Unlocking Gentrifier

Schlichtman_comp_ID5295.inddJohn Joe Schlichtman discusses what prompted him, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill to write Gentrifier.

The motivation for Gentrifier is rooted in my deep frustration regarding the ways in which the gentrification conversation has gone in circles for decades.

I found that one way to cut to the core of a middle-class person’s take on gentrification (be they an academic, activist, or any other resident) was simply to ask: “Well, where do you live and how does that help you to understand the issue?” People’s responses—both verbal and non-verbal—to such a question are rather profound. There is often a “well, what does that have to do with it?” appearance in one’s countenance—never articulated because people know full well that their worldview ought to apply to their own life.

Yet such tension remains at the heart of the gentrification discussion. I imagine one set of speakers circling the globe decrying gentrification as an abstract force of evil and another set of speakers—also on a global lecture circuit—pitching it as a salvation. What gets lost in these perspectives is the combinations of larger scale trends and smaller scale decisions that result in an experience of gentrification on the ground.  There have been attempts to bridge this gap, but they seem to avoid the crux of things. And as my co-author Jason Patch often mentioned, the best attempts have been within the appendices of ethnographic studies. To us, this means that the researcher views such analyses as secondary—we wanted to make it central.

This gap is part of a longstanding tension in gentrification research, one that I have observed thoughtful people navigate by arguing in silos. It is very easy to lapse into such an approach. Yet as Jason pointed out, if you push any one of the arguments within these silos to their natural limit, they are actually quite contradictory. We call these contradictions “collisions.”

When we looked at any particular area of urban research, such as health research or community development research, we observed the same issue. We find well-intentioned people—often the same person—arguing within conflicting silos. On one hand, gentrification seems a solution to be encouraged. It promotes increases in walkability, safety, food options, and infrastructure. On the other hand, gentrification seems a problem to be resisted. Economically, it can displace and isolate, causing great stress on low-income households. Culturally, it removes the longstanding markers of ‘home’ spaces, decreasing longtime residents’ feeling of well-being. Socially, it can break up neighborly support networks and alter policing strategies to the detriment of longtime residents.

I approached Jason with my excitement regarding how fruitful this simple question “where do you live?” seemed to be. It brought out tensions in a person’s own biography that I viewed as the “black box” to understanding various strands that composed the fabric of gentrification. In our experience, most scholars critical of gentrification were actually gentrifiers—that is, they chose to live in gentrifying contexts. I pitched the idea of doing a study that drew on their accounts.

What a valuable take, I thought: someone who seems to be against gentrification but nonetheless choses to be a gentrifier—even when there are residential choices beyond the gentrifying context. However, people were not warm to this format. Having met resistance, someone suggested that we turn the mirror on ourselves and model the approach we were describing. This resulted in our article “Gentrifier? Who Me?” in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

17_East_97th_StreetThis article generated some general attention and new interest, including from editor Doug Hildebrand at UTP. And one of the journalists to cover the article was Marc Lamont Hill, who is also a very compelling anthropologist and critical race scholar. Shortly after Marc and I spoke about gentrification, Marc interviewed Spike Lee about various topics. Interestingly, the topic turned to gentrification in Lee’s native Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Spike Lee spoke with a tacit assumption that Marc was not a gentrifier (an object of Lee’s vitriol) in Fort Greene. Marc pushed back and suggested that he was indeed a gentrifier—which he was, by most any definition. I was surprised that despite having received an ‘out’ from a figure of Lee’s New York prominence and legitimacy in a live interview, Marc did not take it.  What’s more, I had already hoped to make Spike Lee’s take on gentrification—raw and brilliant—a thread of the book. Given Marc’s scholarly expertise and his reflectiveness in engaging Lee, I thought Marc would be a great fit for the project. Thankfully, Marc was immediately receptive to joining in.

Jason, Marc, and I wanted the book to reorient the gentrification conversation. We want to illuminate the areas that get glossed over when people debate, research, or teach about gentrification. We provide a backpack of conceptual tools to empower local actors—from health care providers to non-profit directors to urban planners to college students—to assess the context of the neighborhood they impact. We seek to clarify the macro- and city-level dynamics of gentrification, the facets that make up a housing consumer’s residential decision, and the way that these factors can combine into different ‘types’ of gentrifiers and different contexts of gentrification.

