The term “gentrification” was first coined by sociologist Ruth Glass to describe the startling changes she observed in inner-city London in the early 1960s. She wrote, with an eerie prescience, of what would eventually befall the developed cities of the world: “One by one, many of the working class quarters have been invaded by the middle class . . . Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”
In Glass’s time, gentrification typically involved middle-class buyers moving into economically struggling neighborhoods, using their own sweat equity to improve their property. But over the last 30 years, gentrification has come to represent something more systemic and widespread, with big banks, urban policy planners, and vast networks of organized real estate interests invested in the process.
Gentrification is big business, and while social scientists disagree as to its impact on longtime residents, many of those residents resent the changing character and higher rents of their “new” community.
Worried that gentrification is headed your way? Here are five signs that it might be time to start embracing a new living environment—or looking for a new place to live.
1) There’s a new Starbucks
While it may seem obvious that the “hipster” coffeehouse down the street is a beacon for incoming affluent renters, there is actual proof that the presence of a Starbucks specifically correlates with increased land values and signals real estate developers that the neighborhood is one to watch.
Online real estate database Zillow traced the land value increases from 1997-2014 and found that properties within a quarter-mile of a Starbucks increased in value significantly over the metropolitan averages. In Boston, land nearby Starbucks increased in values by a whopping 45.4 percent. Close behind were Philadelphia (31 percent), Washington D.C. (29.6 percent), Chicago (28.9 percent), and Baltimore (24.6 percent).
To be clear, a Starbucks in the neighborhood “correlates” with increased values, as opposed to “causes.” Still, there’s some serious correlation going on here, to be sure.
2) Public spaces are being privatized
Have you seen the video of San Francisco “tech bros” forcing kids off of a Mission playground because they had a permit to play soccer? (Caution: Video involves strong language)
After the clip went viral, it caused protests and a national discussion about the future of public spaces in gentrifying urban landscapes.
The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project has built a very impressive interactive map detailing the rapid transformation of San Francisco’s public spaces into private ones. The map project, called San Francisco for Sale, reflects a lot of the techniques used by developers and cities to change the demographics of neighborhoods across the country, such as providing public spaces to private companies for events and transportation, or “revitalizing” (at taxpayer expense) parks for the benefit of property owners aching to build luxury condominiums.
3) You have been ‘discovered’
You may notice that regional newspapers, which have ignored your neighborhood for so long, are now discussing it as a place where “people actually might want to live.” Critics who describe themselves as “adventurous” are reviewing your local restaurants, and real estate columnists describe your local bars and coffee shops as having “character.”
This phenomenon—called columbusing, a snarky reference to Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of the New World—is almost down to a science. And while on its face columbusing praises the ethnic characteristics of the community, it often leads to new residents using their clout to regulate those very features, co-opting the public and commercial spaces for their own needs and/or tamping down ethnic aspects to suit their sensibilities. A black church in gentrifying Oakland, CA, for instance, was recently fined $3,500 for singing Gospel music too loudly.
4) There are suddenly artists’ lofts
Artists tend to move to neighborhoods long before developers build lofts for them. Regardless, developers know that the presence of artistic communities is a big draw for the young and affluent, and that this causes a chain reaction of real estate value increases and development known as the SoHo effect, named for the gentrification of Manhattan’s South of Houston Street neighborhood.
The process was perfected by New York real estate mogul David Walentas, who then duplicated the fortune he made in SoHo by transforming Brooklyn’s Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) district from one of industrial plots to an enclave of the rich. He did so by building artist lofts and opening up retail spaces at extremely low prices to artisanal craftworkers.
5) Services have improved
The garbage is now being picked up every day. Bulbs are being replaced in street lights. Trash is being cleared from vacant lots. There’s talk of new public transportation arriving in your neighborhood. While seemingly positive, the fact that these changes only occur when the process of gentrification is underway is infuriating to many longtime residents in the crosshairs of developers.
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