Gentrification: how neighborhoods change
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?