First coined in the 1960s by sociologist Ruth Glass, the term gentrification has proven to be important in the scholarship and popular discussion of urban development. In her 1964 book London: Aspects of Change, Glass uses gentrification to describe a shift she observed in many London neighborhoods in which middle-class people began moving into traditionally working-class areas.
She noted that once started, gentrification can progress “rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.” As gentrification spread to other cities around the world, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, the term also surged in use to describe these urban transformations.
Gentrification finds its etymological roots in the term gentry, or more specifically, landed gentry, a British social class of wealthy landowners who lived off their land by collecting rent from tenant farmers in cash or as a portion of the produce. The landowners also acted as local magistrates and as the caretakers of their tenants.
Glass observed that although the middle class were “uplifting” the status and condition of previously run-down residential areas, gentrification was not a simple issue by any means. The displacement of poorer families and small businesses and the disappearance of their local culture and history were among the problematic outcomes of gentrification from the outset, and this continues to be a major point of debate today. So much so, that among some critics of gentrification the term is viewed as a code word for the destructive removal of the poor in urban neighborhoods. In light of this cultural history, it is important to keep the various connotations attached to gentrification’s meaning in mind when using the term.