The Second and Third Lives of Elite Urban Neighborhoods

Gentrification, of course, is all over the news. We hear about it all the time. We’ve also heard a lot about how poverty is a bigger problem for most American cities than gentrification. This latter point is undoubtedly true. But based on my experience living in and studying a couple of midsize American cities, I want to propose a middle ground–that what might otherwise be called “gentrification” in higher-demand markets in fact follows a somewhat different pattern in these cities.

Last week a friend sent me a link to this interesting documentary produced by Albany’s PBS station, WMHT. Though only aired recently, the footage chronicles changes that took place on the block of Lancaster Street between Dove and Swan (“Lower Lancaster” in the film’s parlance) almost 35 years ago, in 1980-81, as filmed by a cameraman who lived on the block.  The Empire State Plaza—the massive, anti-urban state office campus imposed on Albany by Nelson Rockefeller—had opened at the bottom of the block only a decade before, and its arrival had brought a wave of professional-class urban pioneers (as they repeatedly call themselves) into what had been a somewhat rundown area. The word “gentrification” gets thrown around a lot in the documentary footage, and there’s a lot of talk about the numerous lower-income tenants on the block who were then in the process of being displaced by newcomers who bought up buildings, renovated them, and rented them back out at higher price points.

But is what we see in the WMHT film really what we today call “gentrification”? Clearly, the process in action on Lower Lancaster in the film involves displacement of poorer renters—some, though by no means all in this case, minorities—by wealthier (though not by any means elite), whiter new residents who mainly own their own homes.  But it’s also worth considering the differences between the occurrences on Lower Lancaster and the typical American narrative about gentrification.

The first thing to understand is the Center Square—a name acquired by the area relatively recently, in the postwar era—has long been one of the “elite” residential neighborhoods in Albany. The block of Lancaster in question is only two blocks from Washington Park, around which clustered the toniest homes in Albany (a truly spectacular architectural legacy to this day).  The “Lower Lancaster” block itself is home to a number of gorgeous 2-3 story rowhouses, as well as the 1885 Romanesque masterpiece Wilborn Temple (built as Temple Beth Emeth), which in its day attracted the wealthiest of Albany’s German-Jewish population to the block.  All that is to say that while the area around Lark Street had gone somewhat downhill by the 1930s, with many buildings being converted to downscale rooming houses, it still retained vestiges of its elite past, both socially and architecturally.

Beautifully restored woodwork on the door of a home on Lancaster Street. Lower of two plaques at left is a federal historic designation.

Beautifully restored woodwork on the door of a home on Lancaster Street. Lower of two plaques at left is a federal historic designation.

And it was that heritage more than anything else that made the neighborhood ripe for “settlement” by professional-class types in the years after the South Mall (the original working name for the Empire State Plaza) opened. These people were attracted not solely by the proximity to the Plaza—indeed, many of them were, and continue to be, turned off by its looming presence—but by the neighborhood’s rich cultural heritage and incredible housing stock.

The Empire State Plaza looms at the bottom of the "Lower Lancaster" block.

The Empire State Plaza looms at the bottom of the “Lower Lancaster” block.

The construction of the South Mall may have depressed housing prices in the next-door blocks enough to make the risk of urban pioneering worth it, but people moved into the neighborhood because they saw a potential for its return to, if not quite the same blue-blood elite status, something similar. Many of the new homeowners and urban pioneers would form the nucleus of the neighborhood associations and activist groups that were able to stop the state’s plans for an amazingly destructive freeway through the heart of the neighborhood.

The story of Center Square—and of that block on Lancaster—isn’t a story of a working-class neighborhood ripped apart and transformed by rapacious, profit-driven developers and wealthy outsiders. It’s the story of a neighborhood that, for better or for worse, experienced an abnormal decline in status—helped along, as in many other places, by the government’s intentional, artificial depression of urban land values—in the immediate prewar and postwar decades, and that many people labored to return to something approaching its peak status in the 1970s and ‘80s. In Center Square, it was the use of luxury housing stock by the poor, not its reclamation by the middle class, that represented an exception to the historical rule.

There was, of course, incredible loss experienced in the process of gentrification.  The WMHT documentary makes clear the fear of lower-income residents unsure of their next move. And the documentary preserves some truly cringeworthy moments from the gentrifiers, who proudly proclaim themselves “urban pioneers” (like the “pioneers” of the West, they were, of course, moving into land that was already occupied) and tell soon-to-be evicted residents that “it’s not up to me” and “it’s just economics.” Perhaps 30 years of exposure has taught gentrifying developers to be a little more careful around cameras, but the words here can be quite the jarring reminder of the callousness shown by many early gentrifiers.

