The Case for Black Gentrification: Lessons from Brickton, Philadelphia

Much of the discourse around gentrification centers on the displacement (or replacement) of low income people of color with white, middle to upper income gentrifiers. Rents increase, coffee shops and pet stores appear and long time residents are pushed out – either because we can no longer afford to live there or because we no longer see ourselves reflected and are too through with being imposed upon by white culture.

This article seeks to move past the usual positions of Black versus white, the conquered versus the conqueror and place Black people in a more active position within the discourse. The question facing many community organizers attempting to do anti-gentrification work is how to better their community without attracting gentrifiers that will eventually make it difficult for them to live there. Historically, governments in the US invest in neighborhoods deemed blighted only if they want to pursue urban renewal (aka negro removal) plans that will economically stimulate the city or once “pioneer” gentrifiers move in.

Revitalization in American cities, almost always leads to the displacement of Blacks by whites. This sends the message to communities of color interested in maintaining the cultural integrity of their neighborhoods that the only way to better the neighborhood is to attract white residents. Is it possible to revitalize a neighborhood of color in a way that is sustainable for the residents who live there? How can communities of color evolve without ultimately being replaced?

Black Gentrification

Based on field research done in Brickton, Philadelphia, Kesha Moore in, Gentrification in Black Face? The Return of the Black Middle Class to Urban Neighborhoods, marks the distinction between Black gentrification and white gentrification as motivation. Gentrification led by Black middle income residents has a social justice motivation based on the residents’ experiences of racial exclusion and an explicit desire for racial solidarity. Unlike traditional gentrification, the out-come of neighborhood change is not the creation of a wealthy neighborhood to replace a lower-income community (Moore, 2009).

The 2000 census revealed Brickton to be 92% Black, well above the city average of 44% (Moore, 2009). With hardly any white people, Brickton is unique in that it’s an intentionally racially homogenous yet economically integrated (Moore, 2009). This was not accidental. Activists and organizers in Brickton refer to pre civil rights era, forced segregation as their model for neighborhood development. Integrationist narratives as well as historical patterns of governmental investment in gentrifying neighborhoods, dictate that the presence of whiteness is what makes for a “good” neighborhood – by investing in their community and living alongside low income residents rather than trying to price them out, residents actively subvert this narrative.

Strategies from Brickton:

  1. Middle class, Black residents actively recruit other middle class, Black residents to move into the neighborhood drawing on shared experiences of racial discrimination in residential neighborhoods and the “ethos of racial uplift” (Moore, 2009). Residents move in because they want to “give back” and invest in a Black community.
  2. Middle to upper income residents who can afford a more expensive neighborhood, make the choice to remain in the community.
  3. Add middle and upper income Black residents to the neighborhood without promoting the displacement of current low income residents. Encouraging asset accumulation (e.g., homeownership, entrepreneurship) amongst low-income residents is considered critical component of community development and a crucial step towards creating an “economically and politically powerful Black neighborhood” (Moore, 2009).

What does this mean for Brooklyn?

It may be time to shift the conversation and redirect our focus. The gentrification discussion has become stale, we’ve become bitter, and meanwhile more and more Black people are being forced out of Brooklyn. Brickton is what happens when Black people come together and actively address the needs of our community. The work doesn’t have to be anti-change, anti-development, or even anti-white. But it can and should be pro-neighborhood improvement, pro-strategizing and organizing, and absolutely pro-Black. Rather than seeing ourselves as victims, let’s change the narrative and see ourselves as organizers, capable of intentionally strengthening our neighborhood for ourselves and future generations. And for those of us in the middle class, let’s drop the guilt and start using our class privilege to figure out ways to invest energy and resources into our community.


Work Cited: Moore, K. S. (2009). Gentrification in black face?: The return of the black middle class to urban neighborhoods. Urban Geography, 30(2), 118-142.

Marly is a graduate student studying Urban Planning at Hunter College and a full time mommy to BMC’s junior employee, Sekani. Prior to coming to BMC, Marly served as the Social Media Marketing intern for PCI Media Impact and a member of the Coordinating Committee for the Malcolm X Grassroots MovementShe has a background in advocacy and social justice work and has done communications work for PCI Media Impact and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. A love of international travel coupled with a slight scatterbrain has caused Marly to lose 4 passports within 4 years. She is now on a Department of State red list.
  • Kay Hart

