Gentrification: now global!

Until about 2005, most planners and urban theorists regarded gentrification as a local issue. It was first described by Ruth Glass as a neighborhood-scale process of urban transformation. However, as whole cities and whole counties have become gentrified, the scale of the phenomenon now challenges the original concept. Furthermore, consider San Francisco: many parts of the city are so expensive that no-one can actually earn the money to buy or rent those houses–the money comes from millionaires and billionaires across the world who are buying/renting their fourth, or tenth flat in the lovely City By The Bay. In which case, the city-wide gentrification of San Francisco is directly linked to global flows of capital. This is not a local process at all. Outside of the tech sector, salaries in the Bay Area are actually not very high (consider my $1854/month salary for teaching 85 undergraduates!).

The best-recognized scholar on gentrification from the mid-1980s until his death in 2012 was Neil Smith. In 2009 he remarked on the re-scaling of gentrification, but using his Marxist lens, it looked like fundamentally the same process to him: “While the scale of gentrification may contain few surprises, the scale of its most recent results does represent an extraordinary new departure…Just as capital and culture have become quintessentially global, class and politics are also global.”

The three premier scholars on gentrification now are Loretta Lees, Tom Slater and Elvin Wyly. Together they edited the Gentrification Reader for Routledge Press, 2010. They note that other scholars (Atkinson and Bridge) connect gentrification with colonialism: “Contemporary gentrification has elements of colonialism as a cultural force in its privileging of whiteness, as well as the more class-based identities and preferences of urban living. In fact not only are the new middle class gentrifiers predominantly white but the aesthetic and cultural aspects of the process assert a white Anglo appropriation of urban space and urban history.” (Atkinson & Bridge 2005:2)

Although Ruth Glass coined the term in 1964, current scholars on gentrification do not accept her description as a formal definition, in part because Glass was reflecting on empirical observation of the change as she saw it–not the underlying political-economic-social causes of the change. Slater, Lees and Wyly discuss how this keyword remains hotly contested, and then give a few commonly-accepted descriptors of the process:
1. Wealthier people (usually white) reinvest capital into the urban fabric of an older, existing neighborhood or district.
2. Wealthier people move into the neighborhood, transforming the shops, schools, infrastructure.
3. Rents rise. Poor people can stay if there are rent-controls and eviction-protections; but in most cities those are being removed.
4. Low-income groups (correlating with people of color and women) get displaced either directly or indirectly. Displacement may happen months or years after the first three changes.


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