.” Glass does not mention race in this definition, but, at least in America as I understand it, whites tend to be the agents of investment, displacement and gentrification. White, college-educated people without children are the most common predictor of neighborhood change. Communities where at least 40 percent of the population is black may attract new, wealthier residents, but they will not attract white people and, therefore, seem immune from gentrification.

But are they?

I wonder if there are black versions of gentrification that can act as models of economic reinvestment that strengthens rather than disbands communities. Or is every instance of gentrification a warning that race and economic status are permanently entangled and that our cities cannot improve without destroying the lives of the poor?

I may never have the answers to all of my questions, but they are spurring me to do more research on the intersection of race and wealth. I will post any finding, and followup questions, on this blog.


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