The Criminalization of Gentrifying Neighborhoods (2023)

Politics

Areas that are changing economically often draw more police—creating conditions for more surveillance and more potential misconduct.

By Abdallah Fayyad
The Criminalization of Gentrifying Neighborhoods (1)
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In the early hours of Labor Day, Brooklynites woke up to the sound of steel-pan bands drumming along Flatbush Avenue, as hundreds of thousands of people gathered to celebrate J’ouvert, a roisterous Caribbean festival that commemorates emancipation from slavery. But having been marred by gang violence in recent years, this J’ouvert was markedly different, as The New York Times described. The event, which derives its name from a Creole term for “daybreak,” was heavily staffed by the New York City Police Department. Floodlights and security checkpoints were scattered along the parade route, and many revelers were piqued by what they saw as excessive police presence—an overwhelming show of force in response to a comparatively small number of bad actors.

“There’s a criminalization of our neighborhood,” Imani Henry, the president of the police-accountability group Equality for Flatbush, told me recently. After the NYPD declined Henry’s public-information request about security ahead of and during the festival, citing safety concerns, his group decided to sue for it. (The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.)

Henry believes the stepped-up law enforcement at J’ouvert is part of a larger pattern of increased police surveillance in gentrifying areas. The lawsuit—which has since made its way to the New York Supreme Court—argues that the NYPD recently increased “broken windows”-style arrests in Flatbush and East Flatbush, and claims that these “police actions have coincided with increased gentrification.”

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That claim is not just speculative. Over the past two decades, gentrification has become a norm in major American cities. The typical example is a formerly low-income neighborhood where longtime residents and businesses are displaced by white-collar workers and overpriced coffeehouses. But the conventional wisdom that image reflects—that gentrification is a result of an economic restructuring—often leaves out a critical side effect that disproportionately affects communities of color: criminalization.

When low-income neighborhoods see an influx of higher-income residents, social dynamics and expectations change. One of those expectations has to do with the perception of safety and public order, and the role of the state in providing it. The theory goes that as demographics shift, activity that was previously considered normal becomes suspicious, and newcomers—many of whom are white—are more inclined to get law enforcement involved. Loitering, people hanging out in the street, and noise violations often get reported, especially in racially diverse neighborhoods.

“There’s some evidence that 311 and 911 calls are increasing in gentrifying areas,” Harvard sociology professor Robert Sampson told me. And “that makes for a potentially explosive atmosphere with regard to the police,” he added.

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By degrees, long-term residents begin to find themselves tangled up in the criminal-justice system for so-called “quality of life” crimes as 311 and 911 calls draw police to neighborhoods where they didn’t necessarily enforce nuisance laws before. As Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., describes it, misdemeanor arrests are more reflective of police presence than the total number of infractions committed in an area. “It’s not a question of how many people are committing the crime—it’s a question of where the police are directing their law-enforcement resources,” Butler said. “Because wherever they direct the resources, they can find the crime.”

In 2013, the city of San Francisco launched Open311, a mobile app that allows residents to easily report public disorder like loitering, dirty sidewalks, or vandalism by snapping a photo and sending their location. The app can feel altruistic; residents, for example, are able to report the whereabouts of homeless people who seem to be in need of assistance. But some worry that the dispatches can result in unnecessary citations or harassment. And while broken-windows policing remains controversial, a 2015 poll suggested that it’s still largely accepted by the general public, so when people see something, they’re likely to say something. After the app launched, 311 calls increased throughout the city, and one study showed that gentrifying neighborhoods saw a disproportionate spike.

Butler, who recently wrote the book Chokehold: Policing Black Men, believes that this is a result of newcomers refusing to assimilate to longstanding neighborhood norms. “Culturally, I think the way that a lot of African American and Latino people experience gentrification is as a form of colonization,” he said. “The gentrifiers are not wanting to share—they’re wanting to take over.” One of the tools they can use to take over public spaces, he argues, is law enforcement.