    Great piece, recently in my area of Crown Heights several houses about five (5) in all were up for sale. There were two young families who were renting in the area and wanted to stay in but the pricing on the houses made it cost-prohibitive for them to be able to do so. A neighborhood where their children had grown and the parents had access to known and available baby sitters was no longer accessible to them. They need to move and tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to buy into the neighborhood, and they can be considered “middle class”. It was easier for them to qualify to rent a 3 bedroom duplex apt for $3000; totally insane and obscene, than have a mortgage on a home for the same amount or less. One couple left for the Southern states another moved to the outskirts of East New York. Both families would have loved to invest in the neighborhood.
    So I am wondering how is it possible for the people of Brickton to be able to woo other Black people into the neighborhood.What are the prices like? How many hoops do they have to jump through to get a mortgage? I would love to have this type of community involvement in my area but I don’t think the will to organize or the eagerness to expend the energy to do the work.
    I have noticed that at the block association meetings, the whites are in attendance in full force.

  • kia

    well poc have to pull together period as two families in one unit etc.

  • LLroomtempJ

    interesting idea. even though gentrification usually looks white, i’ve always viewed it as class-based. It just so happens that race and class are highly correlated.

    I feel like several majority black neighborhoods in brooklyn have the income diversity, but they lack the “community” required for urban renewal.

    Has BMC’s junior employee written any articles yet? :o)

  • Sandra Clarke

    Great article – I live in Bed-Stuy and the same thing is happening in my neighborhood. On my block 3 brownstones were recently on the market and all 3 were purchased by Jewish people. All the buyers in Bed-stuy are Jewish and when they buy the brownstones they destroy them. They either make schools for their children are rent to only them. The banks will not give us mortgages to buy property but The Jewish people are buying all the property in the area. They changed the zoning code so they can built high rise building right next to your brownstone. The southern feel of the neighborhood is gone!!!!!!!!!!!!!. The Jewish people are rename Bed-Stuy the new Williamburg – Me personal I think it’s too late for our neighborhood – it’s seen like our politicians and Community Board Leaders has sold our neighborhood to the highest binder and that not people of color.

  • midwifetobe

    Thanks for wrting this awesome article. The conversation around gentrification is due for a new perspective. I think that the model in Brickton is progressive and smart; it is worth studying (along with others) to create models that work in other cities for communities of color. It seems communities like this one exist in NYC (some parts of Queens come to mind), although on a very small scale, and with a lack of economic diversity and community building that we need in order to sustain, and keep the massive attack of white gentrification at bay. Like other commenters stated, the financial discrimination against POC in NYC, particularly Blacks, makes it nearly impossible to invest and thrive in this city. My partner and I love NYC and would without a doubt invest in property or own a business in a Black community here, but without substantial wealth the only properties within our means are tiny apartments, and for our family of two that plans on growing in the near future, this is just not enough.

  • Marjorie

    Having left Brooklyn in the late nineteen nineties, I was pleasantly surprised, when I returned five years ago for a visit. The streets of Bed Stuy were clean! One can actually walk to a corner cafe, go to a bistro, or have a drink in a nice bar, without fear and without leaving the neighborhood. I also noticed the increased number of white faces in the hood. I started to wonder, did the changes attract the white folks or did their moving in bring upon the changes? The answers to my questions are all in your article.
    Great job!!!

  • M’Bwebe Ishangi

    Explosive piece Marly!

    Living in Brooklyn, New York, over the past few yearz the topic of gentrification has gone from a minute to full-blown and obese problem for not just Brooklynites, but domestic and even Afrikanz around the world.

    Although we got a preview of what was to come when Harlem was “whited-out”, for nearly a decade I’ve wanted to address this issue but either, like in the beginning, lacked the data to support my theories, or wondered if this was a discussion we were ready to have. Over the past 6 months I intensified my research and after the September 2013 verdict against Dominican Republic-born Afrikanz of Haitian descent, I decided to write this piece (humble plug):

    ‘The Unapologetic Quest to G.E.N.T.R.I.F.Y.: Ethnic Cleansing Through Economics’ –

    The history of New York is an intriguing one. From my research, I’ve found Afrikan people have a hidden historical significance to the development of this city (many aren’t aware that the first Black Wall Street was in fact in New York predating the one Tulsa, Oklahoma). I humbly offer this piece for further insight as well: ‘Urban Unrest – Remnants of Slavery in New York’ —

    Each one teach MANY!

    M’Bwebe Aja Ishangi
    Founder & Creator
    Da Ghetto Tymz magazine | DGTv: Conscious Webvision
    ***Celebrating 20 Yearz: 1993-2013***
    e: [email protected]

  • Gregory Carr

    Marly, I think your article really helps shift the conversation on gentrification toward what individuals, families, and communities can do to better our neighborhoods without losing their cultural vitality. As a more-recent resident of Bed-Stuy and now member of BMC’s Finance and Legal Subcommittee for the Central Brooklyn Food Coop Initiative, I hope that such a shift in our approach can draw more people to the table to build lasting institutions for the community such as food cooperatives.

