Decades ago, researchers already worried that the term gentrification had “stretched so far beyond its original definition that it had lost meaning.” So writes author and academic Leslie Kern in her new book, Gentrification is Inevitable and Other Lies. As the title suggests, however, the word still has staying power — and maybe for good reason.
Often used loosely and inconsistently, “gentrification” can prompt a wince among urbanists even when it’s just mentioned (just last week, I attended an academic conference where “the g word” was facetiously banned). Yet, from housing crises to evolving streetscapes, it remains the term by which we collectively interpret many of the sweeping socio-economic changes taking place in cities around the world. Tackling a fraught subject, Kern offers insights into what gentrification is, how it manifests, and what cities — and citizens — can do about it. In an excerpt from the book’s opening chapter, Kern traces the origins and evolution of a seemingly ubiquitous phenomenon.
I used to live in a west-end Toronto neighbourhood called the Junction. Carved up and isolated at the “junction” of intersecting railroads, its industrial history was tangible in the sounds and smells drifting from rubber, paint, and meatpacking factories. Today, on a hot afternoon, some of those smells might waft along, but they are competing with the scents emanating from upscale cafés and vegan bakeries. I know it is a cliché to talk about how gritty your neighbourhood once was, but there is a reason why we are all tired of this narrative: so many of our neighbourhoods are being remade before our very eyes.
What I witnessed in the Junction is part of a set of changes to the places and communities that have, historically, made cities special, made them interesting, made them sites of protest and progress. These changes have come to be called gentrification, and this is a book about the struggle to keep gentrification from steamrolling over everything many of us hold dear about city life.
Despite having lived in and around Toronto for over twenty years, I had never heard of the Junction before I moved there in 2000. It was an odd place: a dry (no alcohol served) neighbourhood from 1904 to 1998, its location next to Toronto’s historic stockyards had attracted immigrants from Malta, Italy, and Poland to work in the meat industry. Active industrial sites and meat processing plants sat next to abandoned factories and vacant lots, just blocks from the decidedly utilitarian offerings along the main commercial strip. Blockbuster Video, a discount grocery store, and the post office were some of the only retail spaces that I, as a graduate student and new mom, was likely to access. The pawn shops and strange overabundance of upholstery repair places were less appealing destinations.
What we did have were higher than average rates of air pollution, parks with discarded needles, and a largely forgotten, working-class, low-income, immigrant population. I say largely forgotten because unlike other Toronto neighbourhoods stigmatized for drug use, homelessness, sex work, or crime, the Junction rarely made the news. It was not a place imagined as “other” or frightening. It was not imagined at all by those who lived outside the railroad triangle. When I was looking for affordable apartments, all of the Junction listings called the area “High Park North,” evoking the stately neighbourhood and beautiful park to the south. It was a creative piece of nomenclature designed to mask the fact that High Park, it was not.
Still, there were lots of young families, good schools, and decent little green spaces dotted throughout the residential area. After all, this is still a Canadian city we are talking about, where levels of public investment in urban infrastructure have rarely plummeted so low as to create deeply unlivable places. Although my mouse-infested basement apartment left a lot to be desired, I soon met other moms with kids my daughter’s age and found a supportive local community. The first few years offered up occasional signs of change: an interesting new business, a local event. But few seemed to stick. It was a little bit artsy, but far from hip.
That all started to change in the mid-2000s, when a critical mass of new retail and restaurant spaces defied the trend and brought widespread attention to the neighbourhood. Suddenly, the Junction was “up-and-coming.” Toronto’s newest “hot ‘hood.” Trendy. Bringing old and new together. A destination. Toronto news media featured Junction events, bars, stores, and restaurants in weekly “what to do” and “where to eat” sections. The hyperbole reached new heights in 2009 when the New York Times online travel section ran a story on the Junction under the headline, “Skid Row to Hip in Toronto.”
