Artist welding cartoon
A transgressive steel and spatula artist.

What is “gentrification?” Unsurprisingly, this is a loaded, relative term. What gentrification means and whether it’s a curse, a blessing, or a mixed blessing depends on who’s talking about it. However, a few things about gentrification are pretty evident to everyone. It really has nothing to do with “gentry” or aristocrats. In the simplest definition, gentrification is what usually happens when large numbers of people move into an area where many, if not most, of the old residents have substantially less income and fewer economic resources than the new residents. The new group tends to push out the old as properties increase in their market value and change hands. In the language of politicians, city planners, and developers, “affordable housing” (housing that poor and “lower” class people can afford) is turned into “market rate housing,” which often means housing that only upper income people can afford.

In this view there are just two kinds of people in the city: the “well-heeled” and the “down-at-the-heels.” It’s the rich versus the poor, professionals with condos versus the working class. But often things are not this simple.

For instance, some anti-gentrification anarchists in West Philadelphia were accused of aiding gentrification when they tried to buy an old YMCA building for their community in a mostly black neighborhood. One of the anarchists, James Nasti, said “Gentrification is a touchy thing because regardless of what we, a mostly white radical community, regardless of what we’re doing, all that is needed to start the ball rolling [for gentrification] is our white skin. The artists and radicals move into a neighborhood and the white faces make it safer for others to follow.”

New Urbanist architect Andres Duany and, to my knowledge, everyone else who has commented on gentrification, agrees with Nasti. It is not the iconic “rich” professional who starts the gentrification process. A study by the National Endowment for the Arts has shown that downtown gentrification in cities all over the US increases in proportion to the number of artists in the area. This trend has been observed in Milwaukee too: students, artists and other “bohemians” settle in depressed, low-rent districts and then complain about the influx of yuppies that follows them, driving the bohemians out as prices rise. But it is the artists and other bohemians themselves who set up the conditions for the process that unfolds.

Like the Philadelphia anarchists, from the perspective of the urban poor (usually minorities) and elderly people on fixed incomes, the bohemians (who tend not to be minorities) are the first wave of gentrification. Some cities, like Peekskill, New York, have even encouraged artists to settle in “blighted” areas with large numbers of African Americans in order to “create a layer on top of the African-American community,” according to Nick Mottern, a Peekskill carpenter interviewed by the New York Times. From the perspective of city leaders, such redevelopment strategies drive out crime and improve the economy.

Developers are currently taking the bohemian magnet approach on Milwaukee’s South Side where a number of buildings are being rehabbed specifically for artists. No doubt many long-time residents in this mostly Black, Latino, and formerly Polish working class district are looking at their new neighbors with a certain amount of concern. [quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]Artists who just want a space to live and work also may have difficulty with the idea that their own way of life might drive them and other people out of a neighborhood.[/quote]

How do artists respond to this nasty Catch-22? In Peekskill and elsewhere, a typical response among artists has been to blame everything on the “Yuppies.” I highly doubt this is a fair judgment in Peekskill. It sure isn’t a fair judgment in Riverwest. Take the opening of Onopa brewpub. The packed bar–a sea of white faces–was full of what looked to me like a happy mixture of artists and yuppies. Of course there were some exceptions. Coming out of the bathroom, a man who looked ready to go hunting told me he used to live here and was glad to see the neighborhood being reclaimed by good white folks. Actually his words weren’t that polite.

However you might disagree with this man’s racist interpretation of economic change in Riverwest, you can’t argue with the fact that race plays into the equation of which ships rise and which ones sink when gentrification happens. Speaking as a white graduate student–currently poor but with potential economic upward mobility–the easy thing to do is identify myself with “the neighborhood” and think of gentrification as something I can blame on other people, like yuppies.

Deciding that gentrification equals yuppification, sometimes members of student/artist/activist/bohemian communities try to seize a politically useless but emotionally satisfying moral high ground. They may identify themselves as the “indigenous” or “rightful” residents, as victims of hostile power and oppression. But outside their own circle, this attitude is considered childish whining to be ignored. The hopelessness of the “victims'” situation only confirms for them that they are a righteous minority that is too good to be tolerated in this hard world. An aggressive but no less self-defeating side of their passive attitude may manifest itself in petty, ineffectual acts of vandalism in a guerilla war waged against SUVs and other perceived icons of Yuppiedom.

I can easily sympathize with the sense of anxiety and outrage that gentrification can cause, but the responses I have described here are wrong. They’re inaccurate and reactionary. They’re harmful to the people who go along with them, they’re harmful to others, and they convince new residents and city authorities to regard the old residents as fools to be ignored if not criminals to be locked up.

