Point Breeze has for years felt like a battleground. It still does. The streets in the South Philly neighborhood are chewed up, awaiting repavement. It seems as if every other vehicle is a contractor’s pickup truck. Men in green shirts go door-to-door offering to buy up homes, and million-dollar townhouses rise in areas long occupied by low- and middle-income homeowners.
One of the things that frustrates Amir Jones, 65, who grew up on the 2100 block of Ellsworth Street, the most? It’s the way developers talk about it.
“For them to come in and call it ‘gentrification’ or ‘revitalizing. ...’ ” he trailed off, shaking his head.
In Philadelphia neighborhoods where investment-displacement-repeat feels like a fact of life, gentrification is something of a curse word. But since the word was created in 1964 by a British sociologist, it has been twisted and co-opted to become a catch-all for investment, revitalization, and displacement. Depending on whom you ask, it’s actually some of, none of, or all of those things.
It’s just a word, you might say. But experts in urban development say this recent lack of specificity in discussions about gentrification can prove problematic for those trying to tackle an affordable-housing crisis permeating the country’s urban centers.
“The term has become extremely blurry,” said John Joe Schlichtman, an urban sociologist who coauthored the book Gentrifer. “This is a term that began with an academic precision to it, and we really need to get this precision back.”
Officially, gentrification is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people and that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents." Its root is gentry, or “people of good social position.”
Researchers use a variety of markers to measure gentrification, including demographics, median income, and housing prices. Some also consider anecdotal evidence of the displacement of long-term residents.
Yet some developers and Realtors are now proudly using the term as a synonym for investment, working to draw renters into gentrifying neighborhoods. Every now and then, you hear a neighborhood leader wishing for a little gentrification in a struggling commercial corridor. For others, gentrify is a verb akin to colonize, or sometimes it’s a stand-in for when a white person claims to have discovered something a black person created generations ago.
Plenty of people feeling the effects of gentrification in Philadelphia said the word isn’t really part of their daily conversations. For them, gentrification is more something you know when you see it. It’s the modern townhouse with a pop-out bay window that’s two stories taller than the neighboring brick rowhouse, or it’s the organic-smoothie shop that popped up beside a corner bodega.
The word and the process it describes can be so complicated for some that even so much as a zoning change can induce anxiety about what comes next. Karla Cruel, a West Philadelphia native, said she fears that the neighborhood where she grew up is in a “pre-gentrification” stage. She’s heard neighbors in Overbrook excited about revitalizing Lancaster Avenue.
“People were super excited, like, ‘Oh, there’s going to be flowers and they’re getting rid of the hazards,’” she said. “I said ‘Look, let’s beautify, but also remember the tax assessments that start to happen when other people start seeing your neighborhood is really beautiful.’”
‘They hear displacement’
The word gentrification appeared for the first time in the Philadelphia Daily News in 1979, when it was defined as the “revival of choice inner-city areas.” A year later, a Daily News article defined it as "the so-called return of professional couples to the city.” But the first time it appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1981, the connotation was decidedly more negative. An architect warned of the “mixed blessing” of historic preservation — that people feared it would “lead to gentrification and people being forced out.”
Some longtime residents in the city’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, who have watched their neighbors in Brewerytown undergo a drastic transformation over the last decade, fear that they could see increased property taxes in the coming years if investment continues moving northward.
“When people hear the word gentrification in Strawberry Mansion, they hear displacement,” said Tonnetta Graham, president of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation. “That is more or less what they are fighting. They do not want to be displaced.”
Schlichtman, the urban sociologist, doesn’t include the word “displacement” in his definition of gentrification, which he says is “the reinvestment of real estate capital into disinvestment and devalued neighborhoods to create a new residential and commercial infrastructure for middle- and high-income inhabitants.”
The omission is intentional, and it’s because if displacement is included in the very definition of the word gentrification, he said, “it means we can’t describe anything as gentrification until after the fact. So how do you prepare for it?”
Some developers and business owners who have attempted to use the term in a positive way see it differently. For example, Philadelphia developer GM Home has on its website homepage that it’s “leading the gentrification of your favorite neighborhoods.” (The company did not return phone calls requesting comment.) Another realty company posted recently online about a “lovely updated” three-bedroom house for rent “in the gentrifying Brewerytown!”
And in April, when the restaurant Pineville Tavern Fishtown, located technically north of Fishtown in Kensington, announced it was closing, the owner seemingly lamented what he saw as a lack of investment. He described it as “Philly’s northern gentrification hasn’t quite hit our area yet.” (Average incomes in Fishtown have skyrocketed over the last decade, which experts say is a sign it’s one of the city’s most gentrified neighborhoods.)
The role of developers
Heather Squire, an affordable-housing researcher and advocate who lives in Point Breeze, said that, perhaps in 2019, gentrification for some means the commodification of something previously seen by those in power to not have much value. Once there’s an infusion of capital, she said, that thing becomes “authentic,” “elevated” and “reborn."
“So a developer bragging about gentrification is basically bragging about ‘making the desert bloom,’” she said. “The developer isn’t concerned with displacement because they are concerned solely with raising property values.”
Plenty of developers do work to invest responsibly, involve community leaders, and consider the impact their activities have on longtime residents, said Ken Weinstein, a developer in Germantown. (He created Jumpstart, a training and financing program for aspiring local developers that largely operates in Philadelphia’s “middle neighborhoods,” or areas that are doing well economically but that are at-risk for disinvestment.)
He said developers taking part in tone-deaf marketing and proudly gentrifying aren’t appealing to most people who understand what the word represents.
“They see it as improvement or investment and miss the real meaning of it,” he said. “I think it turns off buyers and renters. Even if people are moving into hotter neighborhoods and have responsibility for displacing longtime residents, I don’t think they would take pride in that.”
Schlichtman said there’s an argument to be made for throwing away the term altogether “because it is now so hairy that no one can use it accurately.” But on the other hand, he said, the word should be charged.
“The word should be a battlefield. It should evoke debate and political wrestling,” he said, “because it’s worthy of it.”