In February, Spike Lee let out an anti-gentrification rant that got a lot of attention. Lecturing at the Pratt Institute in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood (as in, Bed-Stuy: Do or Die) of Brooklyn, the filmmaker erupted into a seven-minute polemic asking why it took white people moving into certain neighborhoods to increase police presence and better schools.
Some commentators pounced on Lee for his own contributions to popularizing places like Bed-Stuy in the mainstream white imagination. But his basic question sticks: Why are some neighborhoods neglected for decades while others flip in a handful of years?
A new report from the CityObservatory, a Portland-based think tank, shows that the number of urban neighborhoods that do gentrify is actually pretty small. Gentrification, in fact, might be a distraction from a much larger and slower-moving issue–that of chronic poverty in America.
The report, which drew data from 40 years of Census tract records, shows that the number of chronically poor neighborhoods in cities has exploded over the last several decades. In 1970, 1,100 neighborhoods from our 51 largest cities qualified as high poverty neighborhoods. Today, more than 3,000 neighborhoods–each with about 4,000 residents–can be categorized as such.
The report also shows that poverty has become even more concentrated and segregated over time. “If you lived in one of those high poverty neighborhoods [in 1970], there was less than a 5% chance that 40 years later that neighborhood would see the poverty rate decline,” says report author Joe Cortright.
“If we think of gentrification as formerly high poverty neighborhoods, there’s been a much larger and unnoticed increase in the number of high poverty neighborhoods,” Cortright adds.
Gentrification, however, does shine a light on one of the main factors that has contributed to the increase in chronic poverty over time. Gentrified neighborhoods can pit the interests of new and wealthy neighbors against those of low-income and longtime residents, throwing the larger issue of income inequality into sharp relief. Chronic poverty can also be thought of as a byproduct of income inequality, Cortright says, but it moves slowly and flares up in the popular press less often. (This might also have something to do with the gentrifying places that journalists themselves often live, he adds.)
So how do we, as a society, dig ourselves out of the hole? Prioritizing the creation of affordable housing would be an important step, Cortright says. But chronic poverty–like chronic trauma–isn’t dismantled with one simple fix. Slow-moving neglect can also be a form of oppression.
“What we don’t see, because it happens so slowly and so continuously, is the steady erosion of these neighborhoods, especially the middle class neighborhoods that are now high poverty,” Cortright says. “One of the things I would add is that in the aggregate, three-fourths of the people who live in these high poverty neighborhoods is either African American or Latino. This is a problem that disproportionately affects minorities.”