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The Stages of Gentrification, as Told by Restaurant Openings

Data from city restaurant inspections, rental prices, and census figures, show how restaurants and gentrification are interconnected

Inocencio Carbajal opened his acclaimed taqueria, Carnitas Uruapan, on West 18th Street in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood in 1975. He picked the location for a simple reason: At the time, it was near one of the city’s only Mexican grocery stores. There was another, more complex reason Carbajal and the grocery store were in the neighborhood, though. The construction of the University of Illinois campus in the neighboring Near West Side community between 1960 and 1965 pushed longtime Mexican residents into Pilsen, transforming the largely Czech and Eastern European immigrant neighborhood into a predominantly Mexican community by 1970. Within less than a decade, Pilsen had become one of Chicago’s most prominent Latinx neighborhoods.

More than 40 years later, the original Carnitas Uruapan is still there. But the Pilsen around it is changing again. City officials began planning new development for the area during the early 1970s, shortly after it emerged as a majority-Latinx community. The 1973 “Chicago 21 Plan,” designed to stem white flight by revitalizing areas surrounding the city’s commercial district, the Loop, targeted nearby communities like Pilsen. Private developers then tried slowly expanding into those areas. Community activists were able to resist these efforts through the early 1990s, but by the 2000s, political leaders, including the community’s alderman, invited pricey new development into the neighborhood, paving the way for rapid change. 

Over the next decade, new cafes, restaurants, and housing developments owned by outsiders replaced many resident-owned properties and abandoned lots. Between 2000 and 2010, the Latinx population declined 26 percent. Today, Pilsen is one of the hippest areas in Chicago, with a thriving arts scene, fine dining options, and quaint cafes that continue to entice wealthier transplants to the area as working-class Mexicans who have lived there for years are displaced.

Gentrification is a process, one that today generally begins with investors seeking out affordable communities in order to transform them for profit. A key component of gentrification, which distinguishes it from revitalization, is the demographic shift that happens when newer, more expensive development attracts wealthier newcomers, often young professionals, who then price out the community’s original residents. The displaced people are usually members of marginalized minority groups who have been historically confined to divested inner-city districts by racist housing practices, segregation, and midcentury white flight.

Marcos Carbajal, Inocencio’s son, and now a co-owner of Carnitas Uruapan, is torn over the gentrification of Pilsen. On one hand, he misses the neighborhood he grew up in. But its growing popularity with middle-class outsiders has been good for business: His family purchased the building decades ago, so the area’s rising rents haven’t affected the shop, and new residents are flocking to the taqueria for the unique Uruapan-style carnitas his dad learned to make as a child. “To me it’s a giant gray area and it’s really hard to judge it one way or the other,” Carbajal says. “If you’ve been in that neighborhood long enough, you can’t deny that it’s much safer and much more eclectic than it once was.”

Conflicting views on gentrification’s impact have led to public showdowns over new developments and businesses in countless communities, many involving restaurants. In 2017, just as chef Stephen Gillanders was set to open the upscale contemporary-American restaurant S.K.Y. about a half-mile from Carnitas Uruapan, members of anti-gentrification groups ChiResist and Defend Boyle Heights marched up to the building and began livestreaming themselves condemning the business. In the video, S.K.Y.’s general manager confronted the group and asked, “Is there anything we can do to help?” to which several of the activists responded, “Get the fuck out!” The manager listed the ways the restaurant gives back to community programs, but the activists in the video dismissed them. A week later, graffiti appeared on S.K.Y.’s building and Dusek’s Board and Beer, the Michelin-starred fine dining spot across the street: “Get out,” “Gentrifiers,” and “YT People Outta Pilsen.”

Grassroots organizations of anti-gentrification activists have emerged across the country in response to the tidal wave of gentrification that has swept through America’s largest cities over the past two decades. There is the Brooklyn Anti-gentrification Network (BANgentrification) in New York City, Defend Our Hoodz in Austin, and Defend Boyle Heights in Los Angeles (which recently joined a national housing inequality organization called the United Neighborhood Defense Movement), to name a few.

