Communication Currents

Communicating Gentrification

April 1, 2010
Critical and Cultural Studies

In most large cities, there is a neighborhood that has become known as the new hip area. You could go there and find a range of new restaurants and bars; pop into some funky clothing stores and independently owned record shops; and find some cafes that felt unique because they didn't feature the same green, white, and black logo that adorns other cafes in other parts of the city. You were fascinated by the street life in this neighborhood, especially the quantity of twenty-somethings who were hanging out, most of whom seemed to be adorned with tattoos, piercings, and thrift store apparel. The newspaper, alternative weekly, and on-line magazines all told a similar story about this area: the neighborhood was once a grubby no-man's land until the artists moved there, breathing life into this urban frontier.

But then the neighborhood started to change; it was gentrifying. The reporters now describe this change as a problem because the neighborhood is quickly losing its edge. That is, people like you are hanging around too often, looking to buy a condo, and transforming the place from an artsy bohemian enclave into a haven for yuppies and middle class couples with one child and a large dog.

Gentrification refers to the transformation of poor and working class urban neighborhoods into middle-class or upper class areas. Communication is central to this process--framing changes as they happen and then explaining the conversion after the fact. The popular press has been one of the most important sources for information about this urban issue. Newspapers, alternative weeklies, and magazines have dedicated increasingly more space to this subject since 1985, when stories started to appear regularly in US publications. There are clearly unique geographical, historical, and political situations that facilitate gentrification in different cities. Yet, publication outlets within a geographic region publish similar stories, and coverage of the issue reads the same across geographic regions, especially when artists are involved. Reports in the San Francisco Chronicle mirror articles published by the Chicago Tribune, for example. Three interesting storylines appear regularly that help frame artist-led gentrification.

First, press coverage features a consistent narrative about the ways artist-pioneers discover sections of the city, help improve those neighborhoods, and then get chased out by gentrifiers. We see this in Andrew Yarrow's 1998 New York Times story about gentrification in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood. “This gritty, light-industrial corner of Manhattan's lower West Side began a new life in the 1970's, with the catchy new moniker TriBeCa (or, Triangle Below Canal Street),” he writes. “As SoHo rents soared, TriBeCa became a mecca, first for painters and performance artists, then nightclubs and nouvelle bistros, and finally real-estate agents cashing in on the area's new-found cachet.” Yarrow's report is representative of hundreds of stories that mirror a diffusion of innovations model of change. This model explains how innovative ideas spread from more experimental individuals to a succession of groups who vary in their desires to try something new.

A second common storyline is the troubling representation of gentrified neighborhoods as frontiers. The urban frontier refers to areas where people lived and worked prior to the artists' arrival, but clearly not the right kind of people or the right uses of the space. For example, New York Times reporter Shawn Kennedy claims that Tribeca was “a grubby industrial neighborhood” prior to the influx of artists who would settle there in the late 1970s; Daily News reporter Whitney Walker describes the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn as a “former industrial no-man's land;” and Robert Sullivan's New York Times Magazine piece about Bushwick in the 1980s labels the area a “wasteland.”

Gentrification, like the development of the frontier in western expansion, does not just happen organically even if the changes are narrated as though one demographic shift naturally follows another. Gentrification occurs because of political decisions about economic disinvestment and investment, allocation of resources, access to mass transportation, prospects for quality employment, and communication strategies that help frame a city's future. That process is aided when reporters claim that the people who live and work in these areas prior to the arrival of the artists are irrelevant or do not really exist (“no-man's land”), are equated with garbage (“grubby”), or linked with lawlessness (“wasteland”). Readers are left to conclude that these specific neighborhoods should be repopulated by artists, but only long enough to help transform the places into safe and profitable locales for those who want something that feels more hip.

Race and class are two important categories that influence reporters' designation of an area as a frontier. For example, Nadine Brozan writes in a 2002 New York Times article about the migration of artists to the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, New York. Brozan identifies the neighborhood as “the last frontier” before she explains that the new “artist's colony would remain contained in a small area there.” She adds that Mott Haven “is tucked within a series of housing projects and the Harlem River.” We are led to believe that the Harlem River will limit space for development, which should fend off developers who want to build large buildings. However, her use of the housing projects is more interesting, because it signifies African American and Latino crime, violence, and poverty rather than the safe edginess of other bohemian neighborhoods.

This designation of neighborhoods as frontiers ultimately functions to reframe our perceptions of physical space. The space is land, forest, desert, or urban neighborhood until someone decides that it must be transformed or tamed. A place can only be a frontier if it is being thought about as something other than its current form. Through communication, urban spaces are constantly infused with meaning. The urban frontier narrative is one example of how people begin to imagine a place in terms of possibility and then communicate that vision.

If a frontier can only emerge when an area is thought of in a way other than it is, then that space also needs to be reconstructed by someone, which leads to the third recurring theme in press coverage of artist-led gentrification. Because artists are willing to move into neighborhoods that are considered less desirable to middle class renters or buyers, reporters often refer to the artists as pioneers, but sometimes calls them shock troops (Financial Times and MontrealGazette), urban adventurers (Los Angeles Times), artist-settlers (Toronto Star), trailblazers (New York Times), or risk-oblivious youth (New York Times). Artists are never portrayed as gentrifiers.

The consistency of themes, plot, and character development presented in the news advances the artist-led gentrification story in such a way that we can think about gentrification as naturally occurring. These stories about gentrification bestow importance on the topic and help shape our perceptions of the process as a whole, including who benefits from the class remake of city neighborhoods and who might be considered victims. News reports are an important source for citizens to learn about issues that pertain to public life. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the reasons why this consistent telling of the artist-led gentrification story is flawed, and why more critical assessments of urban change could be beneficial to citizens and their cities.