Gentrification breeds radically different views of the same city

Noah Wilbur | Staff Columnist 1/9/20

Over the past two decades, gentrification has developed into a widespread topic often appearing in the headlines of major U.S. cities such as San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C. and many more. The controversial expression has become a heavily disputed topic in political debates, as well as a critical action point in the campaigns of many candidates seeking election in local and national offices.

By definition, gentrification is the process of renovating and upgrading homes, buildings and surrounding infrastructure in deteriorating neighborhoods to conditions that are considered affluent and “middle-class.”

Behind the efforts to gentrify poorer neighborhoods, a paradoxical situation arises. As investment pours into these communities, buildings and infrastructure drastically improve; consequently, there is a sharp increase in rent, property values and taxes.

Unable to afford these rising prices, original residents must upend their lives and search for a new home. Wealthier citizens and families continue to arrive and enjoy the updated structures and contemporary amenities.

Across the nation, we are seeing the forced displacement of low-income individuals and people of color as an adverse consequence of gentrification.

Supporters declare that neighborhoods subject to gentrification are in desperate need of investment, and that the displacement of residents is a necessary cost of urban development that can be mitigated.

In contrast, adversaries are calling the process of gentrifying low value areas as discriminatory and an act of marginalization on the working class.

Here in Pittsburgh, the effects of gentrification are indisputably seen by taking a drive around the city and the surrounding communities.

Take South Side for example; beginning on S16th street and East Carson and heading towards SouthSide Works, one can see the buildings and residential homes beginning to change as they appear newer, renovated and modern. Likewise, the infrastructure also considerably improves as you near SouthSide Works — the preeminent destination of the area.

Other areas that have experienced gentrification in Pittsburgh include: Downtown Pittsburgh, Mount Washington, North Side and Lawrenceville.

By visiting only a few local news websites, you will likely see numerous articles pertaining to the widespread occurrence of gentrification sweeping across the Steel City.

Within the past two years, Pittsburgh has made headlines as one of the most gentrified cities in the U.S. In a recent study from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the NCRC developed a helpful visual to reveal the cities with the highest intensity of gentrification from 2000-2013.

To my surprise, Pittsburgh ranked eighth, outpacing the likes of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Austin. Deeper investigation indicates that the Pittsburgh residents mainly being displaced are those of color and with lower-paying employment.

However, it is difficult to argue that gentrification is wholly unfavorable as it does indeed steer a community towards economic growth and prosperity. Obvious examples include substantial investments into modernizing and improving homes, buildings and infrastructure.

The gentrification process often results in reduced crime rates, and increased productivity of business activities related to retail and entertainment (e.g. restaurants, boutiques, stores, theaters).

Finally, I cannot neglect to mention the most significant benefit of them all: jobs. Increased investment within an area is met with the arrival of more diverse and abundant job opportunities.

Therefore, when it comes down to the brass tacks, the negative criticism surrounding gentrification corresponds largely to the expulsion of residents. If wide-spread displacement does not occur, gentrification becomes favorable and advantageous for a community.

Although a considerable “what-if” circumstance, it does not necessarily seem like an impossible task to achieve. For example, policies and programs such as affordable housing, reduced property taxes and vouchers are methods that can curb displacement among residents.

The truth of the matter is that the process of gentrifying neighborhoods is not likely to slow down or cease to exist, especially in Pittsburgh – a place of monumental opportunity. We must change our perception of gentrification as a cynical act, and instead consider it as a mechanism that can improve quality of life for both sides.

Through concentrated planning, the fostering of bold ideas and direct involvement with the community, wide-spread displacement can be significantly reduced. As a result, gentrified neighborhoods will reap the benefits of modern infrastructure and a diverse population.

I call upon city officials and community leaders to join together and focus their efforts on developing new strategies that can utilize gentrification in a way that equally benefits all sides of society.

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