Gentrification—the process by which poor, urban neighborhoods experience economic reinvestment and an influx of middle- and upper middle-class residents—has been extensively studied by sociologists. And while researchers themselves may know gentrification when they see it, providing generalizable explanations for how and why it occurs has proven far more challenging.
Enter Jackelyn Hwang and Robert J. Sampson. In their new study on urban neighborhoods in Chicago, the two elaborate on the role of perception in influencing a neighborhood’s susceptibility to gentrification. In particular, Hwang and Sampson explore why certain neighborhoods of color gentrify faster than others. Referencing research on the impact of stigma on neighborhood preferences, Hwang and Sampson hypothesize that, among other things, racialized perceptions of disorder and decay attached to predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods make those areas less prone to gentrification.
To test their hypothesis, Hwang and Sampson compare present-day Google Street View images of numerous Chicago city blocks against ground-level images from a Chicago neighborhood study conducted in 1995, looking for visual indicators of gentrification such as new and remodeled structures, beautification efforts, and fewer unkempt buildings, structures, and lots than were noted in ‘95. Though signs of gentrification were more likely to be found in neighborhoods that were predominantly non-white, neighborhoods that had a substantial portion of black and Latino residents, especially those with a black population of over 40% in 1995, were far less likely to have experienced gentrification. These findings correspond with other studies on neighborhood racial preferences that claim urban-dwelling, middle-class whites prefer diverse neighborhoods but avoid those with a high concentration of blacks or Latinos because of the racialized stigmas.
Hwang and Sampson conclude that collective presumptions of disorder regarding neighborhoods with high black and Latino populations deter a neighborhood’s susceptibility to gentrification more than actual, visible signs of disorder. As the nation discusses gentrification and its effects in the outlying ares of cities like St. Louis, MO, these findings provide important insight into the impacts of racial stigma on the creation and perpetuation of (sub)urban “ghettos.”