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Thursday, May 4, 2006

White Flight vs. Gentrification

Posted by on May 4 at 13:05 PM

I usually lie about my age—because I can, Skip, because I can—but for this post, I have to come clean: I’m 41 years-old, so I’m old enough to remember white flight, which was roaring in the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was a little kid.

Back then all white liberals—my parents included—were in agreement about white flight: It was a bad thing, and white people who fled the cities because they didn’t want to live in racially mixed neighborhoods were bigots. (My family stayed put in our Chicago neighborhood as it went from predominantly Irish to mostly Mexican.) Liberals screamed and yelled at white folks who fled cities for the ‘burbs. Those white folks were were assholes—and they contributed mightily to the decline of US cities in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. Then something strange started happening in the 1980s. White folks started moving back into the cities—some moved into racially mixed neighborhoods; some moved into predominantly minority neighborhoods. This trend has only picked up steam over the last twenty years.

And many of the same white liberals who condemned white flight are just as angry at the white folks who are moving back into the cities. When white people moved away in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, they were guilty of white flight. And when white people came back, they were guilty of gentrification.

Danny Westneat has a column in the Seattle Times today about gentrification—although he doesn’t use the word. He makes some good points about the cluelessness of white people who get angry at African Americans who express any reservations at all about white folks moving in to traditionally black neighborhoods.

“People should be welcome to live where they want to without regard to their skin color, without being regarded as ‘invaders,’ ” wrote Mark Hovila of Lake Forest Park.

Asked Ben Dobbs: “Could you imagine an article such as yours with roles reversed?” …

OK, I’ll play along. Let’s reverse the roles. Not just the skin color — the roles.

Suppose whites had been shunted via redlining into one of the most run-down parts of Seattle. Then, 40 years later, suppose some wealthy and connected African Americans began buying up the land, putting up megahouses, running the community councils and dominating the PTAs.

It’s a great point—the anger in the African American community as the Central District integrates is completely understandable. But African Americans are no longer shunted into just one neighborhood in the city—Westneat cites a UW study that shows that the city is less racially segregated now than it was 30 years ago—so the anger, while understandable, can’t really be regarded as legit. Or as something that can be accommodated. (More affordable housing—yes, yes, yes. But can anything be done to ensure that the Central District remains majority black? And do we once again think we’re talking about race when what we’re really talking—or should be talking about—is class?)

But even if he didn’t use the word, without a doubt many white liberals who read Westneat’s column today—including some of my co-workers, I suspect—shook their heads and thought, “Oh, gentrification is terrible! Terrible!” So I’d like to get this on record: White people can’t be assholes when they flee the cities and assholes when they return. Pick one and stick to it, but you can’t argue both points. I get annoyed when I hear the same people/same types of people who complained about white flight back in the 60s and 70s complaining about gentrification today.

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Funny how Dan tends to point out other people's inconsistencies when they suit his agenda, while conveniently ignoring his own.

It is quite possible to deplore white flight and gentrification, thank you very much.

Seattle Native: please elaborate.

But SN, it's contradictory. Gentrification is the exact opposite of white flight. Can u see why Dan sees frustration at both as being mutually exclusive?

This is such a thorny issue. I thought a lot about it when I read Charles' article last year on the subject. I brought up the subject to some of my African American friends, and we never really reached an acceptable conclusion. I think I am a gentrifier, but it's not something I like to admit to. On the other hand, the reason I love my neighborhood is because of the diversity.

sorry...that was supposed to read 'Can you see how Dan sees liberal's frustration at both white flight and gentrification as mutually exclussive?'

Gotta say that I sort of agree with Seattle Native's point that the comparison is spurious. You even touched on it in your post, Dan. White flight is a racial issue. Gentrification is primarily an economic issue. Yes, because the American poor are disproportionately nonwhite, gentrification often plays out with wealthy whites displacing poor nonwhites. But at heart, it's about the rich displacing the poor.

Decrying whites for not wanting to live among nonwhites and at the same time not wanting wealthy people to move in and displace the poor requires no cognitive dissonance.