Like ChiResist, many of these organizations zero in on food businesses and confront restaurant owners, and that’s no coincidence — when it comes to gentrification, new food spaces are often the canary in the coal mine, according to Joshua Sbicca, a sociology professor at Colorado State University, whose research has shown that restaurants often act as proxies for gentrification. As American neighborhoods evolve, the changes appear in their foodscapes: There is a stark contrast between a 40-year-old Pilsen restaurant like Carnitas Urapan and the new, upscale S.K.Y. or Thalia Hall down the street.

Sbicca says that there are generally two ways to look at gentrification: from an economic standpoint, as something that happens when businesses seek investment opportunities in underprivileged communities, and from a cultural standpoint, as something that happens when an underserved community’s vibrant culture attracts wealthier outsiders. Restaurants fall at the intersection of these frames, making them ideal indicators for the state of gentrification in a given area. “It’s different than many other kinds of businesses or processes of gentrification that take place,” Sbicca says. “I can’t think of a better way to have a look at the aspects of gentrification.” 

These changes aren’t just happening in Chicago. As white-collar jobs and tech businesses attract more young American professionals to cities, these gentrification trends show up in data from around the country. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, for example, banquet halls that have existed in the community for decades are competing with new Michelin-starred halls. In the Bushwick area of New York City, the four or so dive bars that existed in the once predominantly working-class Latinx neighborhood a decade ago now sit alongside dozens of swanky new watering holes catering to the influx of young urban professionals. Portland’s Black population is being pushed to the city’s outskirts, farther and farther away from the city’s buzziest new restaurants.

To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many small businesses to close for good. Reports show that 60 percent of restaurants that have closed since the onset of the pandemic have shuttered permanently. There is consequently a growing fear that large chains and bigger businesses will capitalize on failing small businesses and buy up empty spaces in working-class neighborhoods if stakeholders don’t act soon. This could only speed up the changes happening across American cities.

In order to explore the relationship between restaurants and gentrification, Eater requested restaurant health inspection data from several U.S. cities, using the data to estimate how many restaurants are in each city and where they’re located.. Neighborhoods with anecdotal evidence of recent gentrification were pinpointed — Pilsen in Chicago; Crown Heights, Bushwick, Harlem, and Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City; and Chinatown in San Francisco, for instance — and the information was analyzed against census data on the areas’ income and racial makeup and Zillow data on home and rental prices

Certain patterns emerged that highlight the interdependent relationship between restaurants and the numerous phases of urban gentrification. A new high-rise or upscale restaurant opening in a neighborhood might appear to be the first major sign of gentrification, but by then, the process is often already wrapping up — it’s the cafe, the bar, and the initial boom in table-service dining venues that are the real beacons of change. “A focus on food shows how patchwork neighborhood change often results from these small and piecemeal entrepreneurship efforts, and that the creep of gentrification and displacement often moves through foodspaces,” Sbicca says.

Stage One: Third Places

Gentrification happens in phases, according to Sbicca. It’s a long-held belief that the first wave is driven by artists and young creative professionals, who are drawn to communities with lower rents. So, naturally, places like coffee shops and bars, which frequently act as third places for these groups of people, are often the initial signs that wealthier outsiders have their eyes set on an affordable neighborhood. “There’s a reason why those are anchor food institutions as opposed to, say, your upscale omakase-style Japanese restaurant where someone is paying 100 bucks to have an omakase tasting,” Sbicca says. “That’s a later wave, where those kinds of restaurants are catering to wealthier professionals who have disposable income to actually afford to eat those kinds of cuisines.” 

Third places like cafes are ideal for young creatives looking for affordable businesses they can patronize while also being able to practice their craft, Sbicca says. This is in line with results of a Harvard research study that found a strong correlation between the presence of cafes and an increase in college-educated residents; as neighborhoods become whiter and wealthier, the number of cafes tends to increase.

Take New York City’s Crown Heights, a historically Black and Caribbean community in Brooklyn. As the Michael Bloomberg mayorship (2002 to 2013) stoked massive residential development projects to accommodate the city’s growing population, more white-collar professionals found themselves in Brooklyn. Data for the years 2012 and 2013, Bloomberg’s last year in office, show clear signs that the area was deep in the process of gentrification: The average cost of a one-bedroom home increased 13 percent. Black residents, who made up 78 percent of the Crown Heights population in 2000, only accounted for 57 percent by 2013. 

