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Photo via City Observatory
Photo via City Observatory

Gentrification is almost a dirty word in this modern world, basically implying that a neighborhood has lost its charm and diversity, giving way to cookie-cutter condos and Starbucks.

In other words, Fred Armisen would call it “over.”

If the sight of Seattle’s bungalows and old bowling alleys and theaters being torn down to make way for condos makes you immediately go for the G-word, this new study by Portland, Ore.-based think tank City Observatory might make you pause. According to their data, there hasn’t been much evidence of gentrification in Seattle. Instead, the “persistence and spread of concentrated poverty” is the real issue in urban areas.

They show that the concentration of poverty is growing in urban areas and gentrification is rarer than perceived. Their study of America’s poorest urban neighborhoods areas over four decades reveals:

  • The number of poor living in high-poverty neighborhoods has more than doubled, from 2 million to 4 million.
  • The number of high-poverty neighborhoods has nearly tripled, from 1,100 to 3,100.
  • Three-quarters of 1970 high-poverty urban neighborhoods in the U.S. are still poor today.
  • Three times as many urban neighborhoods have poverty rates exceeding 30 percent as was true in 1970 and the number of poor people living in these neighborhoods has doubled.

In short, the poor are being increasingly segregated into poor neighborhoods, where their problems, like access to jobs, decent schools and other resources, continue to be obstacles to climbing out of the poverty cycle.

“It is impossible to talk about population change in low-income neighborhoods without raising concerns about gentrification,” the study says. Major cities, like New York and Chicago (probably one of the most purposely segregated places on the planet), have long been going through this process, “the magnitude of change has been large, and conflicts palpable.”

The study considered a neighborhood “gentrified” if it started out in 1970 with at least a 30 percent of its residents at or below the poverty rate, and that rate came down to 15 percent by 2010. Apparently, no neighborhood in Seattle met that criteria, though they did show that popular neighborhoods Ballard and Capitol Hill have “experienced displacement” with declines in residents at the poverty level. Ballard had 16 percent at/below poverty level in 1970 to 9 percent today; Capitol Hill 19 percent to 12 percent, respectively. Belltown’s 29 percent poverty rate fell to 12 percent by 2010, making it the closest truly “gentrified” neighborhood in Seattle.

Don’t pat yourself on the back yet, Seattle. According to the study’s data, many parts of downtown hover around a 40 percent poverty level, an increase of 10 percent or more depending on the neighborhood, over 1970 levels.

Despite the economics, when a neighborhood pushes out its middle and working class, which Seattle neighborhoods are doing, it pretty much kills the diversity. And diversity is essential for a lively, dynamic city.

Of course, maybe you think you need another high-rise condo building or coffeehouse in your neighborhood. As the Seattle Times Gene Balk writes, “Because let’s face it — is it really gentrification when an art-house cinema gets pushed out of the neighborhood?” Perhaps officially not. But it is a sign of a diverse, creative class being pushed out. And that creates a neighborhood of the same-old, same-old, which is a boring place indeed.


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