In 2016, John Joe Schlichtman, an associate professor and director of the undergraduate program in sociology, was named a “Vanguard” by Next City, a nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire positive change—social, economic, and environmental—in cities. Vanguards include innovative policymakers and politicians, architects and urban planners, artists and media makers.

Next City describes Schlichtman as “an urbanist [whose] interests relate to addressing street-level injustices with solutions that are not only progressive in theory but feasible in practice.” With the award, he joins a unique group of young, active leaders who embody the Next City vision for a “world in which cities are not in crisis and are, instead, leading the way toward a more sustainable, equitable future.”

Schlichtman says that his work centers on the “connectedness of urban politics, social dynamics, and economies within a global context,” with a particular focus on the possibility of equitable and productive community development. For example, in his book, Gentrifier, he broadens the conversation about the what, who, and why of urban gentrification and, in doing that, overcomes the popular, but simplistic, caricature of gentrifiers. As he explains:

“Gentrification doesn’t have to be a dirty word—anyone with buying power is a ‘gentrifier’ and gentrification is a tendency in any city that’s competing for residents who are innovative, ‘creative’ or entrepreneurial—all descriptors that seem now to be viewed negatively among progressive urbanists. 

“One reason that middle class people ‘moving in’ is seen as ‘dirty’ is that some neighborhoods have been so intentionally and explicitly devalued over time that any gentrification—even well-intentioned—occurs within a groove of injustice.

"Progressive scholars note that even the idea of mixed-income communities causes pain and dislocation. Why? Because it’s a bad goal? More than anything, it’s because it wasn’t the goal 70 years ago, so that now a ‘changing’ community means poor residents must be dislocated. But if that’s the case, what is the end goal of gentrification? And here’s a more fundamental question: Why is a middle class movement into a neighborhood the only reason to invest in parks, public transportation, and schools in neighborhoods?

"Overall, I think that when we separate all the strands that drive gentrification, we can imagine an alternative to the way it often unfolds now.” 

Gentrifier touches on all of these ideas, drawing on the perspectives of sociology, geography, urban planning, and public policy. “I examine cities, and the communities that comprise them, with a nuanced perspective, taking into consideration how everything—big and small, global and local, current trends and historical context—comes together to determine what occurs in a specific place,” says Schlichtman.

“So, when I teach my students about gentrification, for example, I want them to see that business is not simply the enemy. Such a view will do them no good in the realities of life. Developers are real people; entrepreneurs are real people; politicians are real people; community leaders are real people. The end game should be fairness: How can we make our cities more just, yet still have the good that comes from investment and from a solid middle class? I want my students to be able to navigate complexity without making devils and angels of particular actors.”

Schlichtman’s appreciation of the big picture is apparent in the new Cities, Action, Power, and Practice concentration, which is designed for students interested in developing sustainable, local communities. “We’re investigating the interrelated forces of labor, race and ethnicity, public policy, immigration, policing and law, and community activism. The concentration is a great preparation for students interested in careers in public policy, public administration, social work, urban planning and law.”