Eater’s analysis shows a strong correlation between the number of cafes in Crown Heights and rising housing, rent, and income levels. Five cafes opened in Crown Heights in 2013, nearly doubling the number of cafes in the neighborhood. By 2014, a Starbucks arrived. Eater used correlation coefficients to measure how strongly housing prices and certain types of restaurants are related; a value between 0.50 and 1 is indicative of a strong correlation. Housing data from Zillow and restaurant data from city health inspections showed that in Crown Heights, the number of cafes and median housing prices have a correlation coefficient of 0.8. Similarly, the correlation coefficient for total number of cafes and average income for Crown Heights was 0.83.

The same is true for other neighborhoods in American cities that people anecdotally suspect are gentrifying. In Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, for instance, where a historically working-class Latinx community started becoming more and more affluent and white in the 2010s, the relationship between cafes and housing prices showed a correlation coefficient of 0.87.

New bars have a similar relationship with higher cost of living. There were only six bar venues in Bushwick in 2007, when the cost of a single-family home was $495,000; a decade later, there were 40 bars in the neighborhood, while home prices have risen to $850,000. Bushwick bars and housing costs have a coefficient of 0.69. Similarly, in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant area, there were eight bars in 2010. By 2013, there were 13. The correlation between bars and home prices in the neighborhood has a coefficient of 0.60.

Stage Two: Bigger and Better 

As the gentrification process continues, the scope and scale of restaurants in the neighborhood begin to change. Restaurants appear to get larger and more expensive as the next wave of young professionals and small-business entrepreneurs move in, driven by new opportunities to meet the demands of residents with higher incomes and more expensive taste. Wait-service and large-capacity restaurants, for instance, grow during this phase. Typically, restaurants served by waitstaff are larger and more upscale, with higher price points.

This growth in more massive, more expensive food spaces worries residents in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Malcolm Yeung, the executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center in San Francisco, says Chinatown is one of the few communities in the city that hasn’t fully gentrified, because, unlike many Chinatowns around the country, it is still predominantly working class and Chinese. But as the rent rises and businesses shutter, he and other advocates are trying to prevent gentrification from swallowing it up too. “Our concern is that when you start to see a trend of restaurants that move away from accessibility to the community,” Yeung says. “it starts to give you the wrong signal about where Chinatown is heading and perhaps begins to attract restaurants, owners, and operators into Chinatown that don’t necessarily have that community spirit in mind.”

Yeung welcomes new businesses but says they should be businesses that the community can access. Affordable banquet halls have historically been an important cornerstone for the Chinese community in San Francisco, hosting large family gatherings, celebrations, and political events. There were once five such banquet halls in Chinatown. Of the three that have recently closed, two have been turned into Michelin-starred fine dining spaces (Mister Jiu’s and Eight Tables at China Live). Chef Ho Chee Boon, the former executive chef for the Hakkasan restaurant chain, is set to open another upscale spot in the third space.

“Those two restaurants are good and well. We’re glad they’re in the neighborhood, but we’re raising questions,” Yeung says of Mister Jiu’s and Eight Tables. “When you only have five large spaces to begin with, is it really the right thing for the community for the third one to also convert to a one-Michelin-star restaurant?”

The data suggest there might be reason for concern. More luxe restaurants in other cities show a strong correlation with demographic changes. In New York City, for example, there is a strong correlation between the number of restaurants offering wait service (as opposed to fast food or takeout) and rising housing prices, income, and rent in gentrifying neighborhoods. New York City inspection data document the type of restaurant inspected, including whether the restaurant offers wait service. In 2013, there were 34 Harlem restaurants with wait service; by 2015, that number grew by more than 20 percent as housing prices soared from $588,000 to $777,000 and median income grew 23 percent. The correlation coefficient between home prices and waitstaff restaurants in Harlem is 0.77. Correlation data shows a 0.90 coefficient for waitstaff restaurants and housing prices in Crown Heights. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, the value is 0.85.

Yeung says that is how gentrification seems to work: Investors and developers of higher status move in, build pricier businesses, and inevitably push the original community out since the existing residents have fewer resources to compete. He fears San Francisco’s Chinatown could end up like other Chinatowns around the country — according to the 2010 U.S. census, there are only 300 Chinese residents left in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. 