  • efilyojne

    My problem with the article is that it has this “reverse segregation” slant that I think is
    detrimental to the cause against gentrification. I think the goal in any
    neighborhood should be about finding a diverse representation of
    art/culture/business/etc, otherwise eventually the utopia model breaks
    down and the dominant group starts to diminish or discriminate against
    the minority. As one of the commentators pointed out, it is more about
    class than race, yet the focus always seems to shift to race. If the
    focus moves to class, then the players are interchangeable, and it
    becomes harder to prejudge.

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  • Author Detric A. Fox-Quinlan

    Great read!

  • Mark Winston Griffith

    “Gentrification led by Black middle income residents has a social justice motivation based on the residents’ experiences of racial exclusion and an explicit desire for racial solidarity. Unlike traditional gentrification, the out-come of neighborhood change is not the creation of a wealthy neighborhood to replace a lower-income community (Moore, 2009).”

    I haven’t read the Moore piece, but the above statement belies what I’ve experienced as the “motivation” for gentrification. It is usually city planners and corporate interests who exert their will on neighborhoods, as well as the very personal, cultural and real estate interests of individual people/families moving into a neighborhood. I don’t think people move into a neighborhood and change it as a function of their”social justice” impulses. Yes, middle-class Black folks moving into a low-income area might want to be a part of a vibrant and healthy Black community, but they also change a community based on where they shop, send their children to school, how they use public transportation, where they worship, etc. And those choices and value judgements often depend on whether they are owners or rents, consumers or business owners, single or with family. Ultimately these choices are driven primarily by self interests, and those self interests are as class defined as they are racially defined.

    “Add middle and upper income Black residents to the neighborhood without promoting the displacement of current low income residents.”

    Oh, I wish it were that easy. Every time a person – regardless of income – is coming into a neighborhood, chances are someone is leaving, assuming there is a finite amount of space. And the more middle income and upper income people move into a neighborhood, the more that neighborhood is forced to accommodate that population. Property values and rents rise, different products and business spring up, different school “choices” are made.

    I agree we shouldn’t see ourselves as victims. This is the whole premise of BMC’s organizing, which positions folks to re-take their neighborhood. And we shouldn’t feel “guilty.” However, let’s not lie to ourselves and our neighbors in the process in order to feel better about the consequences of our gentrification. Many middle class Black people are derisive of low-income Black people as they are of anyone else. Each of us has a foot print, whether we like it or not, and the moving of middle class Blacks into a neighborhood has consequences, some of which includes making neighborhoods more user friendly for middle class white people.

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  • M’Bwebe Ishangi

    A Look at Gentrification from a world view
    We need to be aware of Eugenics and review the Berlin Conference of 1884! Historian, Anthony Browder noted in a recent lecture, in October 1884, twenty-five European nationz met at the instruction of 21st U.S. President Chester Arthur, to establish a new prime meridian at Greenwich, England ushering the idea of colonizing Afrika and her people. One month later, Nov 15, 1884, thirteen Euro-nationz (including the United States) met in Berlin, Germany to carve out and disperse Afrika into 5 different countries.

    We find that after 444 yearz of depopulating Afrika through enslavement and murder of hundredz of millionz of Afrikan men, women, and children, they next decided to carve up Afrika and take all the natural resources she has to offer.

    What’s startling to note is by the 15th century (the beginning of slavery), there were 780million Afrikanz living in Afrika. By 1890, the population had been reduced to 90million—some 80% depopulated in just 444 yearz!!

    That was premeditation then and so is todayz version covertly termed at gentrification…

    For more, I invite you to read my article, ‘The Unapologetic Quest to G.E.N.T.R.I.F.Y.: Ethnic Cleansing Through Economics’

    Each one teach MANY!

    M’Bwebe Aja Ishangi
    Founder & Creator
    Da Ghetto Tymz magazine | DGTv: Conscious Webvision
    ***Celebrating 21 Yearz: 1993-2014***
    e: [email protected]

    • Orlando coombs

      As for depopulation, they way off the mark. Cause africa has 1 billion and rising. And it’s the fastest growing middle class in the world.

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  • Orlando coombs

    Absolutely wonderful. I love it, I absolutely love it. We don’t have to integrate nor do we need the pushed out of our neighborhoods. We can build a strong power base where we’re at. Give it up for Brockton.