Great Distortion

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Great Distortion
by Alison Barnet Contributor
Wednesday Jul 14, 2010

What’s in a Word? Gentrification Doesn’t Cut It

The term gentrification no longer works. You know it, I know it. The problem is: old and worn out as it is, no other word is as concise or has the same ring.

The Great Transformation and the Great Turn Around have possibilities; the Great Turn-Over, however, sounds like a pastry. "Economic and Social Upheaval"? "Chop and Change"? "Uprising of the Entitled?" Sometimes it’s helpful to look back to the days when the phenomenon was newer and rawer, and a South End agency called gentrification the "neutron bomb of upgrading." I’ve become partial to The Great Distortion, which I borrow from the work of sociologist Mitchell Duneier. Like the terms above, it echoes "The Great Depression," while addressing the warp in values and the resulting alteration in relationships between old and new, rich and poor, in neighborhoods "deformed by money."

The term gentrification was coined by Ruth Glass, a British sociologist, in 1964. The British, who understand class stratification a lot better than we do, have a way with words-tarted up was a brilliant addition to the gentrification lexicon. "One by one, many of the working-class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes-upper and lower," Glass wrote. "Once this process of ’gentrification’ starts in a district, it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed."

When middle class gentrification started happening in the South End in the Seventies and Eighties, the concept of gentry seemed like a joke. Were the newcomers people of nobility and gentle birth? They seemed instead like middle-class people seeking a better way of life than their already better way of life, and they had the means to do so. They organized community clean-ups, crime patrols, and block parties, shut down bars and social clubs, and reversed the direction of traffic on their blocks to "preserve the residential character." They were friendly with their less affluent neighbors-their children played together and went to public school together, even if they weren’t invited inside their homes. Remember the outside and inside children of "Where’s Boston?" They took Urban Renewal very seriously and were instrumental in getting brick sidewalks and quaint streetlights. Of course, they felt terrible when their old neighbors had to move out, but they wished them well.

This is not to forget urban pioneers, "the unintentional ’shock troops’ for gentrification," as Brian Godfrey, another sociologist, puts it, a term he finds interchangeable with gentry. Describing "the usual metamorphosis," he writes: "In the first stage, a bohemian fringe discovers a neighborhood’s special charms-e.g., social diversity, subcultural identification, architectural heritage. Nontraditional ’footloose’ elements are favored, such as single people, counter-culturals, homosexuals, artists, feminist households, or college students. These ’urban pioneers’ make a run-down or even dangerous area livable and attractive to others who would not normally venture there . . . and encourage the beginnings of housing speculation." Novelist Judith Matloff notes, "’Pioneer’ was a lower category than ’gentrifier’-the latter implied that sushi had arrived." "The idea of ’urban pioneers,’" writes San Francisco author Rebecca Solnit, "is as insulting applied to contemporary cities as the original idea of ’pioneers’ in the US West. Now, as then, it implies that no one lives in the area being pioneered-no one worthy of notice at least."

Yuppification made urban pioneer and gentrification seem tame. Conservatives replaced the liberals. Many of the pioneers and gentry had been well-meaning and community-minded. They had at least seen their poor neighbors as people. Their houses were lovingly restored and gracious-not cut up into plasterboard "units." In contrast, yuppies didn’t seem to care about anything except their investments and their high-priced pleasures and sometimes actively sought to get rid of their less fortunate neighbors. Yuppie didn’t so much stand for "young urban professional" as for young, unaware and pompous-in other words, self-centered, greedy, and racist.

F. Scott Fitzgerald could have had them in mind in The Great Gatsby: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy-they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made . . . ."

"I call them young lords of the universe," says a man who’s lived in the South End since the early Seventies. "You can’t engage them," comments another. "They only care about the inside [of their condos], and outside means only their cars and pets." "It’s all façade, investment, money, and no stability," says yet another. "There’s a lack of recognition that other people exist." Yuppification may have been more or less a joke word, so gentrification endured as a description of the phenomenon. Supergentrification arrived on the scene several years ago. It’s defined as "a further level of gentrification, superimposed on an already gentrified neighborhood" and "the intense investment and conspicuous consumption by super-rich ’financifiers’ fed by fortunes from global finance." Mostly a London and New York trend, we didn’t talk much about it in Boston, although we saw it. With single family homes, lofts, babies, and dogs, what new term do we have to look forward to?

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