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'Gentrification': One View on What It Means for Jamaica Plain

Speakers shared their views of the roots of gentrification.

Editor's note: Gentrification, or urban revitalization, is a vital topic in Jamaica Plain today. While neighborhoods have always been ever-changing, today there is increased scrutiny of what makes those neighborhoods change. This article does not pretend to cover the whole topic, but instead covers one meeting last week in Jamaica Plain that offered up one viewpoint. Jamaica Plain Patch will make every effort to provide balanced coverage of this topic.

Gentrification is a problem -- caused by capitalism -- that needs to be solved.

That is the view taken in a meeting held last week in Jamaica Plain, where several speakers shared their views on what causes gentrification and suggested ways to fix problems it can create.

The meeting was hosted by Jamaica Plain Forum, an activity of The First Church in Jamaica Plain, Unitarian Universalist, and was part of a series called Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition (JP NET), which focuses on "...[how] to ensure all of us live well in the “new economy.”

The speakers:

  • Prof. Michael Stone, UMass-Boston, who for more than 40 years has been involved in research, policy analysis, and advocacy on housing, living standards and participatory planning
  • Leslie Bos, board president of Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC), an affordable housing and community development organization
  • Steve Meacham, tenant organizing director of, a grassroots community organization fighting evictions and foreclosures throughout Boston

“The term ‘gentrification’ first appeared in print in 1964 in a paper by British sociologist Ruth Glass," Stone said, opening the forum. "She used the term to characterize the process taking place in some working-class neighborhoods of London, where middle-class professionals were buying all properties and transforming them, as she put it, into ‘elegant, expensive residences,’ the market value of which were …. enormously inflated in comparison to what they previously were in the neighborhood. She continued ‘once this process of gentrification... starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the social character of the district is changed.’”

Stone now sees gentrification as a global phenomenon that involves:

  • Physical changes -- through transformation of old, deteriorated residential and non-residential structures into upscale residences
  • Economic changes -- in the form of rapid and large increases in rent and sale prices of houses, vacant structures and undeveloped land
  • Social changes -- in class structure, lifestyle, and commercial and civic amenities

All of which, he says, result in involuntary displacement of people who had been living there, often with painful social, economic and emotional consequences for those who are displaced. The displaced are, says Stone, often people of color and/or immigrants.

Why does gentrification happen? 

In Stone's view, the roots of gentrification are:

  • Wide and widening inequality of income and wealth
  •  Systematic, structural racism
  • Treating land and houses as speculative commodities
  • Over-promotion of, and over-dependence on, debt;
  • Public policy that exacerbates the other four tendencies

Stone says that gentrification as it’s playing out in Jamaica Plain is basically because of capitalism, which he says results in "uneven development: social, physical, spatial and temporal."

Stone outlined how Boston's finance and higher education industries have capitalized "quite successfully" on the growth of federal military and domestic spending. The city also became an international center of high-tech, research and medical services, all of which require high skill levels and are high-salaried.

Those industries also generated demand for low-skill, low-wage labor; immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia flowed in to meet the demand.

Stone says the Boston middle-class hollowed out while both the high-income and low-income labor force expanded. This "socially uneven" development was overlaid on "spatially uneven" development: transformation of Boston neighborhoods.

The post-WWII economy, says Stone, saw both metropolitan development and a suburban construction boom: housing, roads, shopping malls and industrial parks. This transformed landscape, or "spatial economy," he says, proved profitable to developers and financial institutions. This left central cities largely to the older, predominantly white working-class residents and new immigrants, as house prices and public services declined.

Then a widening gap emerged between actual profits from inner-city real estate and the potential profit if that urban real estate was redeveloped. Boston was among the first American cities to have a urban renaissance, and was one of the first where investors seized the opportunity to promote profitable urban redevelopment.

Gentrification got underway in Jamaica Plain, helped by the introduction of the Orange Line, in the late 1980s.

One solution: "speculation tax"

Stone quoted progressive urban planning expert Peter Marcuse as saying the opposite of gentrification should not be decay and abandon, but the democratization of housing.

Stone did not define that term, but he proposed getting land and housing out of the market and converting them to "various forms of permanent social ownership." He also wants to enact a "speculation tax" to deter people from buying real estate to make money.

Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation Board President Leslie Bos explained that one of the ways the fights gentrification is by developing affordable housing with deed restrictions. Below-market rents that low-income people can afford don’t cover the costs of buying, building and operating housing, so the nonprofit housing development organizations leverage public resources dedicated to housing, and restrict the deeds on these houses and condos in order to keep them affordable. JPNDC has developed 600 units of deed-restricted housing, of which 270 are units owned -- or have the potential to be owned -- by residents.