The growth in high-end dining options that cater more to outsiders than local residents isolates the existing community and propels gentrification, Yeung says. “From what we’ve seen, the people that patronize those high-end Chinese restaurants, it’s almost literally they Uber in or Lyft in, they have a cocktail or eat dinner or lunch, and then they just leave,” he says. “They don’t stay around to visit their family association building, or buy groceries, or to buy takeout, or dim sum, or to get a haircut or get hair and nails done, or to buy dry goods, or any one of the myriad collateral benefits that restaurants who draw community stakeholders would have on the rest of the community.” 

Race and ethnicity are major de facto components of gentrification, as the communities that tend to get displaced are disproportionately communities of color, but the issue can extend beyond racial inequality. New restaurant owners entering gentrifying areas are sometimes people of color themselves, but this doesn’t mean that they can’t be gentrifiers, Sbicca says. The owners of San Francisco’s new Chinatown banquet halls are Asian entrepreneurs, for instance, but still draw business primarily from non-residents. 

Stephen Gillanders, the chef-owner of S.K.Y. in Chicago, where protesters confronted management, told Eater in 2018 that he’d assumed his Filipino heritage would resonate with the people of Pilsen and made a point of mentioning that S.K.Y. hires diverse talent. Yet when Gillander’s general manager shared those points with the ChiResist protesters during their encounter, the activists scoffed. Likewise, when celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, of Ethiopian and Swedish descent, opened soul food restaurant Red Rooster in Harlem, New York, in 2010, some criticized it for contributing to gentrification by catering to outsiders. Samuelsson is set to open a second Red Rooster in Miami’s Overtown community; it has received similar backlash from residents

Entrepreneurs of color moving into areas that are gentrifying still face criticism because gentrification is also an issue of class, Sbicca says. “It might not be a racial shift, per se, but say there’s a wealthier African-American community that’s able to stay in that neighborhood,” he says. “Is there this economic shift that’s pricing people out?”

The crux of gentrification, in other words, is any demographic shift caused by wealthier newcomers. This shift doesn’t have to be cultural. Sometimes new residents and investors embrace the local culture, art, music, and cuisine. This means that despite the displacement of working-class communities in a gentrifying area, the original cuisine can remain. In fact, in some cases, the dominant cultural cuisine of an area has thrived during times of gentrification.

The Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights has been predominantly Caribbean and African American since the 1970s, and Caribbean cuisine has dominated its foodscape for decades. Even though gentrification started changing the income levels and racial demographics of the neighborhood more than a decade ago, Caribbean cuisine remains one of the most common cuisines in the area as recently as 2017, with at least 20 percent of all restaurants in the area serving Caribbean food, according to New York inspection data. 

Similarly, Latinx cuisine remained prevalent in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, and the number of Latinx restaurants ultimately increased, despite skyrocketing housing prices and gentrification. In Chicago’s Pilsen, the number of Mexican and Latinx restaurants also appears to increase during its gentrification periods. These places are part of the draw for gentrifiers, Sbicca says. Many middle-class or affluent people moving into urban spaces are often seeking “authentic experiences” that are different than the “pasty white suburbs” they may have grown up in, so the first waves of gentrifiers may cherish the diversity, multi-ethnic cuisine, and “authentic urban experiences” their neighborhoods have to offer.

These newcomers often pick and choose which parts of the neighborhood’s culture they want to keep around while neglecting to support others, however. “‘I want my authentic experience and I want to get my kombucha,’” Sbicca says, describing their mindset. They might dine out at local Mexican restaurants, but avoid grocery shopping at the longstanding Mexican grocer, choosing more upscale stores instead.

A cuisine’s preservation is also frequently the result of community members’ efforts. Some neighborhood activists form agreements with new businesses in an effort to protect the area’s traditional culture. In San Francisco, residents in the Mission District, a predominantly Latinx hub, fought to designate the neighborhood’s 24th Street corridor a Latino Cultural District. Now certain restaurants must meet with community members to ensure their businesses reflect the vibrant Latinx culture the designation is supposed to preserve, which includes limiting the size of new buildings, adjusting the style of storefronts, and ensuring affordable price points. Despite a citywide decline in restaurants, data show the number of Latinx restaurants in the area did not change much in the last five years.

Preventing gentrification from erasing the culture and people that have historically called an area home too often falls to the community members themselves, and data can be a useful tool in their struggle. 

