Coffee Shops and Street Stops: Policing Practices in Gentrifying Neighborhoods

By Ayobami Laniyonu (UCLA)

Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the concept of gentrification and how it has radically transformed neighborhoods and communities throughout America. Generally speaking, gentrification describes the transformation of areas of a city: from areas previously characterized by inadequate public services, low levels of private investment, and occupancy by poor or working class residents, to zones characterized by expanded public services, more private investment, and occupancy by well-educated, middle and upper class residents.

Readers of this blog are also likely familiar with debates over the consequences of gentrification and how neighborhood transformation affects different stakeholders. Some municipal leaders, for example, are likely to see gentrification as a boon to their cities, drawing in potential residents, tourists, and companies that may spur growth. Similarly, potential in-movers to gentrifying communities are likely to view gentrification positively, as it makes areas of the city accessible to forms of consumption that may have been impossible previously. For longtime neighborhood residents, however, gentrification may lead to higher rents for homeowners and small businesses, and destabilize established communities.

In my paper in Urban Affairs Review, I present evidence that in addition to some of these negative outcomes, gentrification can also be associated with significantly higher rates of policing. In the case that I explore, I find a strong positive association between neighborhood gentrification and the intensity of police stops under New York City’s Stop, Question, and Frisk program, which saw millions of innocent New Yorkers subjected to invasive street interrogations and specifically targeted young black and Latino men.

Using publicly available data from the United States Census Bureau, I first construct a map of gentrification in New York City, from 2000 to 2014. I categorically distinguish between tracts that were in 2000, too affluent to be considered eligible to gentrify, tracts that were sufficiently marginalized to be eligible to gentrify but did not, and tracts that did gentrify.

The map should be familiar to those knowledgeable about gentrification in New York City, with recognizable communities like Harlem, Williamsburg, Greene Point, and Bedford-Stuyvesant shaded in dark blue.



While most may be familiar with the pattern of gentrification, many readers may be unaware of the pattern of stopping displayed in the box plots below. Drawing on data from the NYPD and the New York Civil Liberties Union on the spatial distribution of Stop and Frisk, I calculated how policing practices vary in each of these different neighborhoods.




As one might expect, wealthier neighborhoods ineligible to gentrify have lower stopping rates compared to all other tracts. What might not be expected, however, are that tracts that have undergone or are currently experiencing gentrification have higher stopping rates than those marginalized tracts that are not currently experiencing an influx of investment, an increase in rent prices, and in migration by well-educated and wealthier residents.

Multiple other factors could explain this pattern of more intense policing in gentrifying communities.  Some scholarship suggests that gentrification can lead to higher crime in the short or medium term. Gentrification disrupts established community cohesion, produces greater racial and ethnic heterogeneity, and often produces greater wealth or income inequality in neighborhoods, all of which are associated with higher crime rates. Thus, higher police activity in gentrifying communities may rationally follow higher crime rates.

Some scholarship, however, has suggested that in an effort to make gentrifying neighborhoods available for consumption by in-movers, municipal elites target specific populations for intense policing. The suggestion made by these scholars is that to cater to different perceptions of fear of crime, public order, and civil behavior that in-movers bring with them, police target specific populations for intense policing, most notably the homeless and young men of color.

My analysis tests for these competing explanations and finds that, independent of the affect crime and other factors have, gentrification does induce substantially higher policing, anywhere from 51% to 90% more. Interestingly, the results suggest that gentrification’s effect on policing is concentrated in nearby communities. In New York City for example, the results would suggest that gentrification of some city blocks in Morningside Heights, where Columbia University is located, resulted in more intense policing in adjacent communities in Harlem, independent of crime levels in those neighborhoods.

Taken as a whole, the results identify additional negative consequences for some populations due to gentrification, specifically among lower income minority communities who typically suffer the most the most from gentrification and from police contact: neighborhood “revitalization” subjects these communities to higher rates of a police practice that has been widely criticized as deeply invasive, humiliating, and alienating. That finding that the relationship between gentrification and policing is independent of crime levels and citizen demand for police services (measured using 311 call rates) is also consistent with the argument that police deployment rates are influenced by elite level preferences to make gentrifying areas feel more secure, a result with serious implications for how we understand of equity, justice, and exposure to the criminal justice system in rapidly changing cities.

Finally, the results emphasize that citizens and policy makers ought to consider consequences that may not be directly visible when evaluating the desirability or benefits of gentrification. Just as damning a river may provide direct benefits to proximal communities while devastating ecosystems upstream, the findings emphasize that we cannot fully appreciate the consequences of gentrification without paying serious attention to its indirect spatial effects on adjacent communities, and on cities as a whole.

Ayobami Laniyonu is a PhD candidate in the department of Political Science and a Masters student in Statistics at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is  currently a Doctoral Fellow at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago, Illinois (Fall 2016 – Spring 2018), where he is completing his dissertation with funding from the American Bar Foundation, National Science Foundation, and the Law and Society Association.


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