Small businesses find themselves in the crosshairs of the culture war. First, it was Masterpiece Cakeshop and its refusal to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. Now, a Denver coffee shop—ink! Coffee, in that city’s Five Points neighborhood—is in trouble for posting a joke on a sidewalk sign. In November, the coffee shop satirically boasted that it had been “happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014.” Since then, the store has been targeted by demonstrations, a boycott (“we don’t drink ‘ink,’”), and the local NAACP’s demand that the store be shut down. The Denver Post reports that a city councilman has called for ink! to “have each staff member go through cultural competency training by a member of our community; I am asking them to invest in our community through local organizations and low performing elementary schools, and lastly to consider hiring our local ex-offenders.”
Implicit in this tempest is the view that there’s nothing positive about gentrification, or what Post columnist Vincent Carroll describes as Denver’s success in its effort to “attract and retain middle-class families.” Opponents of gentrification allege that it forces the out-migration of longtime residents—most often in the context of white newcomers pushing out African-Americans. There is little evidence to support this view, however; in fact, the preponderance of academic research suggests that the emergence of racially and economically integrated urban neighborhoods can be good for all concerned. But there’s at least one other wrongheaded assumption anti-gentrifiers make: that previous neighborhood change, of the sort that might be called anti-gentrification, didn’t produce its own disruption and displacement.
In his thorough overview of gentrification studies, urbanist Richard Florida found a nuanced picture: “Counterintuitively, several studies have even found that gentrification can in some cases reduce displacement. Neighborhood improvements like bars, restaurants, waterfronts, or extended transit can and sometimes do encourage less advantaged households to stay put in the face of gentrification. A 2006 study found that displacement accounted for only 6 to 10 percent of all moves in New York City due to housing expenses, landlord harassment, or displacement by private action (e.g. condo conversion) between 1989 and 2002. A 2011 study concluded that neighborhood income gains did not significantly predict household exit rates.” Long-time homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods can even find themselves in position to take advantage of the new type of demand—and to cash out their newfound equity.
That’s not to say that some eviction pressure or discomfort with neighborhood change aren’t real—but so, too, were the pressures, during the 1960s and 1970s, that helped push the white middle and working class out of city neighborhoods. The urban exodus that largely created the neighborhoods now said to be overrun by gentrifiers was itself a troubled one.
No place has been put more under the sociologist’s microscope in this regard than Boston—especially its once predominantly lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood of Mattapan, of which Blue Hill Avenue was the main commercial street. The near-total turnover of Mattapan from Jewish to African-American, between 1960 and 1970, has, perhaps because of its dramatic suddenness, been chronicled in three first-rate books: Yona Ginsburg’s Jews in a Changing Neighborhood (1975), Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon’s The Death of an American Jewish Community: A Tragedy of Good Intentions (1993), and Gerald Gamm’s 2001 book, Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed.
Crime, violence, fear, and “white flight” were definitely involved in the wholesale disappearance of what was not a wealthy community. Boston saw its black community riot in 1968 (which a free James Brown concert famously helped to calm), in the Blue Hill Avenue corridor. In 1970, two synagogues in the area were firebombed and a Torah destroyed. Events prompted the start of a local paramilitary Jewish Defense League. “Violence engulfed what had been a Jewish backwater,” write Levine and Harmon.
The ensuing fear and, yes, racism, might well have been enough to prompt the mass exodus that occurred. But Boston’s history should also be a reminder that public policies, adopted in haste, can make matters much worse. In this case, the fuse was lit by a progressive project called the Boston Bank Urban Renewal Group, which worked in tandem with the Federal Housing Administration. This bank consortium, spurred by the 1968 riot and aiming to provide homeownership opportunities for Boston blacks, actually drew a red line around neighborhoods in which it would lend, at low interest rates and with low down payments, thanks to FHA insurance. The predictable but tragic result foreshadowed the 2007 housing crisis a generation later: underqualified buyers got easy-money mortgages, and realtors spread fear in order to buy homes from whites cheaply and sell them, at inflated (but insured) prices, to black newcomers. It’s even possible that the synagogue fires were the work of so-called block-busters.
Absent the policy interventions, it’s possible that only financially qualified black buyers would have moved up into a lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood, and that their economic commonality might have trumped racial difference. Sadly, that did not occur—and 40 years later, we continue to adopt housing policies that push lower-income minority households into higher-income neighborhoods. It’s a recipe for tension.
One can imagine anti-gentrification policies that would have their own negative consequences. Start with the retailers who now will think twice—whether because of demonstrations or compliance costs—about opening stores and restaurants in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, an effect similar to the refusal of burned-out retailers to rebuild in Baltimore following the 2015 riots. Longtime residents with limited shopping and dining options will be the victims. Insisting on construction of “affordable” housing in gentrifying neighborhoods may be problematic, too. Households of different racial and ethnic backgrounds get along best when socio-economically similar. (See Herbert Gans’s classic 1961 essay, “The Balanced Community: Homogeneity or Heterogeneity in Residential Areas?”) And policies specifically designed to help longtime renters stay in place could increase out-migration, by giving new building owners an incentive to pay the necessary price to convince residents to move.
Socioeconomic forces can spark neighborhood change, certainly, and some residents find it hard to adapt. But such is a sign of a dynamic city. Public-policy interventions, whether to hurry change or to halt it, can lead to worse consequences.
Photo by Monika Lewandowska/iStock