Word Of The Day: Gentrification

My latest spiel on words commonly considered as provocative or misunderstood or at a minimum, ambiguous in St. Louis is on the word "gentrification".

I've touched on the word  and ghetto so far, two words most in the region use with a strong local meaning.  Even though these words may carry negatives, they are highly descriptive and continue to be used whether we like it or not.  There's no doubt in my mind that those two words are pretty universally understood and used with accuracy.

Gentrification on the other hand, not so much.  First of all, it is a relatively modern word that was added to the dictionary a mere 48 years ago.  What the word means, especially in the context of St. Louis, is fascinating to me.  Some see gentrification as a good thing, others not.

Let's start with a dictionary definition:

the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents (source)

Simple, right.  Yet, I've been in several conversations where the topic simply gets out of hand and fast.  When I hear anyone speak negative of sensitive investment, infrastructure upgrades or renewal in any neighborhood in St. Louis, a city that has seen staggering population losses and destruction of historic property, I am flummoxed.  How can that be bad regardless of what powers are doing the planning, bank rolling and execution?

Another definition:

the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses. (source)

This one describes the potential negatives of gentrification in a little more detail.  It touches on property values raising and pushing out the same people who may have provided the area with much soul and flavor for decades.  Think Cherokee street mom and pop Hispanic/Latino businesses being pushed out by higher rent and changing demographics.  That would be a bummer.

But is that really going to happen here?  I don't know but I doubt it.

Still, with the current state of affairs in St. Louis, investment of any kind seems pretty good to me.  Every neighborhood in the city could use an influx of people with money willing to invest right here in the city, no?  I'd kill for some more of that medicine in my neck of the woods. 

I think the gentrification as a negative argument just doesn't play well in St. Louis.  The city seems inherently built to not push out poor people; it was built for the huddled masses when the country was in a state of massive immigration from Europe and migration from the South.  Sure there are mansions and swanky residences, but the vast majority of homes are of modest size compared to the national average.  In fact the Midwest has the lowest average new single family home sizes compared to the rest of the country:


The average home size in 2010 was 2,265 square feet in 2010, 2,020 in 1992 and 1,445 in 1973.  The vast majority of homes in St. Louis were built prior to 1973.  So, based on these data, you can assume in the heydey of our building boom from the late 19th Century to 1955 or so, the average home was even smaller than 1,445 sq. ft.  The point I'm trying to make is, St. Louis is built smaller and more dense than the new construction areas and trends of bigger is better.  You could argue that our built environment is set up for density and the masses....hence it'll be cheaper to live here based on overall lower square footage and supply & demand keeping costs of living much lower than the national average.

We have rows and rows of houses that are very modest in size from the northern tip to the southern tip of the city.  These are all over, look no further than the concentration of such homes in North Hampton, Walnut Park West and many many other neighborhoods.

the North Hampton neighborhood

the Walnut Park West neighborhood

Furthermore, there are cheap rents all over the city.  There are so many multi-family and multi-unit properties here, I just don't see rents skyrocketing over the next 10-20 years enough to push people out of St. Louis.  Maybe a street or a block, but not an entire neighborhood or city.

If you think gentrification is a bad word you probably have not been around our fair city.  This word having a negative context in Portland, New York or San Francisco makes sense.

Pushing out people who are from somewhere and give that area a certain vibe, history and feel is not good.  But that doesn't seem to be happening here in St. Louis, we just don't have that kind of demand and masses of wealth elevating property values to a level where the folks living in a neighborhood for decades can no longer afford it.  The rich and poor are dispersed all over the city, especially the diverse southside.  Compton Heights, DeBaliviere Place, Central West End, Downtown and Downtown West have some of our richest and most priviledged residents, yet these places I just mentioned are diverse (economically and racially) and no one is getting pushed out of these areas.

Now let's give some thought to a few neighborhoods that are going through a gentrification phase as we speak.  Why not just pick out Old North St. Louis, Forest Park Southeast and Gravois Park as examples.  If you view the activity in the last 10 years in these areas as negative or exclusionary of any particular race or economic level, than please make your points.  I am genuinely interested in your take; but I only see these areas as exciting, inspiring and improving.

Manchester Avenue in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood between Kingshighway and Vandeventer is gentrifying.  This is St. Louis' most obvious gay nightlife part of town, it has a tattoo shop, a skate shop, R&B-heavy music venue (Gramophone), a reality-TV profiled business and many other restaurants and bars...all of which are affordable and you will see people of all kinds in Sanctuaria, Sweetie Pie's, Gramophone, Atomic Cowboy and Everest (the only places I've been).

If you don't like that kind of stuff, and see it as negative then please tell me why.  Or if you think there was some awesome, positive, local, soulful vibe in these areas that is being replaced by milk toast interests by white people, hipsters, gay people or monied people in general, than please point them out to me.

Gentrification to me means more residents, less vacant property, more business, less vacant storefronts, more jobs, more fun, less abandonment and ghetto B.S.  This ain't New York or Boston where rents are prohibitive and exclusive...this is St. Louis, a city that has lost 500,000 people in 50 years.  Our most swanky/happening neighborhoods like CWE are clearly racially and class diverse, check the census data:

In 2010 the neighborhood's population was 58.0% White, 28.0% Black, 0.2% Native American, 11.1% Asian, 2.2% Two or More Races, and 0.5% Some Other Race. 2.7% of the population was of Hispanic or Latino origin

I think the gentrification debate would  be more appropriate in other cities that have seen even more investment than St. Louis.  Most of St. Louis investment has occured in the midbelt, from Downtown to Downtown West to Midtown to Grand Center to the Central West End.  Outside of CWE, most of those areas were largely unpopulated.  Remember what Washington Avenue looked like in 1994?  Dead.  No one got displaced, there was no one there.

Here is one of my favorite recent articles on gentrification with Washington D.C. as the focal point of the story.  Some quotes from the piece:

“Gentrification” is like the secret word in Pee-Wee’s Playhouse — say it and everyone freaks out.
“It’s possibly the most charged word in the built environment right now,” says Christopher Leinberger, the well-known urbanist and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The image of mustachioed, trust-fund hipsters displacing poor people of color will do that.  And that’s a shame, because gentrification has some undeniable upsides: reduced crime, better services and a more diverse array of businesses — and not just coffee shops.
“As a Detroit native who has seen this place rot from the inside-out, I’d kill for a little gentrification,” Detroit Free Press editor Stephen Henderson recently tweeted.

It's a complicated story, but in a city like St. Louis, I just don't think it applies.  I say bring on the investors and next St. Louis that has prouder streets and neighborhoods than the last generation could muster up.  There is no shame in wanting that.  Bring on the middle and upper class.  Bring on the hipsters.  Bring on money, bring on highly educated residents.  We can all be good neighbors.

My favorite local blog right now is the St. Louis Neighborhood Development Blog.  It highlights homes/businesses under renovation throughout the city and indicates the $ amounts that the building permits are for.  Nothing...NOTHING...makes me more hopeful for the future of St. Louis than money rolling into our brick beauties to bring them back to life for another generation, or modernizing the old systems to serve citizens for another generation.  A home being rehabbed in the Ville or St. Louis Hills is equal to me...investment...and that is all good.  No exceptions.  No one is being pushed out of anywhere in St. Louis.  I just don't see it.  I think negative perceptions of schools and crime displace more people across the income and race spectrum than property values and walkability scores.

Gentrification means uplifting our neighborhoods...is that wrong?