Dominion of New York

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December 27, 2011

When the Gentrifier is Black

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Written by: Dax-Devlon Ross

Colleague number three, an artist and Ph.D, didn’t offer a straight yes or no. Instead she offered a question. “If you moved to Bensonhurst — an all-white, working-class Brooklyn neighborhood with a history of racial violence — would you be considered a gentrifier?”

“Probably not.”

“What about when middle-class black people started moving into traditionally white, working-class neighborhoods. Did anyone call that gentrification?”

“Not that I can recall.”

“If it is solely a matter of class,” she said, “then your entry into any lower-income, ethnic neighborhood should constitute gentrification. But since it doesn’t, when we talk about gentrification we’re talking about more than just class.”


he term “gentrification” dates back about a half century to a British sociologist. Noting the housing market changes in London, Ruth Glass wrote of the process:

“One by one, many of the working class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes–upper and lower … 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.”

Why had she characterized the middle class as “invaders”? What constituted “original”? Did these “occupiers” have rights? How was she defining a district’s “social character”?

From the beginning the term was charged with acrimony and laden with ambiguity. But at the very least, Glass’ definition outlined its essence. Gentrification began as an economic and social phenomenon. Once super-imposed on America, it was bound to intersect with race.

Hamilton Heights Census Tracts

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey provides annual demographic data about every neighborhood in the country, by breaking the nation into census tracts, which the bureau defines  as “small, relatively permanent statistical subdivisions of a county” usually consisting of “between 2,500 and 8,000 persons.”

In Hamilton Heights, the stereotypical gentrifier is definitely present and definitely displacing large numbers of black and Latino families. Though those groups still hold majorities and, increasingly pluralities throughout the neighborhood’s nine census tracts, the white population has grown significantly and systematically. By that I mean whites have settled in selective, clustered pockets at rates that equal the departure of blacks and Hispanics in those specific areas. Specifically, since 2000, the white presence has increased sharply in three tracts, according to the New York Times’ interactive mapping tool.  In Tract 22701, which abuts City College, the Black and Hispanic population dropped 13% while the White population grew 16%. In the adjacent tract, 23101, the heart of Sugar Hill, the black population alone dropped 20% while the White population grew 17.5%. And in Census tract 233, white presence grew 15.5% while Blacks and Hispanics have declined 13%.


About the Author

Dax-Devlon Ross
Dax-Devlon Ross
The author of six books, Dax has been featured on WNYC, WBAI,, Democracy Now, and Pacific Radio. His work on race, youth culture and criminal justice has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. He has lectured on literature and hip-hop culture at Fordham, Pace, City College and NYU. His book, Beat of a Different Drum (Hyperion, 2006), explored the lives of 30 African-American creatives and iconolasts.


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, left to right. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Azipaybarah