'Street-level resistance'
Tenant organizer Steve Meacham spoke of “... street-level resistance to gentrification,” and quoted a series from the Black Commentator that asserts that central cities are among the key battlegrounds between working-class people and those who would profit from buying and renovating in the city. 

The Black Commentator says this is a battle "...we can win, because we are there already and they have to take it [the properties] from us.”

“Implementing this vision is what City Life has been about for the last 30 years,” said Meacham.

"The goals of a stable working-class on one hand and the goals of unregulated capital on the other are completely incompatible. You...can’t have both,” Meacham said.

Tess Pope June 17, 2011 at 12:17 PM
The meeting was open to all, and well advertised on the Patch. And it wasn't about stopping gentrification. It was about understanding gentrification. It turns out that gentrification and urban revitalization are the two sides of the same coin. Ever been to Detroit? No one is spending this kind of coin there, and I don't think that makes anyone any happier. It is not your 'white' neighbors that are a problem here. (Miguelito, isn't that a 'racist' comment? Think what you're thinking!). The neighborhood I live in was built for the Irish immigrant working class population at the turn of the last century. In the 70's it was predominantly owned by various Asian populations. We bought in when many of those owners decided to move out to the suburbs. Kinda funny really! I am predominantly a descendent of Celtic and Native American populations. So I am returning to my ancestral lands, or I am taking back the home built for my Celtic forebears. Whatever....
Tess Pope June 17, 2011 at 12:22 PM
French Fries, you know I love you. Is your starch community inclusive of non potato persons?
Chris Child June 17, 2011 at 12:26 PM
I didn't go, but I am impressed that this at least talked more about the roots of gentrification, rather than try to shift blame on a single business or park, etc. I do think there can be some common ground here, as income inequality does pose some serious challenges to a neighborhood like JP. A place like Longwood Medical Center does offer a lot of high salaried jobs, as well as many in the maintenance and food service industry that do not pay so much. I've always been in favor of a Whole Foods coming to JP because I believe strongly in healthy quality foods for all, and believe Whole Foods can be part of the solution and not the problem. But these are challenges facing us to ensure that children whose parents are in a variety of socio-economic levels can enjoy many of the benefits of our community. This has been presented as divisive by many, but I sincerely think there is a lot we can all agree on, hopefully these conversations can go more in that direction.
Bob from JP June 17, 2011 at 01:29 PM
Spot on Deselby. It's interesting to note the divergence, in aggregate, in various immigrant populations vs certain native populations of the perpetually poor. For example, Why have first generation asian immigrants, as a whole, been very succesful, been able to raise their kids to be successful, attend good universities (look at the stats, this is not a generalization, but fact), etc whereas generation after generation of non-immigrant populations that live in housing projects continue to live there with little to no mobility and a perpetual cycle of poverty and government assistance? Why are Eastern European immigrants able to, for the most part, find similar successes, despite coming to this country with zero language skills in most cases? Some people will be quick to ascribe those divergent paths to inherent institutionalized racism, conspiracy theories and the evils of capitalism - I ascribe them largely to the entitlement programs themselves, as well as the culture that these programs breed. If you're already on the dole with no limits, no requirement to prove you are trying to educate yourself or get a job, why would you get off if that is how you have been raised from the time you were a small child? It's a vicious cycle of entrapment that is perpetuated and institutionalized by the system itself.
French Fries June 17, 2011 at 01:46 PM
Of course Tess! You should come to the Starch March this fall. Potato identifiers of all sizes, shapes, and backgrounds are there. Lots of people come from Idaho. Peruvians, the birth place of the potato, are perhaps the furthest travelers. Yams and batatas add their color to the mix. Also, keep your eyes peeled at the Lantern Ceremony, the starch community recognizes one another by the addition of a small potato to their lantern. Welcome Tess!
Rick S June 17, 2011 at 02:14 PM
Thanks Tess. I was hopeful that there was more substance than the sensational "reporting" that Wagner continues to contribute to the Patch. I am glad to hear that there was and perhaps it should start a conversation about where this "news" organization is heading - accurate/fair/balanced reporting or opinion driven blogging. We could really use the former in JP. There is enough of the latter everywhere else.
JP Pragmatist June 17, 2011 at 03:13 PM
