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Why are there so few studies charting displacement and cultural decline in non-gentrifying neighborhoods? According to this commentary, the implicit assumption in most gentrification research is that if a neighborhood doesn’t change, it stays the same. And that displacement by decline is much more common and more harmful than displacement due to gentrification.

Editor’s note: The following post originally appeared on City Observatory and is republished here with permission. The opinions expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research or its staff. To read about gentrification research involving Houston neighborhoods, be sure to check out the Kinder Institute report Neighborhood Gentrification Across Harris County: 1990-2016.

A few months ago, the City Observatory reported on a longitudinal study of neighborhood change, several conclusions of which challenge conventional wisdom about gentrification. In a working paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Davin Reed and Quentin Brummet find that:

There’s an extremely small difference in outmigration of vulnerable populations from gentrifying neighborhoods and non-gentrifying neighborhoods

Longtime lower-education renters experience little if any increase in rents in gentrifying neighborhoods

The patterns of change observed in gentrifying neighborhoods are consistent with increased intergenerational economic mobility for kids growing up in those neighborhoods

The website Next City dutifully reported these results in an article entitled “Study suggests gentrification has an upside. Housing advocates aren’t yet convinced.”  As the headline suggests, Next City gave prominent play to doubters. They interviewed PolicyLink’s Sarah Truehaft and the Urban Displacement Project’s Karen Chapple, neither of whom challenged the statistical analysis presented in the Reed and Brummet paper.

Both instead fell back on the fact that those in communities experiencing change regarded the process as negative.

Truehaft said:

“We cannot think of gentrification as good when we know it leads to increased displacement of lower-wealth residents and the erosion of cultural diversity and vitality.”

Chapple added:

“But even if displacement happens to only a few, communities perceive it as a violent process, and for some it begins a downward spiral. With such powerful negatives, it remains hard for communities to accept even in the face of net benefit. It is hard to be rational.”

In reality, gentrification is a mix of bad and good

How do Truehaft and Chapple know that gentrification “erodes cultural diversity and vitality” and is perceived as “a violent process” that begins a downward spiral? Well, there is a wealth of literature relating the dissatisfaction that longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods have expressed about change. (And note that Reed and Brummet’s research shows that gentrification leads to a very small increase in displacement).

In theory, you might test attitudes about gentrification by asking simple, open-ended opinion-research questions about how people feel about neighborhood change. But that’s seldom the approach employed in this field. Rather, many scholars start with the assumption that gentrification is bad and then marshal anecdotes and opinions that reflect this view.

In reality, the changes wrought by gentrification are a mix of good and bad and are perceived differently by different people in the community. Lance Freeman calls the notion that “long-term residents hate gentrification” one of the five myths of gentrification, noting that “in neighborhoods with severe disinvestment, lacking many retail services that most people take for granted, one may find long-term residents who appreciate gentrification.”

One of the assumptions of gentrification research seems to be that lower-income people are unhappy when higher-income people move into their neighborhoods. But research shows that pretty much the opposite is true: low-income people living in neighborhoods with more high-income neighbors report higher levels of satisfaction.

Individuals can have mixed emotions; acknowledging what is lost but also overall preferring change. For example, even after reciting a fairly standard litany of complaints about the loss of business and the disorienting aspects of change in a New York Times story about the gentrifying Chelsea neighborhood, one longtime resident concluded:

“I’d rather have Chelsea as it is today. … There’s more people. It’s brighter, it’s beautiful, it’s more inviting than it used to be. We’re very lucky to be able to stay in housing that hopefully will not disappear.”

Does gentrification research assume too much?

The sociology literature has a well-established methodology for charting the ills of gentrification: You go into a gentrifying neighborhood and talk to a sample of remaining longtime residents about what they’re unhappy about. For example, this dissertation looked at that in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood and is based on interviews with four dozen subjects — most chosen by non-random snowball sampling. With little prompting, residents will tell you what they don’t like about change and what they’ve lost. 

That’s not to say that interview studies like these won’t accurately capture and reflect the views of those who have genuine grievances about gentrification, but it’s reasonable to ask whether their results are representative.

