A New New York? Gentrification and its Impact on The Big Apple

Seminar Paper, 2014

18 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Jakub Duch (Author)


Table of Contents


1. Introduction

2. Etymology and some historic considerations

3. The three- and four-wave-model of gentrification

4. Methods of gentrification research

5. The first three waves: gentrification in the recent history of New York City

6. The young and hip and the city: the urban creative class and its importance to gentrification

7. Super-gentrification: the most recent trend

8. Are there positive sides to gentrification?

9. Concluding remarks

List of works cited:


This paper attempts to give a brief overview of the research contributions on the demographic phenomenon of gentrification in New York City. After a short opening chapter that defines the term and informs on its history, the most influential model of how gentrification occurred is presented. Hackworth and Smith’s three-wave model is the foundation of that chapter, but Lees et al.’s observation that a fourth wave of gentrification has taken place is also included.

A short explanation of research methodology used in papers on the subject is followed by a chapter on the local history of gentrification, in which the three-wave model is used as a guideline. Since the so-called “creative class” is closely linked to gentrification in public opinion and mass media articles, its participation in gentrification is examined. The characteristics of contemporary gentrification are discussed in chapter 7, followed by an overview of the debate if there are positive sides to this demographic trend. A few concluding remarks complete the paper.

Lees et al.’s Gentrification, published in 2013, has been the source that contributed the most to this paper. On nearly 300 pages, Lees et al. review a great amount of research written on the subject, discussing it and putting it into context. The three authors, particularly Lees and Wyly, rank among the most active researchers on the subject of gentrification, which has given more value to Gentrification. Apart from the points risen in it, the book also provided guidance on what else one could read on the subject.

Since the three-wave model of gentrification proposed by Hackworth and Smith has been widely accepted by their fellow researchers, their 2001 paper Inner- city real estate investment, gentrification, and economic recession in New York City has provided the framework for the chapter focused on historical developments between the 1970s and 1990s. In the same chapter, Deutsche and Ryan (1984, The fine art of gentrification) are quoted, since they included some very useful statistics on 1980s’ gentrification in their paper. The same publication has also been helpful in writing the chapter on the connection between gentrification and the art scene, since the two authors were among the first researchers to analyze it.

Coming from a background of cultural studies, the excerpt of German author Andreas Reckwitz’s book Die Erfindung der Kreativität studies the subject from an entirely different perspective. Reckwitz doesn’t focus on statistics or “hard facts”, but interprets the actions of the gentrifying creative class, thereby explaining the whys and wherefores. This source was very important in the process of “looking behind the numbers”.

This paper also includes some sources that do not stem from scientific journals, but from popular magazines. The articles taken from Der Stern and the online edition of New York and The New York Times inform on how the process of gentrification is seen outside the academic world and, in the case of the article in New York, how intense the emotions are that it can trigger. After reading a lot of scientific material, it was important to know how the processes described in the journals affect lives, and how the discourse of Spike Lee, for instance, is a surprisingly accurate reflection of them.

1. Introduction

In the last couple of years, the number of media headlines on gentrification seems to have skyrocketed. This impression is indeed correct: Citing figures compiled by Reed Elsevier, Inc, Lees et al. (2013: p.244) show that global news headlines or lead paragraphs that contain the word gentrification were about six times more frequent in 2006 than in 1986. The social phenomenon, its causes and consequences has moved from the academic world into the attention of the general public.

As the global city par excellence, New York City has also been on the forefront of this trend, and the history and mechanisms of gentrification in the Big Apple are well researched and documented. This paper pretends to resume some of the most important contributions on gentrification in New York City, from a decidedly local perspective, while taking national and global influences on it into account.

2. Etymology and some historic considerations

Although the term gentrification might appear to be a recently invented buzzword, it was actually coined by British social scientist Ruth Glass in 1964 (Lees et al., 2013: p.4). Etymologically, it is derived from the word gentry, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “the class of immediately the nobility in position and birth“ (OED, 2014: no page number). Its meaning is not limited to the phenomenon of a population shift or residents being forced to move to another neighborhood, but it already contains a hint on the demographics of the new inhabitants of the area. Glass, a sociologist holding openly Marxist views, is said to have created a deliberately ironic and witty term (Hamnett, 2003: p.2401).

In the fifty years that have passed since the term’s creation, sociologists have gradually moved to a broader, more inclusive definition of it. One example of this is Clark’s understanding of the word, defining gentrification as “a process involving the change in the population of land users such that the new users are of a higher socioeconomic status than the previous users, together with an associated change in the built environment through a reinvestment in fixed capital” (Clark, 2005: p.258). The original play by Glass on the gentry is no longer present in this definition, as it also encompasses demographic shifts caused by other populations than the middle or upper middle class. The surge of the so-called super- or hyper-gentrification, in which a very affluent population group gentrifies the gentrifiers is one of the reasons why a broader definition of the original concept benefits social scientists.

The year of the word’s appearance, 1964, also indicates that gentrification is a phenomenon that has affected urban areas and puzzled sociologists for a few decades, although it is impossible to assign an exact birth date to it.

3. The three- and four-wave-model of gentrification

Hackworth and Smith (2001) developed a model that divided gentrification into three different waves, each corresponding to a period of its own, taking into account two transitional periods in between. It has been positively reviewed by Lees et al., and various other authors such as Bounds and Morris (2006) or Clark (2005) incorporated this model into their research on the subject. Nevertheless, it should be clear that a simple three-stage-model cannot depict a complex social phenomenon in its entirety – and that it does not pursue to do that..

