This article is from Issue 63: May/June 2013

Pushing City Limits

As Millenials move into the city, they're changing the urban DNA. The effects are both social and spiritual.

The spanish-speaking students in my English as a Second Language class know what it is even if they don’t know the word for it in English.

They know, as one of the men in my class explains to me, that east of Western Ave. in Chicago, everyone is American (read: “white”) and that west of Western, everyone is Mexican and Puerto Rican. They know that rent is now twice what it used to be when they first moved into the neighborhood, as another woman tells me. She says that when she first moved in, she was scared of the crime and wanted to leave. But not anymore—not since the young professionals starting streaming in and the urban developers not long after.

They know all about gentrification.

British sociologist Ruth Glass first used the term in 1964, describing the movement of the middle class “gentry” into working-class neighborhoods of London, which resulted in the displacement of the original occupants and the transformation of the area’s social character.

The same concept applies in the changing cityscapes of today, but with a few added layers of complexity.

The process often begins when artists looking for cheap rent migrate into low-income neighborhoods. This hipster influx brings fresh vitality to the neighborhood, which yuppie urbanites soon begin to see as cultural hotspots rather than the “bad side of town” it once was.

But when young professionals start moving in, prices continue to rise. Rent takes a hike, condo high-rises are constructed, local businesses are threatened by next-door development of national franchises, and it’s not long before the lower-income residents are pushed out.

When the focus is on the positive outcome of this process, it’s often called urban renewal. But when the focus shifts to its uglier side effects, it’s called gentrification.

During the 2012 Summer Olympics, for example, many critics were quick to point out, citing the UN-funded Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) report, that the Olympic games had displaced more than 2 million people in the past 20 years. Most of these people were living below the poverty line and pushed out due to a gentrifying urban clean-up for a city’s Olympic bid.

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