North Beacon Hill - a Gentrification Pseudo-Case Study

"Gentrification" has lost some of the cultural cache it once held. One commenter even told me she had to look up the meaning of the term...

I had the privilege (the right?) to address the Seattle City Council last month. We went to voice our opinions about the recent craziness regarding development in South Seattle (the link is to a great article the Stranger wrote about it).

Basically what's happened is we have a big empty lot that we want to build affordable housing, an open community space, a large events space/community center, and some retail/office space - and we can't, at least for another year, because some neighbors object. If you open the link to the article the first comment is mine and you can read some of my views on the issue.

I was somewhat enraged to hear about the appeal because this is one of the most incredible opportunities that I can imagine happening in a city. How often does a city have a community-oriented, non-profit organization as a developer? Of land that they own, across the street from a brand-new transit hub? In an up-and-coming, middle-income, incredibly diverse neighborhood that is less than 10 minutes from downtown? Not often, is my bet.

The most important part of El Centro's plan, in my opinion, to develop the property is affordable housing - and this is because, as a neighborhood with the characteristics I mentioned above, it is rapidly becoming gentrified. By people like me.

When you walk/bike/drive through North Beacon Hill, you can see the initial signs of gentrification immediately. Fancy new condos and apartment buildings dot the landscape every few blocks, and more are under construction (though it's been slowed by the recession, they are still being built). The rest of the neighborhood is small, one-story houses, in various stages of disrepair:

One of the most attractive aspects of Beacon Hill is its diversity; White people are a noticeable minority. I think that's what "Bayview on Beacon" is advertising: a "vibrant, growing community." All of the relevant statistics are interesting; Beacon Hill is basically just below the city average on almost all measures of affluence: median home prices, median family income, median rent, etc. Probably not for long. 

Gentrification happens in neighborhoods like Beacon Hill for obvious reasons - cheap rent, close to downtown, diversity, etc. It's not so poor that it's hard to adjust from the lifestyle you want, and not so far away from more affluent areas of the city that you can't go do the expensive things you want to do without too much trouble. I would much rather live in Beacon Hill than in a snazzy, hip neighborhood like Ballard. And that's why I moved here. I like this neighborhood.

When I spoke to the Seattle City Council, I identified myself as a gentrifier, and explained that one of the most important reasons I believe affordable housing is necessary in the new development on N. Beacon Hill is that if people like me keep moving to Beacon Hill, which we will, especially because of the new light rail station, all these condos, and if the development that El Centro de la Raza wants to do on their lot goes through, housing on Beacon Hill will no longer be affordable for the people who have lived there for years long before I came.

When, in middle-income neighborhoods, developers build condos and develop squalid properties, cities revitalize public spaces, and somewhat-to-very affluent (often White) people move in, property values go up. This inevitably pushes out the non-White, middle- and low-income original denizens of the neighborhood. That's just what happens. And it's called gentrification.

gen·tri·fi·ca·tion[jen-truh-fi-key-shuhn] –noun

1. The buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.
Well, here's the rub - this definition seems to place the onus of responsibility on these upper- or middle-income families or individuals. But because I am one of these upper- or middle-income families or individuals, I want to throw the blame because I don't want to feel guilty for what I'm doing. The chicken-or-egg question then is, which happens first - the gentrifiers moving in or the city and developers making it attractive to?

Silly question; no answer - much like the question of gentrification in general. Unless there's a contingent of folks convinced that White people move into these neighborhoods with the explicit intention of displacing poor people, what's the problem?

I recently listened to/read some of NPR's coverage of gentrification (IRONY???) and all of the normal frustrations were expressed - police/city services only seem to come to a neighborhood once White/rich people move in, the "character" of a neighborhood changes, new big box/chain stores lack the cultural component of old local stores and create a boring, "monocultural" aesthetic and, of course, poor folks are priced out of the neighborhood. What I realized is that, aside from the displacement issue, this sounds a lot like NIMBYism too, doesn't it?

What I also realized is that "gentrification," when looked at in the following way, would perhaps be better termed "neighborhood redevelopment" - it has a lot of positive aspects. More city services/policing. Cleaner streets. More business investment. Increased revenue for local businesses as a result of higher-income residents and more density overall (if these businesses aren't forced out of the area, that is). Neighborhood pride as a result of being a "destination" neighborhood (in most of the talks about developing Beacon Hill, the idea of being a "destination" neighborhood is brought up. The underriding assumption is that nobody that's not from here ever comes here, and why would they? It's probably a fair assumption).

Gentrification seems to me to be, in itself, a case-study in ethics - if you do something that you want to do without any conscious malice (move, as an affluent non-minority, to an up-and-coming neighborhood like Beacon Hill), are you responsible for the negative consequences of these actions (you help increase property values thus pushing poor people out of the neighborhood)?

Are you a gentrifier?
Is that such a bad thing?
Besides advocating for affordable housing in your neighborhood, what are you supposed to do about it?


  1. Hi Elliott,

    Interesting post. I hear you - it's unfortunate that El Centro is being held up with their plans for positive development. However, I think it would be great for you to start coming to N Beacon Hill Community Council meetings in order to learn a bit more about the neighborhood planning process. Some of the folks who are the biggest hold-ups have been around Beacon Hill for longer as you and I have been on this planet (Read: 30 years or more).

  2. Hey Anonymous,

    I would love to attend NBHC meetings, but for the last three months I have happened to be busy on those days. I wish it met more regularly. I'm going to try and make the next one!

    Thanks for the input!