JP Observer: Has JP become gentrified?

February 17, 2012

A lot has been said recently about the characteristics of the people of Jamaica Plain—and often with some passion. Results of the 2010 census came in last year. Whole Foods, with its hip image, moved into a spot occupied for a long time by Hi-Lo Foods, with its Latin flavor. The change gave rise to a flood of commentary about the composition of the community. The word “gentrification” got tossed around.

The concept is relatively new. The verb “gentrify” (from the noun “gentry”) first came into use between 1975 and 1980, according to Merriam-Webster. At that time, it meant the replacement of poor people living in rundown housing in urban areas with higher-income people who renovated. Later, gentrification also came to mean displacement of minorities by white people.

Based on income and racial/ethnic census numbers, does JP’s reputation as a diverse neighborhood need to be changed?

With at least 24 percent of housing here permanently subsidized, according to a UMass study in the 1990s, the danger of poor people getting pushed out seems slim. Market rents in JP’s 02130 ZIP code, where the cost of living is generally high, average $1,332 per unit compared to $1,103 for Massachusetts and $950 nationally in 2010, according to, a national real estate database.

Incomes in 02130 continue to range. About 20 percent of households make below $25,000. (The federal poverty line was $22,050.) An equal percentage makes more than $125,000.

Occupy Wall Street and its local affiliates would be interested to know that JP is home to “the 99.25 percent.” About 0.75 percent of our residents make the national top 1 percent earnings of $506,000 or more per year.

It appears that JP’s middle has shrunk. In 2000, roughly 64 percent of households in 02130 made between $25,000 and $125,000. Now it’s about 59 percent.

The white population seems to have been shifting between 50 and 53 percent over the past 10-15 years, with no major changes in racial/ethnic mix from the 2010 census count of the actual JP neighborhood at 53 percent white, 25 percent Latino, 13 percent black, 4 percent Asian and 2 percent multi or other.

Compared to most places, JP is very diverse, based on the map showing JP to be slightly bigger than 02130 and including Egleston Square. The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) is for the first time using that realistic neighborhood map as it presents 2010 data.

Getting the numbers right can be tricky. The new American Community Survey extrapolates from samples of the population. And because various maps have been used by the BRA and others when compiling JP census data over time, one has to be careful to use the same maps when comparing numbers.

So far, based mostly on ZIP code data for 02130, it seems JP isn’t close to being gentrified.

One thing remains certain over the years. Properly describing the population of JP requires looking at and quoting real numbers from defined neighborhood maps. It should not be done based on impressions.


Correction: This column incorrectly cited a University of Massachusetts Boston study as saying that 24 percent of Jamaica Plain housing is permanently subsidized as affordable. The 1998 study, “Communities on the Edge,” actually said that almost 27 percent of JP-area housing units were subsidized in 1996, but made no mention of whether it was permanent, and suggested that a significant portion of it was temporary and in danger of loss. The study used the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s JP “Planning District,” which does not include Egleston Square, Parkside, Forest Hills or Woodbourne, while including most of Mission Hill.


  • Jen D

    Sandra, thanks for this piece. The numbers are both interesting and informative. Respectfully, I write to share three thoughts:

    - For myself, I’d prefer to fold this kind of information into a range of ways of understanding JP, including personal experience. I think it’s a tall order to ask people to surrender their impressions, their own ways of making sense of daily life — in terms of who they think their neighbors are and whether they feel comfortable living here, etc. — to expert numbers that may or may not capture the complexity of lives in the neighborhood. (Especially if we are mindful that an in-migration of professional class residents is, in many ways, what gentrification is, an insistence that we embrace a mediated, expert understanding of JP can become just another way that professionals make our claim to the space of the neighborhood for ourselves.)

    - If we are to build our understanding from data of this sort, the hollowing-out center strikes me as consistent with characteristics of gentrification (as well as being one part of the larger story about the labor market / income distribution in a service economy, and quite concerning for social life in a democracy). Another way of describing the data you cite is that, for the decade between 2000 and 2010, displacement pressures were strongest for earners in the middle of the income distribution, as evidenced by a distinct decline in the presence of such households in the neighborhood.

    - I think about gentrification as a process, not an achieved state. So along the way one can point to some measures/attributes/areas that are gentrified and others that are not. People who live here know experientially where the “frontiers” are in the process of transformation in the neighborhood, where the boundaries are that will be moved back as higher-income people claim more of the residential and commercial space. I think it’s okay to notice that and discuss it and to hold it up against the Census data and ask whatever questions about it that we may have.

    What’s the harm in recognizing that the neighborhood is gentrifying as the process occurs, and in thinking about what kind of future we’d like to build here?

    While I appreciate the contribution of your piece to the ongoing discussion on this topic, and learned something from reading it and thinking about it, I’m also concerned about how it wields one way of reading a few data points in order to brush aside / treat as counter-factual the concerns that real people have about class transformation in the neighborhood.

    • JP Gal

      So Jen D., you’re saying that gentrification exists if someone believes it does?  I give Sandra credit for trying to get behind the rhetoric and figure out what is really going on, in the real world we actually live in.  Sandra’s piece reviews the data over the past 10-15 years, so she is definitely not talking about “an achieved state” but exactly what you say — a process.  In my view, one of the surprising facts she has identified is that the people who have been “forced” out of JP in the past decade are the middle class, not the poor and working class, as many anti-gentification activists claim. Finally, I think it’s unfair to accuse Sandra of “brushing aside” people’s concerns about “class transformation in the neighborhood.”  All of us are concerned about JP and her people, and how our community manages change (because the only thing we can count on is that there will be change).  We can’t solve a problem that doesn’t exist, and if we try to, we’re wasting valuable energy that should be devoted to solving problems that DO exist. This isn’t “counterfactual” and it doesn’t denigrate anyone’s life experience. 

      • Jen D

         JP Gal, It was Sandra’s statement that “JP isn’t close to being gentrified” that prompted me to respectfully offer some alternative ways of making sense of the neighborhood in relation to this phenomenon that we call gentrification. My intent is here is to hold a respectful conversation, even if we disagree.

        On the matter of whether it is surprising that middle-income people were forced in the last decade, a slightly longer time horizon may help to put that information in context. I think it is likely that middle-income people were the displaced parties during the last decade because low-income and poor people in market housing had already been pushed out and priced out in various waves during the prior decades. The reasons include: condo conversions in the 1980s; a wave of foreclosures in the early 1990s; and rapidly increased costs of housing after Boston’s rent control policy ended in 1994. JP appears on track to become one of a growing number of “bipolar” neighborhoods in which people who are quite poor and quite rich co-reside, often without knowing one another.

        I understand gentrification to be a neighborhood-level expression of bigger kinds of inequality in our economy. I think that extremes of inequality are bad for people, economies, and democracies, among other things. These are the concerns that motivate my reflections.

        Thanks much for the chance to discuss. Having made two sets of remarks, I’m going to bow out here, and I will look forward to reading what others have to say.