Everyone missed the elephant in the room. The orange line. Period. That and #39 that gets people to the ever growing internationally connected employment centers of Longwood and downtown. That's all that matters. JP's value is tied to jobs. Period. That is it. Everything else are .0000001% bonuses .. some pretty things to add some %'s. A chef owned restaurant, a nice little shoppe, art show, victorian something, playground, pond, etc. IT'S JOBS PEOPLE! No jobs, no $ to pay rent or mortgages. It's really very very simple. Detroit. No jobs. Detroit, mansions = no value. If JP's socialists got their way and had the Cuban dream here of fixed pricing and the resulting squalor like we had under rent control when historical mansions were condemned for lack of funds for maintenance (have you seen the pix of those government owned sections of Cuba?!!) Then JP would have the same condemned mansions of the Boston rent control days and those high salaried folks who do not want to live in squalor, but who still want a short commute to the high paying Longwood and Boston jobs would just "leapfrog' over the nutty socialized sections to the normal market rate towns where they can live in a well maintained rented or purchased home.
JP Pragmatist June 17, 2011 at 03:17 PM
Human nature always prevails and as the saying goes, capitalism hates a vacuum. People do not want communism / socialism and the squalor that comes with it - look at Cuba, Castro admitted the failure of his experiment and is pushing 500,000 a year off government jobs and subsidies into the private sector! He is requiring private entrepreneurship and private ownership! Even the Kibbutz movement has totally transformed to a much more market based system where people are paid for their output and skill levels. The JP socialists are about 100 years behind the curve as post post post socialists. Clearly they do not read much about world history and CURRENT events!
Tess Pope June 17, 2011 at 03:42 PM
Hi there JP Pragmatist. The Orange Line was discussesed, brought up by Steve again, who seems to have a much broader understanding of the discussion than anyone else I've heard. He spoke about how much the working communities needed T stops, and advocated for them, but then, as so often happens, the fact of there being the T stops there changed the communities in such a way that they were much more desirable, more competetition for housing in the area, etc. etc. So again, these are all things that we all want. It is part of the urban revitalization side of the coin. The only really effective way to address the gentrification side of the coin is through good policy. Which I think is a win/win situation, if it can be done well. I don't think any of us really want an entirely economically homogenous community. Nor do we really want a foreign owned bank that doesn't give a rats ass about any of this to play puppet master with properties. We have found living on our street, that it is the owner occupied properties that are the ones that get fixed up, that get landscaped nicely, that have occupiers who DO give a rats ass about their surroundings.
JP Pragmatist June 17, 2011 at 03:54 PM
Hey Tess, I mean no one else, EVER talks about JP's proximity to Longwood/Boston as the only thing that drives property values. They think it is the amenities that matter. Like a pretty store front, or flowers in front of a renovated house, or even the pond. NONE of those things drive value. They only add .00000 1 % 's to values. There are all of those amenities everywhere, Detroit has mansions on ponds and they are worthless. People get all worked up about little details and do not think cerebrally. They also do not think that politicians WANT property values to go up as fasrt as possible! Higher values = higher taxes = more times they can say yes when voters ask for stuff = more re-elections. Basic political calculus. The city has a huge 'main streets' program that has as it's sole purpose economic vitality = fixing up retail districts = reducing crime = encouraging pedestrian foot traffic = encouraging investment in the neighborhoods surrounding those 'main streets' - AKA gentrification! Cities want gentrification ! Socialists don't and their pandering politicians dont, but 99% of politicians DO! If they did not, they would not have the main streets program!
JP Pragmatist June 17, 2011 at 04:05 PM
also in case this was not obvious, most politicians, except for Chang Diaz, the JPNC and the JP socialist party, want to proactively attract jobs into our district as part of an aggressive economic vitality program.
Sarah Lydon June 17, 2011 at 04:44 PM
Proximity isn't everything though. Allston is right there on the Green Line and it's never going to be as pleasant a place to live as JP (sorry--I love the Rock City but it's just uglier, noisier, more studenty, less green space, less attractive housing stock). Ditto East Boston--you couldn't ask to be much closer to downtown but there are other factors that make it less desirable. And heck--Roxbury is closer to downtown than JP and is full of mansions and parks and nice old houses but it hasn't reached the tipping point yet where people's vision can overcome their fears of crime or poverty or racial isolation. I wonder though...now that there's a garden store in Dudley and a wave of artists and young hipstery white folks moving there (including several WhoseFooders) it could be just a matter of time.
Sarah Lydon June 17, 2011 at 04:58 PM
One more thought--I still think that places like JP and Dorchester are somehow prime candidates for creating and sustaining a healthy mix of city people. A mix of housing stock; roots in working and middle class families of different ethnic backgrounds; good transportation options and neighborhood hubs. Now all we need to do is fix the damn schools and things might sort themselves out...
