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Seminar Keyword: Gentrification

Gentrification is a word describing a process of reurbanization that began in mC20. It is an unplanned process where middle classes move into a poor urban area with the intent of improving it for their own benefit. Questions of social awareness and engagement often arise in relation to those who push the process forward, as it typically leads to physical and cultural displacement of those who originally resided there. Gentrifiers have been described variously as ‘pioneers’ and ‘invaders.’ The word is derived from the older gentry (c1325), which is itself derived from gentrice (?c1225). Gentrice is derived from the Old French genterise, which is a derivation of gentelise. Gentrice and gentle branched from gentelise and entered English around the same time. This branching eventually becomes one that differentiates between a class distinction on the one hand and a performed personality trait on the other. The term gentrice, now archaic, meant “gentle birth, noble descent or rank,” as well as “kindness, generosity, clemency, courtesy” (OED). Gentle, meaning “well-born, belonging to a family of position,” was originally used synonymously with the adjective noble, but gentle was later distinguished from noble and used to designate “a lower degree of rank.” Our primary contemporary sense of gentle (“courteous, polite,” “mild in disposition or behaviour; kind, tender”) arises as early as 1385. It is also used as “a comic vulgarism for gentlefolk” as early as 1386. Looking deeper within gentry’s history, a similar sarcastic double-polysemy arises; c1717 gentry gains the meaning “In playful or contemptuous use: People, folks.”

This playful polysemy and confusion over whether these words denote a specific class experience or rather a performed state of being will be important for understanding the first historical usage of gentrification. At one point within the history of both gentle and gentry, those words might mean opposite things depending upon context or speaker. Similar double- signifying is at the origin of gentrification. The OED dates the term back to 1973 and tends to speak neutrally to the terms or conditions that produce gentrification, describing it as “the process by which an (urban) area is rendered middle-class” or describing to gentrify as “to renovate or convert (housing, esp. in an inner-city area) so that it conforms to middle-class taste; to render (an area) middle-class.” Some sources reflect this neutral inflection. In these sources, gentrification is improvement that occurs in the passive voice, leading to questions about agency and intent.

Other sources attempt to reclaim gentrification by emphasizing its very first usage, more than a decade before 1973. The available corpora do not indicate a usage of gentrification before 1970. The first usage occurs in a text edited by the Centre for Urban Studies (CUS) in London, which was concerned specifically with the lives of diasporic peoples within the city, c1961. The approach of the CUS was distinct from others at the time in that the Centre was concerned with the movements of actual bodies across the city of London. Many other texts dealt with gentrification in purely aesthetic terms, describing homes and lawns. This text emphasizes the gentrification of London that was occurring in neighborhoods like Islington and featured an introduction where the term was first used. In the introduction, gentrification is decried, but it is described as an inevitable “invasion” where the upper and lower middle classes will always move in and “displace” the rest of the district.

How all of these conditions require a turn back to the notion of gentry, a word that exited regular public use a century earlier, to create a new derivation, is a question that seems to be at the base of many of the more definitional texts about gentrification. For example, The Gentrification Reader (2010) can be read in a way that suggests that some of the polysemy of the gentelise cluster can be seen in the 1961 derivation. In one narration, the first derivation is one that aligns with the sarcastic, negative inflections of gentle and gentry that arose c1386 and c1717, respectively. This situates the derivation of gentrification as “deliberately ironic and tongue in cheek…rooted in the intricacies of traditional English rural class structure,” where, in polemical terms, the history of class change in England now seemed to possess an emergent class of renters whose use of property resembled an aspiration towards earlier forms of capitalism. This sense is amplified by critics who turn to studies like those of Marx and Engels in mC19 in order to suggest a global history of gentrification that preexists its name.

In C21, uses of gentrification have expanded upon the initial confusion around the motivation behind its derivation. Its polysemy seems to depend upon questions of agency that arise from vague definitions like the one in the OED. These definitions depend upon the passive voice to imagine gentrification as a process that occurs without the knowing participation of individual bodies. Questions of economic violence and victimhood tend to arise, with terms like ‘economic excommunication,’ ‘class conquest,’ ‘the new urban colonialism,’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ deployed by critics of the process to describe how it treats those who lived in a given neighborhood before gentrification began. These approaches treat the intersection of class and race as an inextricable given. There is also a strong sense of cultural appropriation in texts that deal with gentrification. In these instances, an aestheticized image of a culture replaces its people, as when Broad City’s Ilana Glazer jokes/proclaims, “In three generations, gentrification is gonna be a non-issue because, statistically, we’re headed toward an age where everybody’s going to be, like, caramel and queer.” In a recent episode of Lena Dunham’s Girls, Ray, an early gentrifier, complains about later, younger gentrifiers, only to have a discursively fractious encounter with a dark-skinned man and androgynous woman who repeatedly call him “white man!”

Some representations of gentrification treat it in a positive sense, and it seems that its positive or negative inflection depends upon one’s feelings about capitalism and private investment. Prominent journalistic representations of Pittsburgh’s recent renewal frame it as a place where entrepreneurs and their followers drive out prostitutes, drug dealers, and thieves. It has been suggested that gentrification in New York City sometimes occurs in “a more natural, humane kind that takes decades to mature and lives on a diet of optimism and local pride.” These disagreements suggest that the positive and negative valence of the term is still in flux. One’s notion of a public and one’s position on the necessity of private ownership and agency within capitalism seem to drive her or his understanding of gentrification as a process.