Yes, yes: That's why I think affordable housing is important, and we should have/build more of it. But gentrification has a racial element too—as you note, whites tend to be wealthier than non-whites. So if wealthier folks are moving in, that means whites are moving in. And that's a measure of there being less racial animosity among whites than there was in the past. White flight may be a direct measure of white racism, and gentrification a less direct measure, but it still points to less racism among whites.

Many of the poor people being displaced in the CD are making a killing, financially. They're not all renters. And not everyone who is buying a home in the CD today for 500K—a home that the non-white owner paid maybe 50K for twenty years ago—is white. Again, we're back to class.

Still, I'm with you SA: the poor shouldn't be displaced. So building affordable housing in the city is the way to make sure they're not. Decrying gentrification does nothing—you can't stop the wealthy from buying houses in the city, can you?

Actually, it's pretty simple - liberals (or what used to be called progressives, until our local brand of developer apologists hijacked the term) were concerned about a racially-motivated move to the suburbs not only because it was racist, but because it meant that inner-city minorities (and, to a lesser extent, working class white people) would be consigned to deteriorating schools and other services as affluent citizens left the city. The same people think it sucks that longtime working class minority residents are being forced out of their communities because well-to-do white folks have decided that urban living is now cool.

Conversely, New Urbanist types like Dan don't much care about the effects that upzoning (in the name of the great God of density) has on existing businesses and residents who are forced out by deliberate government actions that raise their rents. I guess you all think it's just fine that longtime residents of neighborhoods such as the Central Area and Rainier Valley are being forced to move to S.King County.

And old-Seattle types like me think gentrification sucks because we've had our fill of places like Starbucks and Whole Paycheck driving out longtime businesses that we like, or that it sucks when we get a shitload of new parking tickets because some developer got to build an oversized new project without adequate parking so they can push their costs onto existing businesses and residents (not to mention the fact that Seattle is turning into an overpriced version of anytown USA)

Many "old Seattle types" like the changes. This city has gotten a lot more interesting over the past 30 years, especially in the past ten. As to Starbucks driving anyone out of business, that is just not backed up by the facts. Compare the number of coffee houses here now with what it was 10 years ago, much less 30 years ago. (I don't know what if anything Whole Foods has done.)

so that's why people are so uptight about race here. I thought it was that they lived in separate neighborhoods - moved here in 1989 from Vancouver, BC, and was shocked at going from such a mixed multicultural society to such a split one ...

I remember when some African-American families moved into Ballard - from my viewpoint, it was great finally seeing the walls start to crumble.

Agreed, superfurry animal, gentrification makes me think of Mom and Pop's corner grocery being torn down to put up a Starbucks.

Ok, this is how i see it... It seems to me that the original arivals of a gentrification trend may come to a neighborhood for it's diversity, density, character et al, but once there in siginificant numbers the neighborhood becomes more attractive to the kinds of investment that lead to economic gentrification... enter Starbucks. Once starbucks is there, the neighborhood is now acceptable to the kinds of "whites" that would have left in the original "flight" and as costs of living rise to greet these newcomers the economic and ethnic charcter of a neighborhood is lost. In a way it's the suburbanization of an urban neighborhood unwittingly brought on by those who orginally sought to escape the suburbs.

or maybe not, i dunno, like ginger said, it's "thorny", like a porcupine in a bryer patch getting acupuncture.

I'm not saying that critiquing either white flight or gentrification actually does anything -- just like you can't stop rich people from buying houses where they want to, as you say, Dan, you can't stop racists from moving away as African Americans move in. People will live where they want to.

One thing: Though not all the poor people displaced are renters unable to afford rising rents, not everyone is moving because they want to. A lot of times, you'll have older poor folks forced to sell their houses (and yes, make a killing) because they can't afford property taxes anymore. So yeah, a lot of folks being displaced are making money, but they don't always want to move.

This is totally not constructive but one thing that drives me insane is liberal political types who say stuff like "Whole Paycheck" as though it's clever. This goes for conservative types too but I can't think of a good example.

It seems like the above descriptions of gentrification (and its effects) are coming from the perspective of white Seattle-ites (sorry to make a big assupmtion, Seattle Native, but I identified with them enough to make me think they were written by a whitey).

