Is DC Chillin’ or DC Changing?: Revitalization versus Gentrification of the Nation’s Capital

By B. Selah Lee-Bey

Note: This piece was originally published on August 24, 2018 on DiversePatriots.com

Ask any native Washingtonian what’s happening in DC, and the first thing they’ll say is gentrification. Their families and friends are being pushed out of the homes they have called home for generations.

Ask a recent college graduate, new to DC, and they will comment on how the city and certain neighborhoods are being revitalized, finally making DC a place to settle in and start a family.

Two different terms describing one phenomenon. They are used almost synonymously, but rarely interchangeably, as they are used specifically by two distinct groups of people.

This article will explore and analyze who uses the term ‘revitalization’ versus ‘gentrification’ when addressing demographic and economic shifts in urban areas, as the usage of the terms reveal the concepts each truly promote.

What is revitalization?

Revitalize is a term that literally means “to bring back to life”; its root comes from the Latin vita meaning “life”, while the prefix re indicates “bringing something back to its original state or to do something again.”

Urban revitalization is the physical redevelopment of commercial corridors in order to bring economic vitality to neighborhoods with monetary and infrastructure challenges. These revitalization projects can be initiated by business owners, political leaders, or even concerned citizens. Like DC, municipalities support these efforts through neighborhood revitalization programs designed to provide resources and funding to strengthen neighborhoods and ultimately help low-income residents improve their quality of life. Many of these programs center around establishing and supporting Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and empowerment zones and as initiating beautification projects. Revitalization exists on a spectrum, as strategies designated as place-oriented versus people-oriented. Place-oriented revitalization strategies emphasize the physical changes to a neighborhood in order to increase its economic value. People-oriented revitalization seeks to improve health, education, employment, and the over quality of life, particularly for the most disadvantaged residents. People-oriented revitalization programs include local hiring clauses, programming for the homeless and youth, and tax increment financing (where businesses elect to pay a property tax surcharge and use revenue to make capital improvements in the neighborhood).

Thus, analysis of the term itself in the context of urban development reveals that revitalization simply seeks to “bring life back” to areas on the verge of urban death; under these auspices, revitalization has positive effects for urban areas.

What is Gentrification?

Gentrification is a modern-day term describing current population trends in urban settings. The roots of gentrify are gentry and -fy; -fy comes from the Latin –ficare through the French –fier, meaning “to make or do”. Thus, gentrify literally means “to make something gentried.” The gentry are the middle class; it comes through the Old French genterie “high-born” from the Latin gentilis, meaning “of the same clan or race”. One might literally say that gentrification is “the act of making a place a home for those of a ‘higher’ status.” Gentry originally referred to one of several European social classes during the Middle Ages and is one step below the highest-born nobles.

Some may contend that today, “higher” status is purely income-based, as neighborhoods change from working- to middle-class. Others highlight the stark shift in the racial, ethnic, and cultural makeup of a neighborhood, as those identified as black and brown move out, and white and Caucasian families move in.

But as Urban Democracy Lab writer Rachel Stern states, the definition of gentrification is unclear.

For economists, city planners, and others that hold financial growth as their bottom line, gentrification is the renovation of an urban area through programs that stimulate economic growth, this changes it from a home for generations of working-class families to a middle-class or commercial area. While on the surface, this seems to be a positive thing (and thus, a positive spin on the term), it neglects the impact of commercial renovation: displacement of natives.

Most people use gentrification to describe the displacement of natives of an urban area, dismantling the economic, cultural and ethnic fabric that has existed for generations.

One could go as far as to say that gentrification is a form of modern-day, intranational colonialism. Property developers and investors see vacant and dilapidated neighborhoods as “the new frontier”, places to “manifest one’s real estate and entrepreneurial destiny.” Never mind the original inhabitants; from the gentry’s perspective, the neighborhood is the land, not the people, and the land will be revitalized by any means necessary. While government agencies create programs to encourage developers to take a “bottom-up” approach and build structural benefits for original inhabitants, the ultimate goal is for the economic landscape of the neighborhood to change with little regard for the effects of the people rooted there. Gentrification then, is a result of revitalization; the question for many is whether the revitalization is well-intentioned or part of a villainous plot to keep black and brown people disenfranchised.

So Who Says What?

The term revitalization is often used by property developers, city managers, and transplants with no historical or cultural connection to the neighborhood or city; they celebrate fiscal growth, but overlook how its link to gentrification. In these cases, revitalization is used as euphemism for gentrification.

Gentrification, on the other hand, is used by natives, empathizers (usually non-white), and sympathizers (again with no cultural connection to city). Their perspective is that urban development often brings in a new middle class that zaps cities of its cultural identity, as most transplants are young, white professionals that displace black and brown laborers.

The positive view of gentrification almost mirrors that of revitalization; most that believe this is what gentrification means are in support of urban revitalization programs. They typically prefer to use the term revitalization, as it is less politically abrasive and more palatable.

Most often, gentrification is used as a pejorative that naturally falls from the lips of those that are most affected by economic development: primarily black and brown, low-income, residents native to the city. When a new Starbucks and Potbelly’s emerges in an otherwise economically depressed area: gentrification. When we see white families walking down traditionally black and brown neighborhoods: gentrification. When we see entire blocks of rowhouses changed into overpriced and underdeveloped apartment buildings: gentrification.

From analyzing the two terms, one could conclude that revitalization leads to gentrification, as revitalization inherently causes an increase in property values, and thus a shift in neighborhood or city demographics. And when the population of a place changes, so do the traditions and values.

However, we can revitalize and maintain the fabric, the soul, the spirit of a neighborhood but only through a people-centered perspective that prioritizes the wants and needs of the native inhabitants. Only then can we revitalize the hood without gentrifying it.

The distinction between revitalization and gentrification is more that just semantic. In addition, it is important to analyze terminology and how words are used, as we can gain insights about what thoughts people intend to convey through their words choices. Words are utterances that represent our ideas, and they certainly do matter. To gentrify is to colonize and replace, to revitalize is to see the potential in the existing cultural fabric and assist in making it flourish.

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