‘Gentrification’: The Birth of a Word in D.C.

This post is second in a series on gentrification in the District of Columbia.
Part 1 – D.C. Gentrification and Section 8 Subsidized Housing
Part 2 – ‘Gentrification’: The Birth of a Word in D.C.
Part 3 – Metrorail Growth and ‘Gentrification’ Use
Part 4 – Neighborhood Revitalization and Displacement

I find the term “gentrification” fascinating not only because it looms so large in contemporary discussions about American cities but also because as a word it is a relatively new invention. According to most resources I can find the word was first used in “London: Aspects of Change,” a 1964 book about London edited by sociologist Ruth Glass. Considering the recent history I began to wonder when the word came into common use here. I decided to search the text of the Washington Post and record the number of instances of the word from its first appearance through today. This is what I found:

First, a note on the data: the Proquest Historical Newspapers database I used for older mentions stops in 1990 for the Washington Post. The Proquest Newspapers index of the paper starts in 1997 and continues through the present. If there is an electronic index for the years between 1990 and 1997 I would be interested in knowing about it; I was unable to find one at the Library of Congress. Also, the number of instances for 1997 and 1998 seem lower than one might expect; I wonder if those years are incomplete.

The first instance of the word I found in the Post was in a feature story about London from March 25, 1973. The first usage of the word in the specific context of Washington was in a column by Wolf Von Eckardt, who wrote a regular column in the paper’s style section about urban issues. In a column describing the challenges that would face newly elected Mayor Marion Barry, Eckardt writes:

There is a danger that uninformed or dogmatic rhetoric will get in the way of constructive redevelopment. The current rhetoric is about “gentrification.” … Specifically, “gentrification” denotes the recent phenomenon of white middle-income people buying deteriorating old houses in the low-income areas in town and rehabilitating both the houses and the area. It is the best thing that has happened to American cities since ditches were turned into sewers.

While observing that “no doubt” this rehabilitation displaces poor families, he concludes its probably not as widespread as the city fears and overall a good trend for the city as long as “every available means of providing subsidized housing elsewhere in the region.” (Eckardt, Wolf Von. “Opportunity for a Livable City.” Washington Post, 13 January 1979, P. B1.)

Von Eckardt is responsible for many of the early uses of the word in the paper, although it also appears prominently in a 1979 William Raspberry column and a UPI story of that year. (“Gentrification Means Moving Poor, Elderly”) The first story reporting evidence confirming the trend in Washington is perhaps a 1981 article by Eugene Robinson which reports the percentage of whites in two city wards had increased noticeably since 1970. On closer inspection the evidence is less than shocking, however: Ward 6, which includes Capitol Hill, had seen its white population increase from 15 percent to 20 percent, but the total number of whites increased only by 1,300. The other ward with a percentage increase was Ward 1 where whites went from 20 percent to 23 percent, but all groups including whites saw a net loss during the period in that ward. While the process was clearly at work in specific neighborhoods, it seems clear that during the 1970s both whites and blacks continued to leave the city.

High Property ValuesFrom 1984 to 1988 the Post ran a series of articles about change in the Adams Morgan neighborhood where rapidly increasing property values seemingly threatened the neighborhood’s diversity and eclectic character. While many of the businesses have indeed closed, what is most notably about these stories is how the dire predictions of the neighborhoods impending “Georgetownization” have not panned out as citizens predicted: “All this new development will end up squeezing out the cultural diversity” and “Adams-Morgan’s days as an ethnic and income-mixed neighborhood are numbered.” Amid the general concern one article did point out the nonprofit Jubilee Housing had already by 1988 secured 300 units for low-income tenants. To me, the most interesting side of “gentrification” are the many moderating influences to rapid neighborhood revitalization including abandoned property, stubborn property owners, racism, Section 8 buildings, and nonprofit low-income housing organizations.

As shown above, since 2000 the number of mentions has soared, and as of July when I looked up this data the Post was on track to hitting a record number of usages this year – perhaps over 100. My next post in the series will begin to tackle the connection between neighborhood revitalization and the city’s Metrorail system.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. I am always confused/flustered when I hear “gentrification” used in discussion incorrectly. I find that many people use the word in the context of suburban sprawl and take advantage of its weighty and powerful meaning. This is disingenuous, at best, and at the very least, hurtful rhetoric that does little to further public discourse on true redevelopment issues. Peace blog.

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  3. Fuck all u crackers, we don’t need “Gentrification”. Won’t ya’ll crackers move the White House to Maryland and keep DC Black. How would u feel if we take u from ur homes by being up property values. Suck my dick u racist crackers. Don’t get me wrong I like some white’s but FUCK the Congress, the Courts, Bush and the next president. DC c is home of all not just u crackers!!! So try and move us out all u want!! I know one thing we won’t go out with out a fight!!!!!! etc. Bitches

  4. Yes I agree with Kevin but your goin about it the wrong way. The government is the most racist people ever and if it take another roit to bring DC back so let it be. It’s wrong for crackers to move out low income and middle class people including white low income people. Move the jobs out Maryland and find a better way to keep DC the way it was. The government can take out crime and keep DC black. That’s all I’m saying.

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