Here's What Happens When White People Move Into Your Neighborhood

We used to have white flight. Now, in city centers, we have something that one policy researcher calls white infill. So what happens when a bunch of white people start moving in? The changes are a lot more profound than getting a new Starbucks on the corner.

Photo by torbakhopper

Actually, it probably does mean getting a Starbucks or another upscale cafe, as many people protesting the gentrification of New York's Harlem neighborhood have pointed out. But it also means a lot of other changes, mostly economic, which lead to dramatic cultural shifts.

Put simply, across the United States, white infill is associated with gentrification.

Sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term "gentrification" to describe class struggles in London's Notting Hill and Islington areas. In 1964, she wrote about how gentrification took place after rich Londoners moved to these previously working-class areas, displacing their current residents. What's crucial about Glass' idea is that gentrification describes how wealthy migrants push out low-income locals.

In North America, gentrification takes on a racial hue. Especially in the United States, it's likely that your class position will be correlated with your racial background: for example, blacks tend to be overrepresented among low-income people, while whites are overrepresented among middle and higher-income people. This is the result of many factors, including the history of slavery and immigration in the U.S., as well as profound ongoing problems with racist forms of discrimination.

As a result, the gentrification of Chicago looks very different from gentrification in Berlin, Istanbul and London. But still, they are all examples of how wealthy groups from outside a city or neighborhood displace locals with low income.

White People's Money

If the incomes of these locals in the U.S. were rising at the same rate as the incomes of whites, this might not be such a problem. Maybe whites would come to town, move into some abandoned places, and spruce up the joint. The problem is that the income disparity between blacks and whites has been growing immensely over the past few decades. Local black residents can't compete with the white infillers for space.

Here's What Happens When White People Move Into Your Neighborhood

So when whites flock to a black neighborhood, they are often the harbingers of doom. Rents skyrocket to the point where the original population can no longer afford it — and they move to low-income suburbs like Ferguson outside St. Louis.

Suburbs have been America's ghettos for years now, though many people didn't realize it until the mortgage crisis unfolded. In media reports and analysis, it became obvious that the people hit hardest in the resulting foreclosure disaster were the suburban poor and working class, many of whom were made homeless. That was the moment when we could no longer ignore the way the populations of cities were transforming before our eyes.

Whites once fled the inner cities to the suburbs, but now it's the outer cities that whites abandon for the "excitement" of city life. I'm not saying that these white people came up with a devious plan to kick out the local black or Latino populations in cities. They just don't notice when it happens, or they believe that the benefits of gentrification will "trickle down" to the poor. Their beliefs are even backed up by a few studies, using pre-2000 data, finding that gentrification doesn't result in displacement. But in the years since 2000, that picture has changed.

There Goes the Neighborhood

Earlier this month, sociologists Jackelyn Hwang and Robert J. Sampson published a massive survey of gentrification in Chicago neighborhoods. What they found was that the notoriously racially-divided city was gentrifying its neighborhoods unevenly. Neighborhoods with 35 percent or more white people tended to gentrify over time; neighborhoods with 40 percent or more black people tended not to gentrify, or would show a few signs of gentrification that never led to a complete transformation. Neighborhoods with a high percentage of Latinos tended to share the fate of these black neighborhoods.

In a summary of their research, Hwang writes:

Gentrification is often depicted as a process in which middle-class whites move into and thus integrate minority neighborhoods. But in fact, gentrifiers prefer already white neighborhoods; they are least attracted to black neighborhoods and see Asian and Latino neighborhoods as middling options.

Gentrifiers seem to prefer mixed neighborhoods that already have a high percentage of whites in them. By moving in, they push up the percentage of whites in a mixed neighborhood, and black and Latino locals have to find somewhere else to go. Perhaps they're moving over to the non-gentrifying neighborhoods — we just don't know.

Here's what's important. Hwang and Sampson's research shows that recent gentrification is absolutely changing the population of neighborhoods. Locals are being displaced. And often, those locals are people of color.

Here's What Happens When White People Move Into Your Neighborhood

But why do whites only seem to gentrify partly-white neighborhoods in Chicago? Hwang and Sampson tackled that question by refining how we understand gentrification. Instead of looking at just census records or crime rates, they also used Google Street View to examine Chicago's neighborhoods block by block, looking for signs of homes being renovated, infrastructure being upgraded, and new construction (yes, they also looked at the number of Starbucks). They also noted when neighborhoods weren't gentrified, and the signs of that included dilapidated houses, trash on the street, and graffiti. The researchers were aiming to capture something that the census can't: How a neighborhood looks and feels to the people in it.

A big part of what attracts gentrifiers to a neighborhood has to do with this difficult-to-define "look." Sometimes, the researchers noted, whites would score a neighborhood as looking more run down than it really was if it were a black neighborhood. This kind of indirect racism might be what's keeping Chicago's black neighborhoods from being gentrified by whites.

Of course, this is only in Chicago. The fear of a majority black neighborhood does not seem to be slowing down white migration into New York's Harlem or Atlanta's city center.

The Field of the Hittites

With this in mind, it might seem like the answer to the question, "what happens when whites move into my neighborhood?" is simple. They drive up housing and rental prices, and they drive out people of color. But something else is going on, too. Whites are changing the culture of these neighborhoods.

Here's What Happens When White People Move Into Your Neighborhood

In his excellent book Cairo: Histories of a City, urban planning professor Nezar AlSayyad explores the way the neighborhoods in this ancient city changed over time. He notes that even Memphis, the ancient Egyptian city across the water from Cairo, had ethnic neighborhoods going back to the mid-2000s BCE. Back then, the city that built the pyramids had a neighborhood called the Field of the Hittites. That's where the Hittites lived, an ethnic group distinct from the ancient Egyptians. Later, there were Carian and Phoenican neighborhoods too.

Maybe the Egyptian hipsters headed over to the Field of the Hittites for cool music and excellent food. Maybe they complained that the Hittites had a run-down neighborhood. We don't know. But when Cairo began to grow, a couple thousand years later, it too had ethnic neighborhoods that changed over time as new groups arrived to conquer or assimilate. It seems that humans have formed ethnic neighborhoods for almost as long as they have built cities.

When people come to a city from far away — or even from nearby — they regain a sense of home by finding people similar to themselves. They move into a neighborhood partly because it has the amenities that they want, whether those are schools or public transit. But they also do it because the places where we live help us to define our identities. So when white people come into a neighborhood and start gentrifying it, what they're doing isn't just economic. It's also cultural and psychological.

They're changing the feel of the place.

From Race to Class

I mentioned earlier that in the United States, race and class are often connected. The economic gap between black and white families is growing — but so is the gap between wealthy and poor regardless of race. As Justin Feldman notes in a research survey for the Harvard Shorenstein Center, this gap is even wider in cities, and since the 1970s, city neighborhoods have become more segregated by class.

The results of today's gentrification processes may be that ethnic neighborhoods will slowly transform into class neighborhoods. People in lower income brackets will move out of the city center into suburbs — or into low-income neighborhoods with few whites, as we saw in Chicago.

As several studies have shown, economically segregated neighborhoods lead to a society with less class mobility. The people in it those neighborhoods may get pushed around in terms of where they live, depending on whether the whites are fleeing or infilling that decade. But they won't get pushed up the economic ladder.

That's why our next battle against segregation in our cities will be against class segregation. Because when whites move into your neighborhood, they aren't just bringing in fancy coffee drinks and a fetish for Victorian moustaches. They are changing the economic playing field for everyone, possibly for generations to come.

Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9. She's the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter, or email her.