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Gentrification and the Caffeine Curse

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"There’s a long tradition of caffeine availability as a barometer of neighborhood change."

Gentrification has become one of the most politically-charged terms in urbanism, escaping from academic discussion into everyday vocabulary. In recent news articles gentrification has been mostly derided, but sometimes lauded or even denounced as a myth. The diversity of takes on the issue reflects the fact that gentrification somehow remains a nebulous concept.

When I started to think seriously about using novel data sources to track gentrification, I had first to decide what gentrification is. And that required a clear definition, which was not as easy as I had imagined. I gathered as many papers on the subject as I could find, and read away. My conclusion: the word is notoriously hard to define, even among experts and researchers. Consensus about what constitutes gentrification is scarce, but we can still advance a working definition of the term, describing those attributes that most experts agree are characteristic.

So… what does gentrification mean?

Let’s begin with a bit of history. The term “gentrification” was coined more than 50 years ago by British sociologist Ruth Glass. Describing the transformation of central areas in 1964 London, Glass declared:  “The social status of many residential areas is being ‘uplifted’ as the middle class—or the ‘gentry’—moved into working-class space, taking up residence, opening businesses, and lobbying for infrastructure improvements.”

She observed patterns that still ring true today, like a “switch from suburban to urban aspirations” related to “the difficulties and rising costs of journeys to work.” Already in 1964, Glass described the dynamic that lent gentrification its bad reputation:

“Altogether there has been a great deal of displacement. All those who cannot hold their own—the small enterprises, the lower ranks of people, the odd men out—are being pushed away.”

That displacement is key. Rising rents, the appearance of boutique shops, or even affluent people moving do not necessarily represent gentrification per se. But lower income families being displaced, that’s the real deal.

After displacement, the final stage of gentrification is a change in the character of the neighborhood, a permanent alteration of its social fabric. We have clear enough attributes now to offer a definition. Ready? Here we go.

Gentrification is an urban process in which:

  1. Higher income residents move into a neighborhood;
  2. Lower income residents are displaced;
  3. The essential character and flavor of the neighborhood changes.

Now some caveats. By this definition, the displacement of lower income residents is mostly involuntary and generally resisted, caused by evictions, raising rents and property taxes. It is also exclusionary—the same process that removes families from the neighborhood prevents future move-ins of lower income population.

The Caffeine Curse: Are Coffee shops harbingers of urban change?

When people discuss gentrification, coffee shops are usually mentioned in the conversation. My guess is that specialty coffee is associated (and reasonably so) with disposable income.

If a new place pops up in a neighborhood generally regarded as working class, and they list single-origin pour-over coffee on the menu at $5 per cup, something is changing. Although nowadays far from being considered “high-end” coffee, the apparition of a Starbucks franchise has long been regarded as a bad omen for low-income residents. In their excellent primer on gentrification, Mauren Kennedy and Paul Leonard quote a San Francisco Chronicle article from the year 2000:

“Starbucks’ smiling green siren has come to symbolize all that is wrong with the new money that’s ruining the unique flavor of The City’s neighborhoods. ‘It’s the canary in the mine shaft,’ said neighborhood activist Aaron Peskin, who has led the fight against chain stores in North Beach.”

Interestingly, there’s a long tradition of caffeine availability as a barometer of neighborhood change. An article in The Guardian argues that the role of coffeehouses as heralds of gentrification in London can be traced back to the 1650s. It even goes so far as to compare Samuel Pepys and Sir Isaac Newton—coffee house regulars—with current day creative class workers toting laptops around.

But just like a dead canary in a coal mine, specialty coffee shops are mere indicators of (unwanted) change in the air—not its root cause.

Antonio Vazquez Brust, or just Tony, is an Argentinean urban planner and information technologist. An alumnus of our Master of Science in Urban Informatics program, he collaborated with the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI), conducting original research at the intersection of urban science and public policy. He also likes coffee. A lot. Follow @vazquezbrust on Twitter.

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