Butler’s home of Washington, where he’s a law professor at Georgetown University, provides an illustrative example. On most Sunday afternoons, a performance group hosts a drum circle in Malcolm X Park, whose official name is Meridian Hill. The tradition dates back to 1965—shortly after Malcolm X was assassinated—and was intended to celebrate black liberation. While the drumbeats can still be heard today, the ritual was called into question when the surrounding neighborhood began to change in the late 1990s. New arrivals living in the blocks surrounding the park repeatedly complained about the noise until the police imposed and enforced a curfew on the drummers.

But increased police presence in gentrifying neighborhoods is not merely the result of new residents calling for service; police departments sometimes proactively deploy officers in areas that see bars and other alcohol-serving outlets pop up, as they tend to do in gentrifying neighborhoods. After conducting an analysis on economic development in 2013, for example, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department established its nightlife unit, which deploys officers to areas with budding or resuscitated nightlife scenes. “If you’re bringing in more bars, there’s going to be drunk people congregating in the street, so you need police to tamp that down,” Sampson said. “But that may lead to potential confrontations.” Officers can find themselves in altercations with both bar goers and longtime residents of the area.

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Cathy Lanier, who was the police chief in Washington from 2007 to 2016, told me that when a neighborhood’s population and economy begin to change, certain problems are bound to arise. “You’re going to have traffic issues, you’re going to have parking issues, and you’re going to have everything that comes along with a rapidly developing community,” she said. “So you want to have that police presence there, and establish community engagement long before the change so you can work with long-term residents to help them through the transition.” Zero-tolerance enforcement, she said, can be avoided if the police are proactive in creating a safe and orderly environment in advance of any major economic disruptions.

Still, residents can feel overwhelmed by a sudden increase in security, which is not always confined to public law enforcement. Sampson said private security and third-party police contribute to a sense of over-surveillance. “In a kind of rough neighborhood that’s about to flip, there may be demand on the part of new residents for safety that goes beyond what the police can provide, which means more eyes on the street on the part of private police,” he said.

While low-income and minority neighborhoods are often subject to heavy police patrol regardless of their development status, gentrification and aggressive policing are two sides of the same coin and tend to reinforce one another. “The concern when there are misdemeanor offenses is that neighborhoods seem unsafe or disorderly and that decreases their attractiveness for gentrification,” Butler said. “So in a number of cities, people have observed that enforcement of low-level offenses against black and brown people increases when neighborhoods are prime for gentrification.”

A top concern in communities of color is that greater police presence amplifies the risk of police misconduct and violence. In 2014, when San Francisco native Alejandro Nieto was fatally shot by four police officers responding to a 911 call, many residents believed the incident wouldn’t have occurred had his neighborhood not gentrified. Nieto was accused of behaving suspiciously in a place where he’d lived his entire life, and it was a new resident who’d made the 911 call. After he had a brief altercation with a neighborhood dog, Nieto, who worked as a bouncer, was anxiously pacing with his hand on his Taser, according to the passerby who reported him. Police said that when they arrived, he pointed his Taser at them, which they mistook for a gun.

Gentrification and police violence don’t necessarily have a causal relationship. But stepped-up law enforcement does create conditions for more potential misconduct. That’d be true in any neighborhood that suddenly saw an influx of police—it’s a simple matter of numbers. “If you’re ticketing more people or patrolling more often, you’re stopping more people to ask questions on the street,” Sampson said. “Now, that’s different than pulling a gun and shooting someone, or beating someone up, but the more stop-and-frisks and the more interactions you have, then probabilistically, you’re increasing the risk for police brutality. So it’s sort of a sequence or cycle.”

Butler offered the example of Eric Garner, who first drew police officers’ attention because he was selling loosies, or individual cigarettes, in Tompkinsville Park on Staten Island, a widespread practice since New York City began to sharply raise taxes on tobacco products in 2006. The surrounding neighborhoods had experienced some economic development, and calls reporting misdemeanor offenses were increasing. After a landlord made a 311 complaint regarding illegal drug and cigarette sales taking place outside his apartment building, officers began to closely monitor the area. Several months later, when Garner was confronted by police as he attempted to break up a street fight, an officer moved to arrest him for having previously sold loosies. The arrest went awry—and subsequently drew national attention—when Garner died after an officer put him in a chokehold.

“Before there was this effort to gentrify the neighborhood around the [Staten Island] ferry, I think it’s fair to say that it hadn’t received much attention from the police,” Butler said. “And you can imagine that of all the crimes police have to worry about, selling loosie cigarettes shouldn’t be a priority.”

