RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's talk next about a double-edged word: gentrification. It brings up images of poor, or homeowners and renters, being forced out of the neighborhood as more affluent people move in. Now, a series of new studies is showing that gentrifying neighborhoods may be a boon to the longtime residents who are able to stay.
NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: On the corner of 6th and H Streets Northeast in Washington, D.C., there's a wooden bench outside Murry's grocery store. Murry's has been an anchor in this neighborhood for decades - through the crack wars of the late '80s and the urban blight that followed, when most other businesses packed up and left. On the bench, you'll often find Bobby Foster Jr. reading the newspaper.
BOBBY FOSTER JR.: Sun shines over here this time of day. It's always good where the sun shines.
SULLIVAN: Foster is a retired cook. He's cooked in kitchens all over D.C.
FOSTER JR.: I could take liver and make it taste like steak.
SULLIVAN: And he's lived in this neighborhood for 54 years. But now, this neighborhood, and hundreds like it across the country, are changing - gentrifying. Every other shop is a new restaurant, a high-end salon or a bar. The term makes people feel excited and guilty. It's been several decades since the middle and upper class began returning to the cities. That kind of movement is bound to hurt someone. But recent research is starting to show the impact might not be as harmful as people feared. Even longtime residents, like Bobby Foster, are conflicted.
FOSTER JR.: Some things are good. Some things are bad, you know. But sometimes, the good outweighs the bad.
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SULLIVAN: Gentrification burst into the social consciousness on Aug. 6th, 1988, with the Tompkins Square Park riot in New York City. Residents carried signs reading, "Gentrification Is Class War." Police carried batons. The bloody battle that ensued left more than 100 people injured.
The protesters' fury centered on the idea that the poor would be homeless so the rich could live in their neighborhoods, destroying whatever character they may have had. Professor Lance Freeman is the director of the Urban Planning Program at Columbia University. And he says, yeah, that's what he figured had happened, too.
LANCE FREEMAN: My intuition would be that, you know, people are being displaced, so they're going to be moving more quickly. I was really aiming to quantify how much displacement was occurring.
SULLIVAN: Freeman launched a study first in Harlem, and then nationally, calculating how many people were pushed out of their homes when wealthy people moved in.
FREEMAN: To my surprise, it seemed to suggest that people in the neighborhoods that were classified as gentrifying were moving less frequently.
SULLIVAN: Yes, less frequently. Freeman's work found that low-income residents were no more likely to move out of their homes when a neighborhood gentrifies than when it doesn't. Freeman says higher costs can push out renters; especially the elderly or disabled, or those without rent-stabilized apartments. But it turns out, a lot of renters overall end up staying; especially if new parks, safer streets and better schools are paired with a job opportunity right down the block. That squares with a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
DANIEL HARTLEY: We're finding that the financial health of original residents in gentrifying neighborhoods seems to be increasing, as compared to original residents in non-gentrifying, low-priced neighborhoods.
SULLIVAN: Daniel Hartley is a research economist with the bank. He found credit scores of original residents went up - regardless of whether they rented or owned - if they stayed put.
HARTLEY: There may be these kind of side benefits to gentrification that we've been less focused on; that it can actually help the original residents of the neighborhood.
SULLIVAN: As for Bobby Foster, he's staying. He and his family own their home. He's very concerned about what will happen to the beauty salon across the street. Its owners often do the elderly people's hair for free.
FOSTER JR.: They are beautiful people. They've been here as long as I've known this place.
SULLIVAN: But he says he kind of likes the new people, too, and he wasn't sure he would. He says he likes that they sweep their stoops, just like his grandma did.
FOSTER JR.: The people are still good. People are still good.
SULLIVAN: Two months ago, city officials announced a new retail apartment complex was coming to this street corner. Murry's will be closing. In its place will be a Whole Foods. Bobby Foster says he just hopes Whole Foods puts a bench out front.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.
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FOSTER JR.: You’re listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.