Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion: how neigh­bor­hoods change

The Review - - Opinion - Jim Smart Visit colum­nist Jim Smart’s web­site at jamess­mart­sphiladel­

The word “gen­tri­fi­ca­tion” is used around Philadel­phia a lot th­ese days. A dic­tio­nary de­fines gen­tri­fi­ca­tion as “the process of ren­o­vat­ing and im­prov­ing a house or district so that it con­forms to mid­dle-class taste.”

It also of­fers the def­i­ni­tion “the process of mak­ing a per­son or ac­tiv­ity more re­fined or po­lite,” but let’s not get into that.

Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion has be­come the more or less po­lite word for the process of a builder or “de­vel­oper” (what­ever that re­ally means) march­ing into a neigh­bor­hood pop­u­lated by peo­ple who have low in­comes, dark com­plex­ions, for­eign lan­guages or other un­for­tu­nate hand­i­caps (ex­cuse the sar­casm) and re­build­ing the area with houses the in­hab­i­tants can’t af­ford, to lure in buy­ers who, well, maybe, “con­form to mid­dle class taste.”

It’s a good way for builders and ar­chi­tects and real es­tate peo­ple to make a liv­ing. And all con­cerned seem to ac­cept the process. Does any de­vel­oper ever put mod­est-priced houses, ex­pen­sive houses and multi-mil­lion dol­lar houses on the same block?

When they were build­ing Le­vit­town in Lower Bucks County back in the ’50s, I asked one of Bill Le­vitt’s op­er­a­tives why the higher priced Coun­try Club­ber and Colo­nial mod­els were all in one area and the low­est priced Le­vit­towner mod­els in another, and he replied, “Be­cause doc­tors don’t want to live next to plumbers.”

But there is more to a chang­ing neigh­bor­hood than that. And most neigh­bor­hoods where the more af­flu­ent are now eas­ing out low-in­come res­i­dents had once be­fore been more af­flu­ent and in turn had de­clined.

The rise of new tech­nol­ogy has changed many Philadel­phia neigh­bor­hoods. It was com­mon in past gen­er­a­tions that grownup chil­dren wanted to live near their par­ents, and in some ar­eas that still is true. Many old neigh­bor­hoods have many-gen­er­a­tioned in­hab­i­tants.

But con­sider the house in which I grew up. It was built more than 130 years ago. Elec­tric­ity was an af­ter­thought; there were few out­lets, and none in the kitchen. Mod­ern build­ing codes made new wiring im­pos­si­ble in the brick walls. (I won­der what the folks do who live there now. And will gen­tri­fi­ca­tion strike them some day?)

Af­ter World War II, sud­denly most peo­ple could have, and wanted, elec­tric wash­ers, dry­ers, stoves, irons, toast­ers, mix­ers, air con­di­tion­ers, ra­dios, phono­graphs.

Young fam­i­lies moved out, to new houses in new neigh­bor­hoods or new suburbs, be­cause they could not live 20th cen­tury lives in a 19th cen­tury house. Lower in­come im­mi­grants and mi­nori­ties moved in. It was the op­po­site of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.

Another vari­a­tion of so-called gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is the oblit­er­a­tion of neigh­bor­hoods by hos­pi­tals and uni­ver­si­ties, which has been hap­pen­ing slowly and grad­u­ally for 50 or 60 years.

The so-called mil­len­nial gen­er­a­tion is de­vel­op­ing a dif­fer­ent life­style with chang­ing at­ti­tudes and chang­ing re­quire­ments. Per­haps eco­nomic, racial, eth­nic and cul­tural dif­fer­ences won’t mean so much now, although there still seem to be plenty of as­sorted big­ots run­ning at large.

Ob­vi­ously, what our so­ci­ety likes to call gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is much more com­pli­cated than that dic­tio­nary def­i­ni­tion. And it makes me won­der, prob­a­bly naively, what would hap­pen if a de­vel­oper built a new neigh­bor­hood that had a mix of houses of dif­fer­ent sizes, ameni­ties and prices, where, un­like that real es­tate guy’s opin­ion, doc­tors would live next door to plumbers?

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