American Gentrification, 1832

We hear a lot about gentrification these days, but it’s nothing new. In fact the whole nation’s whole history is one of gentrification*: the movement of white people into “rundown” or “neglected” areas already populated by people of color, and remaking the land in their “civilized image.”**

But this makes it sound instantaneous, when it was actually a whole process. Here’s how it went down, according to someone who was there.

First, poor immigrants, typically poor Scots-Irish and Germans priced out of cities, pushed into the frontier, setting up squalid outposts, clearing small parcels of land and planting scant gardens for their families. They were kind of like canaries in a coal mine: making sure the area was fit for survival, that the soil was ripe and that Indians wouldn’t murder them. But once they’d shown all of this this to be true, they were pushed out by wealthier people. And it’s here that the true transformation happens: the gentry move into this harsh terrain and soften it to meet their rarified standards.**

As Author Zachariah Allen noted in his 1832 work, The Practical Tourist:

Increasing wealth in cattle and in improved lands, in barns and storehouses, gradually accumulates around the now comfortable lodged settler… When the neighborhood becomes occupied by other families of settlers, a storekeeper makes his appearance, and the baker’s cart, freighted with crackers and gingerbread, performs an occasional journey into the district.

Then, as commerce settles in and the population grows, “Gardens, artificial ponds, pleasure grounds; and splendid structures may in after times adorn the cultivated landscape, when the labors and privations of these pioneers are forgotten.”

Gentrification complete.


*The Roman Empire — and all empires, really — was basically gentrification, too, so a fairer statement is probably “the whole world’s history is one of gentrification.”

** Don’t let this post and the “Ultra Rich” piece give you the wrong idea: I am definitely a capitalist who loves money; I just think it’s important that capitalism/consumerism be responsible and that all participants in our Western culture knows that none of our seemingly perfect lifestyles are truly blemish free.

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