Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Often, it's more a selling point than a social reality.
If you look up my D.C. neighborhood on Craigslist or AirBnb, it's often going to be tagged with the word "diverse." Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants are sprinkled around, and you frequently hear Spanish on the streets. Over the last few years, trendy little cafes and gourmet pizza places have cropped up on the street corners. Apart from the Hispanic and African American families that have lived here, young professionals—myself included—have moved in.
Sound familiar? That description fits a lot of gentrifying city neighborhoods around the country. L.A.'s Highland Park as one such example
In Highland Park, as in other Latino barrios of Los Angeles, gentrification has produced an undeniable but little appreciated side effect: the end of decades of de facto racial segregation. It’s possible to imagine a future in which “the hood” passes into memory. Racial integration is on the upswing; for that, a cry of “Viva gentrification!” is in order.
Tobar goes on to describe some other positive effects of gentrification. As money flows in and properties are upgraded, the neighborhood attracts "more open houses than street vendors." New businesses mushroom—vegan restaurants pop up next to old bodegas. The influx "young trendsetters in skinny jeans," ushers in upgrades local community services—potholes removed and schools improved (unlike in racially segregated neighborhoods).
Tobar makes a good case for his optimism, but it's important to point out that "cultural diversity" can mean lots of things to lots of people. In a paper for the journal Urban Studies, Miguel de Oliver of at the University of Texas-San Antonio argues that in many gentrifying neighborhoods, "cultural diversity" has become a decorative feature instead of a social ideal
—a superficial label used to attract bohemian and upper-middle-class residents rather than a signal of equality for all residents.
"A lot of these neighborhoods are selling cultural diversity," says de Oliver. Often the term is being marketed as an amenity to the upper-middle class in environments flavored with "minority aesthetics which contrast with suburbia," he says.
That doesn't make someone who wants to live in a diverse neighborhood a bad person. But once a neighborhood does change, original residents "feel the pinch," Aaron Wiener of the Washington City Paper writes, while the newcomers can usually afford to stay.
If former residents also manage to keep living there, they too can benefit from upgrades in the area—but to what extent and for how long is questionable. Once they leave, they're cut off from the benefits of the refurbished neighborhood, while it continues to be sold with a seal of diversity to others.
Low-income and minority residents "have been relegated to the back of an urban renewal bus that is fueled on a cultural diversity ethic for which they were once 'first in line,' " says de Oliver. "Way to the back. At times, they are not even on it."