Unfortunately many anti-gentrification advocates seem not to understand this. There is no shortage of people who talk about the subject in terms of a worn-out 1960s-era conflict between “bohemians” and “yuppies,” the “counterculture” versus “mainstream” culture. This is a distorted interpretation of the way things really are. Behind their surface differences, both bohemians and yuppies have a lot of similarities.

As writer David Brooks has famously noticed in his book, Bobos in Paradise, the yuppie of the 1980s has recast himself as a hybrid bohemian. He is now a “bourgeois bohemian,” or “bobo.” Both bohemians and bobos tend to move a lot to keep up with low rents or their job. Bobos and bohemians both tend to be defined by young, white, single people or at least people who aren’t raising families. As Professor Nacho Gonzalez of the University of Illinois at Chicago says, Bobo gentrifiers are “usually young, childless professionals seeking location and action.”

The Evolution of Hippies, Yuppies, Bobos, and Jivesters

Take out “professionals” and you’re describing the bohemian profile. Bohemians like to think of themselves as connected with their community, but their definition of community is often very restricted. Most aren’t homeowners and do not have children in the local schools, so they don’t have stakes in the most influential political and economic institutions around them. This shows in Riverwest where the “bohemian participation quotient” in neighborhood, homeowner, and business organizations is basically nil.

Despite bohemian disdain for yuppie/bobo consumption habits, both groups favor a local economy centered around things that are widely perceived as non-essential “speciality” items: arts and crafts, health food, micro-brewed beer and rock bands. By and large, these are not the kinds of products that sustain and appeal to urban minorities and members of the working class. They are things that appeal to bobos who truly have more in common with bohemians than anyone else. This could change if specialty stores, food co-ops, and artists diversified their products, taking steps to reach a wider market oriented to the local, domestic economy of working class people, retirees, and minorities. But barring major changes in the defining traits of artists and other bohemians, it would seem that they have to accept their role alongside yuppies and bobos in the gentrification process and look for ways to make it less disruptive as an endless cycle of displacement.

City planners are currently interested in keeping some areas of the city affordable to artists. At the behest of mayor Norquist, the Kunzelmann-Esser building on Mitchell St. is being rehabbed for artists by Gorman Company. Gorman has been granted federal affordable-housing and other tax credits for the project. Tom Daykin of the Journal Sentinel reports that tenants will be restricted to those “earning no more than 60% of Milwaukee County’s median income, adjusted for the size of their household. That ranges from $28,200 for a one-person household to $43,560 for a five-person household, such as a couple with three children.” This is not my idea of affordable, and the impact on area rents and property values will undoubtedly displace some of the current residents. But the tax credits Gorman is receiving require rents to be kept at “affordable levels” for fifteen years.

Some of the Original Bohemians

We might debate about the numbers that define “affordable,” but it’s definitely good that they’re not going to be allowed to skyrocket as high as the market will allow. This is an idea that might be useful here in Riverwest to offset the usual pattern of artists and other renters being completely priced out of gentrifying neighborhoods. Perhaps gentrification will not hit Riverwest as hard as it has hit other communities. Riverwest is not like highly underoccupied and depressed areas that have rapidly gentrified. Over the years, Riverwest has maintained a great deal of diversity in its residents in terms of vocation, income, and ethnic background.

According to Professor Gonzalez, one of the main preconditions for rapid, gentrifying development is “a population of low-income [residents] with little political or economic power to fight for their territory.” Compared to many recently gentrified neighborhoods in big cities like Chicago, Riverwest has a decent amount of economic power and the potential for political self-determination. Logically, the neighborhood’s best shot at maintaining a mixture of truly affordable and market rate housing is local political involvement by residents who identify themselves as real stakeholders in support of this goal.

There are definitely different perspectives represented by local renters, homeowners, and merchants. Each group will have a different view of gentrification–the opportunities and risks–and what it means for Riverwest. How gentrification actually plays out in the neighborhood will probably have much to do with how these groups work–or don’t work–together as a community.

If you’re concerned about gentrification, local organizations like the Riverwest Neighborhood Association (RNA) are where you can do something about it. Complaining about bobo barbarians at the gates isn’t going to do any good.

Dan Knauss is a white male graduate student at Marquette University and a member of the working poor. He is a renter and lives with his wife and two daughters in one of the back houses behind a duplex on North Bremen Street. [Addenda: A month after this article appeared in print, Dan and Sonya made a succesful bid on a small house in the northern area of Riverwest near Burleigh St. They moved there after closing in early October 2002. This area is known as the “Riverwest suburbs” to the bohemian culture in the Center St. area, which is only about five blocks to the south.]

