The gentrification of urban areas, first found within western capitalist cities but since spread globally, has become a key issue for both residents and academics since the latter part of the 20th century.
While the term was first used 54 years ago by Glass (1964), in reference to London, Smith notes; ‘scholarly analyses of gentrification, once curious, are now commonplace.’ This shows how the process of gentrification is far from new but its presence in debates is a more recent occurrence (Smith 1987).
A common explanation of gentrification is offered by Smith (1979) through his ‘rent gap theory’ whereby the disparity between the current rental charge and the potential rental charge of an area if it were optimised is highlighted and exploited thus increasing the cost of living. This is what gentrifies the neighbourhood. Smith’s theory can be evidenced through the major rent increases in New York neighbourhoods which are identified as gentrifying. According to NYU Furman Center (2016) the rental charge in gentrifying neighbourhoods has increased by an average of 34% since 1990. Furthermore, in the period of 1990-2014 Williamsburg saw a 78.7% increase , Central Harlem a 53.2% spike and Lower East Side/Chinatown experienced a 50.3% increase in rental prices. It can therefore be suggested that these gentrifying areas are approaching their potential rental charge thus supporting Smith’s explanation (Furman Center 2016).
This theory is however not universally accepted as Ley (1986) rejects the notion of a ‘rent gap’.
He instead argues for alternative explanations such as demographic change, urban amenities and economic changes which may all contribute to gentrification. Schaffer and Smith (1986) however found that for Harlem demographic change was not a major factor. They highlighted census data from 1972-83 and found that a gentrifying Harlem indicated only a 0.2% decrease in black demographic (U.S Bureau of the census 1972-1983) . They did however note that ; ‘The number of wealthy black households in Harlem is relatively small, and if gentrification proceeds it will lead eventually to white in-migration and to the displacement of blacks’ (Schaffer and Smith 1986). This has since came true. In the early 2000s blacks in central Harlem lost their majority status and in 2008 they made up only 4/10 of residents (Roberts 2010). The heavy influx of white young professionals into Harlem may have therefore spurred gentrification. Smith, however retains his belief that rent increase is to blame due to the purchase and restoration of buildings causing a ‘rising rent tide for all’ regardless of race (Roberts 2010). It may therefore be argued that the rent gap theory is the major factor in the gentrification of New York Boroughs such as Harlem but these price increases are caused by predominantly white buyers which in Harlem’s case leads to the less wealthy black residents experiencing displacement.
Zukin et al. (2009) proposed that gentrification in Harlem and Williamsburg were retail led. The number of stores around the L train station slowly doubled in Williamsburg from 1984-2009 and Zukin (2009) also notes that the close proximity to Manhattan made this borough a prime target for young professionals to buy and rent property. Companies such as Starbucks therefore capitalised on this newfound spending power and move into the area which serves to further gentrify it and therefore begin to close the rent gap (Smith 1979). This process has made latte drinking hipsters a symbol of New York gentrification in the media leading to Leyland (2003) entitling their work ‘A new Harlem Gentry in search of its latte’. In this way shops and cafes work with a changing demographic to amplify renewal and cause further gentrification
New Yorkers who may feel they are in danger of being displaced by gentrification have not simply always accepted their potential fate. Pearsall (2010) collected evidence from a number of academic sources showing how gentrification was resisted on varying scales. In the late 80s significant numbers of protestors gathered in Tompkins Square Park; Manhattan in the aim to garner media attention on the issue (Smith 1996). This large scale approach to resistance is contrasted by Newman and Wyly’s (2006) findings that residents experiencing gentrification and possible displacement turned to public housing and rent regulation in order to remain where they were. Through grouping these studies Pearsall (2010) is able to show how many New Yorkers attempted to tackle this issue. The Furman Center data (2016) does however suggest these efforts were in vain as rent prices continued to rise into the turn of the new century and up to today.
It may be wrong to suggest that gentrification is a purely evil process which only serves to displace vulnerable residents. Atkinson (2002) looked at 114 studies (73 of which were conducted in North America) and created a piece on the positive and negative impacts of gentrification. Atkinson explains that gentrification is a divisive topic among policy-makers though he did find that studies praising gentrification were few. Atkinson did however find that renewal was a clear benefit which came with the gentrification of an area which served to improve quality of life but only for those who can afford to reap the benefits. On the other hand, 6 studies indicated a link between homelessness and gentrification which highlights the cost of renewal (and by extension increased cost of living) to those who cannot afford to be subject to gentrification. Power (1973) found that some residents were harassed and kicked out of private accommodation and made homeless suggesting gentrification can be an active process in which residents can directly seek to displace others, perhaps for their own benefit.
A brief conclusion. The zones of New York discussed appear to have been in a constant state of gentrification for many years. This has led to demographic change as young, predominantly white , professionals buy up and renovate property (Roberts 2010). This in turn attracts retail companies such as Starbucks to do the same. This renewal has closed the ‘rent gap’ of New York and displaced residents which some feel has hurt the image of areas such as Harlem (Atkinson 2002).