Bekah S. McNeel

Nothing pours cold water on stories of urban renaissance like the word “gentrification.” Amid an energized conversation on renovation and new businesses, someone drops the line, “Yeah, that neighborhood’s experiencing a lot of gentrification.” Everyone else pauses, unsure how to respond, because it’s not always clear what people intend to accomplish by playing “the g-card.”

Sometimes it’s the latest card in the pocket of nay-sayers who don’t like the changes they are seeing. For others, it’s a one-way ticket to discovering the next “it” neighborhood– like loving an indie band “before they were popular.” But before we play the “g-card” at the first whiff of stainless steel appliances, it might be worth a closer look at what is actually happening and who is actually affected.

The meaning(s) of gentrification

Gentrification refers to any movement of a higher socio-economic group into a less affluent neighborhood, resulting in marked changes in the local culture. If it sounds hard to measure, that’s because it is. It’s hard to know what to look for, and harder to quantify the evidence. Change manifests in different ways in different places.

new house contrasts house that needs work on Dignowty Hill
Many homes on Dignowity Hill, though right next to each other, seem to be from different worlds – one of many complex signals of gentrification. Photo by Iris Dimmick

Depending on who’s telling it, the story of gentrification can be told as a tragedy, a comedy, or a hero story. The tragedy tells tales of lost neighborhood icons, displaced families, and class warfare. The comedy tells of hapless yuppies trying to adapt to ‘hood culture until the bistro and the coffee shop open. The hero story tells of crime rates dropping as brave individuals moving into blighted neighborhoods and restoring the housing stock to it’s former glory…via IKEA, on occasion.

It’s important that we hear a variety of stories on the topic. In my neighborhood, Dignowity Hill,  there’s no shortage of storytellers.

Dignowity Hill is more on the front end of the gentrification process than places like U-Street in Washington DC or Brooklyn in New York City. Thanks to Alamo Brewery, and recently winning Texas Public Radio’s Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper! contest, we’re not lacking attention, but the neighborhood is still home to more stray dogs than restaurants. We are hoping to catch on early enough in the process to get it right.

Why gentrification happens: Urbanophilia (the desire to live, work, play, and purchase in a city center)

Urbanophilia is leading people back to inner cities across the country. In neighborhoods where gentrification has made headlines, the most common factors are proximity to an urban core and unique housing stock.

Capitol Hill, in Washington D.C. has changed drastically as educated professionals working in the district decide not to brave the nightmarish commute from Virginia and Maryland. If Mayor Castro’s dreams for downtown do indeed take flight, we can expect to see a similar influx of people who don’t want to live in their cars for 10 hours a week.

In 1900’s Harlem, ill-timed speculative development left the neighborhood with excesses of stately homes intended for the middle class. These houses and their location are credited with bringing about Harlem’s “second renaissance.” The history of Dignowity Hill affords similar advantages, with 42% of the housing stock being built prior to 1940. When we spotted the delicate inlayed wood flooring in our 1890’s entry hall, we knew we’d never find that in a new home, much less one in our price range.

The floor that won our hearts.

Price range is a huge factor driving the youngest professionals and creative class into a neighborhood and beginning it’s transitional stage.  Sylvie Shurgot, the resident expert on Dignowity Hill real estate shared these housing statistics with me. While far from being King William or Lavaca, they do show movement in the neighborhood:

Selling prices/sq.ft





All- Historic Dist.





All- Hist & non-historic district





Rehabbed Historic District





Non-rehabbed Historic Dist.





Non-rehabbed Historic Dist. and non-historic





Rising selling prices lead us to our next point.

Why gentrification scares people: displacement

It is possible to read selectively and conclude that within five years of the first hipster resident, that there will not be a single minority left in the neighborhood.

But is that the reality?

Researcher Lance Freeman found that original inhabitants were statistically more likely to stay as the neighborhood gentrified, because they liked the increased amenities and safety. The fear of displacement, however, was prevalent. Spooking and speculating might be more traumatic than the reality will ever be, which is why neighborhoods must openly communicate and stay informed on the realities of rising taxes and rents.

In some highly developed cases, rising taxes can lead residents to move to more affordable areas. Neighborhood and city

Juan Garcia, President of Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association, keeps tabs on changes in the neighborhood. Photo by Iris Dimmick

leaders think that this is far from imminent in Dignowity Hill, and that for now a broader tax base will be a boon to the neighborhood, which is part of a Tax Income Reinvestment Zone.  The state has also taken steps to alleviate future pressures, such as capping taxes for the elderly.

Perhaps the most vulnerable to displacement are those who rent their homes. Landlords looking to cash in on the increased demand are likely to raise rents. This will be hard to monitor in Dignowity Hill, where the percentage of renter-occupied houses in 2000 was 48% and turnover is high.  According to administrators at Bowden Elementary, one of their chief hurdles is the mobility rate of area families. In our short two years on the block, we have watched families with school-aged children rotate out of the rental property across the street approximately every six months; and that’s without rent increases. This problem predates any gentrification in the area; however if we are making steps, it should be in the direction of permanence.

To play or not to play? The dilemma of the g-card.

Here’s the quandry: if we don’t reintegrate, we have a problem. The higher incomes cloister off in their neighborhoods with their abundant police patrols and nice sidewalks. The lower-income neighborhoods have to fight for every foot of sidewalk and only see the police when the sirens are flashing. If businesses don’t

Renovations leads to increased home values

invest, and people do not move into the empty houses with the means and desire to repair and maintain them then the neighborhood struggles, in spite of its rich heritage and culture.

On the other hand, occupied and maintained houses raise the value of the other houses on the block. Which raises their taxes. When businesses invest, other businesses spawn and the area improves. And the rent goes up.

The demographics of the neighborhood might change due to the natural turnover of homes and increased demand from middle class buyers.  Some longtime residents might not be able to resist the profit on selling their house at the gentrified premium. However, to paint these changes with a broadly negative brush is simplistic at best. All neighborhoods change in one direction or another over time, and most people make economically motivated decisions at some point.

A better question is this:  is it possible to mitigate the most harmful effects of gentrification, even while we maximize the benefits?

Community activism, according to the research, as well as my neighbors, seems to be the closest thing to a panacea for the potential ailments of gentrification. Knowing what residents of the neighborhood want to see should be a high priority for newcomers, businesses, and city officials.

The next article in this series will explore that idea more with help from a cross section of my most active neighbors.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey as an International Travel Consultant. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.