Bellevue Road, Wandsworth, London
"I used to be so proud to live in my old neighbourhood
It never crossed my mind those days wouldn't last for good
But now I realise that nothing stays the same.
I remember how I used to walk that street
It all comes back to me with every face I meet
But places I used to know began to look so strange
Funny, how things change."
Lyrics to a song by InnerVision, defunct acid-jazz band.
At the southern end of Wandsworth Common in South London is a street called Bellevue Road. Twenty years ago, it was quiet street lined with shops serving a long-established working class population. Local residents would greet each other in the bakery when buying warm rolls, or talk about the weather and their families whilst the butcher next door cut some luncheon meats. In the evenings there would be quiz nights in the pub, where those who worked long hours at nearby Wandsworth Prison could forget about the demands of their jobs and chat to the landlord about football, politics or a recent television documentary. Many people knew each other on a first name basis and were happy to be living so close to the open space of the Common, where their children could spend hours watching the frequent trains hurtle towards Clapham Junction, or keep out of mischief in a game of cricket or football before spending their pocket money on a sweet assortment from the local newsagent. The entire area wasn't a space waiting to be 'discovered' - it was a place which hadn't changed for years, a home which had become inextricably entwined with each resident's identity for generations.
A stroll along Bellevue Road and its surrounding streets today offers a taste of a process which has been happening all over London since the 1960s. Gone are the working classes and the establishments that served them. Bellevue Road now has delicatessens, wine bars, picture galleries, 'alfresco' diners and three estate agencies with window displays chanting 'location, location, location'. Terraces of Mid-Victorian cottages show no evidence of the uniformity which existed twenty years ago - not one house has the same façade. Some have had their 'period features' restored, others painted bright pastel colours in a deliberate attempt to dispense with the distinctive grey or red bricks of a different era. Net curtains have been replaced with tailored drapes, parted during the day to exhibit the belongings and 'taste' of a very different class of resident. Streets once lined with Mark I Ford Escorts and Vauxhall Astras now sport Jeep Cherokees and convertible Alfa Romeos. During the week, nannies and au pairs look after the children of merchant bankers, advertising executives and 'new media' professionals who have all played some part in the transformation of the area into "Bellevue Village". At the weekend, children dressed in 'Gap Kids' clothing run along Wandsworth Common in front of parents wearing wraparound Ray Bans, engaged in a debate about the merits of their Sunday newspapers or in a heated discussion about the long-term damage that the New Labour government might be doing to London's public transport system.
Gentrified Victorian terrace off Bellevue Road, London
All of these changes were brought about by gentrification - a fascinating, powerful and often frighteningly rapid process which plays an important role in fashioning the physical and social form of cities. Like the more widespread process of suburbanisation, it is a process which has had a profound impact on the lives of urban residents in hundreds of cities. In what follows I provide an account of the study of gentrification to date. It is a quite a challenge to write this in a manner which is readable for the diverse audience to which this website is aimed. I hope it will be as informative to academics as it is to students, and to those interested for other reasons! Comments will be welcomed - please e-mail to the address at the bottom of the page.
Gentrification is a term with inherent class connotations, and was coined by the sociologist Ruth Glass in London in 1964;
"One by one, many of the working-class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle-classes - upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages - two rooms up and two down - have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences....Once this process of 'gentrification' starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed."
This remains one of the best definitions of a process which has been extremely difficult to define and describe, perhaps due to different understandings of how and why it happens. If there is any agreement in academic circles about gentrification, it is that there is no simple definition of the term, though as the word suggests, any definition must have some emphasis on the class dimensions of urban change. Other definitions illustrate this point;
"gentrify": convert (a working-class or inner-city district etc.) into an area of middle-class residence. gentrification/gentrifier- Oxford English Dictionary (1993).
"gentrify, -fied, -fying": to convert (an aging area in a city) into a more affluent middle-class neighborhood, as by remodeling dwellings, resulting in increased property values and in displacement of the poor. gentrification - Webster's Dictionary of the American Language (1988).
"Simultaneously a physical, economic, social and cultural phenomenon, gentrification commonly involves the invasion by middle-class or higher-income groups of previously working-class neighbourhoods or multi-occupied 'twilight areas' and the replacement or displacement of many of the original occupants." - Chris Hamnett (1984)
"The Village can increasingly be described as a middle- to upper middle-class oasis. It is at present beset by the forces of gentrification, with developers, speculators, and more privileged classes gradually buying up properties inhabited by less well-off people of diverse backgrounds. Gambling on a steady rise in property values, many old and new residents hope the area will become 'hot', trendy, and expensive." - Elijah Anderson (1990).
"Gentrification is the process...by which poor and working-class neighborhoods in the inner city are refurbished by an influx of private capital and middle-class homebuyers and renters....a dramatic yet unpredicted reversal of what most twentieth-century urban theories had been predicting as the fate of the central and inner-city." - Neil Smith (1996)
One could occupy much cyberspace with a listing of all the definitions of gentrification, but the point here is to reveal that the only thing which unites the definitions in the literature is the word 'class', in itself a horribly complicated concept which has bothered social scientists for centuries. Though it is important to register the complicated nature of class, and that the literature on this issue could fill a capacious library, it is easiest and perhaps more useful to understand gentrification as a process which brings about change to a neighbourhood based on the influx of 'different' people to those there already - a new class of highly educated, highly skilled and highly paid residents are moving in. Like class, the term 'difference' should be used with care and certainly not simplified; indeed, class is often something experienced through difference. However, for the purposes of clarity it is helpful to think of gentrification as a process which makes a place 'different' to what it used to be (or more 'up-market'), just like the example of Bellevue Road in South London.
