Only a Fraction of Philly Neighborhoods Have Gentrified, Pew Says
Just 15 census tracts in Philadelphia experienced gentrification between 2000 and 2014, according to a new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That’s only 4 percent of the 372 total tracts in the city. Meanwhile, 10 times that amount saw a major decrease in median income.
But those figures probably don’t mean much to the former residents of the Graduate Hospital neighborhood in Southwest Center City. During that time period, more than 4,000 black residents left the neighborhood while the white population more than tripled, according to the report. (Full disclosure: I helped write a Pew report on Councilmanic prerogative last year on a freelance basis.)
Pew undertook the study to help inform the conversation about neighborhood change in Philadelphia, according to Larry Eichel, the director of Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative. In the study, Pew does what so many others fail to do when talking about gentrification: It offers a definition. In Pew’s view, a census tract gentrified only if it met three criteria:
- In 2000, the tract had a median income that was less than 80 percent of “area median income,” the level at which residents qualify for certain housing assistance programs.
- Between 2000 and 2014, the tract saw an increase in the median income of 10 percent or more.
- And, at the end of that period, the median income was higher than the city’s median income of $37,460.
In short, a neighborhood only gentrified if it was relatively poor in 2000 and wealthier than average in 2014. It’s a definition based on the shifting wealth of a neighborhood’s population rather than the growing cost of housing or other living expenses.
“As the data indicate,” Pew writes, “gentrification is a relatively small part of the recent story of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.”
Neighborhoods that gentrified included those that Pew identified as working-class African-American neighborhoods like Graduate Hospital; old industrial neighborhoods like Northern Liberties; mixed-income, mostly white neighborhoods like Passyunk Square, Pennsport and Roxborough; and university areas that once had (but no longer have) majority-black populations like Cedar Park and Spruce Hill in West Philly as well as neighborhoods around Temple University.
Other neighborhoods experienced changes that didn’t meet the definition of gentrification. Fishtown saw a spike in the portion of highly educated residents working in professional careers, for example. Point Breeze was beginning to show rises in income levels and housing costs at the end of the research period, but didn’t change quickly or drastically enough in that time to meet Pew’s definition of gentrification.
It’s a thorough report, and rich in detail. What does it do for the way we talk about gentrification?
For one thing, it’s helpful to have an income-based definition for the phenomenon. It’s also probably helpful to start breaking down neighborhood changes into different (if overlapping) categories based on income, cost and demographics. One reason discussions about gentrification can so often get heated and sometimes unproductive, as Pew notes in its report, is that different people use the term to describe different experiences, some of which are positive and some of which are negative.
I also wonder, for that reason, if Pew’s definition of gentrification is too limited. A neighborhood that goes from mostly poor to mostly well-off in 15 years has certainly gentrified. But even when the numbers don’t hit that mark, the direction of a neighborhood — and the sense of who controls its destiny — can change with much smaller shifts in income demographics.
Still, the report makes it overwhelmingly clear that more Philadelphia neighborhoods are suffering from entrenched and widespread poverty than from displacement due to gentrification.
Follow @JaredBrey on Twitter.