Gentrification: The process by which high income households displace lower-income residents of a neighborhood, changing the essential character of the neighborhood -Reiko Hillyer, class outline of Constructing the American Landscape, Lewis & Clark College
In order to understand the modern phenomenon of gentrification, one needs to first understand the history of these neighborhoods, before the gentrifiers arrived. Gentrification is only profitable when there is a “rent gap”—property values have to be low enough that one can still make a profit after the cost of renovation and mortgage are accounted for. Low property values are no accident or “natural” occurrence—they are the result of decades of conscious choices to sort out people by race and then disinvest from non-white neighborhoods.
Public policies, on the federal and city level, aided in creating and justifying racist real estate practices, including directed opportunity, municipal ordinances, restrictive covenants, and redlining. Restricted covenants are agreements between all parties involved in real estate that disallowed them from selling to non-white people. Redlining makes it financially rational to segregate because it devalues non-white, heterogeneous, mixed use, and older areas. New Deal programs, such as the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Home Owners Loan Corporation, were crucial to this type of systematic segregation and devaluation of non-white neighborhoods. The FHA surveyed American cities and graded them according their racist metrics (higher grades were given to newer, racially homogenous and white neighborhoods). These grades were then used by HOLC to give loans only to people who seeked home ownership in these exclusive areas. The residents living in poorly graded areas were unable to own their houses, a major form of capital in the United States. This led to “absentee landlordism,” a situation in which the building’s owner does not live in the neighborhood and is notorious for poorly maintaining their buildings.
In addition to this, gentrification is closely associated with cultural amenities and aesthetics, the purview of an urban creative class. One of the most visible attributes of gentrification is the expansion of the boutiques, hip restaurants, independent cafés, and other retailing; these sites offer a location of conspicuous consumption for the gentrifiers to claim social status. (Beauregard 1986, 41-47) While some scholars have criticized a reductive focus on the visible side of gentrification, (Smith and Williams 1986, 3) changes in consumption patterns and sites play a role even within a structural model of gentrification, where the rent gap, deindustrialization, and the nature of capital predominate. (Smith 1986, 30-32)
Trendy restaurants are a synecdoche of gentrification; these restaurants are both part of gentrification and provide a reflection for this process as a whole. These trendy restaurants are a segment of the capital reinvestment characterizing the profitable exploitation of a rent gap; they act as a signal to gentrifiers that an area is gentrified; and they follow the gentrifiers, a lucrative consumer base.