Gentrification: The Longest 4 Letter Word




Philadelphia’s recent growth has been incredible. Home values are increasing, cranes line the sky, Schuylkill Yards will soon be underway. But with growth comes another “g” word —  gentrification. Bryan and Matt mentioned gentrification in our interview and as such, I thought it would be a timely post. Gentrification is a very mixed bag with different meanings to different people. There are many positive aspects to gentrification which Bryan / Matt and I discuss, but there are drawbacks. 

While gentrification tends to have a negative connotation, there are multiple definitions, explaining the ambiguity around the term. I’ll begin with a definition:

Gentrification is the development and improvement of an urban area, so that it conforms to middle (or upper) class taste — usually displacing the indigenous population. This is where confusion ensues. The story of gentrification is incomplete the without noting population displacement. Displacing indigenous populations is sadly rooted in our nation’s history. From the displacement (and near extermination of) the Native Americans to the forced immigration and enslavement of Africans. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. With this in mind, some history.


Gentrification was born in 1964 when the term was coined by Ruth Glass, a British sociologist.


One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes -- upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages -- two rooms up and two down have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences. Larger Victorian houses, downgraded in an earlier or recent periods -- which were used as lodging houses or were otherwise in multiple occupation -- have been upgraded once again. Nowadays, many of these houses are being sub-divided into costly flats or "houselets" (in terms of the new real estate snob jargon). The current social status and value of such dwellings are frequently in inverse relation to their size, and in any case enormously inflated by comparison with previous levels in their neighbourhoods. Once this process of "gentrification" starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.
Ruth Glass, 1964.

The most overt example of gentrification is post-Katrina New Orleans. There is an great piece in The New Republic about gentrification, focusing on New Orleans. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina provided a unique opportunity for a social experiment. What happens when a predominantly poor, black, urban area is devastated by natural disaster? Developers giddily rebuilt, pricing out the indigenous population with higher end properties, designed for more “ambitious and organized people.”

During the early 20th century, people moved to cities out of economic necessity. This stayed true through the Great Depression and WWII. The post-war period saw a mass exodus from cities to what are now called suburbs. This is the proverbial American Dream — a white picket fence with a garage and a nuclear family. Millennials are reversing this trend, flocking back to cities. This is largely due to urban lifestyle and urban opportunity according to Robert Lang, a professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. With the influx of affluent millennials to Philadelphia, the stage has been set.

18 to 34 year-olds make up almost 30% of Philadelphia’s population, more than any other age group. Between ‘06 and ‘12, Phillies 20-34 year-old population jumped by 100,000. This has been a boon to Philadelphia economic activity, but this growth needs to be equitable. Residents who weathered the hard times should benefit from the renaissance. Improving in quality of life in a neighborhood is excellent, as long as it is based on cooperation. According to data from Zillow, the average home value for Point Breeze (19145) increased by 64% between 2012 and 2017 ($114,000 to $178,800).  For better or worse, I am a gentrifier. I’m a yuppie who moved to Newbold (the gentrified Point Breeze) in 2014. However, I want to help find a way to be more egalitarian.


The Process

Gentrification follows a common theme. The Declaration, a Philly based news outlet, spells out this arc which Society Hill and Philadelphia as a whole traces perfectly. Philadelphia’s population steadily increased from its founding in 1683 all the way until the 50s, peaking around 2 million residents, before the trend reversed and decline set in. As stated above, this is largely due to the end of WWII and the suburbanization of the country. The 50s and 60s gave rise to the term “white-flight,” a term I doubt needs elaboration, when affluent whites could leave cities for the suburbs.

By 1960, the surrounding suburbs were more populous than Philadelphia itself. With the rapid loss of human and monetary resources in the central city and the expansion of wealthier, primarily white suburbs, the stage had been set for gentrification in Greater Philadelphia.
Dylan Gottlieb

Philadelphia lost its tax base and politicians and business owners had to find ways to attract more affluent residents back into the city. Thus began a race to the bottom. The Declaration says that Society Hill was Philadelphia’s first gentrified neighborhood, divorcing the moniker “The Bloody Fifth Ward.”

To achieve the transformation of the area, the City Planning Commission called for the elimination of blighted late nineteenth-century buildings and retail establishments.

Lost in the blight were the city’s poorer, longtime residents who fell to the wayside. In case you were wondering whether or not this transformation was achieved, again from Zillow, the average home price in Society Hill (19106) is $355,500, compared with $139,000 for Philadelphia as a whole.


From 1960 to 1970, the neighborhood’s [Society Hill] percentage of nonwhite residents fell from 20 percent to 7 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of college-educated adults in the neighborhood shot up from under four percent in 1950 to 64 percent by 1980. As anticipated, property values soared, rising nearly 250 percent during the 1960s.
Dylan Gottlieb

The process is clear:

  1. A catalyst results in mass exodus from an area (“white-flight,” a hurricane, etc)

  2. Politicians and business leaders focus on increasing their affluent customer base with new developments and incentivization programs (luxury housing, tax abatements, etc)

  3. An influx of affluent new immigrants

  4. Property values increase

  5. Longtime residents are priced out, pushed toward the fray

  6. A cycle forms:

    1. More affluent residents move in

    2. Driving demand for luxury housing

    3. Driving price increases



Gentrification doesn’t appear intentional. It seems like a natural, but misguided reaction to a catalyst — decline. The problem arises in step 2, above. Community organization and redevelopment loses out to new capital. Instead of focusing on helping and improving the outlook of current residents, they are discounted as part of the problem and displaced.

If there were an easy solution for gentrification, this post would be moot. However, there are some actionable steps we can all take toward forgoing gentrification in favor of egalitarian improvement. The first step is always acknowledging there is a problem, especially when you are part of it — I am an agent of gentrification. Other solutions range from community action to co-op housing.

Source: The Enterprise Center's Master Growth Plan

Source: The Enterprise Center's Master Growth Plan

Galvanizing an organized community full of residents who are supportive of collective action is huge. Organized groups can affect change, such as blocking an application to put a harmful business on a corner. These groups could also lobby for rent control and other regulations. Toward the more involved end is co-op housing — collective real-estate ownership with self-governing rights. Essentially, a development of condos without a centralized governing body. Each shareholder would be able to occupy a unit, and also have voting rights in the development’s government. There are some great examples of Philadelphia co-ops here.

Another practical resolution is the Philadelphia government awarding more contracts to minority owned enterprises. Data from the “City of Philadelphia Fiscal Year 2013 Annual Disparity Study” shows that in Philadelphia proper, only 12.5% of city contracts are given to minority owned enterprises — despite whites actually being the minority in Philadelphia, at around 36.6%. When analyzed in dollar amount, minority owned enterprises fare even worse — only 8.4% of total contract dollars are awarded to them. Awarding contracts and increasing allowing land use more equitably would certainly be a good start. As The Enterprise Center notes in its Master Growth Plan, people tend to employ those who look like themselves, and the same is probably true of housing decisions.

Gentrification is a cumbersome topic, with several definitions floating around. While you’re reading this at your local, fair-trade cafe, sipping an almond milk cappuccino while stroking your beard — think about your place in the neighborhood and remember that it had a past before you got there and will have a future once you leave.