Robert Fulford's column about "gentrification"

(The National Post, January 10, 2004)

In urban politics, "gentrification" has for many years been a curse, a one-word bundle of anger and resentment. In 1999 a candidate for mayor of San Francisco solemnly pledged that if elected he would make "war on any and all gentrification." In 2000 a Toronto weekly paper, eye, discussed "Toronto's silent war over gentrification."

Those wars were of course purely metaphorical. On Monday in Montreal, members of an organization called the Anti-Gentrification Committee, springing from God knows what political swamp, made the metaphor dangerously literal by committing war-like acts. They terrified residents of the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district by leaving six suspicious-looking packages at condominium construction sites and sales offices. The police bomb squad found the packages harmless, but a communique from the Anti-Gentrification Committee threatened more vicious action in future.

Whoever they are, the Montreal radicals express an extreme version of a widely held opinion. Urban activists and scholars on several continents have convinced themselves that there's something fundamentally wrong and selfish about improving a neighbourhood. That seems to me precisely the reverse of the truth. In fact, the gentrification movement has helped solve, through the spontaneous decisions of millions of citizens, what once seemed a grave and intractable problem.

Forty years ago, the same sort of people who are now averse to gentrification were worrying that "white flight" was destroying the inner cities. Across the U.S., white middle-class families were moving to the suburbs because downtown neighbourhoods were increasingly populated by blacks. By leaving, the middle classes shrank the tax base of the cities, eroding schools and other services. Everyone claimed that downtowns were dying, even where race was not a major factor.

But the 1960s and 1970s brought a big change for the better -- or so it seemed. Middle-class families began taking over cheap, decrepit housing and improving it. Districts that were called "slums" only a few years earlier sprang back to life. In the early stages this was called "neighbourhood revitalization."

In 1964, however, it acquired a new and sinister name and ceased to be an obviously benign process. Ruth Glass, a British sociologist, invented the word "gentrification" as a reaction against the transformation of London neighbourhoods. She decided that the new movement was eliminating cheap rental housing and driving out the poor.

Glass took the extremely conservative view that districts should remain the way they were when she first glimpsed them. She didn't know or care that at some level all neighbourhoods are in transition all the time. She believed that time should be stopped in its path.

As a package for her misgivings, "gentrification" was a clever choice. It had a sophisticated sound, as well as ironic echoes of the rural gentry depicted in the novels of Jane Austen. It carried overtones of snobbery and class superiority -- even if many gentrifiers had been among the urban poor only a generation or a decade earlier. Glass also imported into town planning another word, "invaded," which is what the middle classes supposedly did to the districts of the poor. She used another term, still uglier: "colonising."

By 1973 Glass was treating the improvement of every London slum as a tragedy: "There is very little left of the poorer enclaves of Hampstead and Chelsea: In these boroughs, the upper-middle-class takeover was consolidated some time ago. The invasion has since spread to Islington, Paddington, North Kensington."

As a term of abuse, "gentrification" proved such a huge success that it went into some dictionaries with Glass's own social interpretation attached; Merriam-Webster says it's "the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces earlier, usually poorer residents." Recently in The New York Times, A.O. Scott depicted gentrification (he was discussing a former slum in Brooklyn) as a transformation that's "full of aspiration and oppression, progress and callousness."

Seldom has a single word done so much to distort perception. In a sense it resembles "elitist." Both words demonize creative impulses that are common to much of humanity by depicting ambition and the search for personal betterment as a form of evil.

Much of the world now agrees with Glass that gentrification cheats the poor, though the evidence has never been strong. Recent economic studies in Boston and New York have suggested that the opposite is the case. They claim that gentrification can benefit the poor by increasing the tax base, bringing middle-class energy to the job of improving the schools, and introducing economic variety. Many older residents, they discovered, are not pushed out. What disappears instead is the "monoculture of poverty." It's replaced by the kind of economic mix that's essential to social health. Reuben Greenberg, the police chief of Charleston, S.C., claims that "Urban problems are caused not by poverty, but by the concentration of poverty."

No one will claim, though, that benefits can be shown in each case of gentrification. Every renovated district has its own qualities and its own economic results. But certainly no serious research supports the belief that gentrification consistently hurts the poor. This widespread foolishness demonstrates how thinking can be imprisoned by language, even by just one well-chosen word.

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