This Is What Gentrification Really Is

In many cities, it's become popular to hate "gentrifiers," rich people who move in and drive up housing prices — pushing everyone else out. But what's going on in these rapidly-changing urban spaces is a lot more complicated than that.

Photo by Bulent Kilic/Getty

We Call Them Aliens

Gentrification is a form of immigration, though almost nobody calls it that. People who gentrify are usually new transplants to a city, changing it to suit their particular cultural needs and whims. That's why the criticism of gentrification often sounds like a distorted version of anti-immigrant sentiment: "They have changed our neighborhoods; their shops and homes are repulsive; we no longer feel welcome here." The difference is that the people we call immigrants are usually not rich. Gentrifiers are.

These days, my hometown of San Francisco is the most famous example of gentrification in the United States, and maybe even the world. This is thanks entirely to the insanity of the tech bubble, which has sent the city's cost of living into the stratosphere and transformed working class, immigrant neighborhoods like the Mission into upper class immigrant neighborhoods.

This Is What Gentrification Really Is

Photo via Affordable Housing Institute

In the Mission, Latin American grocery stores and dive bars have become boutiques devoted to selling exotic sodas, organic chocolate, and high-end stereo equipment cunningly disguised as hip, retro low-end stereo equipment. Markets where people once spoke Spanish have become cafes where people from many countries use English to talk about mobile apps and cloud storage. Scrawled on sidewalks in the Mission you'll see graffiti that says things like "die techie scum," or that blame "trendy Google professionals" for making the area too expensive.

San Francisco's transformation came to the world's attention due to a powerful essay by Rebecca Solnit in the London Review of Books. In it, she wrote about how techies have destroyed the immigrant Mission neighborhood she once loved, and depicts the big, white Google buses as mini Death Stars, disgorging their techie workers like "alien overlords." Though she is on the side of displaced immigrants in this essay, Solnit's language nevertheless echoes anti-immigrant rhetoric — the word "alien" is the same, only instead of being illegal, these aliens are overlords.

This Is What Gentrification Really Is

Photo via Kevin Montgomery

Either way, the message is clear. Locals want the immigrants to get the hell out.

It's easier to blame the aliens for what's happened to your city rather than face up to the complicated reality of urban life. City planner Spiro Kostof writes that cities are not static — they are "a process," always changing over time. Today's Mission district in San Francisco, for example, was once a working class Irish and German neighborhood. And some of those "alien" techies invading it now come from the same Central and South American countries that its current residents do.

The Skyscrapers of Istanbul

Recently I visited Istanbul, a city of over 17 million in Turkey that is undergoing a form of gentrification far more radical than anything in San Francisco. Government-sponsored "urban transformation" projects have led to the destruction of entire neighborhoods, their informally-built homes razed to make way for gleaming collections of high-density towers. Residents are forced out of their homes with eminent domain laws, and are sometimes left with an insignificant financial stake in the new developments — or sometimes with nothing at all.

Urban activist Yaşar Adanali told me about visiting a man who was being displaced from his home in the immigrant Tarlabaşı neighborhood near the city center. This area, once a thriving and diverse neighborhood, has been almost entirely leveled to make way for a new housing development. The man Adanali met was one of the last people still living there, his home precariously balanced next to a massive pit full of construction materials.

He told Adanali that his family had come from the Black Sea coast near the Georgian border and moved into the house in 1955. Housing costs in the neighborhood were cheap at that time because anti-Greek riots in the city were driving its previous residents out. Fleeing the attacks, many Greeks sold their homes at below-market rates to new immigrants, allowing this man's impoverished family to gain a home. Gentrification, in other words, is not a simple story of bad guys displacing good guys. Cities are made up of wave upon wave of such morally gray displacements, some violently coercive, and others eerily quiet.

We Know It When We See It

In the latest issue of Boom, an academic journal devoted to California studies, social geographer Rachel Brahinsky explains, "Gentrification is capitalism playing out in the landscape. It is essentially our economy's urban form." She's talking about San Francisco, but she could just as easily be describing Istanbul — or many other cities that are changing as flows of money translate into flows of immigrants.

And yet, gentrification unfolds differently depending on where it's happening and when. Politics can be more important than money. In previous eras, gentrification would have been the result of military conquest or regime change. The broad boulevards of Paris, built in the 19th century over the top of so-called "unhealthy" older neighborhoods, were created at the whim of Emperor Napoleon III. When you walk along these beautiful thoroughfares near the Seine, you tread upon the crushed homes of the poor from centuries ago.

This Is What Gentrification Really Is

A gentrified street in Paris, L'Avenue d'Opera, painted by Camille Pissarro in 1898.

Gentrification is only visible to people who know the context where it's taking place. A visitor to San Francisco might not realize that she was walking through contested terrain, recently changed by gentrification, just by visiting the Mission. But for longterm city residents, gentrification is obvious. We always know it when we see it.

Anti-Development in San Francisco

That said, we don't always understand it. In San Francisco, residents who resist gentrification do it by blocking the development of new, high-density housing projects. They imagine that the city's parks and neighborhoods will be destroyed to make way for gated communities of gleaming skyscrapers full of condos. Yet without new housing, as architect Mark Hogan remarks in another essay in Boom, the city's housing prices will remain "staggeringly high."

This Is What Gentrification Really Is

Photo of Noe Valley, a low-density, high-income neighborhood, by Allan Ferguson

Indeed, San Francisco's anti-development policies are actually harming the low-income communities they were originally designed to protect. Hogan writes:

The glacial pace of infrastructure projects in San Francisco benefit very few people and risk turning it into a caricature of its former self for tourists and residents rich enough to live in a fantasy, not a living city.

By preventing the city from transforming to meet the needs of new residents, San Francisco risks turning into a place where only the rich can live.

Fearing the kind of rampant high-rise development that people see on a daily basis in Istanbul, activists in San Francisco have gone to the other extreme. And the results are the same: the poor are pushed out to make way for the rich. Our cities need to find another path, somewhere between the trashed ruins of Tarlabaşı and the fantasy city of the high-priced, low-density Mission.

Immigrant City

No matter how much you contextualize it, gentrification is often forced on a city by its wealthiest immigrants. Sometimes the government pushes for these urban transformations, which is the case in Istanbul. And sometimes the government tries to thwart them, as in San Francisco. But either way, you've got an immigrant class that uses its financial power to buy up real estate by paying prices that current residents can't afford. Money remakes the city.

But so do immigrants. When different immigrant groups struggle with each other to reshape the city, gentrification is one possible outcome. There are other possible outcomes, too. City planners can manage development so that there is enough room for neighborhoods to grow without kicking anyone out. A recent study revealed that creating income-segregated neighborhoods leads to less social mobility for everyone, cementing us into a rigidly class-divided society. More than anything, we need to prevent neighborhoods from becoming divided by class.

A first step would be to revise our attitude toward immigration in cities. Instead of seeing immigrants as aliens, we should welcome their fresh perspectives, their wealth of new cultural traditions — and yes, their cash infusions. As twentieth century cities swell into twenty-first century megacities, we must make room for all our immigrant populations, rich and poor alike. The only crime is in sacrificing one to make way for the other.

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