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Gentrification: white people following white people

Image by Aurimas, via Flickr

When we think of gentrification, we imagine swarms of young upper middle class white people moving into previously minority neighborhoods, bringing pour-over coffee and higher property tax bills in their wakes. It’s a controversial migration, not least because of the existing residents who are displaced, but it’s also seen as a welcome step away from the segregation that set in after the “white flight” of the 60s and 70s.

Now an inventive new study using Google Street View and an archive of 1990s videotapes has found that gentrification may involve less racial mixing than we assume—and in fact, may reinforce residential segregation.

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In an article this month in the American Sociological Review, doctoral student Jackelyn Hwang and Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson used Google Street View to take a virtual walking tour of Chicago. As they went, they looked for details like home renovations or new construction that indicate gentrification is underway, or litter and graffiti, which indicate it’s not. Based on those observations they gave each census tract in Chicago a gentrification score. Then they compared those scores against a similar but far more labor-intensive study Sampson had carried out twenty years earlier.

In the mid 1990s, Sampson had videotaped 23,000 blocks in Chicago for signs of disorder while other researchers directly assessed gentrification. This gave him and Hwang a baseline against which to compare their Google Street View analysis—they wanted to know which areas Sampson had studied in the 1990s had continued the gentrification process, and which ones had not. What they found was that racial composition mattered a lot: Gentrification only continued in neighborhoods that were at least 35 percent white and stopped or slowed in neighborhoods that were 40 percent or more black. (In highly segregated Chicago, they only found 3 census tracts that met both criteria - over 40% black and over 35% white; those had gentrification rates “just a little above average,” Hwang wrote in an email.)

We usually think of gentrification as erasing longtime racial divisions in cities, but Sampson and Hwang’s study shows that it may operate by the same rules that have governed urban inequality for decades—white areas flourish, and minority neighborhoods are left behind.

Gentrification depends on a host of factors, including an influx of professional-class white residents, but also business investment and pro-growth public policy. The unequal apportionment of these last two resources has been strongly implicated in urban segregation for a long time, and Sampson and Hwang conclude gentrification doesn’t really change that—money and advantageous policies tend to flow to areas that already have a critical mass of white people. As a result, gentrification may be remaking cities, but only along the social contours that already exist.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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