While it may be impossible to pin down the beginnings of gentrification, Wiener (1980)

has described the purchase and habitation of rural cottages in the late nineteenth century

to fulfil the ideal of a ‘rural idyll’ for the upper middle classes of that time. Familiar

definitions have developed more recently as the subject matter has been better defined. It

is possible, however, to be more certain about the beginnings of its documentation; in

1964 when Ruth Glass first coined the term to describe the changes occurring in the

East-end of London at that time;

“One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by

the middle classes-upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages…have been

taken over, when their leases have expired, and have become elegant, expensive

residences. Larger Victorian houses, downgraded in an earlier or recent periodwhich were used as lodging houses or were otherwise in multiple occupation-have

been upgraded once again…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 whole social character of the district is changed” (Glass, 1964:

xviii)

According to Van Weesep the word ‘gentrification’ was used by Glass;

 

“because the process resembled the old habit of the ‘landed gentry’ to maintain a

house in the city in addition to their country seat” (1994:76)

Gentrification was then intended as a term describing an essentially social process

linked, by association, with past aristocratic housing traits; however, it seems that the

similarity, between the aristocracy and the middle classes, may have been pushed too

far.

 

Little is written about why the term was selected, this may appear a trivial matter; any

word may be used to describe a phenomenon, yet the power of connotation must be

recognised. Gentrification implies agency on the part of a certain social group, the

gentry, who act upon something. As defined above, it is the action of the middle classes

upon working class or derelict dwellings to incur a social and physical transformation of

that environment. However, this hides many problematic theoretical and empirical

problems in terms of its definition and measurement respectively. It has been argued that

gentrifiers are a homogenous group (Smith and Williams, 1986, Bridge, 1994) but

others (Beauregard, 1986, Dangschat, 1991) have shown or argued that it is the very

heterogeneity of these groups which marks them out.

 

In a more simplistic way it can be argued that it is the replacement or displacement of a

lower class population by one of a higher category which defines the boundaries of the

process. It may still be that it is the process of ‘income displacement’ that refers to a sub

set of gentrification and that gentrification itself should retain an element of cultural

differentiation in the way that Zukin has used the term (1982) to connote a culturally

homogeneous group. Either way, it is unlikely that these groups will exhibit such

consistency over time and space even if underlying similarities are observed. Yet more

problems are incurred by expounding this argument.

 

First, how does one define class, whether in Britain or across national boundaries? It is

all very well to suggest that middle replaces working class but these categories are not

universally understood and may obfuscate the real groups involved in the process and

their diversity. Reference has been made for example to a New Middle Class (NMC)

(Bell, 1973, Gouldner, 1979 and Ley, 1994) which, composed of professional and

managerial groups, has formed the main vanguard of gentrifiers. This group, while

being closely associated with gentrification in the past are no longer ‘new’, the relevance

of these groups may wane as gentrification activity has decreased to leave smaller

groups taking particularised advantage of certain areas.

 

Second, a fundamental point which will be returned to later, is the issue of the

mechanisms through which gentrification takes place, for example, it may not simply be the activities of the middle class which drive the process of gentrification, for some

gentrification is a process based upon the dictates of capital shifts and uneven urban

development. If one accepts Smith’s account (1979b, 1986, 1991, 1996) of

gentrification it become a process reduced to the disinvestment and reinvestment

patterns of the inner urban environment or a supply side argument – this might be called

‘capitalisation’ with gentrification as an associated phenomenon. If, however, income is

a fundamental aspect of the mechanism by which people are displaced, out-priced or

derelict property renovated what influence has class on such a process? It may appear

more the case that while class and status may come first, it is the attendant income

differentials attached to these class and status positions which allows the process to take

place.

 

Turning back to the history of the phenomenon, there appears to be a general reluctance

on the part of commentators on gentrification to define what it is that they are looking at.

Gentrification has become an assumed phenomenon; researchers take it that what they

are studying is ‘gentrification’ without examining the confusing and irreconcilable

elements of difference which exist between research contexts. By this it is meant that the

social, spatial and temporal location of research has properties that may be equated with

a culture. While gentrification does take place in a particularised area, as Lees explicitly

recognises (Lees, 1994), gentrification receives and emits many directions of influence

and causation which are by no means uni-directional.