Gentrification is without doubt a highly visible process. In south London, following the course of the Northern Line tube above ground is a bit like following the path of a gentrification brush. It started sweeping Clapham North in the late 1980s and is now steaming through southern Tooting on a seemingly relentless march towards Morden in Surrey (the end of the line). There is a very distinguishable pattern of increasing property prices (a 3-bed Victorian cottage near Tooting Broadway tube station recently went for £250,000, over double its value two years ago) and 'new middle-class' service establishments ('trendy' cafes, bars, delicatessens, health and fitness clubs - virtually unthinkable in a place like Tooting as recently as five years ago) as one follows the Northern Line's southbound route. This "contemporary metropolitan restructuring", as Chris Hamnett (1991) puts it, is something which fascinates scholars of urban studies, frustrates those trying to obtain a mortgage loan for a South London home and irritates commuters at Clapham Common station waiting for a rush-hour train on which they cannot find a space. It fortifies the prospects of estate agents, property developers, restaurant owners and traffic wardens. People interested in and affected by gentrification start asking why and how these changes are taking place, and these are questions which academics have attempted to answer for nearly fourty years.
An explanation of gentrification is far from simple, because it is greatly affected by the different theoretical and political underpinnings of the individual(s) researching the process. The earliest analyses of gentrification exposed a considerable tension between those who were interested in the economics of the process and the relationships between flows of capital and the production of urban space (the 'production-side' argument, primarily associated with the work of Neil Smith), and those who were interested in the characteristics of the gentrifiers and their patterns of consumption within the broader sphere of urban culture in a 'post-industrial' society (the 'consumption-side' argument, primarily associated with the work of David Ley). The opposing arguments and their political leanings are best illustrated in a table;
Table 1 - Production versus consumption in the early explanations of gentrification
|Main Issues||Theoretical Influences||Principle Data Sources and Methodologies|
|Production||Supply of 'gentrifiable' property; the workings of housing and land markets; spatial flows of capital and the 'rent-gap'; role of public and private finance; 'uneven development'.||Structural Marxism; radical social theory; geographies of class relations and class struggles||Quantitative analyses using census and housing data; mapping the gentrification 'frontier'.|
|Consumption||The characteristics of the 'pool of gentrifiers'; 'new middle-class' ideology; consumer demand and consumption practices; (counter) cultural politics; the roles of race, gender and sexuality; education, occupational change and household composition.||Liberal humanism; post-industrial urbanism; importance of human agency over economic structure; human geography's "cultural turn".||Qualitative analyses using interview data and ethnographic techniques. Some quantitative work with household censuses.|
It is important to recognise that there are some dreadful generalisations in this table - for example, not all production-side arguments involved quantitative research and not all consumption-side arguments were directed by a liberal ideology. However, it should serve to exemplify the nature of the lively gentrification debate as it intensified throughout the 1980s.
Ever since the geographer Neil Smith produced a paper in 1979 entitled "A back to the city movement by capital, not people", the gentrification literature has been saturated with arguments for and against explanations of the process which have an economic bias. Academics became fascinated with Smith's explanation of gentrification, and many took his ideas on board in empirical investigations of gentrification in other cities (the 1988 work of Eric Clark in Malmo, Sweden, is a frequently cited example). Smith's ideas retained an economic, production-side emphasis in later publications, and not that long ago it was argued that his 'rent-gap' thesis "still exerts a disproportionate influence on current gentrification research" (Hamnett, 1992, p.116). Smith's early work is undoubtedly highly influential, and it is important to present a brief summary here.
Gentrification was viewed by Smith as a leading edge in the wider process of the 'uneven development' of urban space under the capitalist mode of production. His approach has its foundations in the geography of capital disinvestment and reinvestment in the inner-city. He argued that low ground rents on the urban periphery in the two decades after World War II triggered the continuous movement of capital to "develop suburban, industrial, residential, commercial and recreational activity" (Smith, 1986, p.23). This caused a 'devalorization' of capital in the inner-city, where the downward spiral of neglect and decay led to the "substantial abandonment of inner-city properties" (ibid. p.23) and a fall in the price of inner-city land relative to rising land prices in the suburbs. This forms the basis of the rent-gap in the inner-city - the disparity between
"the actual capitalized ground rent (land value) of a plot of land given its present use and the potential ground rent that might be gleaned under a 'higher and better' use" (Smith, 1987b, p.462).
Smith claimed that the rent-gap is "the necessary centrepiece to any theory of gentrification" (Smith, 1987a, p.165) because when the gap is wide enough, land developers, landlords and 'occupier developers' (collective groups who purchase and renovate property before inhabiting it) will realise the potential profits to be made by reinvesting in abandoned inner-city properties and preparing them for new inhabitants. This closes the rent-gap with the 'higher and better' use of land. In short, "the devalorization of capital in the center creates the opportunity for the revalorization of this 'underdeveloped' section of urban space" (Smith, 1986, p.24).
Abandonment in Tooting, South London. The potential value of the property far exceeds its current value.
Some additional observations supplemented his main thesis. The deindustrialisation of the central city was seen as another prerequisite, explaining the existence of the "kinds of building stock and land use most involved in the development of the rent-gap, and...the kinds of new land uses which can be expected where the opportunity for redevelopment is taken" (ibid. p.25). This was coupled with the growth of a divided 'white-collar' employment sector, one part of which is engaged in professional and managerial jobs which follow the spatial centralisation of capital - a product of financial corporations requiring "spatial proximity" to "reduce decision times" (ibid. p.28). The crux of Smith's argument was that gentrification takes place because capital returns to the inner-city, setting up opportunities for residential relocation and profit.