The latest research from Nick Kobel and Tony Lamb, analysts with the Portland Department of Planning and Sustainability in Oregon charged with monitoring neighborhoods in the city and gathering insight that might prevent displacement, shows that residents of color are being pushed farther and farther from the city core. Areas like Woodlawn and Alberta, which once had large Black populations, have significantly fewer Black residents now than they did in 2010; those residents are settling in neighborhoods more removed from the city center, where the new restaurants and businesses are.

With their research, Kobel and Lamb were able to publish a gentrification topology outlining all the areas in Portland that are vulnerable to gentrification and displacement. The challenge from there is figuring out what stakeholders can do with that information. “Sure, maybe other bureaus don’t have to look at our numbers, but they’re accountable to the community,” Kobel says. “And if the community is asking us, the community is also asking other bureaus to do a better job at planning without displacement.”

The city’s Bureau of Transportation used the data to see if its streetcar expansion efforts would intersect with gentrifying neighborhoods and possibly increasing gentrification. The Housing Bureau used it to compare public housing development efforts. Yet minority communities in Portland, one of the whitest cities in America, are still being pushed out.

As cities vie for wealthy residents — who city officials hope will invest their capital locally — there are usually economic incentives for working with developers to revitalize communities, according to Sbicca. “There is this economic competition for people that are going to bring in tax revenue, spend dollars, etc.,” Sbicca says. “So if a city is able to find a place in their city that has ‘potential,’ there’s an economic incentive, in some respect, for developers, mayors, city council people, etc., to try to revitalize that place.”

On paper, revitalization can sound promising. But the line between revitalization and gentrification is sometimes blurred, and cities trying to “revitalize” deteriorating areas sometimes make matters worse for current residents, who find themselves having to beg city officials not to displace them.

Stage Three: It’s Too Late

The third phase of the gentrification process is perhaps the most noticeable, but by then, intervention is difficult. After creatives have moved in and attracted bigger, more expensive development to the area, the neighborhood catches the eyes of even bigger developers — the ones behind chains and big-box stores. At this point, community efforts to save the neighborhood from gentrification is very difficult. When Lamb spoke with Eater earlier this year, he pointed out that during this phase, small restaurants, including the ones that displaced the pre-gentrification restaurants, begin to shutter. “Now, new development is occurring and the costs to operate a business in new developments increasingly gets to be unattainable for a new small business,” Lamb, who recently passed away, said. “So you have to find much better-capitalized businesses that can do that.” 

San Francisco saw mass demographic changes and skyrocketing costs of living starting in the late 1990s as the city transformed into a hub for tech companies. The median price of a home in San Francisco is $1.3 million today, compared to $650,000 in 2000, according to Zillow data. Apartments there are also charging some of the highest rent and housing prices on earth. As a result, the employees who staff businesses can’t afford to live in the city, while smaller enterprises have closed because they couldn’t make the rent. This is especially true for restaurants: Based on health inspection data, restaurants in the city have decreased by 44 percent in the last five years. 

In New York City, the number of restaurants in the city is also declining in neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side in Manhattan, where gentrification began earlier than neighborhoods deeper into Brooklyn and farther away from Manhattan, like Crown Heights and Bushwick.

With more than half of restaurants that closed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic closing for good, many fear that large businesses will swoop into vulnerable neighborhoods to buy up vacant properties at discounted prices. Minority businesses were hit especially hard during the pandemic, and the communities they serve may be especially vulnerable to new development and thus displacement. Whereas cafes, bars, and waitstaff restaurants were early indicators of gentrification that gave community members a chance to fight displacement and preserve their community culture, indicators of post-pandemic gentrification may be the appearance of big-box stores and chains. But by then, it could be too late.

Vince Dixon is the data visualization reporter at Eater.

Methodology: Eater obtained and analyzed restaurant inspection data from the health departments of Chicago, New York City and San Francisco to estimate the total number of restaurants in each city from 2010 to 2019. The restaurants were compared to median housing prices and rent data compiled by Zillow, and median income data courtesy of the U.S. Census and the IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System (NGIS).

Data Sources:
Chicago Department of Public Health
New York Department of Mental Health and Hygiene
San Francisco Department of Public Health
Multnomah County Environmental Health
United States Census
IPUMS NHGIS, University of Minnesota
Zillow Home Value Index
Zillow Observed Rent Index