According to Hackworth and Smith, first-wave gentrification only occurred sporadically and was limited to some cities in Western Europe and the northeastern US. They stress the crucial role public sector intervention played in the process, as counteracting the growing decline of inner-city areas became one of the priorities of local policy. To the authors, 1973, the year of the oil crisis and the beginning of a global economic recession, marks the end of this period. In the transitional period, lasting from 1973 to 1977, private investors would take advantage of fallen property prices and buy large amounts of land and real estate in inner-city areas. Without these kind of market interventions, the next wave of gentrification would not have been possible (Hackworth and Smith, 2001: p.466).

The second wave, lasting from the end of the 1970s until the end of the 1980s, saw the spread of gentrification to cities unaffected by the first wave. Coinciding in time with the rise of Reaganomics, a laissez-faire approach to economic and social questions, the private sector was now the driving force in urban population shifts. This is not to say that there has not been any public sector action at all, in fact, government subsidies and strategies to attract private sector investment emerged. But gentrification became increasingly linked to institutions like investment banks. Additionally, more than ever gentrification became integrated into “a wider range of economic and cultural processes at the global and national scales” (Hackworth and Smith, 2001: p.468). Art galleries and museums could be described as a sort of canary in the coal mine, an indicator for beginning or ongoing gentrification.

At the end of the 1980s, the transitional period between to waves of gentrification would once again be initiated by an economic recession. While the 1987 stock market crash would have little effect, the decline of real estate prices that started in 1989 would put gentrification on hold. Hackworth and Smith (2001: p.468) even point out that some contemporary researchers would predict an overall demise of the phenomenon. However, the third wave, starting in 1993, would prove them wrong. As the two point out, investor groups involved in the third wave have become larger and meet less resistance, as the working class continues to be driven out of the inner-city areas. Besides, these groups often act as the pioneers of gentrification, whereas they would prefer to invest in already slightly gentrified neighborhoods during earlier waves. Finally, the authors argue that the position of the public sector towards large investors has evolved as well, becoming more involved in their support than before (Hackworth and Smith 2001, p.468 -469).

The most recent research on the subject suggests that since 2001 there has been another wave of gentrification. Lees at al. (2013) argue that in the United States this fourth wave has some distinctive characteristics that can’t be found in other countries. They identified a policy shift as one of the most important factors in the emergence of the fourth wave. Starting in 2001, low interest rates on the real estate markets have triggered “housing inflation” and an enormous flow of capital these markets. Financial institutions became more and more aggressive in their loan policies, willing to take bigger risks for bigger profits. The housing bubble fueled real estate speculation, accelerating gentrification. Although similar tendencies exist in other countries, the authors argue that the situation in the U.S.A.is unique because of the intensity of the phenomena (Lees et al. 2013: p.173; p.179ff.).

Since this paper focuses on gentrification in New York City, and the importance of geographic peculiarities makes it necessary to discuss the case of New York City more in detail, the fifth chapter will discuss the impact of the different waves on the Bi g Apple.

4. Methods of gentrification research

Research methods applied to gentrification include the extensive analysis of data sets of, for example, the US. census or the New York Housing and Vacancy Survey (NYHVS), but some researchers have also conducted field interviews in gentrifying neighborhoods, adding a qualitative dimension to the quantitative one. This is the case in Newman and Wyly’s work (2006), which deals with residents’ reactions to gentrification in different neighborhoods in New York City.

However, the overwhelming majority of papers relies on the extensive analysis of data sets. Discussing the pros and cons of different indicators of gentrification in detail would be worth a paper of its own, therefore this chapter will only present some of the analytical methods currently in use, and will do this in a brief, summarized manner. Nevertheless, it will hopefully be sufficient to enable the reader to understand the numbers that will be included in the next chapters.

One of the parameters used in gentrification research are changes in the number of different employment categories. In gentrifying neighborhoods, the number of professionals, mangers, and skilled workers in the non-manual sector, whereas people engaged in non-skilled activities and/or manufacturing jobs experience may be forced to move away, just like the inactive population. For this reason, a comparison of the economic activities of a neighborhood’s population can provide valuable information on its population dynamics, which is why researchers like Butler and Lees (2006) use this kind of data. A simpler approach tracks household income instead of professional categories, comparing the presence of residents that belong to different income brackets (often expressed as local percentiles) before and after a supposed population shift.

A more direct approach takes advantage of the New York Housing and Vacancy Survey’s extensive material on the residents’ moving patterns and their motivations to move. One work that uses this method is the paper by Newman and Wyly (2006: p.28f.; p.32ff.).

Freeman and Braconi (2004) examine the increase of monthly rent in different neighborhoods as possible indicator of gentrification..But the increase in monthly rent does not only depend on the degree of gentrification in the neighborhood, but also on many other factors more linked to general economic developments. The two barely find any difference between the increase of monthly rent in gentrifying and non- gentrifying areas (Freeman and Braconi, 2004: p.48ff. ).

Another indicator, used by Lees et al. (2013), is the so-called mortgage capitalization ratio, which compares the median mortgage loan to median annual rent. This parameter enables the researcher to detect “areas where low-cost rentals are surrounded by increasingly expensive home sales.” Large gaps between median mortgage and median rent are supposed to indicate ongoing gentrification because two key characteristics are found: the relatively cheap annual rent shows that the area is traditionally populated by people of lower income, whereas the high volume of housing investment indicates that in the future, this characteristic may change (Lees et al., 2013, p.183).

As was mentioned earlier in this chapter, the brief overview of different indicators and research method is far from complete. Several works have stressed the degree of difficulty of making gentrification visible in the numbers. As gentrification research continues, new and better indices might be developed, and existing indices could become more refined.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


A New New York? Gentrification and its Impact on The Big Apple
University of Hamburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Gentrification, Urban Geography, Kulturwissenschaften, Anglistik, New York, Reckwitz
Quote paper
Jakub Duch (Author), 2014, A New New York? Gentrification and its Impact on The Big Apple, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/512571


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