changes in how we talk about cities

At a meeting at a community organization in Boston, we were using various terms to describe local issues and observing that those phrases would not be clear to the people we were talking about–especially new immigrants. That made me wonder about the history of our vocabulary, so I used Google’s Ngram tool to see the frequency of “urban poverty,” “inner city,” “gentrification,” “deindustrialization,” and “urban redevelopment” in published books. This graph shows trends since 1900.


In rough order of when these phrases became popular…

  1. “Urban redevelopment” starts very soon after WWII but declines after 1970. It is a keyword of high-modernist urban planning from the era of big housing projects and highways blasted through downtowns.  It has been notably less popular (at least in books) since ca. 1980.
  2. “Urban poverty” rises in the 1960s and the 1990s, but has–interestingly–fallen in the 2000s.
  3. “Inner city” seems to have become rapidly popular during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, plateaued at a high level until about 2000, and then fallen off.
  4. “Gentrification” enters the lexicon in 1975. It plateaus in the 1990s and then rises rapidly in our century.
  5. “Deindustrialization” is a new term ca. 1980, describing a phenomenon that started in the 1970s. It peaks in the 1990s.

These changes seem to reflect objective circumstances–cities lose their industrial base but then sometimes attract yuppies who push up housing values–as well as shifts in intellectual fashions, such as the rise, and then fall, of high-modernist design.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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