There Goes the ’Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up; By Lance Freeman; Temple University Press; $25.95
In today’s New York, “gentrification” can be a dirty word. It conjures up images of well-to-do whites streaming into poor and working-class communities, replacing longtime minority residents. Reactions of this sort are certainly not without validity, but they are not the whole story, as Lance Freeman demonstrates in his provocative There Goes the ’Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up.
Freeman, an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, writes that studies of gentrification have all too often neglected to ask longtime residents of affected neighborhoods for their opinions. Freeman remedies this by interviewing several dozen residents of Harlem and Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill, two largely black neighborhoods with rich pasts (and, not insignificantly, often elegant housing stock) that have experienced rapid gentrification.
Harlem, of course, earned a reputation as black America’s cultural mecca before the Great Depression sent it on a downward spiral that reached its nadir with the tumult of the 1970s and the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Clinton Hill may have lacked some of Harlem’s history, but it had managed to hold onto a large base of middle-class black homeowners despite several decades of decline. Indeed, Clinton Hill began to show some signs of gentrification as early as the 1970s, a process that proceeded in “fits and starts,” as Freeman puts it, before escalating rapidly with the white-hot real estate market of recent years. Harlem’s gentrification began later and was more surprising.
What Freeman discovers in his inquiry is that longtime residents see gentrification as a process with both positive and negative outcomes. Freeman finds that Clinton Hill and Harlem residents are pleased by their neighborhood’s new amenities and improved services, but question why it took the arrival of whites to achieve these gains. Homeowners are happy about rising real estate values, while renters are sometimes nervous. There is pride that these neighborhoods are now seen as desirable places to live, alongside unease over cultural change. Freeman also stresses the significant, though often overlooked, role of middle-class and college-educated blacks in gentrification.
Freeman argues that particularly in the case of predominately black, inner-city neighborhoods such as Harlem that have suffered from extreme disinvestment and a host of urban ills, gentrification can decrease isolation and bring important amenities. He can write hopefully about gentrification in part because he does not subscribe to the view that it inevitably leads to massive displacement. In the book’s introduction, Freeman explains that he had previously conducted a research project with another scholar that — much to his surprise — found that “Poor residents and those without a college education were actually less likely to move if they lived in a gentrifying neighborhood.” While this piqued his curiosity, the book unfortunately does not shed much additional light on this counterintuitive finding. Nevertheless, his earlier study has, as Freeman readily acknowledges, sparked considerable controversy (though it also has at least some corroboration in the existing academic literature). In noting his finding and then largely setting it aside, it’s as if Freeman invited an 800-pound gorilla into the room and then proceeded to ignore it.
Still, even as he questions the extent of displacement caused by gentrification, Freeman is concerned with ensuring that gentrifying neighborhoods retain mixed-income populations and remain places to which the non-gentry can afford to move. To this end, he suggests policy options aimed at preserving low- and moderate-income housing in gentrifying neighborhoods, such as the reinvestment of property taxes generated by rapidly rising real estate prices into affordable housing programs.
Given his modest sample size, and the qualitative nature of his research, one should not draw overly sweeping conclusions from Freeman’s study. Despite this fact and the book’s shortcomings — it’s fairly repetitive, and Freeman’s writing is often anything but brisk — There Goes the ’Hood is a useful contribution to better understanding how those living in gentrifying neighborhoods view the changes taking place around them. And Freeman’s analysis of policies that could help smooth out the bumps on the road to gentrification is clearheaded and refreshingly non-ideological. If “gentrification is becoming a widespread trend that represents the future of many cities,” Freeman writes, “we should be thinking about how to manage the process to help us achieve a more equitable and just society.”