Criticisms of Smith's work were rooted in the fact that he stressed the importance of production at the expense of consumption. It is possible to identify four main objections to rent-gap theory;
In sum, it is without doubt that Smith's formulation attracted widespread criticism. In 1992, Smith believed he had been misrepresented in the critiques, saying "I do not now believe, nor have I ever believed, that the rent gap is the only and sufficient explanation of gentrification" (Smith, 1992, p.112). But to understand the nature of the critiques, it is useful to turn to the arguments of the consumption-side school.
A 'new middle-class' couple glancing at property in south London!!!
Gentrification researchers linked to the 'consumption-side' argument were those who viewed the characteristics of the gentrifiers to be of greater importance in the understanding of gentrification. Property must be ripe for gentrification, but the process cannot occur without the quite different issue of people wanting to occupy inner-city dwellings. But what are the underlying forces behind this demand? The literature reveals that the forces are connected but very complex, with some authors championing one or two major demand factors, whilst others adopt a more multi-disciplinary approach. It is perhaps clearer to discuss the main approaches to consumption in turn, in an attempt to reveal a pervasive theme in the literature, that of a series of changes which have constituted one of the principle buzz-phrases of gentrification - the complex and fragmented 'new middle-class'.
Earlier I outlined Neil Smith's account of the growth of a 'white-collar' employment sector, one part of which is engaged in professional and managerial jobs which follow the spatial centralisation of capital. This approach has often been modified towards explaining demand for inner-city property. David Ley is widely acknowledged as the architect of this approach; a 1980 paper identified a "class in emergence" which was a product of a shift to a 'post-industrial', service-based economy. This is what Nigel Thrift has called the 'service-class', which has gained strength through "boosted income, favourable access to educational opportunity and...a common consumption-oriented lifestyle" (Thrift, 1987, p.222). With their high levels of disposable income and a desire to save time on commutes to the workplace, this group of individuals place considerable demands on the housing market for inner-city properties, and where there is an absence of properties completely new residential developments may be constructed on old industrial land as Roman Cybriwsky et al (1986) observed in Vancouver, Canada.
In his case-study of Battersea in London, Ian Munt found that the changing employment structure of central London since 1971 has proved a major impetus to gentrification, as "an increase in professional and managerial employment....increased demand....on selected inner-city residential areas" (Munt, 1987, p.1186-87). This indicates that we should pay attention to wider urban economic restructuring as a factor in the production of the pool of gentrifiers. Chris Hamnett adds further weight to this argument, stating that an "explanation for gentrification must begin with the processes responsible for the production and concentration of key fractions of the service class" (Hamnett, 1991, p.186). Although the argument has a clear economic tone, it differs from classic Marxist analyses because people (the gentrifiers) are given as much consideration as capital. Such considerations can be intertwined with the fact that the middle-classes may demand inner-city housing as they see it as a good investment. This can be a key motive for gentrification, and as Caroline Mills correctly asserted, "investment potential is clearly a consideration both for 'producers' and for 'consumers'" (Mills, 1988, p.179). A person's own home is usually their principal financial asset, and gentrification occurs in an economic climate where commodity values can change rapidly and opportunities for profit present themselves at regular intervals.
In London, Munt found that "the maturing of the baby-boom with a growing percentage of 25-35-year olds has placed a tremendous demand on housing supply and led to gentrification" (Munt, 1987, p.1189). This reflects just one of the many demographic changes that have restructured the residential geography of the inner-city, in which women play a crucial role. Nigel Thrift's (1987) discussion of the formation of the service-class in Britain revealed that "gender divisions...have been lessening. Many households now rely on two incomes; 43 per cent of women now go out to work....and there is evidence of later marriage and childbearing" (Thrift, 1987, p.209-10). There is little doubt in the literature that young women are gentrifying due to their changing position in the labour market. They are securing professional and managerial jobs in the central city and their wish to live in housing close to their workplace is not simply to reduce commuting costs, but "a solution to problems of access to work and home and of combining paid and unpaid labour" (Warde, 1991, p.229). Due to commitment to their careers women postpone marriage and childbearing, and live not just in dual-earner "small, affluent households" (Bondi, 1991, p.192); an increase in the number of single women professionals living alone in gentrified areas has been noted in many inner-city neighbourhoods in Western societies.
Several scholars have contended that considerations of gender in the gentrification process should not be distanced from those of class constitution. Liz Bondi has argued that we should understand gender as a social relation within the prevailing class structure, and women gentrifying as a response to "different structures of patriarchy" (Bondi, 1991, p.196). This reflects the feminist discourse regarding gentrification; it is seen as a process into which women are perhaps forced by oppressive class relations experienced through their gender, rather than moving to the inner-city as a matter of locational preference. In addition, patriarchal relations of the post-war suburbs, which were fuelled by the man's role as the 'breadwinner' and the woman's domestic position, have broken down due to the increasing availability of higher education. Peter Williams has claimed that higher education "allowed many women to exercise choice over roles they took....and many were encouraged to reject suburbia physically (just as they were rejecting it mentally)" (Williams, 1986, p.69). Such commentary enables us to discern not only the 'push' and 'pull' factors giving rise to the increasing number of young middle-class women in inner-city residences, but also the fact that gentrification is a visible, spatial response to class and gender relations in urban areas.