Nor, I believe, is Center Square’s experience of gentrification as renaissance rather than transformation unique. Indeed, I believe it might be better labeled part of a pattern of similar occurrences in smaller American cities. Certainly the two other neighborhoods in Albany that might be identified as “gentrified” in recent decades—Ten Broeck Triangle and the Mansion District—fit the same general pattern of being once-elite neighborhoods marked by outstanding housing stock. Neither neighborhood has been as thoroughly gentrified as Center Square, though neither (especially the Mansion District, despite its name) was as thoroughly identified with Albany’s upper crust as the area near Washington Park. Indeed, it is possible that the difference between the “gentrification” of Ten Broeck Triangle and the definite non-gentrification of neighboring Arbor Hill (despite the APA’s best efforts) is largely attributable to historic perceptions that Ten Broeck was the wealthier, more outstanding area.

Since New Haven—a city of mostly similar size, age, and composition–seems to be my most frequent muse for comparisons to Albany, let’s see if the pattern holds there as well. The truth is that for the most part New Haven’s neighborhoods have stayed fairly consistent in their demographic makeup since the disastrous postwar and urban-renewal era.

I’d say that if two New Haven neighborhoods can be identified as “gentrified” they would be the downtown-adjacent (as are Center Square, Ten Broeck Triangle, and the Mansion District) East Rock and Wooster Square. East Rock has always been one of the elite parts of the cities, long home to Yale professors; it is now a “grad ghetto” with a distinctly yuppie feel and a tight rental market by the standards of midsize cities. Like the rest of New Haven, East Rock had its struggles during the postwar era, but it never quite hit the depths of the Albany neighborhoods.

Wooster Square might be a more interesting case.  Originally adjacent to the city’s bustling docks (and since cut off from the water by land reclamation and a massive freeway interchange), it had a short run as a haven for the city’s rich merchants, which gave it an architectural legacy somewhat comparable to those of the Albany neighborhoods. Though some wealthier families continued to live in the area, it always had a mixed class makeup, and fairly quickly became associated with New Haven’s famous Italian community and their distinctive style of pizza. Thus Wooster Square’s primary identification in the minds of New Haveners is as a working-class Italian enclave, but it still holds the architectural and perhaps cultural legacy of its earlier upper-crust residents. Regardless, Wooster Square has seen considerable new apartment construction in recent years, with units being listed for relatively high prices—definitely what the typical American narrative would label “gentrification.”

Diagram of high-status neighborhoods in New Haven in 1909, from Douglas Rae's "City". East Rock at top; Dwight at left. Wooster Square had already declined.

Diagram of high-status neighborhoods in New Haven in 1913, from Douglas Rae’s City. East Rock at top; Dwight at left. Wooster Square had already declined.

Neither East Rock nor Wooster Square follows the pattern I laid out as neatly as do the “gentrified” neighborhoods of Albany, but they’re not that far off. The fate of the Dwight neighborhood directly west of Yale University will be a fascinating test case; formerly one of New Haven’s wealthier neighborhoods, it experienced a redlining-induced slide in the postwar years from which it has never really recovered. Dwight is showing a few signs of gentrification, sparking considerable fear among residents, but whether that process will take off has yet to be determined.

What does it mean, then, that many of the cases of “gentrification” in midsize cities are in fact less a transformation of a neighborhood into something it’s never been than a revival of its former identity? I think it helps clarify a point I’ve had trouble putting into concise words for a long time, but that others have certainly talked about: American discourse—especially on the Left–has been using the word “gentrification” to talk about at least two separate, though related, processes.

Process 1 is the pattern where ridiculously high demand for housing—mainly experienced in larger cities—pushes wealthier, whiter professionals into areas that have always, or virtually always, been lower-middle or working-class. The names of such cases, I’m sure, are familiar to anyone who follows urban issues: Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Red Hook, The Mission, Somerville, Humboldt Park, Boyle Heights. These cases are indicative of a housing market that is way out of whack; certainly, the desires of hipster gentrifiers for gritty “authenticity” play a part, but for the most part these neighborhoods boast neither the best convenience (Red Hook doesn’t have a subway stop!) nor the most outstanding housing stock. The impetus for gentrification is push, not pull.

Process 2 is what I’ve described here as being more typical of “gentrification” in smaller cities, though it certainly describes the recent changes in many neighborhoods in larger cities as well.  In this paradigm, people who we call gentrifiers are pulled to neighborhoods that have lost some of their former considerable luster. Let’s face it: generally speaking, the wealthy of the 19th century chose well. These neighborhoods have a lot to recommend them: they tend to be conveniently located and sport excellent access to downtown, green space, and other amenities. Then, of course, there is the matter of housing stock, which is solid at worst and truly outstanding in the case of the Albany neighborhoods I have highlighted.

