Gentrification. The word has become almost as ubiquitous here on Capitol Hill as the lego-themed apartment complexes that have come to dominate the neighborhood’s skyline. Whether it’s in reference to the destruction of old buildings, the skyrocketing rents, or the abundance of high-priced ultra modern boutiques, there seems to be nothing that folks on Capitol Hill like to talk about more than all the upper-middle class people surging into their middle class neighborhood.
But what does gentrification really mean? And what can its roots help us learn about the problem currently facing our beloved Capitol Hill?
A quick look at dictionary.com reveals the definition we’re most familiar with: “the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.”
This is the gentrification we’re most familiar with, the one that’s pushing up rents around the area and renovating or removing businesses we’ve come to love. But reiterating our understanding of the term won’t do much to help us understand its roots, will it? In order to do that, we have—to quote “Inception”—to go deeper.
Because I’m a good English major, my path to understanding gentrification’s roots brought me to The Oxford English Dictionary.
Our first definition of the term is a familiar one: “The process by which an (urban) area is rendered middle-class.”
Not much change. The term itself, however, is relatively recent. British Sociologist Ruth Glass first utilized it in order to make sense of the changing face of London neighborhoods in 1964. To get a better sense of the term’s linguistic roots, then, I went further back.
The first stop on the etymology express took me to, perhaps unsurprisingly, “gentrify”: “To renovate or convert (housing, esp. in an inner-city area) so that it conforms to middle-class taste; to render (an area) middle-class.”
Still not much change. Still we have the emphasis on “middle class” conversion and the alteration of housing and tastes. From here, though, things get a little more interesting.
The roots for “gentrify” is “gentry.” The term comes primarily from the nineteenth century, but also has roots as early as the 14th century, where it appears in the “Wife of Bath” section of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
The term has a number of interesting definitions. Here’s the list:
“Rank by birth (usually, high birth; rarely in neutral sense).”
“The quality or rank of gentleman.”
“What is characteristic of a gentleman; polish of manners, good breeding; also courtesy, generosity; an instance of good-breeding, a gentlemanlike action.”
“A practice, style of dress, etc., characteristic of gentle-folks; ‘the fashion’.”
Interesting. So the classists implications go further back, but in this case they refer to the “noble” class of nineteenth century society, or the class just beneath the nobility. Also associated are value-terms like “good breeding, courtesy” and “generosity.” It’s a little hard to say if gentrification on the hill has brought any of these qualities to the neighborhood, considering the spike in drunk, angry folks from the rest of the city who stumble onto the hill every weekend, but it’s an intriguing connection.
But the OED also tells us that the term gentry might have roots in yet another work: “gentrice.”
The term, which supposedly comes from a variation of the French word “genterise” echoes many of the same characteristics as its descendents:
“Gentle birth, noble descent or rank.”
“Nobility, nobles; also, splendid attire.”
And in its adjective form:
“Of gentle birth.”
This gives us some even more compelling clues about what the world implies. We begin to see the process of gentrification on the hill not merely as a changing landscape of building and rent prices, but as a shift in the underlying concept of the neighborhood itself. The term “gentle” here implies what we might expect: freedom from conflict and hardship, from the rigors of the “working life” that might have defined other classes, rooted as they were to the field and forest.
The process currently engulfing Seattle and much of the urban landscape across the US, then, is one that involves the suppression of conflict. Much like suburbanization during the 50’s and 80’s, the new manifestations of gentrification are obsessed with managing expectations—of ensuring that everyone, assuming they have the cash, is ensured a smooth, harmonious experience.
Contrasted with Capitol Hill’s old ethos—of trashy dive bars and radical queer politics—it becomes clear why gentrification is such a dramatic alteration of the neighborhood.
Even more unsettling, though, is the way that gentrification has seeped into our epistemological view of the world. Apple products defined by their crisp and minimalistic aesthetic, with little to no complex requirements from their users. Search engines that deliver instant results and—as we are beginning to see with companies specifically tasked with controlling what content appears on search engines—the ability to influence what kind of information we access. Car services that only require a quick tap of our smart phones. Gentrification and its easing processes, it seems, are not restricted to the urban landscape.
Like anything else in a market economy, the gentrification of Capitol Hill is reflecting what we, as consumers, have been asking for. Ease, elegance, and novelty. A gentle existence.