These combinations produce outcomes that are very similar in some ways but very different in others.  Resisting or encouraging gentrification is extremely context-dependent: it matters if one is in London, Cape Town, São Paulo, Vancouver, or Des Moines.  Yet the most-used guides to understanding gentrification—dating back to the coining of the term itself in 1964—are rooted in cities like New York and London.

In Chicago, for instance, neighborhood decline is considerably more common than gentrification. Among other things, this implies that much of the story of neighborhood reinvestment lies ahead. But what I want to point to here is that leaders in many of the Chicago neighborhoods that have seen long-term decline have been mobilizing for investment.  These efforts have crystalized in developments such as a Whole Foods in the Englewood neighborhood and local grocery store Mariano’s locating in Bronzeville.

Both of these stores could be portrayed as either colonization or reinvigoration. People tend to choose their portrayal based on their silo.  I have colleagues, then, who express a sentiment like “It’s a shame—that news about the food desert getting a grocery store.” We need to unpack statements like this. If we do not, the decisions we make founded upon them will be errant.

To cite another example, when the politically left-leaning Pastor Michael Pfleger of Saint Sabina in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood came to my university for a talk, he asked why on his drive to DePaul from 79th Street he began seeing so many cranes as he travelled north, probably around 31st Street.  These cranes for Pfleger symbolized investment—residential, retail, government and other types of development. His Auburn-Gresham needs some of those cranes, Pfleger expressed. There is a correlation, of course, between cranes and gentrification—as Pfleger well knows.

His invitation is neither naïve nor is it an outlier—it is grounded in a context in which investment is not a problem but a solution to many pressing needs. And for that investment to be just, it requires a plan—a plan I might add that, no matter how thorough, will never be implemented perfectly.

Green_Line_ChicagoThere are also neighborhoods in Chicago that are seeing intense gentrification.  Others would describe them as solidly middle class, with the process of gentrification having come and gone.  Where is the affordable housing in these neighborhoods?  How much attention should go into fighting for this?  And to what extent does this fight come at the expense of making housing more safe and livable in disinvested neighborhoods?

We cannot engage in productive debate, policy-making discussion, and teaching about gentrification when our understanding—our personal underlying theory—of gentrification stands on murky foundations. The main thrust of Gentrifier is to equip as many people as possible to participate in this complex conversation—in all of its nuance—as it relates to their neighborhood, their block, and their own lives.

What People Are Saying about GENTRIFIER

“GENTRIFIER is the sort of book that vintage, pre-Kardashian Kanye West might have written had he had a PhD in urban policy, supplying it with an irresistible hook: ‘We're all gentrifiers, I'm just the first to admit it.’ Schlichtman, Patch, and Hill help us shelve what we thought we knew about gentrification, and give us instead a brutally honest reckoning with the ills, conveniences and virtues – but especially the consequences on the vulnerable – of gentrification. They ably wrestle with a characteristic facet of modern existence, rescuing the term from automatic demonization while never once letting it off the hook for the damage it can do.”
Michael Eric Dyson, Professor of Sociology, Georgetown University and author of Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America

“This is a brave book. It tackles a set of problems that bedevil academic and policy oriented urban planners but that also confront many young urbanites…”
Peter Marcuse, Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning, Columbia University,  Foreword to GENTRIFIER

“GENTRIFIER does a masterful job of explaining, unpacking, and grounding the key analytical concepts that underpin debates on gentrification. In clear, readable, and entertaining prose, John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch and Marc Lamont Hill make gentrification more tangible and relevant as an important social topic worthy of rigorous and careful understanding.”
John L. Jackson, Jr., Richard Perry University Professor and Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, University of Pennsylvania

"John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch and Marc Lamont Hill clearly engage in the theoretical and policy debates surrounding gentrification while offering very smart analyses of their own narratives. There is a lot out there on gentrification but GENTRIFIER is most definitely fresh!"
Mary Pattillo, Harold Washington Professor of Sociology and African American Studies, Northwestern University