Gentrification also has long-lasting impacts on the criminal-justice system that go far beyond police surveillance. As cities become whiter, so do juries. In Washington, for example, it’s not unusual to have a predominantly white, if not all-white, jury in a predominantly black city. “Jurors often have different life experiences based on their race. And so if the defense is ‘the police lied’ or ‘the police planted evidence,’ that’s something that an African American or a Latino juror might well believe or find credible,” Butler said. “A white person might find that hard to believe based on that person’s experience with the police.”

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The public debate over how to best deal with gentrification often brushes over these tensions, focusing solely on the economic impacts. There are some who argue gentrification is a natural part of urban development, while others say local governments should do more to regulate housing markets. But there’s one question cities haven’t really reckoned with as they evaluate changing neighborhoods: Are they prepared to decriminalize them?

FAQs

What are the solutions to the problems caused by gentrification? ›

Activists say that changing single-family zoning laws and taxing owners of vacant properties can help to create more affordable, accessible housing. Empowering residents to "buy back the block" and resist developers is another way to protect existing communities.

Does gentrification increase crime? ›

One is that high-income newcomers offer more lucrative targets, this being conducive to increased crime. Another is that middle-income people commit less crime than do low-income people, and the displacement of low-income residents by newcomers should reduce crime.

What are the arguments for gentrification? ›

Debates about gentrification tend to fall into one of two camps. On the one hand, people argue that gentrification is good for cities because it brings a higher tax base, revitalizes previously derelict neighborhoods, improves public safety, and attracts newcomers to boost the economy.

What we talk about when we talk about gentrification Vox? ›

Taken all together, it becomes clear why we focus on gentrification while the unseen culprits (segregated enclaves) are able to avoid controversy: Gentrification is the most visual manifestation of inequality in urban life. “Gentrification is a cultural sphere to work out feelings of resentment around inequality. ...

Why gentrification is not necessarily a good thing? ›

The effects of gentrification

On the negative side, it can lead to the loss of affordable housing, which primarily impacts renters and can cause the displacement of the existing community.

How can you improve a city without gentrification? ›

Edwards said the key to revitalization without gentrification is “bringing residents and the community to the table often and at the beginning.” This kind of public planning process requires a great investment of time and resources by city governments, but without this investment, the only result may be inequitable, ...

Who does gentrification hurt the most and why? ›

A new study by a Stanford sociologist has determined that the negative effects of gentrification are felt disproportionately by minority communities, whose residents have fewer options of neighborhoods they can move to compared to their white counterparts.

Is gentrification an ethical issue? ›

Can gentrification ever be ethical? Although politicians don't typically frame gentrification as a question of ethics, in accepting the displacement of poor residents in favor of better-off residents they are, in effect, making an argument based on ideas of utilitarianism.

What type of violence is gentrification? ›

First, the act of gentrification itself by gentrifiers constitutes both material and symbolic violence. Gentrification inevitably makes disinvested, working class neighborhoods unaffordable for original residents, especially renter households.

Is gentrification a problem or a disadvantage? ›

Gentrification usually leads to negative impacts such as forced displacement, a fostering of discriminatory behavior by people in power, and a focus on spaces that exclude low-income individuals and people of color.

How do you solve gentrification? ›

  1. Allow the community to provide input into the design and redevelopment of their neighborhoods.
  2. Educate the community on their available options.
  3. Create organized bodies and partnerships that develop programs to mitigate gentrification.

Does gentrification harm the poor? ›

In summary, existing literature has failed to demonstrate convincingly that gentrification harms the poor. Most studies have erroneously focused on displacement as an indicator of harm and have failed to demonstrate that gentrification causes displacement.

What are the causes and effects of gentrification? ›

In brief, gentrification happens when wealthier newcomers move into working-class neighborhoods. New businesses and amenities often pop up to cater to these new residents. Potholes might get filled; a new bus line might appear. These changes attract even more affluent people, and property values go up.

Is gentrification a social or political issue? ›

The term gentrification describes the social, cultural, and economic changes that occur when large numbers of relatively wealthy residents move into neighborhoods. Gentrification is an immensely political term.