We need different words to talk about these two processes.

They share many challenges that urban policymakers have to deal with—displacement of lower-income residents being the primary one—but I would argue that we can distinguish between on the grounds of desirability of their occurrence. Process 1 is a sign of a sick city (albeit one sick with success, or as Jane Jacobs said, oversuccess), and in particular of a sick housing market. It’s a symptom of inequality, bad policy, and all that entails. Process 2 is, despite the displacement and inarguable loss and pain that occurs, most likely a sign of a city that is healing itself. The days of the postwar federal gravy train are over, and cities cannot continue to exist as forced repositories of the unlucky, discriminated-against, or undesirable. Like it or not, cities need a base of upper middle class residents, even a small one, and they have to live somewhere. 

To some extent, the confusion in the term “gentrification” is inherent. Ruth Glass’ original definition of the term made reference only to how a neighborhood that was undergoing the process looked now, not its historic characteristics. When the term migrated across the Atlantic, it was quickly applied to areas like Philadelphia’s Society Hill: once-elite neighborhoods that had fallen upon hard times. Glass’ original idea of gentrification also had connotations of a more organic process, whereas Americans tend to apply the term both to government-sponsored transformations like Society Hill and to less organized processes like what happened to Lower Lancaster Street. Our use of the term tends to ignore historical context and nuance in favor of arguments about who “owns” a particular neighborhood or area. And that’s a problem, because not all processes that involve wealthier people moving into an urban area look the same, or are the same.

How are policymakers to respond to cries of “gentrification”? The literature on that topic is obviously voluminous, as are the feelings. That being said, I think what I have labeled “Process 2” has some lessons for us. First, the response to the challenge of gentrification should be triage. Neighborhoods that were once elite, and still have excellent convenience, amenities, and access to downtown, are almost certainly going to gentrify. The reality is that fighting that process is probably going to be a losing battle for all involved. That doesn’t mean there isn’t tremendous pain and loss of community involved—there most certainly is. But efforts should probably focus on fighting winnable battles–finding nearby affordable housing for displaced residents, leveraging new investment to create community assets, and the like–rather than trying to maintain neighborhoods in their historically exceptional stasis. Second, cities should probably plan for gentrification in once-elite neighborhoods in the medium-to-long term–even cities with housing markets that are entirely depressed at the moment. That means proactively zoning for growth, preserving affordable units, and working with landlords to prevent rising rents from displacing small businesses.

It’s not news that “gentrification” as a process differs from city to city, and that in particular there’s a huge disconnect between the experiences of “hot” coastal cities and pretty much everywhere else. Nor is it news that narratives of gentrification and displacement generally lack local and historical nuance, egged on as they tend to be by Marxist-leaning academics who seek to fit every experience into one overarching paradigm. (seriously, does any field have as big a disconnect between academy and praxis as urban studies/planning?) But I hope I’ve pointed here in a direction of understanding at least one of the “other” processes that are currently occurring in American cities. I don’t know what to call it. But I do know the word “gentrification” fails to capture most of what needs to be said.

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3 thoughts on “The Second and Third Lives of Elite Urban Neighborhoods

  1. Much of the gentrification in Lower Manhattan and Central Brooklyn is of type 2. A lot of the historical housing stock in Greenwich Village/Chelsea/Park Slope/Fort Greene/Clinton Hill/Crown Heights/Bed Stuyvesant is some of the finest in America.

    It’s only in the more limited cases of the Lower East Side and northern Williamsburg where gentrification has taken a neighborhood that was almost always mostly poor and made them rich.

    Much of the housing in New York City was originally built for the rich, unlike heavy industrial cities with a relatively small management class that hid away in a couple neighborhoods.

  2. The historical housing stock in Harlem is also quite fancy. At least, in several significant parts, like near Lenox and Frederick Douglass. I would put it under Process 2.

    • So I’m not exactly sure where places like Harlem falls on this paradigm–I might need to set up a third category for places like Harlem and Bed-Stuy. As you note, much of the housing stock in Harlem is exceptionally fine. But Harlem isn’t thought of as an elite neighborhood in the same historic terms, because it was occupied first by Jews and then by African-Americans. I think what makes Process 2 gentrification happens in a neighborhood that *both* has excellent housing stock AND was historically perceived as elite. I think places like Harlem and Bed-Stuy satisfy criteria 1 but not 2, so I might need a third process.

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