I'd encourage folks to go back and read Mudede's article from last year ( I usually get bored halfway through the longer articles, but this one really got me--it challenged a lot of the assumptions I make re: gentrification and its effects on Seattle neighborhoods.

So...tell me where I have sinned...

I am white (is that my sin?)

I have lived in the CD for 12 years. I was a renter for 4 years, and then bought a house on the very same street that I was renting on. I liked the neighborhood, liked my neighbors of all races and sexual orientations. So, I bought a house that had been vacant for 10 years, but had been purchased and remodeled.

So, now I'm a gentrifier.

Tell would any of you fix this situation? Forbid white people from buying homes in predominantly black neighborhoods? That would do wonders for the economic vitality of their investments in their homes.

This feels, as Dan has pointed out, a damned-if-I-do and a damned-if-I-don't situation.

(BTW...Westneat did use the term gentrification in his article last week which was the impetus for the article today.)

white people can always be assholes. thats what i was told growin up.

To offset the impact of gentrification upon neighborhoods like the CD, it would be a good idea for the city to start rezoning predominant single family housing neighborhoods like Wedgewood, Wallingford, and Magnolia to allow for more low income and middle income rental units so that working class and poor people (predominantly non-white) feel like they're not confined to a few areas in south and central seattle and have greater freedom to find affordable digs elsewhere if gentrification prices them out.


Bad idea. In a single family zoned neighborhood, all you can build is single family housing - so this just creates an incentive to tear down older houses and put up new (and yes, more expensive) ones.

OTOH, if you change the zoning to multifamily, you still wind up tearing down older single family structures (which provide some of the more affordable rental units in town for people willing to share a house) and putting up new units which, economics being what they are, rent for more than the ones there now.

Compared to what exists now, nothing you build in Seattle is affordable to most lower-middle class folks on down the ladder without public subsidies...

Seattle Native, no kidding that you can only do single family housing in areas zoned for single family housing.

But if you change the zoning of those neighborhoods, you can't rule out the possibility of housing contruction for those of lower income: In recent years, King County has been awarded grants and loans to pursue development of affordable rental housing and first time home buyer housing in the city. I've seen these projects under construction up in west seattle and white center. So yes it may be possible assuming public subsidies to spread this to other areas of the city with the proper zoning change.

Dan is right to point to and encourage more affordable housing. Of course, even with the help of affordable housing initiatives it is getting more difficult to buy a first time home in the Central Area (or anywhere else in the city), but economic prosperity is still more good than bad.

While forcing elderly or lower-wage home owners out of their houses only because of their inability to keep up with property tax is not a good thing, the Central Area had / has another set of residents that have not been good for either the new or old community. Have people seen the 2 or 3 homes on 23rd that still act as makeshift junk yards? On my block in the CD a former "house" that really was more of a trailer was littered with trash and No Trespassing signs is now torn down to make way for new (and, yes, I'm sure expensive) homes, but I can't say that this is a bad thing for the block as a whole. Seattle is simply too desirable of city to carve out an entire neighborhood and leave it in disrepair in the name of preservation.

As far as businesses, as Mudede mentioned in his article, one of the striking things about the "old" CD was that there was no where to go to get anything of value. There never was some thriving business district of cafes, coffee shops and food stores. Based on the article, convenience stores, mini-marts and seedy bars were basically the only retail in the area 15 years ago. So I don't really see what Starbucks (or maybe someday Whole Foods) is pushing out. Deano's? I hope so.

Deano's rocks - world class cities need places to buy crack!

white people CAN be assholes when the leave and assholes when they return. because race is not separate from class. to talk about one is to also be talking about the other. disparity in power is the problem, the legacy of racism that white people do not absolve themselves of when they buy an african american person's house in the cd.

I'm with Dan on this one.

Complaining about gentrification is ridiculous to me. Its the liberal version of the "stop the mexicans from coming in or we'll have no america" argument.