 

Put simply, the reluctance to define may be due to the plethora of cultural reference

points or, equally, the genuine difficulty of defining the process. However, this haziness

appears to have led writers into talking past each other, particularly in theoretical debate

and the existence of a definition which has gained little explicit reference yet much

apparent agreement.

 

Wiener (1981) has examined the emulation by the emergent bourgeoisie of the gentry

which strengthens Glass’s use of the metaphor and yet it has been the middle classes and

higher income groups rather than the bourgeoisie/gentry who have taken this emulative

stance to property consumption. Further, what appeared to be a copying of the

established upper class enclaves may be seen as an investment motive expressed by

higher income groups in cheaper areas who will continue to move to maximise this

potential (Lyons, 1995).

 

As Wiener points out, gentrification was also the process whereby the newly formed

bourgeoisie class of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries took on the values,

attitudes and manners of the more established and socially hegemonic aristocratic caste.

Such a process led to the retention of aristocratic social structures amongst the new

entrepreneurial class in order to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the existing elite but

also in order to supplant them eventually. Such structures still exist and Britain remains

a curiously open yet aristocratic culture in which the achievement of industrial goals has

been hampered by a desire to make decisions based upon a model of limited growth.

Gentrification was then a process whereby the non-gentry attempted to appropriate the

status of the more gentile elite often via the public school system.

 

One can see, in Wiener’s analysis, the roots of class emulation by an emergent class

grouping. Such new groupings have been alluded to in the gentrification literature (Ley,

1994). There are parallels to be found both between the emergent New Middle Class

(NMC) of the sixties and seventies (see Ley, 1994) and the new bourgeoisie, and in the

way that the NMC have partly sought to emulate the location of the established

bourgeoisie. However, the process appears to have stopped short of a hegemonic

challenge by the NMC which appears to have copied living practice rather than class

agency and power. Hamnett and Williams, for example, have suggested that the

gentrification experienced in Inner London during the late seventies was related to

neighbouring upper class enclaves via the appropriation of architecturally desirable, yet

cheaper, dwellings (Hamnett and Williams, 1979:2).

 

However, the NMC is no longer new and the professional and managerial occupational

groups that were taken to represent this class (Ley, 1994) have both grown and

diversified such that it can only be a small proportion of these groups that forms a

gentrifying class. It does seem odd that the two always go hand in hand in gentrification

research. In operational terms at least the identification of these people as gentrifiers led

to their measurement as an indicator of gentrification when using census data. Hamnett

and Williams (1979) for example saw a 6% rise in the number of professionals and

managers in wards in inner London as a significant and gentrifying force at that time.

 

It is no longer clear however whether such a socio-economic category form the

gentrifying force any more, or if a rise of six percent could be taken as significant either.

The growth of these groups has stemmed in part from the use of occupational gradings

to gain a higher status while not necessarily reflecting an objective change in work

relations or class grouping. The use of the word executive for example has often been

used to ‘upgrade’ relatively low grade jobs.

 

It is clear that the theorisation of gentrification has been linked to the methodological

tools available. The census has often been used to measure gentrification and the two top

occupational categories are that of the professional and the manager. Clearly

methodology is often constrained by the tools available so that, in the case of

gentrification, it may be that the operationalisation of the concept has rarely been

achieved in as adequate fashion as would be desirable because of the constraints of

using official data.

 

The class connotation of the word gentrification clearly applies most closely to British

society and yet it has been used in Europe, Australasia and North America. Williams has

pointed out that;

“Many American analysts have been uncomfortable with the term ‘gentrification’

(with its obvious class connotations), preferring labels such as the “back-to-the-city

movement”, “neighbourhood revitalization”, and “brownstoneing”, all of which

were indicative of underlying divergences in what was believed to be central to this

process.” (Williams, 1986:65)

 

In addition the new classes in recent forms of gentrification have sought, seemingly, to

achieve the status of the upper classes via the process of conspicuous consumption. On

the other hand it is as clear that the part of ‘conspicuous thrift’ (Lees and Carpenter,

1995), stemming as it did from the anti-materialistic ideals of the ‘baby boomer

generation’ associated with gentrification, has played a part in shaping the nature of that

achievement.