The article encapsulated a Cinderella narrative that, like the fairy tale, relies on a contrast between the before and after. In this and other articles like it, the “old” Junction was described as withered, a grimy skid row, a toxic wreck, too shitty to fix, stuck in the past, declining. These adjectives certainly set a writer up to tell a compelling story of metamorphosis. They also serve another purpose. By portraying the neighbourhood as damaged, abandoned, and dirty, the changes brought by gentrification come to seem necessary, good, and welcome. Describing the neighbourhood as a place in need of saving makes gentrification into a hero.
The New York Times travel writers tells readers that the “young and artsy are taking advantage of still-cheap real estate to tiptoe into the Junction’s empty storefronts and low-slung houses.” These heroes are doing good work, it seems: “Block by block, they are transforming this stretch of Dundas Street West from grimy skid row into a bright enclave filled with quirky bookstores, vegan restaurants and organic cafés… Instead of porn shops, Dundas Street West is now lined with wholesome and organic food purveyors.” The shadow of grime, poverty, and pornography is dispersed by the sunlight of books, vegan cafés, and organic food.
In the midst of this hype about the Junction’s redemption, few seemed concerned about the fate of those who might no longer be welcome or who would be priced out of their community. A scroll through the comment sections on local blogs revealed little sympathy for these residents. In fact, commenters seemed sure that once the greasy spoons, grimy donut shops, and vacant lots disappeared, the “freak show,” as one person described the presence of people experiencing mental illness, homelessness, and disabilities, would be leaving town.
Was the Junction’s shift from a working-class, industrial area to a hip, wholesome neighbourhood simply a natural phase in the cycle of urban development? Is it a matter of basic economics driving an unavoidable upward swing after decades of decline? Was there something culturally desirable about the Junction that young hipsters felt inexorably drawn toward? And as gentrification rolls ever onwards, what, if any, harms have been done? The answers to these and other questions become the stories we tell about how and why gentrification happens. These stories, each with their share of heroes and villains, conflicts and twists, plot holes and underdeveloped characters, are the subject of this book.
If, like me, the stores you hear about gentrification leave you feeling a mixture of frustration, helplessness, confusion, outrage, anger, and empathy, this book is for you. Not that long ago, the term gentrification was academic jargon rarely heard outside of scholarly debates. Now, more people than ever want to understand what is happening in their neighbourhoods and to make sense of their own relationships to gentrification. But just when you think you have it figured out, gentrification seems to manifest itself in a frightening new way. This book offers a foundation for understanding gentrification’s past, but more importantly, provides a framework for understanding how, where, and why gentrification is happening now.
It digs into thorny questions of accountability, responsibility, and power. It also foregrounds issues that are often sidelined in discussions about gentrification, such as race, colonialism, gender, and sexuality. Most crucially, though, this book will remind us that there are lots of examples of successful resistance to gentrification. No matter your position with respect to gentrification, there are ways to act in solidarity with these struggles right now.
Each chapter zooms in on a different way of looking at and understanding gentrification: different stories, if you will, that offer partial perspectives on an unwieldy topic. I explore what these stories reveal and conceal, what they include and exclude, what they focus on and ignore. I take this approach because I believe stories matter. They frame how we perceive the past and the present, shape our capacity for empathy with others, and most crucially, mould the range of potential outcomes that we both desire and imagine. I am especially interested in whether the stories we concoct about gentrification offers a vision, even a glimmer of possibility, of a city where gentrification is not believed to be inescapable.
In the late 1990s I lived and worked in north London, unknowingly adjacent to the borough that had originally inspired the term gentrification. Islington, as I recall it, was full of signature rows of Georgian terrace houses and had a bustling high street with shops, pubs stuffed with Arsenal Football Club supporters, and plenty of cafés and restaurants. Council estates (public housing) and Pentonville Prison were part of the mix in what seemed to me like a typical north London neighbourhood.