The example of Hackney in East London is worth introducing to support this observation. An empirical investigation undertaken by Tim Butler in Hackney in the early 1990s led to the assertion that it is the interaction between class (governed by the two variables of occupation and education) and gender which is crucial to the explanation of gentrification in that neighbourhood. Tim Butler and Chris Hamnett have stated that gentrification is "not solely a class process, but neither is it solely a gender process. It involves the consumption of inner-city housing by middle-class people who have an identifiable class and cultural formation, one of whose major identifying characteristics centres around the occupational identity of its female members" (Butler and Hamnett, 1994, p.491). The central pillar of Butler's argument, drawn from his interviews with the 'new middle-classes', is that these people choose to live in the inner-city as they perceive themselves to be part of a community, or living around 'people like us' (as his respondents frequently chanted).
Questions of community consolidation have been the focus of studies which have examined the changing geographies of sexuality in the inner-city, especially those studies which have looked at gays and lesbians as part of the population who are gentrifying the inner-city. A pioneering study by Manuel Castells in San Francisco revealed that gays were ready to become gentrifiers because "many were single men, did not have to sustain a family, were young, and connected to a relatively prosperous service economy" (Castells, 1983, p.160). Coupled with an available stock of decaying Victorian properties, these demographic features of the gay community served to supplant the urban poor in neighbourhoods such as the Castro and Haight Ashbury, and the social geography of San Francisco significantly changed as gay middle-class consciousness was strengthened in specific localities ('gay spaces') by a collective gentrification effort. This example shows that, as with gender, analyses of sexuality should not be distanced from theories of class but inextricably linked.
The work of Larry Knopp highlights some key motives for gay gentrification, echoing the claims of feminist geographers that women gentrify as a response to oppression. His research into gentrification in New Orleans revealed that "gays (mostly white middle-class men) sought economic and political power as well as sexual freedom" (Knopp, 1995, p.152). This also applies to the Castro in San Francisco, where a 'pink economy' developed as homosexuals (encouraged by a gay-led local authority) used gay-only businesses and professions as a form of resistance to repressed sexualities and aggressive homophobia. Gentrification was just one of the ways in which gay identity was consolidated, gay space was asserted and sexuality could be performed 'out of the closet' without fear of opposition. Knopp's work, along with that of Tamar Rothenberg in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on lesbian gentrifiers illustrates quite convincingly that the relationships between homosexuality and gentrification are realised in a specific, emancipatory geography of the inner-city.
There is a substantial literature on the role of cultural changes in gentrification, and again one can detect an undercurrent of social class in all the discussions of 'taste cultures', 'lifestyles' and 'conspicuous consumption'. Michael Jager provided an encapsulation of the link between class and the 'aesthetics of gentrification' by saying "Slums become Victoriana, and housing becomes a cultural investment with facadal display signifying social ascension" (Jager, 1986, p.79). In short, his research in Melbourne revealed that by 'buying into history' in the inner-city the new middle-class are expressing their social distance from the classes below, and constructing an identity based on "consumption as a form of investment, status symbol and means of self-expression" (ibid. p.87). Streetscapes all over London elaborate this assertion, where an abundance of Victorian properties provided a stage for the "ostentatious display and exhibitionism" of the gentrifiers (Munt, 1987, p.1193). Through the work of these authors we can unravel information regarding what sorts of properties are required by young people with money to spend, who wish to express their identities.
'Buying into history' - a handsome, gentrified Victorian terrace off Wandsworth Common, London.
In an attempt to integrate the questions of consumption into his argument, partly as a response to criticism, Neil Smith said that the "pursuit of difference, diversity and distinction forms the basis of the new urban ideology" (Smith, 1987a, p.168). This is the ideology of consumption and a reference to the current era of 'postmodern sensibilities', expressed in gentrified properties by a striking intermixture of past and present architectural forms, or "an eclectic fusion of classical and contemporary details" (Mills, 1988, p.176). In the renovation of old properties in the inner-city, history and modernity complement each other (Jager, 1986, p.88) to create an architecture of seduction which serves to attract more potential gentrifiers (or consumers) to the central city. As one famous commentator observes;
"Imaging a city through the organisation of spectacular urban spaces became a means to attract capital and people (of the right sort) in a period of intensified inter-urban competition" - David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), p.92.
From this standpoint, we can see that wider changes in the economy (what Harvey labelled 'flexible accumulation') have led to a postmodern consumption ethic which has a geography when we consider inner-city housing as a commodity at the disposal of the new middle-class. Inner-city living is given cultural meaning by marketing and advertising (Mills, 1988); 'the livable city' becomes fashionable and enclaves of prosperity develop with designer bars, restaurants and clothes shops full of material products which augment a burgeoning class consciousness. Once installed in renovated houses, gentrifiers "work hard to express their [social] difference, their individuality, both on the outside and inside of their home" (Carpenter and Lees, 1995, p.298) in a relentless quest for status - gentrifiers are very aware of the concept that 'you are what you see'. This has been linked (perhaps controversially) to the intersection of class and education;
"The influence of education might help explain the existence of the gentrification aesthetic in terms of the acquisition of 'good taste' through middle-class background and/or a middle-class (higher) education" (Gary Bridge, 1995, p.243-44).
A higher education does seem to be a feature of the gentrifier, but this should not be overstated at the expense of other important factors influencing postmodern taste cultures such as the media, advertising and popular movies such as "Sleepless in Seattle" (showing gentrified property in Fells Point, Baltimore) and "Pacific Heights" (showing the renovation of a Victorian house in San Francisco). People may be ready to become gentrifiers due to what they see and hear every day, and a desire to imitate their cultural icons.
