There Goes the Neighborhood: Asymmetric Gentrification and the Limits of Development

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54 Responses

  1. One assumption in your piece seems to be that much of the development you’re talking about makes an erstwhile walkable neighborhood now “unwalkable.” I’m not sure I follow (if that is indeed what you’re assuming).

    As for what appears to be the OP’s main argument–the part about “[t]here should be a policy recognition of what a community needs versus what attracts maximum profit and development and maximum profit can seemingly change what was charming about a neighborhood into a parody of charm or get rid of necessary businesses like groceries”–what do you envision as the appropriate “policy recognition”? I’m inclined to think that any such recognition will make the neighborhood more and more expensive by, say, protecting current businesses at the expense of newcomers and thereby permitting them to charge higher rates because they have less competition.. But I don’t know for sure.Report

    • I’m also concerned about who/what defines the “community.” Is it homeowners, renters, those who work there, those who come there to shop/hang out/dine? Some combination of the preceding that nicludes some but not others?Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

      Good point, @gabriel-conroy . Who pays for what the community “needs” if the community itself doesn’t? Saul, you mentioned a “well loved bar” that is being replaced… if the love for it is so strong, why are the owners selling? And if we make it difficult for them to sell, is that really helping the community?Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Kazzy says:

        “if the love for it is so strong, why are the owners selling? ”

        If San Francisco’s example is anything to go by, the bar doesn’t actually own the space. The landlords tripled the rent as a legal form of kicking them out and plan to sell the property to a condo builder.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        Thanks. If that is indeed the case, what mechanism do folks propose that would prevent that? Besides rent control?Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


      I think walkability is relative and can change. I generally think of it as meaning not needing to use a car or public transport for daily errands and the like. You can walk to buy food, go get some coffee, the gym, maybe the doctor’s office, and also entertainment options but the last is a lesser requirement.

      Walkability can change for a variety of reasons. Maybe a neighborhood becomes blighted and retail and other businesses pull up and leave. Maybe the daily businesses get replaced by up market chains and department stores or just the ones you were able to afford to shop in depending on your socio-economic bracket. I think being able to get to a grocery and back without a car or public transport is key for walkability. There are still shopping options in my old Brooklyn neighborhood but they are expensive supermarkets. There is also a huge Whole Foods and a huge Fairway but those are far enough away to require a very healthy walk (hard to do with groceries) or need a car.

      I hear your concerns about who gets to define the needs of a community. My general sympathy and leaning is for the homeowners and residents but that can also be problematic. Maybe everyone is searching for a Jane Jacobs-esque platonic idealized neighborhood which never really existed or can only exist for a short time. Maybe there is an upside to a city having a “high end shopping district” and a “nightlife/clubbing district”Report

      • Thanks, Saul, for answering my questions. I value walkability, too, along the terms you define it. I’m fortunate to live within 3 blocks of a major grocery chain, within 3 blocks of at least 2 smaller mom-and-pop stores and 1 cvs, and within a mile of 2 Walgreens, one discount grocery chain, another major grocery chain and probably at least 2 or 3 other mom-and-pop grocers. Obviously, my community is well-served, knock on wood. Maybe I’ll be singing a different tune if that starts to change. But since my wife and I rent, we might try to move if/when that happens.Report

  2. James Hanley says:


    Does SIMBYISM mean some property owners are required to subsidize the preferences of one segment of the community, while others are free to cash in on the preferences of another segment of the community?Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to James Hanley says:

      A fair point. As I said above to Gabriel, the whole thing is very tricky. I think building more in San Francisco can probably help ease gentrification because San Francisco is much smaller than Brooklyn in terms of size and population. SF only has around 800,000-900,000 people. Brooklyn has 2.5 million or so souls inhabiting it. The issue in Brooklyn is that some neighborhoods are continually developing and getting more and more expensive while others are not developing and getting cheaper and cheaper. So it is a weird combination of Boomtown and Detroit. I find this intriguing for a variety of issues.

      I also find it interesting that people pushed out of the gentrified neighborhoods because of expense are choosing to move to Hastings on Hudson NY or New Jersey or Upper Manhattan or Queens instead of the areas of Brooklyn that have stagnant or declining house prices. A friend of mine was born in very working/middle class Carnasie (also very Italian) and spent sometime in Bensonhurst before his family moved to semi-rural New Jersey. He said he just couldn’t see moving back to an area like Carnasie if he got outpriced of an area like Williamsburg or Cobble Hill.

