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Why Is Gentrification Such a Hot Topic?

For a new demographic, the urban zip code has cachet.
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San Francisco, California. (PHOTO: URBAN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

San Francisco, California. (PHOTO: URBAN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

If gentrification is old news, then why the fuss? For a new demographic, the urban zip code has cachet. The aspirational geography in yesterday's post about perpetual gentrification:

Even in the scorching desert, Grandma Sylvia and Uncle Sheldon referenced the Flushing house, a five-bedroom stand-alone with a yard, as if it were down the street. The talk was always about how the area was partially rural when they moved there from Brooklyn in 1950, about the large Jewish and Italian populations, and how Flushing hosted the World’s Fair in 1939 and 1964. “When we moved there,” Grandma liked to say, “it was the country, and we were moving up in the world.”

The big city folks moved to the countryside, in Queens. That suburban idyll has, for some, turned around back toward the city. Suburbia, been there and done that. Get me as far away from there as possible.

The silver-spooned flight from the sprawl only explains so much. Living out your punker fantasy in Oakland pales in comparison to the agglomeration economy that is San Francisco. Go play squatter anti-hero in Buffalo. It won't make one lick of a difference. Something bigger is happening. Migration, who moves and why, dramatically transformed:

“This decline in migration has been going on for a long time now, through all sorts of ups and downs in the housing market,” said Greg Kaplan of Princeton University, who, along with Sam Schulhofer-Wohl of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has studied the issue in depth. But even with the pressure of high housing costs in many areas, Americans are moving less, Kaplan said. “That might explain why people are moving from San Francisco to, I don’t know, Houston,” he said. “But you’ve seen a decline in migration from Texas to California as well as California to Texas.”

This is not a short-term supply-and-demand issue or a side effect of a slow-growth economy or a shift in demographics. The change is deeper. Kaplan and Schulhofer-Wohl have won applause from other economists for developing a novel theory to explain this creeping inertia: labor markets in the United States have simply become more homogeneous. Earnings have become more similar across the country, meaning there is less incentive to move from one place to another in search of a raise. The country has also become less diverse, work-wise. Pick any two cities, and chances are they offer a more similar mix of jobs than they did 20 or 50 years ago. We have become less a nation of Pittsburghs and more a nation of Provos.

This is in part a result of the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the service economy. Heavy industries like steel making tend to cluster in certain parts of the country, whereas services like fast-food sales, pool cleaning and day care tend to blanket it. Even in the heyday of American steel making, a smelter operator’s job search was rather limited geographically. Today, a day care worker can look for a job anywhere — and she would probably be able to find one close to home.

The "why" people move has gone away. Hidden in the attempt to explain the decline in geographic mobility is "who" migrates. The best name in migration scholarship, Hein de Haas:

Analyses of historical and contemporary data show that human and economic development is initially associated with increasing emigration**. Any form of development in the poorest countries of the world is therefore likely to lead to accelerating emigration. Such findings contradict conventional thinking, and force us to radically change our views on migration. In particular, we need explanations that do not confuse individual factors or motivations to move (which indeed often refer to better opportunities) with macro-structural explanations of migration processes.

The poorest neighborhoods in New York City have the least emigration. If you will, poverty plugs the brain drain. But these suburban brats come from wealth and are well-educated. They move. They move to Brooklyn from Larchmont, New York. Dirty gentrifiers relocate next door to the Polish babushka, who was unable to realize suburban dreams, in Greenpoint. Global talent collides with a fixed income. The community isn't gated anymore.