Go back to the production versus consumption table and have a look at the 'main issues' column. One can see that both arguments were addressing issues of equal importance. In the mid-1980s, it became clear to many commentators that gentrification was a process that could not be explained solely by economics or solely by culture. Put another way, it was becoming increasingly invalid to claim that either production or consumption was 'more important' in the explanation of gentrification. The criticisms launched at Neil Smith by a number of commentators were especially harsh. People seemed to be ignoring what could be learned from Smith's work in favour of some scathing attacks on his political agenda, and the abrasive exchanges between the production and consumption sides of the argument became more tedious as time wore on. It seemed as though we had reached an impasse in the explanation of gentrification, until some scholars noticed that the two divergent persepectives could be reconciled and used in a way which could make us rethink the ways in which gentrification occurs.
One of the first attempts to highlight the fact that both factors were important came from the sociologist Sharon Zukin, in her now classic study of the gentrification of SoHo in New York City entitled 'Loft Living' (1982). Throughout this book Zukin explains with how derelict loft spaces attracted artists in the 1960s and 1970s, and through them provided a cultural basis for the commercial redevelopment of Lower Manhattan. Her phrase 'cultural capital' encapsulates the emphasis of her project - it was the fusion of culture and capital which set the stage for gentrification to take place, not one over the other. Zukin's emphasis proved most appealing to those frustrated with the problem of explaining gentrification. Through their squabbles, the mainstays of the gentrification debate (such as Neil Smith, David Ley and Chris Hamnett) agreed that the way forward was to integrate the production and consumption arguments. A scan of the literature showed that the arguments were not opposed but connected in many ways. For example, the demand of potential gentrifiers could not be excluded from the rent-gap theory, and changes in the economy could not be excluded from the formation of the new middle-class gentrifier. It was clear that the competition between theories of gentrification could be jettisoned in favour of an approach which looked at how production and consumption are in fact complementary in the understanding of neighbourhood change. A paper by Loretta Lees provides the most precise and informative critique of one-sided explanations, and calls for a 'productive tension' between economic Marxism and cultural postmodernism. The rationale for complementarity is well set out;
"The principle of complementarity attempts to overcome duality not by looking for a new universal theory, but by comparing and informing one set of ideas with another." (Loretta Lees, 1994, p.139, emphasis added).
In the context of gentrification, Lees quite correctly contended that "juxtaposing a Marxist analysis with a cultural analysis allows political economy, culture and society to be considered together, enabling a more sensitive illustration of the gentrification process" (Lees, 1994b, p.148). The recent literature (since the late 1980s) has reflected the move from competition to complementarity and furthered greatly our understanding of the 'why and how' of gentrification. Now gentrification researchers tend to work within economics and culture, and if not, do some serious explaining!. But something was about to happen to the economy that would make many commentators question the fuss surrounding gentrification, question any explanation and any definition.
The worldwide recession of the early 1990s chimes long and loud in the memory. The bright economic outlook of the Reagan and Thatcher era had given way to a time of worry and pessimism. Places like Southern California, for many the beacon of the American dream, had been hard hit by recession and unemployment, and the London Docklands development was becoming like a ghost town, the nail in the coffin hammered into place by the collapse of Olympia and York, the developers of Canary Wharf. The real-estate industry was particularly hard hit. In Western cities, homeowners found themselves in a situation of 'negative equity' - having mortgage liabilities far in excess of the market value of their properties. Corporate redundancy policies had begun to affect seriously the prospects of the new middle-classes, whose "residential preferences and investment decisions had facilitated gentrification" (see Lees, 2000, for the discussion on which these observations are based). The crisis in the real-estate industry signalled an abrupt halt in the process of gentrification. Speculation began in the real estate industry, then the media, then among academics, that 'degentrification' would happen - a total reversal of all the neighbourhood changes brought on by gentrification since the 1960s. A paper by Larry Bourne in 1993 attempted to bolster these predictions. Based on empirical evidence from Canadian cities, he argued that the 'demise' of gentrification will lead to a 'post-gentrification' era because
"..the supply of potential young gentrifiers will be significantly smaller, given the passing of the baby-boom into middle-age, the declining rate of new household formation, and the general aging of the population. The expanding cohort of potential young gentrifiers will not be sufficient to compensate for the rapid decline in the younger cohorts. At the same time, given widespread macro-economic restructuring, corporate down-sizing and a persistent recession, we might also expect slower rates of employment growth in the service sector and associated occupations..." (Bourne, 1993, p.104-5, emphasis added).
Bourne's argument was interesting in its underlining of the now-absent factors which once gave rise to gentrification, but his conclusion seemed to generalise the Canadian experience into a totalising, travelling prediction of gentrification patterns everywhere. Perhaps crucially, as Lees and Bondi (1995, p.235) identified, Bourne provided "no hard evidence of a reversal of the gentrification process". Neil Smith then jumped at the chance to 'reassert' his economic argument by applying this observation to his original rent-gap thesis. He explained that disinvestment in times of recession actually sets the stage for reinvestment and gentrification. The following sentences are certainly convincing, but a rather irksome return to the 'explanation of gentrification' debate I outlined earlier;
"Predictions of the demise of gentrification are premised on essentially consumption-side explanations of the process, in which any pickup in the economic demand is magically converted into a long-term trend.....The decline in housing and land prices since 1989 has been accompanied by a disinvestment from older housing stock...and these are precisely the conditions which led to the availablility of a comparitively cheap housing stock in central locations. Far from ending gentrification, the depression of the late 1980s and early 1990s may well enhance the possibilities for reinvestment."(Smith, 1996, p.229, emphasis added)
However, his argument is convincing as gentrification has returned in its full vigour to rearrange many Western cities since the mid-1990s. The example of London's current property market boom, where small properties in inner-city areas are fetching prices which can only be described as stratospheric, lends ample support to the notion that gentrification didn't reverse - it just lay dormant during the early 1990s recession, and if we follow Smith, has been intensified by the severity of that recession. Similarly, a look at real estate prices in New York City now makes the predictions of degentrification seem ludicrous. With gentrification rearing its unmistakeable head in the cityscape, what next for gentrification researchers?
