It’s not all coffee shops and hipsters: what we get wrong about gentrification

On a trip to Mexico City, a bus tour whisks me through neighborhoods filled with trendy cafes, sophisticated wine bars, and fashionable twentysomethings. Starbucks stores are surprisingly abundant. When I ask my Spanish teacher about these areas, he rolls his eyes and rubs his thumb and index finger together, which is a universal sign for being overpriced and populated by unpleasant individuals.

Although I am a gentrification researcher, anyone can read these signs and immediately understand what is occurring here. Everywhere you go, gentrification feels, sounds, and looks the same: young hipsters transforming neighborhoods according to an astonishingly uniform global code of taste and style.

The story we tell ourselves about the changing face of our inner-city neighborhoods, however plausible it may feel, is far too simplistic. Vilifying the signs of gentrification fails to get to the root of the problem – and trust me, it’s not as simple as pour-over coffee – and lacks any useful ideas to combat the larger forces at work that have brought artisanal doughnuts to your community.

It is true that we can identify gentrification through specific consumption styles and locations. This has been the case since the 1960s, when north Londoners first noticed and dubbed a neighborhood “on the rise.” Since then, the tastes of gentrifiers, from what they wear to what they eat, have been the subject of interminable discussion. Their preferences have been viewed as portents of doom for working-class and minority communities in cities across the globe.

Targets are websites that seem to embody these changes. East London’s defunct Cereal Killer cafe is one such example. The provider of overpriced breakfast grains was targeted by protesters, vandals, and graffiti writers who warned of a gentrifier takeover as a symbol of everything that had gone wrong or could go wrong in this low-income, predominantly minority ethnic community. We despise these locations and their oblivious proprietors. In the end, they gave a face to a seemingly insurmountable problem caused by remote forces.

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