If history tells us anything, its that no one is owed anything. No one owns a district. If you grew up in a district that you love and had the bad luck/poor decision-making skills to not set up enough roots to buy a place there, well oops. Pick a neighborhood in any major u.s. city and chart its history. You'll notice they change. Bitching about gentrifying isn't getting you into your ideal community faster.

When people say Seattle is becoming anytown, usa, they might want to look around. Maybe, its becoming anyCITY, usa, in some ways, but it sure ain't like the vast majority of america. Seattle really only feels somewhat close to three cities in feel (to me). Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco. And its easy enough to see the differences between it and those other three.

OH MY GOD, Dan, is 'missing the point' a hobby of yours?

The reason these residents get so angry is because developers rip up their neighborhoods and then replace the buildings with more expensive places of residences and more expensive shops, which drives rents and the prices of everything in the neighborhood up, making living more difficult. That, and not some irrational hatred of Whitey, is why residents get so angry about gentrification.

Get a clue, Editor.

Right as usual, Gomez. I think Savage just wanted an excuse to imply that people who have issues with the nature and pace of development in this town are somehow racists.

BTW - while the term gentrification is usually used to refer to displacement by race, poor and working class folks of all colors and creeds are getting pushed out of Seattle.

BTW - missing the point isn't so much a hobby for Dan as a way of life, at least where land use is concerned (though he did initially miss the boat on that whole Iraq war thing, too).


Are you really 41?

Oh my God!

I am SO amazed. You look so young! I'd think you'd be all saggy and stuff by now.

Thank GOD you're in shape. I hear you're even biking now! Wow!

Still hearting you,


In response to the statement way above that Starbucks and Whole Foods pushes out local businesses...well, maybe they push out the shitty ones but I read of a study years ago that showed that when Starbucks moved in, ALL the local coffee shops got better business. It's been so long that I don't remember the specifics, but when you look around town and see how many independent coffee shops are thriving you have to wonder how many of their patrons were turned on to lattes and mochas by our resident evil empire.

Whole Foods has been known to drive other health food stores out of business in the past but I noticed that PCC got a whole lot better after Whole Foods first landed here about 6 years typically was those old hippy den health food stores that did go under in the past, and I say good riddance to those places.

Here's a link to a report about Gentrification in the CD produced by the Evans School a couple years ago if anyone's interested:

Its hard to be a white man and blackman at the same time. I cant escape either race. I can't seem to get along with myself. When I want to move the blackman part of me gets angry. Then I come back he's all its about white guilt man. I say "you don't know me man!" what are going to do? What are you going to do? Rap or Rock? Rap or Rock?

It's true that over the years Seattle has become less racially segregated overall (for all races)...but read here from the UW Evans School 2005 report "An Update of A Study and Data on Segregated Housing in Seattle
Seattle Human Rights Department, 1976"

"African-Americans remain highly segregated from whites. While segregation has decreased overall, African-Americans are much more segregated from whites than Asians or Hispanics."

Here's the report...

Shouldn't the "frustration" should be considered not only understandable, but justified?...

This thread proves that Orwell was wrong when he fumigated the 'smelly orthodoxies of the Left.'

He should have fumigated the smelly, self-absorbed, simplistic orthodoxies of the Left.

When I bought my home the CD in 1997, I did so because it was what I could afford. As a white man born into economic circumstances similar to those of many of my CD neighbors, I was not out of my element. I moved there with no grand agenda—just have a home and be a part of my neighborhood as I’ve always done with pretty good success. What I did not expect was the not-so-subtle racism of a city funded "anti-gentrification task league," (yeah, it existed) that seemed to be part and parcel of an overweening, paternalistic, guilt-ridden, non-CD resident white community. I hesitate to call them “liberal” or “progressive” because I have always identified those terms as applying to those whose dogged critical and humane reasoning often leads them down uncomfortable paths to inconvenient, not necessarily simplistic truths.

My neighbors made me feel welcome. My city did not.

After 7 years, I moved to unincorporated King County (Fairwood). Here, I feel welcome. Oh, and, by the way, I'm a minority here, too, as a gay man in super-straight suburbia. No one here seems to mind that I improve my property, work hard, and try to be a good neighbor. Go figure.

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