      I might have a mistake in my original essay. There are several towns in NY called Hudson or that have Hudson in the name. There are some former industrial cities in Dutchess and Utica counties of New York which are getting slowly revived as “Brooklyns North”. Hastings on the Hudson was always a well to do suburb. However, Beacon, NY is a former industrial city getting a revival. I’m just curious about why people are moving up and out instead of to neighboring parts of Brooklyn. There could be good and bad reasons for this. East New York and Brownsville are heavily Black-American and semi unconscious racism can be a substantial issue in the reasoning. This is not good. I do also think it shows the limits of the Richard Florida Creative Class meme because towns need stuff before being able to exploit/profit on the Creative Class meme. Hence Rufus chronicling the slow and sometimes two-steps forward one step backward gentrification of Hamilton Ontario. Or seemingly one step forward, two steps backwards.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Hastings-on-Hudson (and many of the other Hudson Valley (where I live) towns you mentioned) draw people because they offer something very different than the city. Hastings is not a substitute for Brooklyn; it is an alternative. It is a suburb. A very nice suburb. But a suburb nonetheless. Wondering why people move to a nice suburb instead of a deteriorating urban neighborhood seems to miss the boat.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        I see what you are saying but I am disturbed by it.

        I’ve heard many people in my generation, both friends and non-friends, talk about how our generation is largely moving back to urban areas and urban school districts because we rebelled against the blandness and mall-filled existence of our suburban upbringings.

        I was always a bit skeptical of this for the reasons you mentioned and also the general chaos that is known as the NYC school system but I am still disappointed that people are moving because they are getting priced out of certain urban neighborhoods and the rest remain blighted.

        Liberal guilt and all that.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I guess I’m a little confused by what you want to see happen. You want some neighborhoods to experience less gentrification and others to experience more? If all of Brooklyn looked like Cobble Hill circa 2007, would that be good, bad, or just different?Report

    • Surely it isn’t too controversial to suggest that new developments can have some sort of (sometimes negative) effect on the existing properties and residents in an area, is it?

      In the OP, Saul doesn’t expand on his version of SIMBYism (detailing how often is “Sometimes” and how often is “Sometimes Not” is important… devils and details and all), but the basic concept is good, if I’m understanding him. Municipalities (or counties or whatever regional organization is in charge) must balance competing demands when devising zoning regulations. It is better to try to set out some basic guidelines before the fact, rather than making it up as you go along–the latter being an easy way to wind up either going full-NIMBY or allowing all development.

      I’m reminded of this (very good) post by Tod:

  3. James Pearce says:

    “Many of my friends and other people feel that their formally charming neighborhood is now becoming another SOHO.”

    Not another SOHO!

    I guess I’m just glad that I live in a city where “gentrification” is known as “development.”Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to James Pearce says:

      What city would that be?Report

      • James Pearce in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Denver, which is admittedly a totally different animal from NYC. We’re smaller, less diverse, but also the new developments are usually being built on abandoned airports, amusement parks, or malls rather than being squeezed into existing neighborhoods, thereby changing their own distinctive character.

        There are a few areas, the Highlands or Lodo, where development has changed the neighborhood’s distinctive character, but I’m not sure anyone really thinks that’s a bad thing.Report

      • I was born and raised in Denver (but live in Chicago now) and had never heard of Highlands until last summer, when some friends of my wife visited the city and mentioned having gone there. I had actually been to that “Tin Can” ice cream shop before (I forget its real name, but it’s something like that), however.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        I think this is for several reasons:

        1. As you mentioned, Denver can develop and grow in ways that NYC or SF can’t. You can grow without changing the way of certain neighborhoods. That being said I am sure Denver as battles between environmentalists and people who want to develop nature lands.

        2. The west has much more of a Capitalist ethos than the East and I think there is still the strong idea of moving West to make your fortune because the East is tied up and old and developed to the maximum.

        That being said, I tend to be skeptical of both the anti-growth crowd and the crowd that shouts “develop develop develop” like an unquestionable mantra. I think the latter crowd helps fuel constant bubbles which will always lead to recessions and depressions. Sometimes the boom and bust mania needs to be clamped down on.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        I also wonder how much of it has to do with the “White Flight” phenomenon that started after WWII. I’m guessing that played out much differently in NYC than it did in Denver.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        “I was born and raised in Denver (but live in Chicago now) and had never heard of Highlands”