With the resurgence of gentrification accompanying a macro-scale economic upturn and a revitalised real estate industry once more chanting 'location, location, location', the new middle-classes are back in business and continuing to change the city. Although the academic writing has not been as buoyant as its subject, two broad themes can be identified from the literature. They are 'the revanchist city', 'the emancipatory city' - not just themes related to gentrification but themes which reflect two very different discourses in urban studies (see Lees, 2000, for a detailed analysis).
For many people who are not gentrifiers or beneficiaries of gentrification, the re-emergence of the process is not good news. Neil Smith is perceived by most as the pioneer in forging a link between gentrification and the 'revanchist city'. This troublesome word has been snatched from nineteenth-century French history - revanchists were a group of middle-class nationalist reactionaries opposed to the working-class uprising of the Paris Commune, intent on taking revenge ('revanche') on those who had taken the city from them. Smith sees little difference between this and the gentrification of the American inner-city in the 1990s, which "embodies a revengeful and reactionary viciousness against various populations accused of 'stealing' the city from the white upper-classes.....an effort to retake the city" (Smith, 1996, p.xviii). Smith represents the inner-city as a space of danger, menace, crime, violence and suffering, where "white middle-class assumptions about civil society retrench as a narrow set of social norms against which everyone else is found dangerously wanting" (p.230). 'Everyone else' incorporates "minorities, the working class, homeless people, the unemployed, women, gays and lesbians, immigrants" (p.211) - like other Marxist commentators Smith's tacit intention is to reveal the plight of the subordinated, give a voice to the marginalised 'other', and use a very visible process (gentrification) as a vehicle to investigate the class struggles triggered by rampant capital advancement into the spaces and places of the inner-city. For Smith, gentrification is the spatial expression of the revanchist attitude of the white middle-class - a menacing, displacing 'frontier' that threatens to redefine the social fabric of the city.
But what is fuelling this revanchist anti-urbanism? Two important factors are cited by Smith; first, the collapse of the 1980s "stretch-limo optimism" into the bleak prospects of the early 1990s recession, which triggered unprecedented anger amongst the white middle-classes. Smith demonstrates that such anger needed a target on which to exercise revenge, and the easiest target was the subordinated, marginalised populations of the inner-city. Second, Smith states that revanchism is "screamingly reaffirmed" by television and the media in "an obsessive portrayal of the violence and danger of everyday life" (p.211) and supports this assertion by singling out execrable documentaries such as "Hard Copy", "Cops" and "Court TV" as indicative of the revanchist phenomenon. Such is the influence of these (re)productions of paranoia and fear that the phenomenon has pervaded the political administration of New York City. In his documentation of the 1988 and 1991 disturbances in Tompkins Square Park in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Smith selects some particularly militant quotes from civic officials to bolster his argument that the revanchist attitude has been adopted by those in power to maintain control over the spaces of the 'Other' in the inner-city.
Smith's work is an important, exciting and useful commentary on current American urbanism, and work which sheds light on the sense of menace which imbues the American inner-city through its sustained attempt to reveal the engine powering revanchist fears. Smith's writings are highly influenced by arguably the most useful and sensitive legacy of the engagement between Marxism and urban geography, informally termed "the urbanisation of injustice" - a large body of work which has emerged since David Harvey's classic 'Social Justice and the City' (1973) first explored distributional inequalities as a consequence of the immoral nature of capitalism.
The relationship between the local and the global with respect to gentrification is the cornerstone of Smith's work. Smith's interest in global/local interplay slots into a gentrification discourse which has contributed much to our understanding of post-recession gentrification, as illustrated by the recent work of Jacobs (1996), Eade and Mele (1998) and Wyly and Hammel (1999) on the importance of local community and local public policy in urban change, and localised relationships to the global political economy. Smith is a staunch advocate of a concept crystallised by Derek Gregory, that "places are local condensations and distillations of tremulous global processes that travel through them" (Gregory, 1994, p.122). Indeed they may be, but it is with this notion that some difficulties arise from Smith's work. Smith applies the concept to his revanchist city thesis, suggesting that it is a global phenomenon with a local expression when his case studies (mostly American cities) would suggest otherwise;
"[I]f the US in some ways represents the most intense experience of a new urban revanchism, it is a much more widespread experience…..gentrification and the revanchist city find a common conjuncture in the restructured urban geography of the late capitalist city. The details of each conflict and of each situation may be different, but a broad commonality of contributing processes and conditions set the stage." (Smith, 1996, p.46-47).
Though there is some respect for local differentiation, this excerpt seems to exemplify an ungainly aspect of Marxist enquiry - the deployment of metanarratives, or "travelling theory" to substantiate declamatory musings on the evils of a personified capitalism. The revanchist city can be discerned with ease as no more than a recent intensification of the fear of the city in American culture which stretches back to the times of Jefferson (see Alfred Kazin, 1983, for an excellent summary). To propose that revanchist anti-urbanism is a global feature of late capitalism is to sideline the very tangible attachment to urban life felt in countries without sizzling anti-urban sentiment fed by media and television productions - and thus greatly insensitive to difference. A lack of attention to difference is something which plagues Marxist analysis, as David Sibley argues; "as a totalising discourse Marxism has inevitably been insensitive to difference, almost as insensitive as the dominant capitalist culture which is the subject of Marxist critique" (Sibley, 1995, p.x). Postmodern critiques aside, it is worth recognising that the revanchist discourse is a lens through which we can see the interation between gentrification and the political economy, contemporary culture (the recent influence of cultural studies on Smith is immense) and issues of social justice.
