Gentrification is Not Necessarily Turning Black Neighborhoods White

By Jeffrey M. Timberlake (University of Cincinnati) and Elaina Johns-Wolfe (University of Cincinnati) 

Editors Note: New research on gentrification has gotten some attention on the web recently.  Joe Cortright wrote a piece at City Commentary that may be of interest to our readers (A new look at neighborhood change). Additionally, New York Magazine’s Jesse Signal published a piece this week on gentrification (Is Everyone Focusing Too Much on Gentrification?) that mentions some of this new research.   In this piece Jeffrey Timberlake and Elaina Johns-Wolfe discuss some of their own recent research on gentrification and neighborhood ethnoracial composition (Neighborhood Ethnoracial Composition and Gentrification in Chicago and New York, 1980 to 2010).  -Scott Minkoff

Residents of many American cities have probably noticed that after several decades of poverty, violence, and economic decline, some inner city neighborhoods have recently undergone reinvestment and redevelopment—in short, they have “gentrified.” Broadly defined, gentrification is the transformation of a relatively poor to a relatively wealthy neighborhood through an influx of more affluent residents, usually preceded and followed by financial investments by public or private entities such as development corporations or real estate speculators.

But why do certain neighborhoods gentrify and others do not? Every city has many poor neighborhoods that could gentrify, but only a few actually do. Much of the scholarly literature on gentrification focuses on one or a handful of already-gentrified neighborhoods and traces the history of the transformation. Christopher Mele’s Selling the Lower East Side in New York and Richard Lloyd’s Neo-Bohemia in Chicago are excellent examples of this approach. Among the handful of studies that attempt ex ante to understand why certain neighborhoods gentrify, researchers have not paid much attention to pre-gentrification ethnoracial composition of neighborhoods as a factor, despite much social scientific evidence that it might play a significant role, for several reasons.

First, many studies have shown that Whites report unwillingness to move into neighborhoods with even a small African-American population. In addition to its obvious effects on the likelihood that a largely Black or Latino neighborhood would be gentrified by Whites, White avoidance likely reduces the appeal of Black neighborhoods to real estate developers seeking to maximize returns on scarce investment resources. Moreover, research has stressed the importance of historically Black neighborhoods as targets for gentrification by African-Americans. Less well developed is the research on Latino gentrification; however, there is nothing about these general observations regarding neighborhood ethnoracial composition that would preclude gentrification by Latinos in predominantly Latino neighborhoods.

In a study we recently published in Urban Affairs Review we use census data from the central cities of Chicago and New York to understand the role of neighborhood racial and ethnic composition before neighborhoods gentrify in predicting which ones do and which ones do not. The map of Chicago below shows that gentrified White neighborhoods tended to be on the North Side of Chicago, while black neighborhoods were on the South Side, Latino neighborhoods were near Pilsen (southwest of the downtown) and Logan Square (northwest of downtown), and mixed neighborhoods were near downtown.


Gentrification in Chicago, 1980 to 2010

The map of New York shows that gentrified White neighborhoods tended to be in Hell’s Kitchen (west of Midtown), Park Slope, and Williamsburg (Brooklyn), while Black neighborhoods were in Harlem and Brooklyn east of downtown, and Latino and mixed neighborhoods were scattered about.


Gentrification in New York City, 1980 to 2010

Some of the results of our statistical analysis are shown in the graph below. We found that neighborhoods with high percentages of African-American residents in 1980 were less likely to have gentrified by White residents and more likely to have gentrified by Black residents by 2010. Similarly, we found that the percentage of Latino residents in 1980 was positively related to gentrification in neighborhoods with a high proportion of Latinos in 2010. Finally, we found that close proximity to the central business districts of both cities (outlined in orange on the maps) was a strong predictor of all types of gentrification.


The probability that neighborhoods gentrified by 2010 by Whites (blue lines) was higher when the percentage of Blacks in 1980 was lower.  And the probability that they gentrified by Blacks (orange lines) was higher when the percentage of Blacks was higher.

Taken as a whole, these findings emphasize the continued importance of race and ethnicity in the inner city. Contrary to some popular assumptions, gentrification is not necessarily turning Black inner city neighborhoods White, at least in Chicago and New York. Rather, some poor White, Black, and Latino neighborhoods experienced increases in affluence separately. This suggests that, as with much else in the contemporary United States, processes of gentrification often occur along segregated lines. Of course, this does not mean that the public and policy makers should not be concerned about the ways in which gentrification is transforming America’s inner cities. Rather, our findings suggest that gentrification has a certain degree of predictability to it, which might help local officials figure out how to make sure that redevelopment occurs in a balanced way for all citizens.

Editor’s Note: Read Timberlake and Johns-Wolfe’s complete article here.

Jeffrey M. Timberlake is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati. His research interests are in urban sociology, race and ethnicity, and quantitative research methods. His research focuses on causes and consequences of urban inequality, particularly racial and ethnic residential segregation. Recent projects include analyses of minority suburbanization patterns, attitudes of Ohioans toward immigrants and immigration, and urban demographic change from 1970 to 2010.

Elaina Johns-Wolfe is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati. Her research focuses on the quantitative analysis of gentrification patterns and the role of historic preservation in urban redevelopment.

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