        I don’t think anyone wanted to re-develop the area until recently, which is weird. The proximity to not only downtown but also the highway would seem to make it a fairly desirable place to live. That’s always been true, but I guess to make it REALLY true, you have to move Elitches, build the Pepsi Center, and clean up the area around Confluence Park first.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        @james-pearce, the suburbanization of the New York area was interesting. The New York metropolitan area was where modern suburbia was co-invented along with Southern California. At the same time, various factors prevented New York from taking a hit that other cities did even in the bad days when it went bankrupt. Most of the employment opportunities remained in Manhattan so there wasn’t a suburbanization of work that existed in other cities. New York was so dynamic itself that it never lost its desirability as a place to live even when things went really bad. This really helped New York rebound during the 1980s and 1990s.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to James Pearce says:

      There is a theory that the people who complain most about gentrification or super-gentrification generally have the same tastes but less income as the people who are doing the gentrifying and there is probably something or a lot of something to this theory.Report

  4. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    I’m sympathetic to your point, but I share the others reservations regarding who gets to define what. I mean, I could see a community pushing to not allow the local grocer with good prices become a J. Crew, but at the same time, why is the grocer selling? Did the city at large raise property taxes, or some other tax that a small grocer can not afford. Or was the regulatory environment shifted such that the current grocer can not afford to comply, or just flat out has had enough with such compliance & is ready to leave to field*? Even if the community could get another grocer to take over, would they necessarily be able to offer comparable prices to the old one? Is that why you see more high end markets, because they are the only one who can afford to buy in & operate at a profit?

    *I know people often look at the straight up financial costs of regulatory compliance (and sometimes they even compare that number to the cost of not having said regulations), but I wonder how often they look at people who just fold up shop because they are just tired of shoveling that excrement?Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      That could be the case, but it would be hard to explain why it happened just in pockets of Brooklyn. More likely all these stores, including the groceries, are renters of their space, rather than owners. When their leases are up, if rents have risen the landlords will ask for higher rent, and if the store can’t pay it, they’ll find another tenant who can (and will).Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      I think most of these businesses rent instead of own. Even large retailers like Rag and Bone and J.Crew rent instead of own.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


      A few years ago, a Whole Foods was looking to move into the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. JP was (and probably still is) a majority-black neighborhood and it has experienced some real gentrification in the past decade or so. A handful of “good, white liberals” protested the Whole Foods move insisting it was going to destroy the community. Local JP residents — those whom the ‘crusaders’ claimed to want to help — were annoyed. “We shouldn’t be able to get organic kale, too?” was the response. WF was generally welcomed by residents — both new and old.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Kazzy says:


        I wasn’t even going to touch on “Well meaning white people who are not helping”.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        Heh… I got you covered on that front.

        Gentrification is a tricky issue. Not every neighborhood gentrifies in the same way. Depending on how the process plays out, it can be a net positive or a net negative. More importantly, every individual is going to experience it differently. Some individuals will benefit and some will be harmed. I won’t pretend to have answers about how to encourage the good parts of it while mitigating the downsides of it. I think discussing “gentrification” as a specific thing or process doesn’t do us much good.Report

  5. Kolohe says:

    I’m convinced that gentrification or aristocratization that leads to *fewer* grocery stores must be a NYC (and perhaps even just Brooklyn) thing. With every other place I am familiar, it leads to Harris Teeters, Trader Joes, or Whole Foods (and most times all three)Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Kolohe says:

      I don’t know Harris Teeters but I like the name but mainly because I imagine a guy named Harris teetering.

      Grocery stores in NYC are interesting just because of the way the city developed as compared to other American cities. NYC and SF are constrained by their boarders more than anywhere else in the US. There are really big Whole Foods in Union Square, Columbus Circle really big one near the Gowanus Canal (it was built on a superfund site!!). But when I lived on the UES, the closest supermarket was a Food Emporium about a mile plus away with a very interesting layout. NYC is the only place I’ve seen with mult-floored supermarkets or where you need to take an escalator to get to the supermarket.

