Measuring and Explaining Stalled Gentrification in Newark, NJ: The Role of Racial Politics

By Domingo Morel (Rutgers University), Akira Drake Rodriguez (University of Pennsylvania), Mara Sidney (Rutgers University), Nakeefa B. Garay (Rutgers University), and Adam Straub (Rutgers University)

The city of Newark, New Jersey holds an important role in the field of urban politics: its infamous uprisings/rebellions of 1967 spawned the 1968 Kerner Commission, a voluminous report that placed the blame of the emerging “urban crisis” at the feet of policymakers operating on the local, state, and federal level; on the widespread police brutality supported by these policymakers, and on the White-oriented media that provided cover for those in power. Following the uprisings, Newark remained in the shadow of other post-industrial cities that emerged from the moment of crisis stronger than ever: New York, Hoboken, Jersey City, and Philadelphia have seen recent gains in population and economic activity. But Newark also charted another important path in urban politics: beginning in 1970, the city elected the first Black mayor of a major northeastern city and has continued to elect Black mayors into the present. It has also maintained a majority-Black city council since 1983. Our paper examines the concept of “stalled gentrification,” or gentrification that began in one period but did not continue or advance beyond that period, in the city of Newark between the years 2000 and 2017. We posit that race, racial politics, and the racial makeup of local leadership are shaping gentrification dynamics in the city, specifically, the reason why gentrification never “takes hold” in a city that should be a prime candidate for the urban phenomenon.

We begin with a standardized definition of gentrification to measure across two decades the census tract changes in the city. Gentrification is broadly defined as the influx of upper-income households, and businesses catering to them, into low-income neighborhoods; therefore, the confluence of race and class in North American cities makes gentrification a racialized process as well. We quantitatively measure gentrification using a combination of Freeman’s (2005) and Ding, Hwang, and Divrigni’s (2016) frameworks. Freeman (2005) measures the potential for gentrification using decennial or American Community Survey (ACS) data at the census tract level for the following five characteristics: 1) central city location, (2) a presence of low-income households, (3) indicators of disinvestment, (4) an increase in socioeconomic status of the population and (5) an influx of capital. We classify tracts that are low-income, and therefore at risk of displacement as “gentrifiable” if they fall below citywide median household incomes. We also capture socioeconomic status across three other dimensions: changes in median home value, changes in average rents, and changes in educational attainment at the level of Bachelors’ degree. Ding, Hwang, and Divrigni (2016) build on this cross-sectional analysis to create longitudinal categories of gentrification: advanced or continuing, stalled, or recent. We use those categories, across three time periods (2000-2010, 2010-2017, and 2000-2017) and show calculations about the frequency of these categories in majority Black census tracts in the city (see tables 1 and 2). We find that advanced or continuing gentrification is not common in Newark, in spite of its high frequency of gentrifiable census tracts. One key finding from our work is that over half of the gentrifying tracts in Newark had stalled by 2017.

Table 1. Gentrification Status of Census Tracts in Newark, NJ, 2010

CategoriesNumber of Tracts% of Total Tracts% Tracts Majority Black
Non-Gentrifiable Tracts4653%52.2%
Gentrifiable Tracts4147%68.3%
No Gentrification1434%78.6%
Total Tracts87100%59.8%

Table 2. Gentrification Status of Census Tracts in Newark, NJ, 2017

CategoriesNumber of Tracts% of Total Tracts% Tracts Majority Black
Non-Gentrifiable Tracts4653%52.2%
Gentrifiable Tracts4147%68.3%
No Gentrification1024%90%
Stalled Gentrification2151%61.9%
Continued Gentrification615%66.6%
Recent Gentrification410%50%
Total Tracts87100%59.8%

As noted in Mahesh Somashekhar’s blog post and article, quantitative approaches to studying gentrification are often documenting the effects, or outcomes, of these changes in demographics. Somashekhar contributes by demonstrating the capacity for quantitative approaches to capture cultural displacement. We utilize policy analysis of Newark’s last three mayoral administrations to explain why over 50% of gentrifying tracts had stalled by 2017. Building on Cassola’s (2016) work classifying public policies as pro-development (or facilitating gentrification processes) or anti-displacement, we analyzed 44 policies at the local, state, and federal level across five categories: zoning, taxation, individual/asset-based benefits, housing, and economic development. Using newspaper and legislative sources for analysis, we found that 31 of these 44 policies were deployed in Newark between 2000 and 2017.

Our findings suggest that Newark’s mayors have overwhelmingly favored pro-development policies typically associated with gentrification. Since most of Newark’s gentrifying neighborhoods have experienced stalled gentrification, we conclude that the city’s policies do not shed much light on the development of gentrification in Newark. Our findings suggest that neither economic conditions nor city policies seem to explain why cities experienced stalled gentrification. We conclude that urban scholars should examine additional factors, including the racial dynamics of gentrification politics and processes, to better understand gentrification in American cities.

Read the full UAR article here.

Photo by Jimmy Woo on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Domingo Morel is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University – Newark. He is the author of Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy and co-editor of Latino Mayors: Power and Political Change in the Postindustrial City. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Brown University in 2014.

Akira Drake Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of City & Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design. She is the author of Diverging Space for Deviants: The Politics of Atlanta’s Public Housing. She received her Ph.D. in urban planning from Rutgers University in 2014.

Mara Sidney co-directs the Global Urban Studies doctoral program at Rutgers University-Newark, where she is Professor of Political Science. Her work focuses on urban policy and the governance roles of nonprofits in cities. Books include Unfair Housing: How National Policy Shapes Community Action and Handbook of Public Policy Analysis. Her work appears in publications on urban studies, public policy, and immigration governance. Awards include Scholar-Teacher Award (Rutgers) and Fulbright Visiting Research Chair (University of Ottawa).

Nakeefa Bernard Garay is a doctoral candidate in the Global Urban Studies program at Rutgers University – Newark. Her research interests include community development, civic participation, and nonprofit organizations. Her dissertation is titled “Strategies and Processes of Civic Engagement among Community Development Nonprofits in Newark, NJ.”

Adam Straub is a PhD student in the Global Urban Studies program at Rutgers University -Newark. His research interests include urban political development, gentrification, housing policy, and housing justice activism.