Not only had I never heard of gentrification at this point, I had no idea Islington was once an overcrowded, unsanitary, and poverty-stricken zone. In the mid-nineteenth century, many poor residents of inner London were displaced by massive public works projects like the construction of the London Underground system. Pushed north, they crowded into small flats inside Islington’s once fashionable bourgeois homes. By the mid-twentieth century, it was one of several areas considered deeply blighted by urban poverty. The destruction wrought by enemy bombing in the Second World War meant that large areas of damaged terrace housing could be replaced by council housing estates, offering some improvement in living conditions.
Toward the 1960s, however, the remaining Georgian homes, somewhat run-down but solid enough to have survived the war, were gradually attracting middle-class residents. London-based sociologist Ruth Glass noticed this slow influx of middle-class families moving into “shabby, modest mews and cottages.” The families gradually renovated and restored the rotting terraces through sweat equity: their own physical labour. Over time, the homes rose remarkably in value. In 1964, Glass coined the term gentrification to describe this economic and demographic change. The word itself signals what she considered the most important aspect of the process: class change. The “gentry” were steadily remaking the neighbourhood in their own image, to match their own tastes and preferences.
Right from the start, Glass foregrounded displacement as a hallmark, though often debated, feature of gentrification. In her own words: “Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupants are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.” Glass called this process an “invasion,” and noted that it had already transformed parts of Notting Hill, which was a crowded, west London working-class community of Caribbean immigrants. The importance of displacement and the idea that the “whole social character” of a neighbourhood could be transformed are still central to what we talk about when we talk about gentrification.
Middle- and upper-class people have probably always taken space and remade it to suit their own needs and desires. What seemed noteworthy in Islington was that this was happening in a dense, working-class area, to homes that Glass noted had an inverse relationship between their current social status and their value and size. In other words, their social status was high, while their value was low and their size was small. These middle-class folks were not moving out of the city or looking for newer or bigger dwellings. Instead, they were either staying in or coming back to the city and seeking something other than modern spaces and suburban quiet. Just what they were seeking remains an area of debate. But in contrast to trends like suburbanization, gentrification seemed to be driven by a different set of hopes and fears.
The displacement of working-class, immigrant, and racialized communities from urban neighbourhoods was certainly nothing new in England or in many other countries at that point. So-called “blighted” or “slum” areas had been targeted by governments for urban renewal projects designed to clear these communities out and replace them with other land uses like freeways or shopping malls or different communities entirely. Unlike urban renewal, though, the process of gentrification — at least as Glass observed it at the time — was not a top-down, state-funded enterprise; nor did it involve the demolition of previous neighbourhoods.
Instead, middle-class and white residents were trickling into what seemed like less-desirable areas of their own volition and making gradual changes to the physical environment through renovations and landscaping. While urban renewal and gentrification are undoubtedly connected, as we will explore later in the book, gentrification seemed to deserved its own moniker.
Since 1964, however, gentrification as Glass has defined it has taken on different forms and trajectories. In some cases, processes that are considered gentrification do not look at all like the scenario seen in Islington several decades ago.
After a year or so in north London, I returned to Toronto in 1999 accompanied by a small person in a stroller. Trying to navigate busy city streets is hard enough, but I found myself stuck in tight bottlenecks as construction sites gobbled up sidewalk space all over downtown. I swerved the stroller through a slalom course of sandwich boards, each announcing the imminent arrival of a shiny condominium tower sure to be the “ultimate in modern living.” I was annoyed but admittedly intrigued by this building craze that made my hometown the construction crane capital of the world for a time.
While I did not yet know anything about gentrification, I did not need to be an urban researcher to notice who condominiums were being marketed to. After all, I was veering around their grinning, young, white faces at least once a block. These were the faces of people that apparently had no problem paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to live in one-room cubes in the sky above a freeway. It was a couple more years before I had enough knowledge to make the link myself, but something connected those colourful mews in Islington to the glass and steel behemoths now looming over my city.
