Urban renewal began back in 1915?

This week in North Philly Notes, Dennis Gale, author of The Misunderstood History of Gentrification, recounts the history of gentrification (you probably don’t know).

Gentrification—the physical, economic, and social transformation of poor and working class neighborhoods primarily by middle- and upper-income people—remains one of the most controversial topics in urban studies today. A simple Google search of the term turned up nearly ten million hits. By the time that I began researching gentrification in Washington, D.C. in the late 1970s, I had already witnessed its unfolding in Boston. Like most observers, I thought that a new trend was underway. At that time, America’s cities were in crisis and millions of middle-class people were leaving them for the leafy suburbs. The conventional wisdom was that poverty, racial strife, and crime were undermining American urban life.

Although gentrification was far outweighed nationwide by neighborhood decline, it raised hopes that not all middle-class households were abandoning cities. With more research, I learned that gentrification was not a new phenomenon. In fact, its earliest U.S. origins date to about 1915. The Misunderstood History of Gentrification, reframes our understanding of this trend’s origins, its interaction with public policies, and its evolution from “embryonic” to “advanced” gentrification. The critical role played by a burgeoning national historic preservation movement is also documented.  

What we now know as gentrification first gained momentum in Boston, New York, Charleston, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. a century ago. In each city, an older neighborhood experiencing disinvestment began attracting newcomers who renovated aging housing and generated renewed interest in inner city living. Perhaps believing that this trend was a mere flash in the pan, observers referred to it variously by terms such as “remodeling,” “regeneration” or “revitalization.” Since the late 1970s, when it became widely known as “gentrification,” online searches of that word have misled people into assuming that the phenomenon itself first appeared at that time. In fact, it dates back sixty years earlier.

Gentrification confounded conventional wisdom—i.e. that once physical neglect, economic decline, and poor and minority residents appeared, older neighborhoods would inevitably spiral downward to the status of “slums.” As official thinking went, only by tearing down slums, relocating their residents and businesses, and building anew, could such places become viable communities. But early gentrification demonstrated that renovation and reuse was not only a feasible alternative, it helped create one of the most desirable neighborhoods in each of the five cities in which it first appeared. And with time, it spread to other neighborhoods in those communities. Moreover, wherever it emerged, the process evolved with little, if any, government financing or bureaucratic administration.

But there’s more. By the late 1940s Congress grappled with the urban crisis by enacting the Urban Redevelopment program. It stipulated that cities could receive federal funds if they completely demolished and cleared older neighborhoods, displaced most existing residents and businesses, and rebuilt with modern architecture and infrastructure. The subtext was clear: only by destroying a neighborhood, could it be “saved.” Gentrification’s lessons—rehabilitating older structures, retaining their historic architecture and scale, and developing a diverse mix of existing and new residents—were written off as a recipe for failure.  

Even after Congress revised Redevelopment, renaming it Urban Renewal, the insights gained from early gentrification were largely ignored. Meanwhile, over the 1950s and 1960s, gentrification was gradually spreading. And opposition to Urban Renewal and other issues led to civil unrest in dozens of cities. Reacting, Congress scrapped the program in the mid-1970s and federal funds were targeted for housing rehabilitation, neighborhood reuse, and greater socioeconomic and racial diversity in declining areas. The new policies rejected large-scale demolition and adopted others that were more compatible with the “reuse and rehabilitate” dynamics of gentrification.

The first American cities in which gentrification surfaced were all located on the East or Gulf coasts. By the 1960s and 1970s though, the trend was metastasizing to San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Vancouver. Public officials were realizing that gentrification posed one essential part of a new strategy to revitalize the nation’s cities. By that time, hundreds of millions of dollars had been misspent on Urban Renewal—money that could have been used to rehabilitate neighborhoods for a combination of new and existing residents and businesses. As The Misunderstood History of Gentrification shows, the relationship between gentrification and Urban Renewal is widely misunderstood today.  

Gentrification demonstrated that not all middle-class people were fleeing cities. It showed that some were eager to live in mixed income and culturally diverse areas. The challenge for public policy has been to find ways to build and maintain socially and economically vibrant communities. Gentrification is a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient in the revitalization of America’s cities. President Biden, his domestic policy advisor, Susan Rice, and his nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge, are well advised to heed the lessons about urban growth and change evolving over the past century. Avoid policy myopia at all costs. The story of the nation’s cities didn’t begin in 2021. In short, history (still) matters.

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