Arguably, there’s some inherent selection bias in this approach, which is a widely acknowledged problem in anthropological research. In addition, people — especially longtime residents — may be nostalgic about the good old days, which may color their narratives.

It’s also possible that such qualitative studies may succumb to confirmation bias. Researchers show up having selected a neighborhood that is gentrifying, seeking out interviewees through non-random networking efforts and posing leading questions. Many, if not most, researchers investigating gentrification start out with the hypothesis that it’s a bad thing and, unsurprisingly, seek out, find and listen to people who tell them what they expect to hear.

Clearly, some people will always express dissatisfaction with neighborhood change. The interesting question from a policy and scientific perspective is whether on balance more people are satisfied than dissatisfied, and also whether the level of dissatisfaction with neighborhoods that gentrify is greater or less than in neighborhoods that don’t gentrify.

What about poor, non-gentrifying neighborhoods?

What’s missing from qualitative gentrification studies is a parallel analysis of the attitudes and observations in otherwise similar but non-gentrifying neighborhoods. Rigorous paired comparisons of gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods would tell us whether the problem is gentrification or, more broadly, the sense of disempowerment and disadvantage that seem to plague low-income communities.

For example, one could presumably ask the same sets of questions about how longtime neighborhood residents perceive change in gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods and see whether there are significant differences. That’s generally omitted and, as a result, the studies implicitly assume non-gentrifying, low-income neighborhoods are just fine: They’re not experiencing decline, out-migration or the loss of cultural assets, and residents are happy.

There are very good reasons to believe that’s not the case. Consider recent community-led analyses of neighborhood change in Chicago’s Greater Chatham. Historically, this has been one of the most prosperous and well-established middle-class black neighborhoods in the United States. It was the heart of the Chicagoland’s African American middle-class population, primarily as a set of amenity-rich bedroom communities, but also as the home of many leading African American-owned businesses and prominent figures in arts and culture.

In the past decade, however, in the wake of deindustrialization and the collapse of the housing market, the neighborhood has experienced an exodus of middle-class families and has seen significant increases in crime and poverty. The neighborhood has lost population.

Greater Chatham is changing but not because of gentrification. If anything, it’s just the opposite: The area is underrepresented in the 25- to 39-year-old age group, relative to the overall population of Chicago. It’s very likely that a cultural anthropologist would find that the area has lost vitality and is caught in a downward spiral driven by a violent process.

A well-executed qualitative study of longtime resident attitudes in Greater Chatham would probably mirror many of the same kinds of complaints that people regularly report about gentrifying neighborhoods:

There’s been a steady erosion of the businesses and cultural institutions that have historically underpinned community well-being.

Things used to be so much better, the neighborhood has seen a decline in its civic assets and cohesion. 

Longtime residents don’t feel like they belong in the neighborhood anymore.

In general, people prefer the known world

Change is always hard and always disruptive but gentrification is not the only kind of change — and neighborhoods that don’t gentrify don’t stay the same. As the work of Alan Mallach makes clear, the story of declining middle-income neighborhoods like Chatham is far more common. As Akron’s Jason Segedy says: Displacement by decline is vastly greater than displacement by gentrification and its effects are unambiguously more pernicious.

Available quantitative data shows that residents of non-gentrifying, poor neighborhoods have lots of negative change to complain about as well. Our research and that of Reed and Brummet confirm that low-income neighborhoods that don’t gentrify hemorrhage population. We found that, over a span of four decades, low-income neighborhoods that didn’t gentrify lost 40% of their population, on average. Reed and Brummet found that since 2000, non-gentrifying, low-income neighborhoods experienced population declines of 8%. The exodus from non-gentrifying, low-income neighborhoods is a testament to the dissatisfaction that residents have when their neighborhoods don’t attract additional investment and new (if wealthier) residents.

Comparing neighborhoods that gentrify with otherwise similar neighborhoods that do not would lead to clearer insights about the nature and uniqueness of residents’ views of long-term change than simply looking at gentrifying neighborhoods.

Joe Cortright is the director of City Observatory.