Monday, November 8, 2010

Gentrification East of the River - The "G" Word

(photo from Curbed Los Angeles)

I attended the East of the River Community Forum on Sustainability last week. My group which was diverse (old residents, new residents, people who work in the community, people with interest in sustainability, Black people, White people, middle class, lower class, students, professionals, retirees, childless, parents, grandparents, pastors, community leaders, you name it) discussed the theme "Gentrification East of the River". I've been meaning to give a recap of my group's discussion, but the energy in our discussion was so intense I have been trying to figure out the best way to capture our discussion (with my additional analysis) to do it justice. I decided I have to break it up into several themes over the next several days. I definitely invite you to comment. Some of your comments may be addressed by a later theme.

The first thing my group tackled was the word "Gentrification". Personally, I think it is one of the most overused, misused, abused, over-utilized, misapplied, and philosolied (a lying philosophy... no it's not a real word, but it should be... hehe) word in the US, especially DC. I think "gentrification" should be banned in discussions, because I'm tired of hearing it (and yet ironically enough I have a series dedicated to it).

As a group we discussed the changes that have been happening an other parts of the City. We acknowledged that long-time residents have left and new people have moved it. We also agreed that communities, like life, are constantly changing. After much debate we decided there is two types of change: Organic and Inorganic. Here's our definition of each.
Organic Change - means change that happens in a community naturally. Some long-time residents leave an area because they want to leave. It could be for a job opportunity, need for change of scenery, wanting to downsize after the children leave the home, wanting more space for a growing family, desire to be closer to loved ones, and the list goes on. People move into a community for the same reasons some people move out, in addition to affordability and others. Organic change usually just happens. There is nothing specific that causes it.

Inorganic Change - inorganic means artificial. Artificial change is something that is intentional. There is a systematic and purposeful effort of some sort that is a catalyst and some times the force behind the change. For example, the redevelopment of Barry Farm from solely public housing to a mixed-income, mixed-use development is an example of an inorganic change. There is a specific plan that will intentionally change the landscape of that community. Some residents will return once the project is complete, however, there is a reality that some residents will be relocated to other parts of the District.
Are either of these types of change good or bad? Is one better than the other? And does it matter? As my group learned after our 5-hour pow-wow in a corner, trying to pontificate an answer to these questions distracts from more important problems.

In the next post in this series I will address the theme of "Economic Development".

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington


  1. Hats off to anyone who takes on this challenging topic.

    So, would an influx of upper class newcomers that rapidly bid up the price of housing be an organic or inorganic change? Existing residents are displaced as a direct result through higher property taxes and rents, and as an indirect result through inability to afford more space for a growing family.

  2. Whether it depends on if it's organic or inorganic change depends on the cause of that change. I think we have to modify your question to "influx of middle class newcomers". People in the upper class are rarely the first wave of newcomers into a lower income neighborhood.

    If middle class people at random decide to move into the same neighborhood over time, I'd argue that it's organic change. For example, during the housing boom, Fairfax Village saw an influx of middle class young professionals moving into the community. There was nothing that caused that to happen. It was an affordable neighborhood perfect for young professionals. Properties that were selling for $70K in 2003 where selling for $180k in 2005/2006.

    However if there is a force encouraging middle class people to move into a neighborhood (such as new development or real estate agents reverse redlining), I'd argue its inorganic.

  3. Isn't it usually both, in sequence? Hyattsville is getting a Busboys & Poets, Yes!, etc. in the new EYA/Street Sense development only after more than a decade of organic change - families slowing moving in, rehabbing old properties, etc. My husband and I bought here because we were attracted to both aspects - the strong community where lots of connections were built organically, as well as the intentional plan.

    I think pure inorganic change is problematic, but if organic change is successful, it almost always attracts at least some formal development. The question is whether or not the community that evolved over time is organized enough to insist on good inorganic change when it catches up.