“I don’t know how to define gentrification, but I tend to know it when I see it.” As our family has begun ministry in a long-neglected urban neighborhood of Indianapolis, we have had countless conversations that begin with comments like the one above. Many people have heard that gentrification is an issue, know that it is likely a problem for urban ministry, but have difficulty even defining the word.
The challenge is understandable. After all, when a complex term like gentrification can be applied from everything to economics, housing, and even food, it is no wonder that common definitions or concepts might evade us.
When gentrification takes place in a neighborhood or community, there are at least two negative forces are at play. First, there is the displacement of existing residents. The term gentrification first emerged in mid-twentieth century London, when a sociologist and city planner named Ruth Glass observed the displacement of poor working-class residents as “the gentry” – middle- or upper-class residents – moved into a redeveloped community. As is often the case today, when gentrifiers move into a neighborhood, property taxes and rent increases price existing residents out of their homes.
Second, and as a result, outsiders benefit at the expense of insiders. In one famous scene from the 1991 film Boys N the Hood, Furious Styles (played by Laurence Fishburne) educates his son and several members of the community on these mechanics. He describes the ways in which outside forces will intentionally drive down the economic value of homes in a community in order to drive residents out, then subsequently buy those same homes in order to resell them at a much higher price. Outsiders profit at the expense of individuals and families who have lived in a community for generations.
It is not difficult to see why P.E. Moskowitz described gentrification in this way:
“[Gentrification is] a void in a neighborhood, in a city, in a culture. In that way, gentrification is a trauma, one caused by the influx of massive amounts of capital into a city and the consequent destruction following in its wake…Gentrification cannot happen without this deeply rooted inequality; if we were all equal, there could be no gentrifier and no gentrified, no perpetrator or victim.” (How to Kill a City)
When gentrification is defined by these two concepts – displacement and outsider benefits at insider expense – then we can carefully apply gentrification to several concepts, including housing, economics, food, retail, and vocabulary (i.e., the appropriation of “woke” as pejorative by conservatives is verbal gentrification).
At the risk of further complicating our definitions, I believe gentrification can be a helpful word to describe the way many Christians spiritually relate to their neighbors.