Jack Weiland June 17, 2011 at 06:26 PM
French Fries is my favorite. You had me at "yams and batatas" ...
Wagner Ríos June 17, 2011 at 06:26 PM
Cuba reeducation camp http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-_3t4DGLeA
Edward Paul June 17, 2011 at 07:11 PM
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Representatives of disenfranchised carrots, turnips, beets, and onions, are gathering in JP in large numbers. "We've been stewing over this for while" one onion noted. "Peel away the layers and its clear that potatoes get all the attention". A protest is being organized, and the Jamaica Plain Equality for Earthen Vegetable Coalition ("JPEEVC") claims that at least one spray painted banner is hanging somewhere on a triple decker balcony. Representatives of Whole Foods had no comment. "This is an activist neighborhood, and frankly, we don't want to upset the cabbage lobby."
Deselby June 17, 2011 at 11:27 PM
Thanks, JP. I can think of two cultures in Boston where inhabitants have lagged despite surrounding opportunities and gentrification. The first are the white Townies in the Bunker Hill projects, who despite being surrounded by the Toonie gentry and other striving middle class Townies, and being close to the opportunities of downtown and Cambridge, remain mired in drugs and thievery. The reality of their situation is a lot less romantic and more sordid than that portrayed in "The Town." The second are the African-American legacy residents of the old Columbia Point projects in Dorchester, who had their residences massively renovated and improved into a beautiful waterfront mixed-income community. Despite the vastly improved living environment from the old BHA projects, this group is still disproportionally involved in crime, plaguing their neighbors.
Steven June 18, 2011 at 11:10 AM
That's it, I am moving back to Cohasset. I don't feel welcome here. Tools.
Pat Roberts June 18, 2011 at 03:27 PM
Edward Paul: thanks for your summary of how it used to be. JP in the 80's was very bad, and it got worse as the years went by, not better. It wasn't until the middle class started to live here (early 90's? I don't remember) that things started to improve and be less dangerous for all. I thought calling Hyde Square the Latin Quarter was something invented by Felix Arroyo, Sr., a few years before the end of his political service. He tried to rename a lot of this area with Hispanic names (Centre Street from Hyde Square through Jackson Square, Mozart Park), completely disregarding other populations living here. Leslie Bos, one of the speakers at this forum, lives on Wyman Street. I wonder who her family displaced when they moved here. One thing the politically correct never address is that the working-class people who lived here when things were bad (many of whom still do live here) were even more likely to be victims of the violence and crime than the few middle-class people. They were (and still are) threatened by the criminals with retaliation if they complain, and the threats are more likely to be carried out. No one ever says to me "I'll harm your mother back in the village you came from" because that's not my history. That kind of threat is common if you are Hispanic and have family where the criminals are also from. It's kind of quaint to see Steve Meacham still trying to re-live the glory days of the 30's by street protests against eviction.
Wagner Ríos June 19, 2011 at 04:00 PM
I agree with you Tess. You always have to make surgical decision when covering a two-hour event. One of the most striking affirmations Prof Stone made--also not in the article--is that we are in a "depression," rather than the "recession" most media talk about. Time magazine, if not in the same words, agrees with him conceptually http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2076568-1,00.html.
Bob from JP June 19, 2011 at 09:48 PM
Wagner, with all due respect, having read a number of your articles on the Patch, I think "agenda" or "slant" would be a much more accurate depiction of your reporting rather than a "surgical decision". In it of itself, there's nothing wrong with that - but you should be forthright with your biases, and thus far I haven't seen you do that.
Karla Vallance June 20, 2011 at 02:47 AM
As editor of Wagner Rios's story, I wanted to remind everyone that there was a reason I put the 'editor's note' at the top of the gentrification story: acknowledging that there is far more to understanding the phenomenon than may have been presented at that one meeting. We will have more wide-ranging stories on this topic in the future. Meantime, let me invite you all to start blogging, as well as commenting. Comments are a great part of the conversation, but blogging gets you possibly a wider audience for your ideas. If you're interested, email JP Patch editor Chris Helms at: chrish@patch.com
Leslie Bos June 20, 2011 at 12:25 PM
Spurious personal attacks and racial innuendo? Really? Way to go, neighbor.
Wagner Ríos June 20, 2011 at 03:53 PM
Balanced View on Gentrification Several readers have expressed opinions differing from those predominating at last Thursday's forum. In the interesting of fairness and balanced reporting I would like to interview people expressing different points of view on the issue. If you would like to be part of this article please send me your contact information at rioswagner@gmail.com. And thank you all for the ample feedback!