Who are those who benefit the most from gentrification? ›

Gentrification, the influx of wealthy individuals into a neighborhood, allows the wealthy to put their children in their own well-funded public schools while leaving low-income families and students concentrated on their own, usually under-resourced schools.

Does gentrification cause inequality? ›

While some experts cite the economic benefits of gentrification, many recognize its role in exacerbating racial inequality, as well as in the suburbanization of poverty as low-income people are forced to relocate from cities to the areas outside them.

Does gentrification increase quality of life? ›

Based on the results of the study, there is relationship between gentrification and revitalization. That is, the facilities in the Old Town area cannot reach all levels of the people who live there. Besides, the presence of gentrification worsens the quality of life of local people.

How do you make gentrification positive? ›

There are other ways to help people stay rooted in their communities: provide renters with the opportunity and financing to purchase their units; preserve and expand public housing; protect elderly and long-term residents from property tax increases; enforce building codes and offer easy options for renters to report ...

Is gentrification good for the economy? ›

Gentrification is a sign of economic growth. As money begins to flow into a neighborhood, many aspects of everyday life are changed for the better. Buildings and parks are renovated and beautified. Jobs arrive with the increased construction activity and new retail and service businesses.

How does gentrification affect the economy? ›

Gentrification is a powerful force for economic change in our cities, but it is often accompanied by extreme and unnecessary cultural displacement. While gentrification increases the value of properties in areas that suffered from prolonged disinvestment, it also results in rising rents, home and property values.

Why Is gentrification a social justice issue? ›

Gentrification exacerbates inequality beyond just socio-economic status. Displacement has a disproportionate adverse impact on the elderly, ethnic minorities, disabled people and those with mental health issues. Communities, in many cases generations of friendships between families, are ripped apart.

What is the root cause of gentrification? ›

The real problem: A shortage of cities

The real underlying cause of gentrification, affordability challenges, and displacement is our shortage of cities.

When did gentrification become a problem? ›

The history of gentrification in America starts in the 1960s, when the term was coined. Over the next five and a half decades, communities have wielded varying tools and strategies in response to gentrification's challenges.

Does gentrification cause unemployment? ›

We find that employment effects from gentrification are quite localized. Incumbent residents experience meaningful job losses within their home census tract, even while jobs overall increase. In our preferred model, local jobs decline by as much as 63 percent.

How is gentrification related to social justice? ›

Gentrification—the spatial expression of economic inequality—is fundamentally a matter of social justice. Yet, even as work outside of HCI has begun to discuss how computing can enable or challenge gentrification, HCI's growing social justice agenda has not engaged with this issue.

Where Is gentrification a problem? ›

While gentrification occurs in towns and cities across the United States, perhaps the starkest examples of how its effects can be a “problem” can be seen in Washington, D.C., and the California Bay Area.

How does gentrification destroy neighborhoods? ›

Gentrification, in each of these cities, dismantles and displaces existing neighborhoods and communities in order to make way for new residents who are mostly whiter, and always richer, than those who predate them. And the same choices seem to be made again and again.

Does gentrification affect mental health? ›

Those who are affected by displacement may experience increased stress, depression, and other health problems like weight gain, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Having all these new residents move in also reduces social and economic resources previously available to everyone.

Is gentrification an example of power? ›

But despite the glitter of change, the confusion about specifics and the ambiguity of resident reaction, one thing is clear: gentrification is fundamentally about power. After all, if residents had sufficient market power, they would own local property and local businesses and so benefit from an uptick in demand.

Does gentrification help education or hurt it? ›

When neighborhoods do gentrify, Pearman found, local district schools tend to lose students. The average drop is small: 17 students, or 3% of enrollment. This comes from a decline in low-income and Hispanic students, with no countervailing increase in affluent or white students. These findings aren't surprising.

What is an example of gentrification? ›

On the ground, gentrification may look like:

Changes in land use, for example from industrial land to restaurants and storefronts. Changes in the character of the neighborhood as community run businesses are replaced by businesses catering to new residents' needs.

How does gentrification affect identity? ›

2) Exclusion of identity: gentrification can negate individual identities and reduce them to the identity of the "elderly" group alone. 3) Socio-political exclusion: gentrification can contribute to a decrease in the participation of older adults in local political bodies, and to their influence on local institutions.

