Sharon Zukin is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Loft Living , Landscapes of Power (winner of the C. Wright Mills Award), The Cultures of Cities , and Point of Purchase. Zukin received the C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems for Landscapes of Power, and the Robert and Helen Lynd Award for Career Achievement in Urban Sociology from the Community and Urban Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association. She holds a PhD from Columbia University and lives in New York City.
Question: How has the rate of gentrification increased in recent years?
Sharon Zukin: Well gentrification reached a turning point in the 1980s. I think it began in Jane Jacob’s time in the 1950s and early 1960s in cities like New York and London and other big cities of the world and then slowly attracted more and more people until gentrification reached a turning point in the 1980s and then it was all over the media. And then there were actually neighborhoods that were marketed not as outposts of difference but as places where middle-class families could safely reside and find the cheese and the dog equipment and the baby strollers and all the things that a fairly young middle-class family would want in the city except for the sterile atmosphere that was associated with the suburbs. So from the 1980s to the past couple of years gentrification really reached a crescendo and one neighborhood after another, so many cities toppled from what it had been as a working-class neighborhood, often a neighborhood for people of color or a mixed neighborhood but definitely a low-income, low rent, low key kind of place; one after another these areas became gentrified neighborhoods and hot residential markets. It isn’t until the recession of the past couple of years that there’s been a slowing maybe not a slowing of gentrification but a slowing of the new building that followed gentrification.
Question: Does gentrification function linearly or is it more of a cycle?
Sharon Zukin: Well cities do go through cycles. I don’t like think of them as cycles because that predicts that there’s going to be an end in an opposite direction from whatever we’re living through now but we should not forget that decades before the height of gentrification were decades of urban impoverishment when middle-class people moved out of cities. When businesses moved away from cities. When the urban population became poorer, less white, more discriminated against and cities represented decline not growth. So I’m not going to say that a period of growth is going to be followed by a cycle of something complete different, which will be followed by another period of growth at all. We don’t know what the future will hold but I think that the density of population in cities and the density of economic activities in cities have always been able to spark a regeneration of labor markets and then capital investment and that’s what you need to make a city vibrant. And you know that’s part of the authenticity of cities too, one side of authenticity is old and original but the other side is new and creative and it’s important for cities to encourage and sustain the initiatives that new residents develop. I hope that those new initiatives would remain small because it think it’s the small businesses, the street vendors, the little restaurants, the new services that people develop to serve people in their neighborhoods, I think it’s those places that provide the best chance for a city to grow on its own without any artificial kind of program.