No One's Very Good at Correctly Identifying Gentrification

A new study suggests there's a gap between how researchers think about gentrification and what journalists are telling the public.

Image Flickr/The All-Nite Images
Construction in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where the New York Times is more likely to notice. (Flickr/The All-Nite Images)

There's a compelling new paper published in the latest issue of the journal Urban Studies that takes the New York Times to task for not deploying the word "gentrification" very well.

The study, by sociologist Michael Barton of Louisiana State University, examines the differences between neighborhoods that the Times has identified as “gentrified” or “gentrifying” in the past three decades, and those identified by Census data and major academic studies. He finds a wide – and concerning – gap between the neighborhoods that social scientists call “gentrified” and those to which the Times affixes that label.

Barton set out to answer two related questions:

First, to what extent do neighborhoods identified as gentrified by qualitative measures used by the New York Times differ from those identified by more systematic quantitative research? Barton notes that qualitative studies are usually based on a single neighborhood or city, while quantitative ones often take a much larger number of neighborhoods into account. Despite that limitation, he also points out that large national newspapers, especially the Times, are much more likely to cover issues of neighborhood change than smaller, local papers, even in sizable metros.

Second, and more more generally, he asks: How does the way gentrification is measured affect which neighborhoods are identified as "gentrified"? Even the most detail-oriented academics have struggled to define gentrification for the better part of a half-century, since sociologist Ruth Glass introduced the term in 1964 to describe “working class quarters [that] have been invaded by the middle class—upper and lower.”

To get at this, Barton’s study used a LexisNexis database search to discover which New York City neighborhoods the Times identified as “gentrified” between 1980 and 2009. He then compared these neighborhoods to those identified as “gentrified” according to measures used in two classic quantitative studies. The first study, published in 2003 by Raphael Bostic and Richard Martin, identified gentrified neighborhoods based on median incomes. Their method sees gentrified neighborhoods as those that saw their median incomes grow from less than 50 percent of the metro median to more than 50 percent of it. The second strategy, based on a 2005 study by Lance Freeman, identifies gentrifying neighborhoods based on a broader set of changes in income, education and housing. For Freeman, gentrified neighborhoods are those that started with median income levels below those for the city as a whole but then where educational levels and housing prices rose to be greater than the city's. Barton’s study focuses on gentrification in New York City neighborhoods and is based on data for the 188 neighborhood areas identified by the Department of City Planning.

The bottom line: Barton found considerable differences between the neighborhoods the Times identified as gentrified and those identified by the quantitative studies.

The table below, from Barton’s study, shows the number of neighborhoods identified as gentrified by each method across three time periods. The differences between the three approaches are apparent, and show how much the identification of gentrification turns on the method used to capture it.

(Barton)

The maps below, also from the study, compare the New York Times strategy in the 2000s with the Bostic and Martin approach, and then with Freeman’s approach.

(Barton)
(Barton)

What jumps out here are the large swathes of the city in which significant neighborhood change goes ignored by the Times. The Grey Lady was much more likely to peg gentrification in “hip” neighborhoods in Manhattan and adjacent parts of Brooklyn (like Williamsburg) than in the Bronx and Queens, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s. Generally speaking, the gentrifying neighborhoods discussed in the Times lined up more neatly with the more restrictive method used by Bostic and Martin than it did with Freeman.  Still, as Barton writes, “the association of both census-based strategies with the New York Times were moderate at best.”

Barton argues these results suggest that the media should take better care to develop encompassing strategies to identify pressing social problems like gentrification so they do not focus on some communities at the expense of others. The good news is that with the rise of more large-sample data-driven journalism in places like the Times’ own Upshot, this shift may already be occurring.

♦♦♦

It's important to point out that gentrification is a problem mainly in global superstar cities like New York and tech hubs like San Francisco, Boston, D.C., and Seattle. According to research by the Cleveland Federal Reserve’s Daniel Hartley, which I wrote about last year, 40 percent of the top 55 largest cities in the U.S. did not see significant, gentrification-like jumps in the distribution of their home prices between 2000 and 2007. My team’s own analysis found that gentrification is the province of wealthier, educated metros.

In the vast majority of cities, the far bigger problem remains the persistence of concentrated urban poverty. As Joe Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi show in a report [PDF] released earlier this month, three-quarters of neighborhoods that suffered from high poverty levels in the 1970s were still high-poverty in 2010. And 3.2 million poor Americans currently live in neighborhoods that were not high-poverty in 1970, meaning that the number of high-poverty census tracts nearly tripled by 2010. As they write:

Concentrated poverty is a particular concern because all of the negative effects of poverty appear to be amplified in neighborhoods composed primarily of poor people. Poverty anywhere and in any amount is a problem; but concentrated poverty is often intractable and self-reinforcing.

It's clear that "gentrification" is still a vague, imprecise and politically loaded term. We not only need better, more objective ways to measure it; we need to shift our focus to the broader process of neighborhood transformation and the juxtaposition of concentrated advantage and disadvantage in the modern metropolis.

About the Author