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Gentrification

Updated Wednesday, 26th March 2008

The process of gentrification - as explored in Marseille - is a common one in Western cities. Sophie Watson explores how rough neighbourhoods become magnets for the wealthy.

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The interview with the Samuel Bordreuil raises important issues about the question of gentrification as it applies to the case of Marseille.

The term gentrification was coined to describe an urban phenomenon that was identified in many Western cities, particularly in the US and Britain from the mid 1960s. This is a phenomenon in which low cost and physically dilapidated neighbourhoods undergo physical renovation and an increase in property values, along with an influx of wealthier residents who gradually displace the prior residents who can no longer afford to live there.

There are two major explanations proposed to explain this process. One views gentrification in terms of the emergence of a growing ‘rent gap’ (referred to in the interview) between the value of the property on the site and the underlying value of the land. As people moved to the suburbs, inner city properties became less and less valuable, but the sites on which they stood were potentially very valuable. Developers, real estate agents and financial institutions thus spotted the potential for making profit.

The other explanation sees the gentrifiers themselves as the key players. Here the argument is that in the shift from an industrial to a post industrial society there were associated shifts in class structure leading to a growing number of middle class households with changing cultural tastes, consumption practices and social relations. For these households, the desire to live in the inner city where cheap houses could be bought and renovated to their own tastes fuelled gentrification.

In the case of Marseille, Samuel Bordrevil describes the importance of the Rue de la Republique as a street in the centre of the city where there has been a long tradition of people of different ethnicities, students, artists and even some wealthy people living side by side.

This mix of people was not destroyed by the usual processes of gentrification. In his account the landed gentry in the 19th century opened up the street into a grand boulevard as conceived by Haussman - which were very successful in Paris, with the expectation that the rich, who lived in the South part of the city near the port, would move there.

However, the rich never did arrive despite the city’s expansion northwards away from the port. Instead the street was filled with a mix of people, including people from different ethnic backgrounds, and so it has remained. As he puts it- this was viewed as failure by those who had hoped for something different to happen – those from ‘above’ and a success from those who wanted the street to remain a mixed space where different groups lived side by side.

 

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