Shifting a Timeline—A Review of “The Misunderstood History of Gentrification”

Gale, Dennis. The Misunderstood History of Gentrification: People, Planning, Preservation, Urban Renewal, 1915-2020. Temple University Press, 2021.

Reviewed by David J. Goodwin

Gentrification entered the scholarly discourse on cities in 1964 with London: Aspects of Change, Ruth Glass’s study regarding the influx of middle-income residents moving into historically working-class London neighborhoods and the gradual transformation of the socio-economic profiles and the built environment of those areas. Simply put, the newcomers—the gentry—initiated rising housing costs and displaced long-term, less affluent populations. Academics, journalists, and commentators point to a similar phenomenon that began reshaping certain American urban neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s. With the resurgence of coastal and globalized cities in the United States throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, gentrification entered the popular lexicon.

But what if this established narrative of gentrification is inaccurate? In his recent book, The Misunderstood History of Gentrification: People, Planning, Preservation, Urban Renewal, 1915-2020, Dennis Gale contends that gentrification as a process of neighborhood change first occurred in older northeastern city neighborhoods as early as the 1910s and 1920s. Gale classifies this stage of the larger phenomenon as “embryonic gentrification.” Shifting the timeline of the dominant gentrification model to an earlier period also potentially alters the accepted understanding of urban policy and history in the immediate decades following World War II and the standard negative characterizations of gentrifiers.

Three in-depth case studies anchor the book’s central thesis: Georgetown in Washington, DC, Greenwich Village in New York City, and Beacon Hill in Boston. Varying levels of decline marked these once fashionable neighborhoods in the first decades of the twentieth century. Often drawn by the respective areas’ faded architecture, bohemian culture, and/or association with historic elites, educated—though not necessarily affluent—individuals began settling in these locales, investing in their property, and working to preserve their established physical character through sweat equity and civic engagement. In each instance, this contributed to the conversion of existing housing stock to appeal to middle- and upper-class renters and buyers and accompanied a decrease of immigrant, minority, and impoverished populations. Rich in historical detail and analysis, these studies effectively chronicle the transformation of the highlighted neighborhoods while presenting a persuasive case for reconsidering the origin and parameters of gentrification.

Although thoroughly researched and well written, the remainder of the book lacks similarly challenging scholarship. Gale argues that the successes of embryonic gentrification—that is, adaptive reuse and rehabilitation of the urban fabric by individual homeowners and small-scale investors—led to it becoming the preferred urban investment model following the postwar failures of large-scale urban redevelopment and the retreat of the federal government from cities in the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, Gale does not undertake a granular historical examination comparable to those in the aforementioned case studies. Closely examining the evolving economic and housing development policies of select cities or the responses of specific municipal leadership to federal legislation and programs might have better supported the book’s central thesis.  

A small cul-de-sac community, Patchin Place was popular with authors and intellectuals during Greenwich Village’s “embryonic” gentrification in the early decades of the twentieth century. Berenice Abbott, “Patchin Place, Manhattan,” (1936), The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

A significant thread stitched throughout The Misunderstood History of Gentrification is the importance and value of place. Many buildings and public spaces located in these three neighborhoods were architecturally intriguing, elegantly designed, and humanly scaled. They exuded an irreproducible element, an aura, for the first gentrifiers. They inspired historic preservation and propelled protective zoning. They instilled a sense of pride and engendered community. Simply put, they were worth caring about. This chapter in gentrification history (or embryonic gentrification as defined by Gale) might offer a lesson for today’s struggling cities: the past in its physical form might hold the materials for future rejuvenation. The questions will be how to ensure that both new and established residents benefit from such renewal and how to build new spaces meriting veneration equal to those of previous eras.


David J. Goodwin is the Assistant Director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University and a Wertheim Study resident at the New York Public Library. Currently, he is working on a book on the author H. P. Lovecraft. He blogs at anothertownonthehudson.com and tweets @DavidJHudsonJC.

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Featured image (at top): The wrought-iron railing of a Beacon Hill building. Such details and craftsmanship attracted many of the first newcomers to the Boston neighborhood between 1915 and 1945. Frank Cousins, “Boston. Massachusetts. Wrought-Iron Rail, 39 Chestnut Street” (ca. 1890–1920), Digital Commonwealth (CC BY-NC-ND).

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