Revitalization or displacement: What is gentrification really?

Ask anyone who knew the Short North two decades ago, and you’ll probably hear the word gentrification come up.

Although a well-known concept in the streets of Brooklyn and San Francisco — and increasingly in Columbus — gentrification is still a vague, but highly controversial concept even more than half a century after the term was first coined.


Although many have tried nailing down a formal explanation, the definition for gentrification has evolved nearly as much as the cities and neighborhoods it aims to describe.

The term gentrification was introduced in 1964 by Ruth Glass, a London sociologist. She wrote:

“One by one, many of the working class neighbourhoods of London have been invaded by the middle-classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and two down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive residences … Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in alike district it goes on rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”

Ruth Glass, London: aspects of change (1964)

For the word-lovers out there: Gentrification is rooted in the 16th-century English word “gentry” meaning “people of gentle birth.” If you were one of gentle birth, you were usually of the higher social classes, as in a “gentleman.”

In the 60 years since Glass’ definition, many others have tried to more clearly identify gentrification. Rachel Kleit, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University, defined it as “the process of a neighborhood upgrading.”

“It means that suddenly or somehow there are new people moving in, there are new markets and suddenly there’s new demand for housing and services in that place,” she explained.

These definitions help us understand the effects of gentrification: the changes we can see when we walk through our neighborhoods, such as new neighbors and businesses. But gentrification is not just about the effects. These definitions — much like the discussion around gentrification — focus on its symptoms. Let’s look beyond the effects and take a deeper look at the this process and the root causes of it: a series of larger economic trends created largely by investors and the government.


Franklinton is another Columbus neighborhood that’s seeing an increase in investments such as craft breweries, mixed-use apartments and art collectives. But what does that mean for a neighborhood with a median income of less than $23,000 a year? Max Wrolstad | Matter News

In his 1979 book, Phillip Clay, professor emeritus of urban studies at MIT, identified four phases of gentrification, which laid the groundwork for how scholars think about the process. For the past 40 years, his model — with help from emerging research that adds stages — has been used to describe and understand the process a neighborhood undergoes as its real estate landscape evolves.


STAGE 1 — Individual, lower-middle class residents fix up the neighborhood

In Clay’s first stage of gentrification, an initial wave of individual renovators move into a previously poorer neighborhood and fix up area homes. There isn’t much media attention, and conversations about area gentrifiers are mostly talk.

But it’s not only folks looking to make an easy buck renovating homes who move in. Usually newcomers in stage one are those only slightly more well-off than current residents, including artists looking for cheap studios and LGBTQ+ communities looking for safe spaces, according to Clay.

STAGE 2 — Vacancies go down, the middle class moves in and displacement starts

Eventually the number of fixed-up homes becomes noticeable and begins attracting more middle-class people to the neighborhood, thus beginning the second stage of Clay’s gentrification model. Newcomers begin buying more real estate, and some investors aim to capitalize on the area’s sprouting arts scene. National media begins paying attention and soon displacement begins.

STAGE 3 — Public and private interests sink money into a formerly disinvested neighborhood

“Really the only people with enough capital to gentrify at this point are companies,” said journalist Peter Moskowitz, author of How to Kill a City.

The large-scale investment of capital from many parties is a tell-tale sign that a neighborhood is well into the process of gentrification, according to Clay’s model. Whereas in stages one and two development was done by individuals, development in stage three neighborhoods is done by large-scale investors.

STAGE 4 — It’s not about homes anymore. It’s about money.

Once the real estate landscape of a neighborhood surpasses mixed-income housing and transitions to upper-class living, according to Clay’s model, that neighborhood has entered stage four. A major influx of newcomers settle down in the area, while artists, immigrants and people of color are less prominent in the community. In stage four, many once vacant properties are converted into luxury condos by large-scale developers. At this point, gentrification is no longer contained in the neighborhood’s geographic region and overflows into nearby communities.

Now, remember those middle-class individuals from stages one and two? Once a neighborhood enters stage four, the middle-class folks that some view initially as “gentrifiers” end up being pushed out themselves, according to Clay’s model.

“Right now in the Short North it’s very hard for people with moderate income to find housing,” Kleit explained. “But we’re not preserving housing necessarily for the people at the bottom.”

The Short North has seen its far share of investment and disinvestment. The art district got its name from local police for being “just short” of downtown both geographically and economically, but today its streets are lined with mostly local shops and fresh concrete sidewalks. Ris Twigg | Matter News


Back in 1979 when Phillip Clay first theorized his four-stage model, it was a nearly complete explanation of how gentrification worked.

But since then, cities have continued to grow and made clear that the original four stages just weren’t going to cut it. More and more researchers advocated for an additional two stages: stage five and stage zero.

STAGE 5 — Global investors enter the local real estate game

“Stages one through four make sense [in smaller cities],” Moskowitz said. “But it’s just now that developers have realized gentrification is such a lucrative strategy for their business they don’t need to wait for the ‘pollinators’ to come into those neighborhoods and make it okay for them [to develop].”

Moskowitz explains this concept in their book How to Kill a City, noting that today’s development deals are started by foreign investors, leading many neighborhoods in globalized cities to be affordable only for “the global elite.”

Take New York, for example. Many international investors decided to take advantage of the city’s most disinvested neighborhoods, according to researchers Jason Hackworth and Neil Smith. Local developers — let alone individual, middle-class renovators — are long gone in some parts of New York.

“In other words,” Moskowitz writes, “the fifth and last phase of gentrification is when neighborhoods aren’t just more friendly to capital than to people, but cease being places to live a normal life — with work and home and school and community spaces — and become luxury commodities.”