Sources for this Article:

Daykin, Tom. “Developers Aim for Artists as Tenants in Kunzelmann-Esser Rehab.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 3/15/02.

Daykin, Tom. “Developer Sees Profit Potential in Catering to Artists.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 4/19/02.

Duany, Andres. “Gentrification and the Paradox of Affordable Housing.” West Adams United. 11/12/00.

Duany, Andres.”Three Cheers for Gentrification.” The American Enterprise Magazine. April/May 2001.

Imarisha, Walidah. “Derailed: Would West Philly Anarchists Gentrify the Neighborhood?” Philadelphia City Paper. 3/15/01.

Lydersen, Kari.“Shame of the Cities: Gentrification in the New Urban America.” LiP Magazine. 3/15/99.

Stanger, Ilana. “The Gentrification Game: Are Artists Pawns or Players in the Gentrification of Low-Income Urban Neighborhoods? (

Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 6 – July 2002

Excerpts from City of Milwaukee Housing Strategy 2001

While Milwaukee must ensure affordable housing, it must also strengthen its position as the place of choice for middle and upper income families and individuals.

  • Use selective intensive code enforcement and demolition based on neighborhood strategy to remove blighting or obsolete properties and make room for new development.
  • Facilitate the development process for residential developers.
  • Maintain affordable housing while encouraging higher-end market rate housing in neighborhoods to avoid gentrification and economic segregation.
  • Develop mixed-income housing at public housing developments and other neighborhoods throughout the city.
  • Create forums for on-going and regular communication with area stakeholders.
  • Support and strengthen the ability of Community Development Corporations to perform effectively as vehicles for neighborhood renewal.
  • Ensure City ordinances requiring landlords to maintain properties in a decent, safe and sanitary condition are enforced.
  • Work with MPD to enforce quality of life ordinances such as the Nuisance Noise Ordinance and the Chronic Nuisance property ordinance.
  • Work with partners and other City Departments to address issues (including problem behavior) that affect quality of life in City neighborhoods.
  • Work with DPW on issues such as litter abatement, infrastructure and traffic.
  • Work with the Health Department to address neighborhood health issues such as lead abatement.

“Can Freak Bohemians Avoid Becoming Pawns in the Capitalist Ethnic Cleansing Game?”

Gotta love that title! In this in-depth, insightful article at Slingshot, Xtra Nerdcore says, “White activists and freaks should take responsibility for their role in gentrification and should actively work against it. What can white punks, bohemians, and activists do to fight the gentrification of their neighborhoods? There is not one formula; here are some ideas.”

* Look around and talk to people about neighborhood change and anti-displacement work already being done. Do oral history projects of the neighborhood.

* Expose development plans on the part of corporations and various branches of government. Snake your way into the ‘public’ meetings held by the inner workings of the government bureaucracy. Oppose corporate development scams with a range of tactics.

* Support the foundation of neighborhood associations.

* Help fight individual evictions.

* Help with direct neighborhood improvement projects like kids’ projects, gardens, traffic slow-down devices (and do other things to fight the yuppies who want to leech off this good work).


White activists and freaks should take responsibility for their role in gentrification and should actively work against it.

-Xtra Nerdcore

Real French Bohemians from Paris

The Bohemian

The Gypsies first appeared in Bohemia in the fifteenth century, so they were known as Bohemians. The word “bohemian” was eventually used to describe anyone with a Gypsy-like or simple non-bourgeois (urban middle-class) life. Henry Murger’s Scenes de la Vie de Boheme in the mid-nineteenth century popularized “Bohemian” as a name for poor artists or writers who scandalously followed their vocation outside the norms of “good,” middle-class society. Read more about the history of Bohemians at

A Beneficiary of Reaganomics

The Yuppie

Newsweek called 1984 the “Year of the Yuppie.” Yuppie means “young urban professional,” and describes a  “lifestyle” and attitude associated with the Reagan era. According to the Marxist scholar Fredric Jameson, Yuppies were “a new petit bourgeoisie”–(a “small middle-class”)–whose “cultural practices and values . . . articulated a useful dominant ideological and cultural paradigm” for the US in the 1980s.  Yuppies were criticized for being wasteful, overly consumptive, materialistic and without concern for people lower down on the totem pole of social class.