      The Whole Foods near the Gowanus Canal is sort of but not really near my old hood and would be a very hard walk to do with groceries even with a pushcart that New Yorkers like to do.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Big grocery stores may be more cost-effective than small ones. But you’re not going to be able to sustain one within walking distance of everyone in the city.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Your also going to need space for big grocery stores, especially if you want parking, and that isn’t possible in New York City. You either build in periphery areas and have people drive to get to you or you build in area dense with subways and have people take the subway to and from you. The Whole Foods that Saul mentioned in Union Square is an example of this.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        NYC fridges tend to be smaller than fridges in other cities and NYC always had more of the European ethos of being food on a daily or semi-daily basis. What Lee said is true. There are some huge supermarkets like the Fairway in Redhook but that is interestingly one of the most inconvenient places to get to in NYC and is famously lacking in a subway.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Fairway also has locations in Harlem (125th Street… WITH A FREE PARKING LOT!!!) and the UWS. I used to live a few blocks from the UWS one. As I walked past it going to and from the subway each day, I shopped almost daily. Cut down on food waste, which was important given my financials at the time. I’d stop in almost every AM and buy a single apple, which I paid for with credit card (I remain convinced they took a loss on those purchases). On the way home, I’d walk the aisle and “get inspired” for dinner. Super fresh produce, good meat and cheese, funky selection, and very affordable by city standards (significantly cheaper than the Food Emporiums and D’Agostinos). I’d usually get anything that came in a box or which wasn’t for eating at a place like Associated or Duane Reade. Cheerios are Cheerios and if I could save a buck a box going to a grimier place, so be it.

        The Harlem Fairway also has the cold room… essentially a giant walk in refrigerator. They give you a big bulky coat to wear but I always found fun in going in with whatever I had on. That is where they kept all the meats and the dairy and the eggs and stuff. Being situated along the river in Harlem, space is at less of a premium than elsewhere in Manhattan.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        And to @saul-degraw ‘s point, I lived in a studio apartment that was literally no more than 200 square feet. I had a dorm-sized refrigerator, which also made almost-daily-shopping necessary.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        The size of your refrigerator is not particularly relevant to the issue of how cost effective a small vs. a large grocery store is to those running it.

        The cost of space–real estate–is. But if big stores are moving in and small stores moving out,* then I think that issue has already been determined in favor of big stores.

        (*And I’m not in a position to know if that’s actually the case or not.)Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Fairway’s Harlem store is what I meant on the periphery. Its one of the few places in Manhattan where you can have a parking lot with free parking even though its near a subway stop. The Red Hook store in Brooklyn is the other peripheral location. The UWS and 25th street stores are more centrally located.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        You also have to think about the impact of services like PeaPod (grocery delivery).Report

      • Glyph in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        The size of your refrigerator is not particularly relevant to the issue of how cost effective a small vs. a large grocery store is to those running it

        I’m actually not sure about this statement, unless I misunderstand what you mean. My wife is in retail, not grocery (and certainly real estate prices are a factor as you say) but they definitely watch how much each customer *spends* per visit (and a small refrigerator is going to limit how much one spends per visit).

        Now, your initial response might be to say, yes, each NYCer is spending less per visit, but there are more visitors (due to pop. density) and more visits (due to small fridges) so it evens out; but that’s not necessarily the case, as each visit imposes certain fixed costs (maint/cleanup/service).

        I can’t quantify all the factors, but I know under some circumstances it’s far more profitable to have 10 customers spending $100 per visit, than 100 customers spending $10 per visit.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        Agreed. But what I seem to be seeing–and it’s entirely possible I’m seeing this wrong–is 1) a claim that large groceries are replacing small ones, 2) coupled with claims about why small groceries make more business sense. And I’m suggesting that if 1) is true, then there may be some errors in 2).Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        One reason I think we’re seeing more large-scale (I may not be using that term properly… but I’m referring to the size of the actual physical store, not the company behind it) businesses in the city is greater creativity on the businesses part. The Whole Foods in Columbus Circle is in the basement of the Time Warner center. There is a Home Depot in Chelsea that is unlike any HD I’ve seen before at least in terms of outside appearance (see image here: A Bed Bath and Beyond on the UWS requires a system of escalators to access in its subterranean location.

        I’m not sure we’d have seen these companies doing such things a few decades ago, though that is more hunch than it is serious analysis. They seem to have realized that gaining access to the city and its millions of residents trumps aesthetic concerns. Given that people overall seem less brand loyal and more willing to work with “big box” stores AND the proliferation of the internet and the ability of these stores to offer greater web services has also probably contributed to it.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Building a traditional big box store in Manhattan would be prohibitively expensive because rather than rent from a landlord, you would have to buy a lot or two, tear down the buildings on the lot, and than build your big box. The same principle probably applies in San Francisco and some other cities. Its easier just to rent and reconfigure an existing building to your need like Home Depot did in Chelsea. It actually creates a much more attractively looking Big Box store than the ones your find in suburbia.Report

      • Jim Heffman in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        On the other hand, it’s kind of creepy when you go into a Lowe’s in Manchester and realize that you know where everything is because it’s the exact same building as the one near your house in Fremont.Report

      • Peter in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        The Home Depot in Chelsea has a different product mix than the stores in suburban locations, and for that matter the ones in the outer boroughs (note: I have a second job at a suburban HD). The lumber and building materials section is smaller, the garden department sells mostly things for indoor planting, adaptations of that sort. There’s also a greater emphasis on remodeling and installation services than in most other stores.