The "emancipatory city thesis" (termed by Lees, 2000) stands in direct contrast to the revanchist city thesis. If we take the latter to be a representation of the inner-city as a space of danger, menace, violence and suffering, the former offers a quite different representation of the same space as welcoming, inclusive, safe and livable. The thesis has a history too lengthy and complex to detail here, but to the proponents of the thesis gentrification is seen as a process which unites people in the central city, creates opportunities for social interaction, tolerance and cultural diversity. The emancipatory thesis is most explicit in the work of Jon Caulfield, based on his research into the gentrification of Toronto, Canada, but can also be seen in the work published on gender, sexuality and gentrification.
Caulfield argues that gentrification is an emancipatory social practice, a reaction to the repressive institutions of the suburbs;
"city people....express their feelings....where they are able, individually and collectively, to pursue practices eluding the domination of social and cultural structures and constituting new conditions for experience. For the marginal middle class, resettlement of old city neighbourhoods is among these activities" (Caulfield, 1989, p.624).
Perhaps the crux of his approach to gentrification is that "affection for old city places may be rooted not in longing for flight to the past but for a subjectively effective present, not in desire for routine but to escape routine" (1989, p.624). For Caulfield, the gentification of the old city is a rejection of suburban values - gentrifiers are involved in a deliberate operation of resistance to the dominant ideals of suburban life, and the 'new conditions for experience' set up by gentrification sketch a path for much larger urban redevelopment schemes. This has more than a few echoes of the work of David Ley, who argued that gentrification in Canada was initiated by a nascent counter-culture, where 'hippies became yuppies' (see Ley, 1996). It is essential to bear in mind that these are arguments built on the foundations of neighbourhood research in Canadian cities - very different places to those studied by Neil Smith in America. This points to the possibility that different perspectives on gentrification exist because they are constructed from observations of different urban contexts. It is hard to think of a more convincing argument for gentrification as a varied process - a differentiated process with a complex geography.
So what can be made of the emancipatory thesis? Perhaps its most useful component is the idea that gentrification is not the demon it is shown to be by the advocates of the revanchist thesis - the very possibility that gentrification might take place in a way which makes the 'marginal' middle-class a strengthened entity is a refreshing perspective which gives much to ponder on constitution and workings of the 'new middle-classes'. In addition, as I hinted in the last paragraph, the Canadian perspective serves to render problematic any attempt by researchers of American cities to claim that the conditions and forms of gentrification are applicable outside their area of study. However, in contemporary Western cities full of individuals and strangers with an 'every person for themselves' mentality, claims that the city can be an emancipatory space become highly dubious. Is it really practical to say that gentrification will ensure that we extend our social networks beyond our nearest and dearest and shake hands with every passer-by? Will people from very different social backgrounds mix well when living cheek-by-jowl in the same neighbourhood? To claim, as Caulfield does, that gentrification creates tolerance, that encounters between 'different' people are liberating, is greatly to undermine the ruthlessness of the consequences of gentrification, such as race, class and income polarisation, social exclusion and displacement. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Caulfield's Toronto is a place seen through the eyes of the gentrifiers themselves, to the exclusion of those people who are unwilling participants in neighbourhood change - the poor, the working-class, the marginalised and so on. By focusing on the 'desires' of gentrifiers (the winners), Caulfield masks the anti-gentrification desires of poorer inner-city residents (the losers). As Lees (2000) argues, if "gentrifiers win out over others, it is because they are willing and able to pay more for the privilege....the rhetoric of the emancipatory city tends to conceal the brutal inequalities of fortune and economic circumstance that are produced through the process of gentrification".
Northcote Road, Battersea, London - undergoing intense gentrification.
If gentrification is thriving in the current post-recession climate, it seems essential for academic inquiry to engage with the issues raised in the two theses. Although the theses portray the city in profoundly oppositional ways, there are some broad commonalities observable which allude to the direction which gentrification research should go. These are best shown in another table.
Table 2 - Issues for progressive gentrification research
|Theme||Common Issues||Research Topics|
|Revanchist City||The complementarity of production and consumption; class differences with respect to race, gender and sexuality; the local-global interplay; the 'how' (not 'why') of gentrification||Public policy, social justice, gentrification discourse, the geography of gentrification through comparative research; analysis of gentrification research methodologies|
Once again the generalisations in this table are not set in stone; the purpose of the table is to highlight some of the issues emerging from recent literature and the gaps in that literature which need to be addressed. There is no need to reiterate the importance of the continued complementarity of production and consumption approaches - that should be clear by now. The issue of class is absolutely crucial, the one theme which swirls through the imagination when one thinks about gentrification everywhere. As I mentioned in the 'defining gentrification' section, if there is a general consensus in the gentrification literature, it is that class is central to any gentrification study, so perhaps it is time to follow the lead of Tim Butler (1997) in prioritising classes - but paying more attention to the ways in which class differences are complexly intertwined with race, gender and sexuality. Although the analysis of class and gender and class and sexuality has become more thorough and impressive in recent years (see Tamar Rothenburg, 1995, and Liz Bondi, 1999, for excellent examples) there is a need to explore the extremely difficult question of the intersection of race and class with respect to gentrification. Too often the intersection is blurred, unclear and undeveloped, and it is hoped that someone will soon build on the work of Elijah Anderson (1990), who in Philadelphia witnessed "a profound confusion of race and class" (p.156) - yet ironed out the confusion with a superb ethnography of the threats gentrification posed to a working-class, predominantly black neighbourhood. He observed that class was something experienced through race, gentrification the spatial expression of that experience.
