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Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs 2002 (2002) 174-179

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Douglas S. Massey: I have always been skeptical of gentrification's critics. The way some of them carry on, you'd think that gentrification involved a massive in-migration of whites from suburbs to cities and the large-scale displacement of poor minorities from urban neighborhoods. In fact, cities continue to lose white residents, and white Americans are overwhelmingly concentrated in suburbs. To the extent that some whites are entering or staying in central cities, they are small in number and highly selected in characteristics. Compared to the continued large outflow of whites to suburbs and the well-established proclivity of white movers to avoid inner city locations, gentrification is truly a drop in the bucket. That is, gentrification is relatively small compared to the other major flows of population into and out of cities.

Another reason for my skepticism is the difficulty of defining "gentrification." At the most general level, the term seems to imply the replacement of poor people by a new "gentry" of affluent households. But who are the poor people and who are the gentry? Is any socioeconomic upgrading of a neighborhood considered a gentrification? Does a neighborhood gentrify if its own residents get richer and better educated over time, or do the gentry have to move in from outside? Is some class-mixing good but too much, a bad thing? Is it enough that the class standing of in-movers is greater than out-movers, or do they have to be of different races as well? The imagery that generally accompanies stories on gentrification generally selects from two extremes of America's socioeconomic distribution: pairing a black welfare family with a white professional couple. But such juxtapositions must be rare indeed.

Finally, I have always thought that complaints about gentrification are fundamentally hypocritical. On the one hand, liberal urban specialists rail against the suburbanization of America and the abandonment of the cities by the [End Page 174] nation's whites. On the other hand, when a very few and highly selected whites buck the trend and stake a claim in the city, they are berated as opportunists and decried for gentrifying the inner city. But liberals can't have it both ways. If the middle and upper classes are to remain in the city to shore up the tax base and play leadership roles in civic affairs, they have to live somewhere.

Another element in the hypocrisy pertains to the recent fascination of social scientists with the concentration of poverty—the social isolation of the poor in predominantly poor neighborhoods. If this is a bad thing—and much empirical evidence suggests that it is—then how can it be remedied without the presence of middle-class and affluent households in places also inhabited by the poor? I suspect that much of the gentrification debate is actually a coded reference to the contestation of blacks and whites for urban space. After all, affluent and middle-class blacks are generally blamed for the concentration of urban poverty through their "abandonment" of poor black neighborhoods. It is hard to imagine people complaining about gentrification if it were to involve middle class and affluent black families moving into or remaining within poor black neighborhoods. This, it seems, would be good. Apparently class-mixing within neighborhoods only becomes evil when it crosses racial as well as socioeconomic lines, although this fact is never explicitly stated.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Vigdor barely touches on the issue of race in his careful analysis of gentrification using American Housing Survey data from Boston, despite the fact that the Boston metropolitan area is far more segregated by race than by class. Indeed, throughout the United States, the degree of segregation between blacks and whites vastly exceeds that between rich and poor. Although the spatial isolation of the poor may have increased in American cities, it is nothing compared to the spatial isolation of African Americans, particularly those who are poor. As is so often the case, the action in gentrification probably stems...


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pp. 174-179
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Archived 2009
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