ENG 2150 – Media’s Role in Perpetuating Gentrification

By Talia McCray

May 22, 2023 at 6:20 PM

Since the 1960s, there has been an influx of new amenities to “refurbish” lower-income neighborhoods. Various media outlets cover the addition of these unique benefits such as overpriced cafes, grocery stores, restaurants, luxury gyms, and spruced-up housing; to build excitement for the tenants currently living there. But once those changes are in effect, tenants become alarmed by how their income is supposed to keep up with these developments. Those alarming changes are given the title of gentrification. Gentrification is often portrayed through the media as a way to upkeep low-income neighborhoods, but we rarely see how it leads to economic and racial segregation within urban areas. Although gentrification can bring economic growth and improved living conditions, it continues to challenge the well-being of poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Media plays a vital role in shaping public perception and how poverty is portrayed amidst gentrification.

Gentrification represents the development of a neighborhood that government officials and property developers believe is declining. It begins with influxes of neighborhood improvements that expose tenants to lively and pricey amenities that increase housing prices. Ruth Glass, a German sociologist who first coined the term, discusses the imbalance of these changes in her novel, London: Aspects of Change. Similar to neighborhoods in America, Glass emphasizes London also faces the same difficulties, where there are policies, similar to New York’s Mandatory Inclusive Housing zoning policy, that encourage a balance when refurbishing neighborhoods but they are ignored and amenities are not fairly distributed to residents. Glass shares, “The innovations just because they are unequally distributed and often appear incongruous, they are more visible than the old patches.” These innovations show the imbalances and dissonance of a neighborhood as it gets further away from becoming diverse, inclusive, and equitable to its tenants. The sudden enhancements are later contradicted by the consequence of tenants struggling to keep up with these amenities, which can result in neighborhood displacement.

There isn’t an agreed-upon definition of the infamous concept of gentrification. Some view the event as “the story of neighborhoods destroyed by desirability” (Sanneh, 2017) and others agree with the conclusion that “original residents gain more from gentrification than the traditional neighborhood narrative lets on.”(Capps, 2019) Although anyone can view neighborhood changes from the outside, it is difficult to see what effects those changes have behind closed doors, which creates contradicting opinions on gentrification’s impact. Glass reveals that gentrification is an inevitable domino effect that shows how after a small portion of a community is “renovated,” it becomes a rapid process that pushes out the working class. Gentrification could be a positive change for a neighborhood, as it reduces tenants’ exposure to poverty, crime, commercial development, and opportunity. Still, it continues to carry negative connotations when it’s discussed concerning community culture, trendy shops, and real estate in low-income neighborhoods.

The media plays a significant role in gentrification through its portrayal of wealth and poverty. On various news outlets, only positive aspects of neighborhood development were covered. Through research by Japonica Brown-Saracino and Cesraea Rumpf, these platforms often used the methods of only acknowledging spaces destined for or deserving of being invested in, ignoring and isolating areas and households in need of development, or celebrating the gentrifiers (wealthy renters and owners) for saving the city from decaying. An example of this would be the refurbishment of Tompkins Square Park in 1992, in which Neil Smiths shares that papers put these methods to use when promoting and inviting affluent tenants to keep the park lively following its reopening after the 1987 financial crash. 

Reporters only promote gentrification to make it more appealing to affluent renters and property developers and to divert attention from the drawbacks it will have on the lower-income community residing there. In his journal, The Eviction of Critical Perspectives from Gentrification Research, Tom Slater notices the media promotes gentrification as reviving declining neighborhoods and as an “authenticity” that encourages upper-class tenants to come. Through studying articles published by large cities in America, Saracino and Cesraea discovered that when covering gentrification, mixed-framed articles took part in both criticizing gentrification but also subtly praising it for what amenities were added to the area and how it improved its prior condition. “Mixed frames highlight gentrification’s assets, such as the revitalization of a depressed neighborhood, as well as its consequences, such as long-timers’ displacement or loss of ‘authenticity.’” This is displayed when New York articles covered the displacement of the Lower East where its quiet and art gallery scene was replaced by upscale restaurants in the 80s. It was described as, “It went from very quiet, all Ukrainian little shops, to yuppie restaurants and heavy traffic” (Senft, 1992) When covering undergoing changes in a neighborhood various methods are used to make it appeal to the public eye. Highlighting the positive aspects of gentrification can contribute to a skewed and incomplete understanding of its impact, which makes it difficult to hear the voices of the households who are against these rapid developments. 

