In the News: When ‘Gentrification’ is Really a Shift in Boundaries

Gentrification is a buzz word today. I know I talk about it quite a bit (See: here, here, and here), and if you are paying attention to the conversation it is a regular topic for church planters and ministers in bigger cities across the country right now. Yesterday, the Atlantic posted an interesting article on the topic that is significant for anyone trying to reach cities with the gospel of Christ. The article is titled, When ‘Gentrification’ Is Really a Shift in Racial Boundaries, and makes some claims that run contrary to the forming narrative on gentrification.

Here are some significant points, with a bit of commentary on why churches and church planters should care:

Many neighborhoods are not desegregating.

“One of the arguments is that gentrification can’t be that bad if it serves to desegregate urban areas… but if gentrification continues to happen by boundary movements, then that means the block level is never going to desegregate,” claims Tannen, the author of the study. There is much talk about the diversity that is settling into US cities today, and that is true… on the macro level. The metropolitan areas are getting more diverse, but at the neighborhood level, this is often not the case. In fact, as areas in urban centers gentrify, the thought is that it is mixing up communities in what will most likely be a healthy way, but the research indicates that they are no more desegregated than before. To the contrary, as the movements occur, they resegregate!

Gentrification is not everywhere. Neither is displacement.

In addition to the findings on segregation, Tannen points out that gentrification that forces displacement is not spreading in the wave that is popularly thought.  “Displacement largely doesn’t happen,” says Tannen. The article also cites Pew research that corroborates his findings. “Just 15 of Philadelphia’s 372 census tracts had gentrified over the same ten-year period.”

Gentrification feels like a big deal, and in some neighborhood in our urban centers it is. When I was doing research in DC, there were noticeable areas where displacement was occurring and the sentiments in those neighborhoods make ministry really hard. How does one plant a church in a gentrifying neighborhood and reach both the original residents and the new residents that are taking their homes? Often those people moving in have no idea that the original residents are not as happy about that new Chipotle as they are. In fact, they often do not realize that the original residents blame them for the “real neighborhood” disappearing. The two groups rarely talk, and if so, they avoid sensitive issues like these.

All that said, it does a church planter or local church no good to assume the popular narrative of gentrification. This research should give us impetus not to assume a neighborhood has these tense emotions or even an issue of displacement because there is economic renewal. Instead, churches should do some ground work and talk to the people that live there. Ask questions of residents, new and old, who can give you a real picture of that neighborhood.

Walkable urbanism makes gentrification (and perhaps segregation) easier.

Tannen also calls out new urbanism in his study. There is a big push nowadays for a move to walkable spaces. Little, fake downtown areas are cropping on the outside of city centers. They call them “live, work, play” spaces. And, cities with dense centers are often the target of the type of gentrification that Tannen discusses. According to Tannen this environment actually allows for racial boundary movement. “Interestingly, and potentially uncomfortably for proponents of walkable urbanism, the phenomenon was only apparent in older, denser cities. In auto-centric cities, gentrification was more diffuse, and racial boundaries were less clear.”

A lot of church planters talk about the ability to build diverse community in these new urban environments. While it may be true in some ways, that does not automatically happen. It is easy to look at one of these gentrifying neighborhoods and claim that it will be easy to reach a very different group of people that live just one or two blocks over, but those dividing lines are real. As the article states, “the invisible lines of segregation can be as real and hard as the bricks of any rowhome. According to Tannen’s findings, these neighborhoods encourage racial boundary movements. In other words, when people live in close quarters to one another, it is easier and more desireable to do so with people like you.

People self-segregate.

Ultimately, Tannen concludes that people self-segregate. This falls right in line with the above points. It should come as no surprise to us that people want to be surrounded by people like them. There is much talk about diversity today, and it is good conversation, but we cannot underestimate the human desire to be with those who look like you, think like you, talk like you, and believe like you. Some of this is sinful, of course. The human heart is depraved. Some of this is cultural, though. Humans like being with others who they understand and can understand them.

These realities should influence the way we do missions and discipleship. Local churches and new church planters attempting to reach segregated areas need to account for both the sinful characteristics of the human heart and the regular human boundaries of culture. There is a place in this to be prophetic and speak against systemic sins like racism and discrimination. However, there is also a place for proper contextualization and the realization that lost people need to be discipled and reached in ways that make sense to them culturally. Maybe we do need a diverse sampling of churches in some of these neighborhoods that cooperate in a way that crushes racism but allows for a diverse offering of cultural expressions of the gospel.

Keep in mind that this is only one study, but it is important to consider it against the growing narrative on gentrification. When it comes to ministering in cities, we need to realize that cities are full of people, and that people will act like people. At the end of the day, when we minister to any neighborhood, the best information comes through spending time with the people that live there.

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