What we think is easy to eyeball, though, is incredibly hard to identify in data. Quantitatively, what does gentrification look like? A change in median income in a neighborhood over time? In racial demographics, real estate investment, housing values, coffee shops per capita? If gentrification is the gradual displacement of working-class residents by upper-income ones, should we look at changes in the share of professional workers, or in residents with college degrees? What about shifts in the social character of a place? Can you quantify the loss of mom-and-pop corner shops in favor of national chains, or the end of cheap carry-out replaced by high-end dining?
These questions get at a fundamental problem with one of the most controversial (and fuzzy) concepts in urban policy: Even researchers don’t agree on what “gentrification” means, let alone how to identify it. (And this is to say nothing of its even more problematic derivative, the “gentrifier.”)
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