In addition to emphasizing the positives such as new amenities, there is often a discussion on whether gentrification causes an increase or decrease in crime rates. There are mixed opinions where some argue “higher income residents generally have lower crime rates, so the crime rate falls as the lower income residents with higher crime rates move.”(Will Lawrence, 2013), and in contrast “high-income newcomers offer more lucrative targets, thus being conducive to increased crime”(Mcdonald) The crime rate within communities as it is introduced to more wealth is unknown. Some communities may have an influx of wealth from both tenants and real estate that can drive criminals out, but in some areas, where similar gentrification occurs, criminals see the wealth in the community as a chance to pursue personal advances. Even within developing communities where crime is influenced by differing economic circumstances, the portrayal of minorities in the media further perpetuates stereotypes and contributes to the perpetuation of systemic biases and discrimination.

Minorities are often portrayed negatively in the media, where stereotypes are perpetuated and systemic biases and discrimination are influenced. In Martin Gilens book, Race And Poverty In America: Public Misperceptions and The American News Media, Through conducting surveys and analyzing various magazines to uncover what these biases are and where they originate from, he discovers, “the public’s exaggerated association of race and poverty not only reflects and perpetuates negative racial stereotypes but it also increases white Americans’ opposition to welfare.” The public’s tendency to associate race and poverty, influenced by the media, not only reinforces negative racial stereotypes but also causes opposition among white Americans toward welfare programs. As people regularly rely on news channels or social media platforms to provide current events about the world, through examining various magazines and news outlets over 5 years, it was discovered that because of the media and prior biases, the media portrayed African Americans as the majority of poverty household although a larger amount of white people were part of the welfare group. With over 60 stories centering around poverty published by U.S. News and World Report, “Overall, African Americans made up 62 percent of the poor people pictured in these stories, over twice their true proportion of 29 percent.” (Gilens, 1996).

The perceptions of race and poverty throughout the media are often enforced by people with prior biases. In addition to analyzing surveys and newspapers on gentrification coverage, Gilens emphasized how personal accounts with poor people, conversations with friends, or the lack of educational experience can impact how we perceive poverty. It can also explain how “variations in individuals’ perceptions should correspond with variations in the racial mix of the poor people they encounter in everyday life.”(Gilens, 1998) These instances provide an understanding of why the residents in states such as Louisiana, Maine, and Michigan with a black poverty rate of 30%, can come to the belief that 50% of America’s poor are African American. States that have a history of racial biases reflect these survey results. 

The Urban Displacement Project

With years of research and working-class families struggling to keep up with gentrifying neighborhoods, there is always the lingering question of if neighborhoods can stay racially and economically stable while going through these changes in the future. According to 2016 statistics, at least one-third (around 1.1 million) of working-class households are either at risk of displacement or already experiencing it, and in a 2018 study, 10% of New York neighborhoods that house around 500,000 working-class families are vulnerable to gentrification (UC Berkeley). It becomes evident that the process affects marginalized communities and creates an imbalance in areas that house low-income minorities.

As the media has a role in perpetuating gentrification it can easily influence public opinion and perception through shifting the bias surrounding gentrification and letting the voices of those being affected be heard. Highlighting the voices and experiences of the marginalized communities that underwent or are currently undergoing gentrification makes it known that solutions need to be made and encourages developers and landlords to be more inclusive when protecting their old tenants and housing their new ones in an attempt to preserve affordable housing. By pushing their experiences forward instead of pushing out only celebrity news, the media can challenge the perception that gentrification is solely a positive change for neighborhoods and emphasize the need to preserve affordable housing and build economic inclusivity.

Amplifying the voices of those facing displacement, highlighting their struggles, and showcasing their resilience can foster empathy and a deeper understanding among the broader public. Additionally, new outlets and newspapers can work towards being more critical to development changes when they are in lower-income neighborhoods. Covering new amenities while also acknowledging and questioning what that change would mean to tenants economically, keeps viewers aware of the positives and negatives of these changes. The media has the capacity to shift bias on gentrification by providing accurate and comprehensive coverage that highlights diverse perspectives, exposes systemic inequities, and promotes inclusive solutions.

Gentrification is a complex process that has significant social, economic, and cultural implications for urban communities. Media is not just a news source to stay informed on worldly issues, but those sources also reinforce assumptions that create stereotypes and perceptions that shift public opinion. Biased portrayals of neighborhoods and communities undergoing development only focus on the benefits such as economic growth, improved infrastructure, and increased property values, rather than shedding light on the negative consequences, such as displacement, loss of community, and socio-economic imbalances.