The work of the advocates of both the revanchist and emancipatory approaches have illustrated the complex interplay between the local and the global in patterns of gentrification. Global situations such as economic recession have a profound impact on the pace and path of gentrification everywhere, but the ways in which the effects of recession are manifested in the urban landscape are worked out very differently in different places. In addition, this complex interplay enables us to discern the tension between universal and relative theories of gentrification from the different schools of thought researching the phenomenon. How this tension can be constructive in our understanding of gentrification is yet to be seen, but a 'constructive deconstruction' of the local-global 'binary' (opposing entities) will surely shed light on the some of the more clouded perceptions of urban change. Perhaps the most promising outcome of the new emphasis on gentrification is the increasing attention to the 'how' not 'why' of the phenomenon. This was first called for by the Dutch geographer Jan van Weesep in 1994;
"In the end, the 'why' of gentrification is less important that the 'how' and the repercussions of the process. Policy-oriented research is better served by the analysis of concrete problems than by general descriptions of broad trends which disregard many of their manifestations and effects." (van Weesep, 1994, p.80).
This call to others is perhaps due to frustration with what Paul Redfern (1997) has identified as a 'theoretical logjam' in the explanation of gentrification. Academics have become so bogged-down in irksome squabbles over the causes of the process that the effects have been neglected. If we are to do something about gentrification, whether it be to stop it completely (as Neil Smith seems to argue) or somehow to make it a more equitable, just process, then looking at the 'how' - the local effects - of the sweeping 'frontier' of neighbourhood upgrading seems equally if not more important than the 'why'. This involves a serious engagement with one of the under-studied aspects of the phenomenon - the displacement of the indigenous, working-classes by the new middle-classes.
van Weesep's mention of policy-oriented research is a direction to which geographers are beginning to turn. The 1999 publications of the US 'State of the Cities' and UK 'Urban Task Force' reports and their proposals for inner-city regeneration and 'renaissance' as a blueprint for a civilised central city warrant immediate academic scrutiny, as gentrification seems to be influencing the policies of local and national governments. Another strand of recent work which needs development is the analysis of gentrification discourse, or the ways in which (following the French philosopher Michel Foucault) ensembles of concepts, statements (language) and social practices influence our knowledge of the subject. The discursive practices within the work of writers from either the revanchist or emancipatory perspectives can be decoded and assessed for their impact on wider perceptions of gentrification. If knowledge of the process is to be disseminated outside the closed doors of academia, the clarification of meaning and intent through discourse analysis will facilitate a broader understanding of what gentrification is all about (as will this website, hopefully!).
David Ley's (1996) call for a 'geography of gentrification' is hugely important and deserves widespread support, and illustrates the need for further comparative research. Gentrification occurs at different rates, under different circumstances, in different cities of different countries. A 1995 paper by Juliet Carpenter and Loretta Lees comparing gentrification in London, New York and Paris stands as perhaps the best example of how useful international comparison can be in "figuring out the difference between processes of gentrification in different countries, cities and indeed neighbourhoods" (Lees, 1999). Perhaps gentrification is becoming too broad a term to describe a highly differentiated process, and maybe we need a typology of gentrification to reflect this differentiation. International comparison also allows us to consider public policy on gentrification in its broader context - the UK 'Urban Task Force' proposals reverberate the experiences of urban regeneration in many American cities, and a 'one size fits all' manifesto for urban revitalisation may not be practical in two very different societies. Finally, researchers need to think much more deeply about how their methodologies adopted to explore gentrification affect their findings. Census and interview data from one neighbourhood may produce very different result from participant observation and textual analysis in the same neighbourhood. This is rarely acknowledged, and needs to be if we are to construct valid and thought-provoking arguments.
Little more needs to be said with respect to 'what is gentrification?'. I hope that this fairly extensive summary has given its viewers a clear picture of a very complex phenomenon where understanding of its effects are somewhat sketchy. This is why gentrification continues to fascinate and to frustrate, and its dramatic resurgence in recent years demands sustained intellectual engagement from anyone interested in neighbourhood change. If you walk past a gourmet delicatessen, a renovated Georgian House, a Starbucks Coffee outlet, a row of expensive cars, a flash new estate agency, the chances are that you are in an area which is experiencing or has just experienced gentrification. Wondering how it affects all kinds of people, comparing the neighbourhood's past and present, thinking about who wins and who loses, and more importantly what can be done about it, are steps towards making a difference.
Bellevue Road, Wandsworth, London - a classic landscape of gentrification: the gourmet delicatessen, the exclusive 'mews' development, an expensive clothes store, and a Mercedes Benz!
Gregory, D. (1983) Geographical Imaginations (Blackwell, Oxford).
Sibley, D. (1995) Geographies of Exclusion: society and difference in the West (Routledge, London).
I am very grateful to Loretta Lees, James DeFilippis, Chris Hamnett, Sadaf Lakhani and Mark Paddon for their helpful comments on this page, and to all those who contacted me with their stories of gentrification, which have greatly improved my understanding of the process. And to the individual who sent me this (see below), all I can say is thank you!
created by Tom Slater,
last modified: February 2002