Michael Halle June 20, 2011 at 04:09 PM
Pat, I don't see how directing a personal comment at Leslie Bos advances the discussion. Getting people together with many different viewpoints to discuss ideas from across the spectrum is constructive, even if you or I or anyone else might disagree with some (or all) of those ideas. I've have gotten a lot of perspective from just reading the Wikipedia entries related to "gentrification" and following up on some of the references to understand the different theories of urban population shift. I would actually think you'd find at least some value in the comments that Leslie made at the forum as reported in the article, specifically those related to deed restrictions. If housing is built using public money, a policy of deed restriction prevents low- and moderate-income owners from unduly profiting from the sale of that property at the expense, ultimately, of the taxpayer. Seems like something the JPNDC should do, wouldn't you agree? Deed restricted housing preserves many of the potential personal and community advantages of home ownership, but limits overcommitment of credit, real estate speculation, and undue risk of market fluctuation for vulnerable owners. Deed restricted or not, buying's not for everyone. Many experts now direct people from all across the income spectrum to strongly consider renting because of relative cost and the financial risks of using your home, a non-liquid real estate asset, as a major investment.
Deselby June 21, 2011 at 09:08 AM
Calm down, Dax. It was a comment on the one-sided ideological content of the lecture, not implying that State Security was forcing people to be there.
Pat Roberts June 23, 2011 at 12:20 AM
Michael: Gentrification is a term made up by the left to describe one particular part of the age-old pattern of different populations moving in and out of neighborhoods. I think the left decided to do that because then they could declare that the middle class people who had moved into a neighborhood owed something to those older-term residents who were still in the neighborhood, or those who had gone. The debt could be paid by paying for the building lots of subsidized housing to take care of the poor and oppressed who were victims of this (natural) phenomenon. That's certainly what we're seeing here in Hyde Square, but I think it's a time-tested strategy of the left and has probably been used other places as well. Leslie Bos is middle class. She bought her house from a person with a Spanish surname. In the formula the left is using to describe what's happening here in this neighborhood, that means she's a gentrifier. If she thinks it's such a bad thing, then why did she do that in the first place? She does, of course, benefit from the left's campaign to "stop gentrification", because she works for the NDC, which builds subsidized housing. She'll have a job for longer if the NDC is able to convince the city that the scourge of gentrification can be ameliorated if they are given even more money to build even more subsidized housing in this neighborhood. Deed restrictions: (continued...)
Pat Roberts June 23, 2011 at 12:44 AM
Deed restrictions: I think it's a bad idea to sell a house to someone at a subsidized price, if a deed restriction is added that says the house may not be sold at market rate for 20-50 years (a common range). I think this creates a problem for the economic health of a city. Subsidized houses use tax dollars to fund their construction. They are assessed and taxed at a lower rate than market-rate houses. So they generate less tax revenue than market-rate houses, even though the occupants of the subsidized houses consume the same amount of city services that the market-rate occupants do, and so have the same cost to the city. That's expensive for any city. While all societies can afford some charity for those less fortunate, no society can afford to give away more resources than it takes in, or it goes bankrupt. So I think building a lot of subsidized housing, and adding deed restrictions to the resale possibilities, is not a good fiscal strategy for the city. more....
Pat Roberts June 23, 2011 at 12:46 AM
Deed restrictions continued: I suppose a solution to this problem would be to build less subsidized housing, and to let the market have a little more sway. If there is demand for low-cost housing, it will be built, by a private developer, who will use his own money, not tax dollars. And if the housing increases in value over the years, it will be sold for more money, and so will generate more taxes. The left is unlikely to ever agree to this, because their goal is to eliminate free market housing and replace it with government control. And of course in this case, the NDC will benefit from all steps that are taken in the direction away from a free market in housing, since it’s in the business of building subsidized housing. They never mention that they have an economic interest in this, of course.
Orion Kriegman June 29, 2011 at 02:19 PM
Missed the June 9th Gentrification forum? Now you can listen to the whole thing include Q&A on the JP New Economy Transition website: http://jptransition.org/educational-series-archive/ Enjoy! Orion

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