Editor’s Introduction: Gentrification

[1] Gentrification is a word that was relatively foreign to my vocabulary before moving to Chicago and beginning seminary. Growing up in small towns and suburbs the conversations surrounding housing issues, when they occur, are often “us and them” conversations. Or better yet, “here and there” conversations. It can be quite easy to live in a suburban development and never see or think about housing inequality. Upon beginning my studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) I was immersed into a zealous social justice oriented atmosphere. Housing inequality in the neighborhoods surrounding LSTC specifically and the city of Chicago in general is something that most people acknowledge, but see as too large or systemic to counteract. Still other issues, such as gentrification, are so nebulous that it seems easy to find but difficult to properly define. Gentrification is one small aspect of the housing equality and social responsibility discussions, and will be the focus of this month’s issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. The topic of “Gentrification and Faith” is pursued this month because it seems to be a chimera; people are often quick to identify areas as gentrifying but when it comes to identifying related data, the numbers often either tell a different story, or describe a trend that has already taken place.

[2] Touring the city of Chicago, it is not difficult to find housing inequality. There are drastic comparisons, such as the man who sleeps under the Metra bridge at 55th Street and Lake Park Avenue while lakefront condos three blocks away have a market price of over $750,000.[1] There are geographical comparisons, such as the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago where the median household income in 2013 was $24,466 less than the city wide median[2] and $59,966 less than the median household income in the Lakeview neighborhood.[3] Then there are other physical comparisons such as the shining manicured high rises in the Loop and the single family bungalows of south side neighborhoods dotted with empty lots.

[3] As part of the Public Church course first year students at LSTC complete in their first semester, several other students and I participated in an overnight immersion at Reformation Lutheran Church in the Roseland-Pullman neighborhood of Chicago. It was here that I was first struck with strong disparities in housing equality. The pastor at Reformation shared numbers with the group, but the bigger impact was experienced in the tour of the community, a neighborhood which he described as, “embattled yet striving.”[4] In the weeks that followed, I found that it was quite easy to support housing equality, fair access to healthy and safe living conditions and to rally against other apparent disparities such as the vast food deserts and lack of a living wage in many Chicago neighborhoods. With this reflection came also the realization that I, a young white male from a middle class family, living in a neighborhood essentially owned and controlled by the University of Chicago, may be passively contributing to housing inequality in the city of Chicago.

[4] Gentrification has become the most common (and quite buzzworthy) word to describe any neighborhood to which upwardly mobile, predominantly euro-american, young adults flock. As the new demographic begins moving into the neighborhood, they are accompanied by shops and businesses to support the way of life they are accustomed to. As the neighborhood begins “revitalizing,” rent increases dramatically and the previous residents can no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods where they have built their lives. At least this is the perception. I have heard anecdotal evidence first hand to support this claim from neighborhoods which are perceived to be in the process of gentrification, but without easily accessible data, it is hard to say definitively what gentrification is, where it is happening, and what the possible reactions there are to this trend. Additionally, most of the data currently available in studies identifies areas that have already experienced gentrification, and not those which are in the midst of gentrifying. Further other studies, such as one discussed in The Observer, have claimed that displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City is not as severe as in other neighborhoods of low economic standing.[5] Similar results were found in a study dealing with Boston neighborhoods. While the statistics may seem to prove one set of assertions, they cannot invalidate the narrative of a neighborhood and the stories of those living through the changes.

[5] The general argument also says that gentrification displaces people of color disproportionately. If this narrative stands true, then gentrification can be seen as the reverse of white flight. In the 1950’s and 60’s whites flooded out of many Chicago neighborhoods and began moving to the suburbs. This trend was supported both implicitly and explicitly by federal, state and local governments, as well as by the real estate sector.[6] Now in communities like Humboldt Park the white housing wave that receded so swiftly in the 50’s and 60’s is swelling again. An ethnic chronology of Humboldt Park on Wikipedia states that the community is now inhabited by “2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation white gentrifiers.”[7] This information is given without citation. While this information is potentially baseless, it illustrates an important point that can make social and anthropological research difficult. Oftentimes numbers and anecdotal information tell two different stories. When the sets of information agree, there is little problem. When statistics and anecdotes disagree, one set cannot be simply dismissed; numbers can be skewed and the narrative of a community has truth in that community, whether it is completely factual or not. On the other hand, narratives can also be crafted by those in power and numbers can be influenced to support that influence. Additionally, with trends such as gentrification, the numbers and the narrative can feed each other as they grow concurrently. As illustrated below, a collective narrative saying that a community is beginning to gentrify can be enough to cause landlords to raise prices.

[6] In a conversation with friends who live in Humboldt Park, I was told that a landlord was trying to raise rent by $250. The tenant had been there for several years and had made many upgrades and renovations to the apartment without asking for reimbursement. From all accounts he has been an exemplary tenant. Knowing that this extra rent would be a burden, he has been considering moving. Does this action on the part of the landlord reflect active gentrification, or is a narrative of gentrification in the neighborhood all that is needed to begin raising rent and potentially force displacement?

[7] In this issue, the JLE will look at the issue of gentrification from three distinct but related vantage points. Dr. Steve Holland, professor of business and economics at Luther College presents an essay laying a foundation for a discussion concerning gentrification; discussing the social and economic implications, as well as providing an exposition of the issue. Pastor Karen Brau and Bianca Vasquez, serving at Luther Place in Washington D.C., write a praxis based article discussing their congregation’s actions serving and ministering to a community in the midst of gentrification. As part of this dialogue, all of the authors have been asked to begin by providing their own working definition of gentrification.

[8] For me, this conversation began a year ago when I began my studies at LSTC, and was further developed during my internship at the ELCA Churchwide Organization in Chicago. I would like to thank my mentors and colleagues who have assisted me in this process, Interim Editor Carmelo Santos, Director for Theological Ethics at the ELCA, Roger Willer, and Editorial Assistant Heather Dean. I would also like to thank the authors for their contributions to this issue of the JLE and I hope that this issue brings you into conversation with others.


[1] “60615 Real Estate – 520 Homes For Sale,” Zillow, accessed September 15, 2015, http://www.zillow.com/homes/60615_rb/?fromHomePage=true.

[2] “Englewood Neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois (IL), 60621 Detailed Profile,” City-Data.com, accessed September 15, 2015, http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Englewood-Chicago-IL.html. The reported median household income for the city of Chicago in 2013 was reported to be $47,099.

[3] “Lakeview (Wrigleyville) Neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois (IL), 60613, 60657 Detailed Profile,” accessed September 15, 2015, http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Lakeview-Chicago-IL.html.

[4] Pastor Joel Washington (Khunanpu Sangoma), Public Church Immersion at Reformation Lutheran Church, September 12, 2014.

[5] Lisa Chamberlain, “Exploding the Gentrification Myth: Columbia Prof’s Surprising Findings,” Observer, accessed October 30, 2015, http://observer.com/2003/11/exploding-the-gentrification-myth-columbia-profs-surprising-findings/.

[6] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/.

[7] “Humboldt Park, Chicago,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, September 22, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Humboldt_Park,_Chicago&oldid=682180392.

Patrick Freund

Patrick Freund is a second year M.Div. student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and served as the Theological Discernment Team Intern during summer 2015. He currently resides in Tübingen, Germany, where he is completing a semester exchange at the Evangelisches Stift.