Despite endless debate, Chicago seems no closer to addressing the consequences of gentrification today than ever. Even though the City Council recently advanced a Rahm-backed measure to force developers to build more low-income housing, other efforts, like another measure targeted at obligating developers to pay demolition taxes along the 606, never received a hearing in council chambers. While a handful of Chicago neighborhoods such as Pilsen and Humboldt Park are the sites of skyrocketing rents, other areas of the city remain disinvested and overpoliced, getting none of the benefits of redevelopment as austerity measures continue to gut resources for education and other public goods.
Debates on gentrification frequently pit existing community residents and businesses against newcomers and developers, creating a clear-cut “good versus evil” narrative. Unfortunately, as the urban planner Lance Freeman argues, such an approach to this topic “makes a good morality play, but life is a lot messier than that.”
In Gentrifier, authors John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill plunge into the complexities of this ever-raging debate. Their emphasis is on their own experiences as agents of gentrification, by means of which they hope to unravel the relationship between individual actors and structural forces.
“Gentrification is a context, and that context speaks to the entire fabric of metropolitan Chicago,” says Schlichtman, an associate professor of sociology at DePaul. “The response to gentrification involves suburbs, gentrification hot spots, and disinvested communities.”
Although countless blog posts use a first-person perspective to discuss similar issues, this approach typically exonerates the behavior of gentrifiers.
Gentrifier takes a different tack. By offering their own messy histories up for examination, the authors show that even as self-aware urban scholars, they’ve made compromising decisions when they moved into neighborhoods undergoing transformation. “Imagined realities and physical realities collide in gentrification,” they write.
Schlichtman’s account addresses the ways in which Chicago’s history of segregation and disinvestment has affected his relationship to the city and his pursuit of housing. Schlichtman, who’s white, originally planned to move to Bronzeville, a historically African-American neighborhood, in 2013 with his black wife, Monique, and their mixed-race children. But after finding shortcomings in nearby schools, they eventually settled in the West Loop, lured by a property being sold by the government that was both affordable and close to Mark T. Skinner West Elementary, a highly integrated public school.
While the West Loop has been the recipient of dramatic upheaval in recent years, with corporate headquarters of companies such as McDonald’s moving in, Schlichtman emphasizes that gentrification needs to be understood as a process that implicates the entire metropolitan area. For example, Skinner West has become overcrowded, with students from shuttered west-side schools pushing the school to 120 percent capacity. Without an equal distribution of money and resources to each neighborhood, Schlichtman argues, Chicago won’t be able to more effectively balance the needs of its entire population.
Gentrifier contends with a frustrating question: If they aren’t gentrified, are poor neighborhoods doomed to further disinvestment and decay? For many underresourced neighborhoods in Chicago, the question of gentrification is irrelevant—it’s just unlikely. But those residents still need a boost in resources, particularly when a Chicago-based study found that neighborhoods with black populations of 40 percent or higher don’t experience gentrification. Government and private companies need to find ways to reverse decades of disinvestment without displacing residents, and having a clearer vision for those communities is critical.
“It is in the long-term benefit of the city that it doesn’t have five gentrification hot spots and 60 percent of its landscape deteriorating into the soil,” Schlichtman says. “This is a long-term economic issue, bringing more and more neighborhoods into the city fabric in a way that’s not exploitative.”
To this end, the authors devote the closing chapter to imagining visions of the city that move beyond gentrification, where amenities like bike lanes and grocery stores aren’t potential catalysts of displacement. Whether all residents have a “right to the city,” an enduring socialist urban framework first articulated in a book of the same name by French urbanist Henri Lefebvre in 1968, is a fundamental question.
Residents in gentrifying neighborhoods should voice their concerns—it’s an important step in combatting the negative outcomes of gentrification, even if most efforts thus far haven’t totally succeeded. Many first-wave gentrifiers hold the same concerns as longtime community residents, particularly a desire for affordable housing. Early gentrifiers often also hope to preserve the existing fabric of the community, cherishing the social ties that are already in place.
Still, skepticism endures for a reason. Many gentrifiers have little or no interest in maintaining the existing social fabric of their neighborhood, instead actively imagining a version of the community that’s wealthier and whiter than it already is. Such people are likely, for example, to call the police to settle small disputes such as noise complaints, and that kind of intervention can have deadly consequences in black and Latino communities.
“There’s good reason why people wouldn’t want new folks in that conversation, because they’ve seen it happen before,” Schlictman says.
Even if it remains difficult to create effective political coalitions between new and old residents, Gentrifier is a noble attempt to enrich the vocabulary used in debates over gentrification. It aims to move beyond the paralysis of the conversation, where in there’s no hope of improving neighborhoods without the current cultural and economic displacement that gentrification so often entails.
“Every day, I look at how the word ‘gentrifier’ is used in social media, to keep a pulse on what people mean, and most of the time they mean ‘bad person,'” Schlictman says. “The goal for the book is to widen the definition to the boundaries it truly deserves.” v