It’s a familiar story in Seattle: Well-paid young professionals move into the neighborhood, property values and rents spike, and suddenly everything goes upscale.
As the character of our neighborhoods transform — and just last week we learned that Capitol Hill’s beloved art-house cinema Harvard Exit is closing, sold off to a developer — the topic of gentrification has stirred debate and even protests in Seattle.
But is it possible that we’ve been debating the wrong thing — that the changes under way in some Seattle neighborhoods don’t add up to gentrification?
A new study from the Portland-based think tank City Observatory contends just that: Seattle hasn’t experienced any significant gentrification — and in fact, the phenomenon of gentrification is far less pervasive in U.S. cities than commonly thought.
It comes down to to what you mean by gentrification, of course. It’s a tricky term, with no hard-and-fast definition.
“Some people see gentrification happening when someone richer than them moves into the neighborhood” says economist Joe Cortright, one of the authors of the new study. “But if our concern about gentrification is the displacement of poor people, the fact is it has not had much of an impact.”
The study uses census data to examine patterns of poverty in 51 U.S. cities, including Seattle, between 1970 and 2010. For a census tract to be considered gentrified, it had to start out at a high level of economic distress, with at least 30 percent of residents at or below the poverty line (roughly double the national average). If, at the end of the four-decade period, the tract rebounded to a poverty rate below 15 percent, it had gentrified.
Remarkably, Seattle does not have a single census tract that meets this threshold for gentrification.
To be fair, the data show that neighborhoods like Ballard and Capitol Hill have experienced displacement, with declines in the percentage of residents who earn poverty-level wages. But these neighborhoods weren’t extremely blighted to begin with. In central Ballard the poverty rate was just 16 percent in 1970. In the heart of Capitol Hill, it was 19 percent.
Belltown comes closest to meeting the standard of gentrification in the study. In 1970, the neighborhood’s poverty rate was 29 percent. By 2010, it had dropped to 12 percent. The Central District (east of 15th Ave.) and the High Point neighborhood in West Seattle are other near misses.
Seattle is not unique in this regard. Most cities in the study experienced little or no gentrification. Only a handful — New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Memphis — saw a significant number of urban neighborhoods rebound from high poverty.
Despite all the media attention it receives, gentrification is “strikingly rare,” Cortright says. Most neighborhoods that were impoverished in 1970 remain so today. And many others have fallen into deep poverty in the past several decades.
Seattle fits this pattern, even though we have less poverty here than many cities. As illustrated on the map, Seattle had six areas with a poverty rate exceeding 30 percent in 1970. Four of those six still do. Additionally, eight newly-poor neighborhoods have passed the 30-percent mark.
Our focus on gentrification is misplaced, Cortright says, since the spread of concentrated poverty is a much larger trend, and has a far more negative impact on the lives of poor people.
“If we just mean some re-arranging of nonpoor neighborhoods when we talk about gentrification, that’s a different issue,” he explains.
So perhaps we need a new name for the type of gentrification we’re witnessing in Seattle neighborhoods like Capitol Hill. Because let’s face it — is it really gentrification when an art-house cinema gets pushed out of the neighborhood?