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The Geography of 'Displacement'

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
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Atlanta, Georgia, at night. (Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

Atlanta, Georgia, at night. (Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

The meaning of the term "gentrification" is contested. Whatever the definition, the issue is "displacement." The meaning of the term "displacement" isn't contested. It should be.

"Segregation" once meant keeping people out. African Americans couldn't move where they wanted to move. Now, allowing residents to stay equates to social justice:

Displacement traumatizes people and destroys wealth of all kinds. Repeated displacement takes even more of the wealth and integrity of the weakened population. As St. Matthew put it, “even what he has shall be taken away.” Through the lens of the agony of Harlem, I learned the somber fact that policies that destroy some communities and neighborhoods are catastrophic for the health of those in the direct path of the upheaval, but they also endanger the health of the whole of the US, and through us, the whole world.

Yes, displacement is traumatic. Migration is traumatic. Moving to where you want to move will be traumatic to you and your family. Moving to where we have to move is equally traumatic. "Displacement" is also upward mobility:

High-mobility metro areas have a combination of greater economic and racial integration, better schools and a smaller fraction of single-parent families than lower-mobility areas. Integration is lagging in Atlanta, he said. “The strongest predictors of upward mobility are measures of family structure,” Mr. Chetty said.

His proposal: move poor children to high-mobility communities and remove the impediments to mobility in poor-performing neighborhoods. He now is working with the Obama administration on ways to encourage landlords in higher-opportunity neighborhoods to take in poor families by paying landlords more or guaranteeing rent payment.

Chetty's proposal is to "displace" poor children. Is "displacement" good or bad? Is she a refugee or migrant? Such distinctions are meaningless. The right to stay is social injustice. The right to stay is NIMBYism.

Encouraging residents to move from poor-performing neighborhoods to higher-opportunity neighborhoods isn't displacement. It's migration. Upward mobility is traumatic.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.