The term gentrification was coined by the English urbanist, Ruth Glass, based on what she had observed in 1960s London. The term’s common use refers to the destruction and subsequent replacement of buildings and homes of an inferior economic value with newly constructed higher-priced buildings and homes for a wealthier economic class (Glass; Smith, The New Urban). This includes the eviction and expulsion of residents, their local community, or small and often historical economies. In the displacement of these historical and local signifiers, gentrified spaces often become socio-historically and culturally homogenized and used merely as spaces of transit instead of spaces of spontaneity, social interaction, conversation, creativity from below, or political action. Gentrification has also been utilized as a strategy to push out of public view anything that does not fit the objectives of the real estate market (crime, homelessness, sex work, poverty, etc.) (Mitchell, Harvey).
Urbanist Neil Smith explains how gentrification, as a concept and material phenomenon, has changed in the last five or six decades—from a municipal programs in some neighborhoods and previous industrial areas of global cities to an international paradigm of large-scale urban planning in any urban location around the world. This new reality of gentrification, what Smith called “general gentrification,” differs little from the general neoliberalism (global economy) that has penetrated our everyday lives. One could say, it is now a spatial component of neoliberalism. In other words, gentrification has become synonymous with the eviction of all things socio-historical from all facets of urban and increasingly, suburban society. In this vein, in a neoliberal economy with its hubs in cities of incessant flow, we would be distorting reality if we spoke of gentrification separately from many different urban phenomena related to spatial displacement or gentrification. Included are mass tourism, infrastructure (transportation, water, parks, waste management), the large works of “starchitects,” rent hikes, city and neighborhood branding, political battles, and culture. Regarding culture, briefly: dominating agents (e.g. politicians, real estate agents, architects, construction and marketing companies, and investors) employ attractive cultural structures and offers to both increase the economic value of a neighborhood as well as normalize and mask the ugly side of gentrification (Zukin, Balibrea).
In other words, like neoliberalism, even though the public pays the governing powers’ salaries to represent them and prioritize the common good, the network of agents involved in the destructive process of gentrification almost always excludes local residents and the Neighborhood Associations from the details, long-term costs, and decision-making processes that any given gentrification project entails. (In fact, this exclusion has become so normalized that we generally do not question the role of the citizen in the decision-making processes behind new developments that appear in our surroundings.) Not simply is information kept private, but when projects are presented to the public sphere, dominating agents often refer to them in an inclusive-sounding vocabulary such as “social innovation” and “urban improvement” (Smith “New Globalism,” Balibrea, McNeill, Delgado).
Finally, there are those who assume that gentrification (if they use that word at all) is merely change which has always existed, especially in cities, and is therefore inevitable. But time and time again we see democratic cases that refute this claim, such as moments, sometimes economically difficult, when the municipal governments of Paris, Berlin, Milan, Barcelona, Madrid, Bogota, and Tokyo have put rent caps on housing and tourist apartments (AirBnb), have designated public housing in high rent zones, and have opted for renovating historical working-class housing instead of tearing it down.
Balibrea, Mari Paz. The Global Cultural Capital: Address the Citizen and Producing the City in Barcelona. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Delgado, Manuel. La cuidad mentirosa. Los libros de la Catarata, 2007. Glass, Ruth. London, Aspects of Change. Centre for Urban Studies at University College London, 1964. Harvey, David. Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Oxford University Press, 2014. McNeill, Donald. Urban change and the European Left: Tales from the new Barcelona. Routledge, 1999. Mitchell, Don. “Metaphors to Live By: Landscapes as Systems of Social Reproduction.” Cultural Studies: An Anthology. Eds. Michael Ryan and Hanna Musiol. Blackwell Publishers, 2008. Pp. 101-123. Smith, Neil. “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as a New Global Strategy.” Antipode, 2002. -----. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. Routledge, 1998. Villar, Paco. Historia y leyenda del Barrio Chino: Crónica y documentos de los bajos fondos de Barcelona. Edicions La Campana, 1996. Zukin, Sharon. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. John Hopkins University Press, 1982.