The five-stage model explains what happens when a neighborhood gentrifies, but what it misses is why gentrification unfolds. Some journalists and researchers believe that in order to fully understand the reasons why money and shifting demographics change a neighborhood, a sixth stage should be added: stage zero.

Moskowitz notes in their book that in order for the first five phases of gentrification to occur, “governments have to be willing to allow for it.” As such, stage zero is when all city decisions are made, according to Moskowitz.

But why are city officials creating policies incentivizing developments such as large buildings in historic neighborhoods or flipped homes and luxury apartments in low-income neighborhoods?

“Cities and states have been completely gutted by our messed up tax system,” they said in an interview. “[Politicians] want money to run the city, but there’s just not enough money available, so they turn to gentrification as the strategy to fund their cities.”

Moskowitz’ point is this: federal budget cuts took funds away from cities for public goods such as housing, transportation and programs for those in poverty, and some politicians have instead turned to gentrification as a way to put money back into the cities they run.

Kleit, the city and regional planning professor, agreed with Moskowitz, adding that the United States doesn’t look at housing in quite the same way it used to.

“Some of the critical conversations that were happening maybe a century ago, we no longer have those conversations,” she said. “You had a sense of there were a lot of people that needed housing, and it was a government good.”

With a lack of funding for already struggling and racially-tense inner cities starting in the 1950s and 1960s, cities have been treading water for quite some time. But how did cities get here? Well, the federal government laid the groundwork.


After World War II, Americans sought the comfort of isolated homeownership outside the city — but they weren’t introduced to the idea completely on their own.

“The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation was created as a recovery tool from the Great Depression, trying to preserve homeownership because many people lost their houses,” Kleit explained.

This residential security map shows the areas in Columbus, Ohio that were redlined in 1936. Digital Scholarship Lab | University of Richmond

The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation — part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal established in 1933 —  created a map of residential security indicating how “safe” a real estate investor’s investment would be within a particular neighborhood, a process now known as redlining.

“The green areas were invest in those places, and the red areas don’t invest,” Kleit explained. “So if you think about the 1930s, the climate of the U.S. at the time was really nativist. The idea was that you could understand the property value of a place, the quality of a place based upon the race of the people who live there.”

Redlining and the underwriting of home loans by the federal government gave white residents the ability to move out of city centers that were no longer being intentionally invested in, furthering an already heated racial divide in America as white flight ensued.

But it wasn’t just the incentivization of real estate development in suburbia that allowed cities to deteriorate, leaving them ripe for reinvestment.

Over the past 40 years, federal welfare programs such as public housing, transit and programs for the poor have been drastically cut. President Reagan’s proposed 1982 budget slashed all non-military spending by 5.7 percent — a whopping $44 billion. And the cuts didn’t stop in the 1980s. Housing assistance for those struggling to keep a roof over their head has still dropped by $2.1 billion from 2010 to 2016.

“The system of supports that we have for housing in the U.S. disproportionately benefits people with money. It’s a lot more money spent on those who are in the upper 80% than the lower 20%,” said Kleit.


After these major cuts, cities were forced to come up with a new plan. Trickle-down economics, meet 2018.

In order to attract more people — and more money — back to the city, local and state governments decided they would incentivize investors to sink their funds into city development.

“Cities are really struggling with their budgets right now,” Moskowitz said. “Yet you see cities everywhere handing out tens of millions of dollars to developers to build things in their cities.”

Columbus is no stranger to handing out corporate tax breaks. The city offered more than $2.6 billion in tax incentives, hoping to win over Amazon’s second headquarters location, but lost in mid-November.

The general idea according to some economists is that once large corporations put their businesses within city limits, the benefits will trickle down to the city and its residents via a booming local economy. Let’s be clear, though: there isn’t much research that tells us who gets access to new jobs or who can even afford to shop at the incoming businesses.


Perspectives on gentrification widely vary, but it’s often talked about as two different sides of the same coin.

If the coin is the process of adding capital and shifting demographics, one side is gentrification and the ‘flipside’ is revitalization. Both gentrification and revitalization bring the same street-level changes (craft breweries, new apartments, rising rents), but some say they differ in the approach and intention.

Shep Terhune was forced to move out of his Short North apartment of more than 20 years because a developer bought the building, and he could not find affordable and accessible housing in the neighborhood. Jaelynn Grisso | Matter News

Some critics say gentrification brings newer, more affluent residents to a neighborhood who are more focused on making a profit than investing in the community’s needs. Proponents of revitalization say it’s an intentional community development process that brings more community-oriented business and focuses on avoiding displacement.

That’s another point of debate — do people really get displaced in gentrifying or revitalizing neighborhoods?

Research conducted in New York City by Lance Freeman, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University, claimed displacement isn’t occurring because most renters are already pretty mobile within a city. But some immigrants, artists and people of color who call cities their home argue that gentrification is bringing forth evictions and displacement at abnormal rates.

OK, so what now?

Understanding the root causes of gentrification is the first step to looking at neighborhood change more holistically. The next step? Identifying solutions.

Kleit believes many creative solutions to gentrification exist, such as development holds that give neighborhoods time to digest a proposed development. But for Moskowitz, the solution starts with the government.

“The government could stop gentrification tomorrow,” Moskowitz said. “It could allocate money for public housing, rent control, zone differently so places are more affordable … In terms of how big of a problem it is, the only realistic and practical solution to me is something that comes from the government.”

Ris has created visual media content professionally in both public and private sectors for more than six years. She is well versed in a variety of mediums including newspaper, podcast, social media, and photography, weaving creative storytelling to engage audiences of all kinds. In addition to capturing aesthetics, Ris has experience in editing photo, video, and audio as well as producing, directing, and copywriting.

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