"Bring on the hipsters," proclaims the headline in this week's Economist. "Gentrification is good for the poor."
The 172-year-old British magazine, not known as a cultural trend-setter, didn't exactly pull this concept out of a vacuum. It's been in vogue for some time, argued most effectively in a recent Slate piece by John Buntin titled "The Myth of Gentrification." Gentrification, the idea goes, doesn't actually displace poor people; in fact, it often helps them.
The notion is tempting to reporters for a number of reasons. It's counter-intuitive. It aligns neatly with an increasingly popular form of neoliberal urbanism that says the key to creating better, more affordable cities is to do away with zoning limits, parking minimums, and other regulations and simply let the cities grow. And it absolves us of guilt: We, the youngish reporters of America's major cities, are by and large the gentrifiers, as opposed to the displaced.
But it's also incomplete, at best. The Economist piece barely makes an argument, alighting just briefly on three points: Minorities leave cities in the absence of gentrification, too; census data don't provide much evidence of displacement; and gentrification benefits longtime low-income residents by improving their neighborhoods because the arriving professionals "know how to get things done." The Slate story goes into considerably more detail. Citing two academic studies, Buntin makes the case that poor people don't actually move out of gentrifying neighborhoods at higher-than-normal rates. In fact, rising rents actually appear to make low-income residents less likely to move away, as they enjoy the new amenities and safer streets that gentrification brings.
So how do the new gentrification skeptics account for the fact that people actually are being displaced?