A Bobo Adjusting His Shades for Maximum Coolness

The Bobo

David Brooks says “A bobo is a bourgeois bohemian. These are the people who are thriving in the information age. They’re the people, you go into their homes and they’ve got these renovated kitchens that are the size of aircraft hangars, with plumbing. You know, you see the big sub-zero refrigerators and you open the door and you think, they could stick an in-law suite in the side. So these are the people who are really making a lot of money, and I spent the last few years going across upscale America looking at the people who are really thriving in the information age. And one of the things, the chief characteristic I noticed, was that they’ve smashed the old categories. “It used to be easy to tell a bourgeois from a bohemian. And the bourgeois were the straight-laced suburban types, went to church, worked in corporations. And the bohemians were the arty free spirits, the rebels. But if you look at upscale culture, at the upper middle classes, the people in Silicon Valley, you find they’ve smashed all the categories together. Some people seem half yuppie-bourgeois and half hippie-bohemian. And so if you take bourgeois and bohemian and you smash them together, you get the ugly phrase “bobo.”


A meditation on gentrification, Chi-town style, by John Paul Davis.

I used to live in a good neighborhood ’til the yuppies moved in with their dogs and started letting them shit on and eat everything in sight, including my fiancée’s tulips that she spent a whole day of her life last fall planting.

I remember her coming into the apartment after a long hard day of digging and troweling and dropping bulbs and sinking her arms into the dirt; her back hurt and she was sunburned and tired. We never got to see any of the flowers because the yuppies let their dogs walk on them and eat their buds before they had time to bloom.

I know it was them because I saw my neighbor last night letting his pedigreed animal trample all over the remains of my fiancée’s day of labor, and I suppose I can’t be too mad at him, after all, he was still coming down off of whatever speed he’d scored. I walked outside to give him a piece of my mind but was distracted by the neighborhood black kids, who were chillin’ on a metal bench, mimicking the latest hip-hop superstar and I knew the words so I was all about to rap along when Chicago police patrol car #7056 pulled up onto the sidewalk, lights blaring stopped in front of the kids.

Two cops got out and began to frisk the kids, one by one, while they leaned their teenage bodies up against the hood of patrol car #7056 and waited. The whole thing lasted maybe 30 minutes, and when I called 911 to report police harassment, the pert operator informed me that it was perfectly legal for police officers to search people on the street without cause and that there was nothing I could do about it.

“There has to be brutality before we can intervene” the operator told me, and I thought, well it’s pretty brutal to spend your adolescent years being searched for drugs you don’t have because you happen to be black and awake after 8 p.m. “Well that’s awfully convenient for the cops isn’t it?” is what I told the operator.

Needless to say, I was having an off night and it was made worse by watching a news brief about this smarty-pants religious right pastor named Joe Wright who had the gall to pray before a state legislature and confess the so-called “sins” of America. Multiculturalism is now against the ten commandments according to the Reverend Wright, but curiously, in his list of American sins he left out racism altogether.

No mention of 400 years of slavery and segregation, no mention of white American churches, their eyes sewn shut, their hearts hardened, their ears closed when the whips cracked to the cadence of the 3/5ths law, or Jim Crow, deaf to the crack of the bullets that felled Dr. King and Brother Minister Malcolm, so I poured myself a cup of coffee, sat on the front steps, wondered if I should be Moses and pray for God to have mercy on my stupid country or be Jeremiah and call down our just desserts, but instead I just whimpered and sipped coffee and stared at my trampled tulips and when I looked up from the tulips, just for a moment, I wasn’t on my front step but standing on a shining beach, my back warm in the sun, watching the masts of Spanish sails poke over the horizon,, and I swear I could see Christopher Columbus, the “Christ-bearer” himself, leaning over the railing of the ship, looking for a place to walk his dog.

-John Paul Davis, Chicago, IL, April 1999

John Paul Davis lived in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood for the last several years of the 20th century. While in Chicago he was a member of the MadBar Poetry Slam team, where this poem was oft-performed. He now lives in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, CA, where he is a teacher and writer. His writing has been featured in RATTLE, The Witness, Columbia Poetry Review and Seven Stories. He maintains a web site of his writing at

The More Things Change…

This is the lamentable condition of our times, that men of art must seek alms of cormorants, and those that deserve best be kept under by dunces, who count it a policy to keep them bare because they should follow their books the better, thinking, belike, that as preferment hath made themselves idle that were erst painful in meaner places, so it would likewise slacken the endeavours of those students that as yet strive to excel in hope of advancement. A good policy to suppress superfluous liberality. …. But it is no marvel, for as hemlock fatteth quails, and henbane swine, which to all other is poison, so some men’s vices have power to advance them, which would subvert any else that should seek to climb by them, and it is enough in them that they can pare their nails well, to get them a living, whenas the seven liberal sciences and a good leg will scarce get a scholar a pair of shoes and a canvas doublet.

Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Devil by Thomas Nashe. London, 1592.