First, the problem with complaining about gentrification. People rightly complain that depressed inner city neighborhoods need economic development, not bigger prisons, to address crime and poverty. But as soon as economic development gains traction in a particular neighborhood, the same people rally against “gentrification.” The fact is, “gentrification” and “economic development” are two terms for the same phenomenon, viewed from different vantage points. You can’t wish for one and reject the other. You can’t reject gentrification wholesale unless you’re willing to accept poverty as a better alternative. The sooner this is recognized, the better chance that a neighborhood can get ahead of the curve on its economic growing pains instead of spending time grumbling and shaming.
This is not to say that gentrification doesn’t raise legitimate grievances. Looking at the case of New Orleans* on the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, USA Today described how the African-American population declined as post-Katrina ferment ushered in a “stream of educated professionals to the city flush with new ideas and energy.” The displacement of locals is a genuine concern with an impact on the core identity of the city. But if we skip the “complaint” phase and go straight to the question of where to go from here, it really comes down to one choice: either (1) eliminate the “stream of educated professionals to the city flush with new ideas and energy” and go back to pre-Katrina material conditions — which often meant poverty or at least a dearth of economic and educational opportunity — as a permanent plan, or (2) harness the long-term educational and economic opportunities of these passionate young innovators while coming up with housing programs and policies that protect locals in the meantime.
It seems to me that # 2 (“harnessing”) offers more to the next generation of local kids. Sure, you need to do something about skyrocketing rents that price long-term tenants out of the neighborhood. (Long-term homeowners are different, as even those of modest means generally benefit from the increase in their property values.) Some kind of rent control, or at least government freezing of real estate taxes (for participating landlords and resident homeowners alike) and insurance (via vouchers), could help fight the destabilizing process that often accompanies economic development. Likewise, zoning laws need work to prevent architectural character from being wiped out by new-construction cube condos. But other than that, you really have to go with a vibrant neighborhood at the risk of higher rent over a permanently depressed neighborhood with perpetually cheap rent. You might not like the gourmet donut shop or new yoga center, but turning away all enthusiasm and investment in order to keep the rents down does no service to those next-generation kids. By all means protest income inequality and its spawn of social problems, protest the excesses of the 1%, work for greater equality, but don’t vandalize locally owned startups by middle-class entrepreneurs like the St. Roch Market in New Orleans or Cereal Killer in East London. Better to talk to your neighbors, old and new, talk to business owners (most of whom want good relations with neighbors) and to your city council person about how to get through the economic growing pains with minimal damage to neighborhood continuity.
*The Katrina example is of course a broad-brush view of gentrification, which may vary by neighborhood. Typically, artsy types move in for the cheap rent, leading to a bohemian renaissance of sorts, pricing out some of the traditional renters, in turn attracting wealthier professionals who enjoy the cultural arts but are themselves pay grades above the “starving artists” they admire, resulting in an exodus of creative free spirits for the next low-rent neighborhood. But, again, some neighborhoods skip the middle steps or take different paths. (For a somewhat different view by a professional urban geographer, see Richard Campanella’s “Gentrification and Its Discontents: Notes from New Orleans,” in New Geography.)