Although the kind of house-by-house gentrification described by Glass still occurs, it has been eclipsed by many other types of change that produce total social transformations. These are not limited to the property buying practices of individual households, nor even to the residential realm. They are bigger, faster, and arguably more dangerous. After all, ten condominium buildings with three hundred units each are going to feel more like an asteroid hit the neighbourhood than the slow change brought on by a few households slowly renovating old building stock.
Gentrification is being facilitated by forces more powerful than your average middle-class homeowner: city governments, developers, investors, speculators and distant digital platforms that create new ways to profit from urban space. The old-school gentrification of the 1960s seems almost quaint compared to the juggernaut of processes that are bearing down on our neighbourhoods right now.
Today, we are attuned to different symbols of gentrification than those that Glass pointed out in 1964. Locked key boxes, for example, clutter railings outside of apartments buildings, marking the likely presence of short-term rental units. The sound of rolling suitcases rattling over cobblestones is an auditory trace of tourism-based gentrification, one that residents of a historic Amsterdam neighbourhood identify as a rather annoying sign of change. Old factory buildings are no longer indicators of urban decline but rather the hip residences of everyone from artists to stockbrokers. Even public housing projects receiving physical upgrades can warn of gentrification, as these “regenerations” typically include space for market-rate units out of reach of public housing residents.
All of this suggests that there are a lot of different ways for gentrification to happen these days. It is not enough to pay attention to the choices of individual homebuyers, although questions of middle-class tastes and preferences remain relevant. It seems more urgent now to home in on the increasingly active role that governments and corporations are playing to both facilitate and profit from gentrification. Cities are now quite deliberately sparking middle-, upper-, or even investor-class reinvestment in the city, promoting policies that smooth the path for particular kinds of real estate and commercial developments.
Some elements of the recipe are so predictable that we see them in cities from San Francisco to Shanghai. From waterfront revitalization projects to pedestrianized shopping districts to new green spaces to arts and culture projects, cities are following remarkably similar blueprints for what they hope will be the right kinds of amenities to attract people with the necessary combination of financial and cultural resources. Although not all such efforts are accurately described as gentrification, they are often part of a suite of interventions and spatial changes that allows cities and neighbourhoods to be marketed in new ways, for a new demographic.
At the same time, local governments have found ways to partner with the private sector to accelerate the pace of change throughout downtown areas and beyond. For example, incentives for developers like tax breaks help to encourage massive new residential development projects, as do opportunities for private developers to “renew” crumbling public housing projects for a share of new market housing in the area. In some cases, it is the state itself that embarks upon urban redevelopment projects that deliberately scatter the poor and destroy informal housing in order to make space for the kinds of properties that will draw in wealthy investors and a new middle class.
Given the expanded set of tactics used by the powerful agents in gentrification, is gentrification even the right term anymore? As early as 1984, researchers such as Damaris Rose worried that it had become a “chaotic concept,” stretched so far beyond its original definition that it had lost meaning. Unfortunately, the alternative words that have bubbled up out of planning and policy discourse are designed to hide displacement and hierarchies of power.
Revitalization, reurbanization, renewal, revival, and regeneration comprise the vocabulary of choice for pro-development city planners, politicians, developers, real estate agents, mortgage lenders, and others who promote large-scale, city- and developer-led initiatives designed to spark reinvestment (another “r” word). These terms avoid the troublesome notion of class change captured by Glass’s creative word. If we want to talk about injustice when we talk about gentrification, we might do well to keep it for now.
Leslie Kern is the author of two books on gender and cities, including Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World. She holds a PhD in women’s studies from York University. Currently, Leslie is an associate professor of geography and environment and women’s and gender studies at Mount Allison University.
Portrait by Mitchel Raphael.
In an excerpt from her new book, the author and academic traces the roots of gentrification — from 1960s London to 2000s Toronto.