How does gentrification impact a community negatively? ›

- Displaced individuals may become homeless. - Unsustainable speculative property price increases. - Resentment emerges within the community and conflict can occur between the original inhabitants and the middle class gentrifiers. - Affordable housing in the area becomes scarce and eventually non-existent.

What is a good thesis statement for gentrification? ›

Gentrification is a politically motivated process that marginalizes low-income members of the community because it caters to new, wealthier citizens for revenue gains. Gentrification leaves the original members of the community with a lack of political support to respond to the changes occurring.

How can the negative impact of gentrification be reduced? ›

There are ways to relieve the effects of gentrification such as passing laws to rent control more buildings, vacancy control, and overall creating affordable housing. If cities continue to ignore these issues, residents will keep getting evicted, or end up having nowhere to live.

How can city governments reduce gentrification? ›

In terms of state and local policies, the city's land trust efforts, public housing, housing choice voucher programs and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit can potentially offer tools to preserve housing affordability in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Does gentrification lead to homelessness? ›

As areas have gentrified, families in poverty cannot afford rent, which pushes them into homelessness. High rental costs also prevent them from bettering their situation once they lose housing.

Where is gentrification happening the most? ›

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A new study claims San Francisco and Oakland are the most "intensely gentrified" cities in the United States. The National Community Reinvestment Coalition analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Researchers specifically looked at data from the American Community Survey from 2013 to 2017.

How does gentrification affect the cost of living? ›

In gentrification, as developments go up, so does the cost of rent. Eventually, its original dwellers can no longer afford to live in the area. Unless rent controls are placed only on newly constructed buildings, many of those who have lived there for generations may be forced to move.

What is the major problem with gentrification? ›

Gentrification is a housing, economic, and health issue that affects a community's history and culture and reduces social capital. It often shifts a neighborhood's characteristics (e.g., racial/ethnic composition and household income) by adding new stores and resources in previously run-down neighborhoods.

What is gentrification in simple terms? ›

What Is Gentrification? Gentrification is the transformation of a city neighborhood from low value to high value. Gentrification is also viewed as a process of urban development in which a neighborhood or portion of a city develops rapidly in a short period of time, often as a result of urban-renewal programs.

Is gentrification a wicked problem? ›

Ultimately, gentrification is such a challenging wicked problem because so many people are the beneficiaries of it. Successive waves of students, the aging affluent, and knowledge workers are on the receiving end of gentrification, while historical and underprivileged communities are repeatedly negatively impacted.

What are the drivers of gentrification? ›

A core driver of gentrification in the U.S. has been the strong and growing demand for central city living by more affluent households, which in turn drives up housing prices in central city neighborhoods.

How can governments reduce negative impacts of gentrification? ›

Improvement in public infrastructure, e.g., new sidewalks, repaved roads, community centers, parks, upgrading of utilities.

How do you beat gentrification? ›

The solution is to call for radical liberalization of zoning in already wealthy areas, and to stand up to neighborhood groups who try to abuse zoning to prevent that. The reason people gentrify is not to disrupt ethnic or economically-challenged neighborhoods.

How do you resist gentrification? ›

As identified in the literature review, one of the most effective ways for communities to resist gentrification is to control ownership of properties and land.

Does gentrification increase poverty? ›

Specifically, low-income children who in 2009 live in low-income areas that later gentrify experience a roughly 3 percentage point greater decline in neighbourhood poverty than those who start out in low-income areas that do not gentrify.

Does gentrification reduce poverty? ›

The benefit of gentrification is that these more mixed income neighborhoods lower the exposure to poverty for all residents. Brummet and Reed estimate the average poverty rate of neighborhoods that gentrified declined by 3 percentage points.

What are the pros and cons of gentrification? ›

The Pros and Cons of Gentrification Among Communities
  • Pros:
  • It Improves Property Values.
  • It Increases Local Tax Revenue.
  • It Draws In New Businesses.
  • It Often Disproportionately Affects Marginalized Communities.
  • It Brings An Increase In Community Conflict.
  • The Cost Of Living Rises.
22 Sept 2021

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