        I’m half-convinced that the Columbus Circle Whole Foods loses money but is kept in operation for prestige/publicity services. About a year ago I did some merchandising work for an outside vendor in that store, starting at five in the morning, and I was completely taken aback by the sheer numbers of employees on duty hours before the store was to open. One thing that really sticks in my memory is that there were seven – seven! – chefs at the sushi bar preparing the day’s offerings. I also did occasional work at the Whole Foods on the Lower East Side, once again starting at five in the morning, and its staffing levels were far, far lighter.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        I think that Columbus Circle could be for prestige. The ones on the UES, Union Square, and Brooklyn, are always packed though and the UES and Union Square ones do a lot of brisk lunchtime business. Maybe the one in Brooklyn does as well.

        I think a lot of stores keep locations in prestigious sections of Manhattan for the value of saying they have an expensive Manhattan location. 1-800-Mattress probably does not need a Park Avenue address.Report

  6. zic says:

    Gentrification is disconcerting. When it starts, it’s welcome improvement to a neighborhood; but it always seems to go beyond, displacing the old residents and businesses with new, and not-necessarily-improved. Today, Krugman’s NYT column shines a bit of a window on that, he notes that growth in the southern states isn’t driven so much by no regulation as by cheap housing from people displaced out of their homes in northern states.

    It helps, I think, to step back and look at it as a process; it happens in waves. Not-so-elegant communities are gentrified, the housing stock improved, the businesses change as rents increase, and then they settle down and slowly slide back into tatters and disrepair.

    I think it’s also important to consider the perspective of business owners in that process; a neighborhood with businesses established 20 or more years ago will see waves of retirement. This happened at the grocery store in my old neighborhood, a lovely little market with an excellent meat counter; I did most of my daily shopping there and make trips to the large grocery store every few weeks for staples. It closed because the brothers running it were all of retirement age; I watched as their children tried working there and decided this was not the career they wanted. This is very much part of the wave of change that overtakes neighborhoods.

    If the neighborhood is in the process of gentrifying, rents are probably going up, which means that the new business that open are either going to be relatively deep pocketed, franchises that already have an established brand for instance, or potentially fleeting unless they can establish themselves well.

    Given the small profit margins of a grocery store, in particular, small stores will have trouble thriving.

    But I think it most helpful to think of neighborhoods as having a life cycle of growth, followed by maturity, followed by aging, just like the people who live in the neighborhoods.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to zic says:

      I would say gentrifying usually happens in neighborhoods that started off as really good but went through a period of blight and despair.

      The neighborhoods of Brownstone Brooklyn are a good example of this. When Brooklyn was an independent city, the elite lived in Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Boreum Hill, etc. During the 20th century, the Brownstones were often broken up into apartments and the neighborhoods became more working class and usually filled with dock workers, factory workers, and construction workers. The neighborhoods stayed rough until the 1960s-70s when people began purchasing the Brownstones for a steal and largely for the facade and the fixer-upper appeal. So the housing stock was improved in a sense but not in a complete tear down sort of way. There was an initial aesthetic that appealed to people.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to zic says:

      I think Krugman has a good partial explanation, but it leaves out a lot. (“Low taxes and regulation!” is also, at best, a partial explanation.)

      Gentrification doesn’t connect well here, though. At least, my impression of the people moving from the first and second coast to the third are that they are a significantly different demographic than those displaced by gentrification. The regional displacement and the price-pushing that causes it is, as near as I can tell, more answerable to international migration than domestic. Otherwise, internal migration patterns would look different and there would be more of a balance to it.Report

  7. dhex says:

    the high comedy of yuppos complaining about yuppos being more yuppos. stupid expensive restaurants and the like were common in the area by the beginning of the 2000s. average rent by 2002 was 1800/m for 1br, 2300 for 2br.

    etc. it was always my wife’s favorite place to live and my least favorite. too many bluebloods.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to dhex says:

      My friend said I should think of this on two different axis, convenience and neighborhood quality/appeal. People getting priced out of Carroll Gardens are going to find a community in the Hudson Valley having the right mixture of convenience and neighborhood quality or a closer mixture than East New York or Canarsie or Coney Island.

      Though Nyack is beautiful and probably a good place to live, I would not exactly describe it as convenient considering there is no direct train line to Manhattan. You need to drive to Tarrytown to get a trainReport