What is gentrification? It has been observed by many writers, considered shortly, that it

is very difficult to distinguish temporally, qualitatively and quantitatively the nature of

gentrification. Indeed there are many similarities between the two tasks of defining these

areas. When gentrification was first described by Glass in 1964 the process of class

invasion and take-over she described was shown to facilitate the displacement of the

original working class inhabitants by the refusal to renew leases on rented property. As

already suggested, the study of gentrification as a radical counterpoint to the older

ecological assumptions about the urban environment (Hamnett and Williams, 1979:1)

have been superseded by equally rigid and orthodox assumptions about gentrification.

The literature, however, has done little to consider the exact appropriateness of a term

which has become latently, rather than explicitly, defined. What was a ‘new’ and radical

urban process has become a more mundane and better understood event. Further, it

appears that change has occurred, both in the factors which drive it and its explicit

concrete effects on the surrounding urban environment.

 

Smith and Williams have suggested that gentrification is ‘not amenable to overly

restrictive definitions’ (Smith and Williams, 1986:3) and this has become more evident

as the study and diversity of gentrification has flourished. Just as the study of

gentrification appeared as a counterpoint to the older ecological assumptions of the

Chicago School (Hamnett and Williams, 1979:1), it now appears that a certain

orthodoxy has sprung up around the study of a dynamic and processual phenomenon.

Not only is gentrification difficult to define but its very definition has never appeared to

be an important issue to analysts. As argued earlier, its definition is a latent function

stemming from the production of a large literature base from which researchers make

the assumption that they are all talking about the same thing.

 

Since Glass’s work, a proliferation of books and papers have been written examining the

gentrification of properties and areas of the inner-cities of the first world (notably,

London and Palen, 1984, Smith and Williams, 1986 and Van Weesep and Musterd,

1991). Gentrification has been defined around a core set of ideas about class

replacement and invasion in a given area, these have resulted in definitions such as ‘the

movement of middle-class and upper-class residents into working-class areas of the

inner city’ (Munt, 1987:1175) or more commonly ‘the rehabilitation of working-class

and derelict housing and the consequent transformation of an area into a middle-class

neighbourhood.'(Smith and Williams, 1986:1). As Bourne argues;

 

“definitions of gentrification vary widely…the movement of middle- and upper-class

households into neighbourhoods occupied by lower status (working-class)

households; in effect, it represents a reversal of the invasion-succession process

typical in the classical ecological literature.” (1993:189)

In earlier research on the subject it became apparent that areas and populations were

moving and changing according to, as yet, unobserved factors which were in need of

comprehension. As Hamnett and Randolph later remarked;

 

“something unusual was happening. After decades of neglect and decay, houses

were being rapidly renovated and the long established population of working class

private renters was being slowly replaced – or displaced – by a new population of

middle class home owners” (Hamnett and Randolph, 1988:3)

Why and how this was occurring were clearly the foremost questions in analysts’ minds

yet it soon became clear that not only were areas being renovated for middle class

consumption and use but there was also an impact on former and existing residents.

 

 

A variety of sub-labels of gentrification have been applied by commentators seeking to

make a distinction between the various routes by which gentrification may occur.

Merrett (1976) for example posited the existence of two routes by which gentrification

could occur; mediated and unmediated gentrification. These types were based upon a

political-economic distinction between a process whereby landlords, estate agents and

developers take a part in the rehabilitation and sale of the property (mediated) and the

latter in which a rentier sells into owner occupation a property which is acted upon by

the gentrifiers themselves (unmediated). In the latter position there is no intervention by

the entrepreneur.

 

Hamnett (1973) in the same vein describes these types as indirect and direct

gentrification respectively. Indirect gentrification corresponds to mediated gentrification

in Merrett’s model with direct referring to activity which was gentrifler led. This latter

type of gentrification has also been referred to as ‘sweat equity gentrification’ (Munt,

1987:1195) and has usually been associated with pioneer gentrifiers who have had to put

more work into the rehabilitation of property than subsequent occupants. These two

types of gentrification provide the basis for one of the crucial dichotomies in the

gentrification debate; is gentrification an issue of production or consumption? To date

this duality has not been fully reconciled (but see Clark, 1991 and 1994) indeed the

debate continues while post-modern elements (Mills, 1993) have fragmented the area

further into one of subjective meanings and mythic categories.

 

Other work has been done which has shown the development of gentrified areas in

strongly middle class areas and in which the existence of the ‘ultra gentrifier’ becomes

apparent. In Dangschat’s (1991) analysis of Hamburg (one can see the parallels with

areas of London like Islington) it is the ability of these wealthier groups to outbid even

the original gentrifiers that marks them out. Hamnett and Williams (1979) reported that

original gentrifiers in Hackney mentioned cheapness as important in their decision to

move there showing that times have indeed changed; that the price of gentrification has

gone up.

 

Clark by comparison has described gentrification in terms of it being a process of

‘backward filtering’ (Clark, 1992:16). Clark describes gentrification as a process of

replacement through residential mobility; filtering is the replacement of higher by lower

residents whereas gentrification is the reverse of this process. The application of this

analogy as a definition of gentrification is limited because it ignores those cases where

gentrification is not simply a case of replacement. In the case of lower groups replacing

higher this is indeed correct yet it is the market power or ‘dollar vote’ (Merrett, 1976:45)

of the higher groups that allows them to displace or replace previous residents. Further

the absence of previous residents may in certain cases be directly attributable to the

potential for land to be used at a higher level of revenue thus facilitating the eviction or

‘pricing out’ of previous residents by landlords and other agents.

 

Many typologies have been drawn up which try to achieve a taxonomy of the various

approaches to gentrification, for example, political economic, socio-cultural and

institutional (Munt, op cit.). While such typologies enable us to understand the

differences in the outlooks of researchers they tend to strengthen the dichotomisation of

debate around gentrification. Gentrification, as a research agenda is therefore subject to

a tension between the demands of different approaches (which prioritise the relevance of

certain factors) and the need for an understanding of gentrification which is

simultaneously universal and contextual in its application.

 

The gentrification label has been applied to a variety of examples of physical upgrading,

the gentrification of pubs and shops for example (Anson, 1981), yet it is the social

dimension which is of primary concern and represents the critical location of

gentrification activity. The physical upgrading of buildings may be carried out by

various agents but gentrification is the ability of higher occupational groups to occupy

lower occupational group’s property because of their higher income. The mediation and

enabling of the process via market mechanisms indeed creates cause for concern over

whether the process is based on income differentials or class structuration. This means

that physical upgrading of property through gentrification is associated with a change in

the demands upon it, usually expressed in the form of rehabilitation or redecoration,

even though it is not a necessary part of the process, indicated later.