metal sans serif house number signs like in the "gentrification font" twitter meme
Photo by papparaffie via iStock/Getty Images Plus/Illustration by Dessie Jackson
Entertainment

A Deep Dive Into the 'Gentrification Font'

According to a popular Twitter meme, sleek sans serif numbers are now the official look of neighborhood change.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, United States
September 9, 2020, 11:00am

If there's a definitive look to gentrification, aside from the changing faces that make up a neighborhood, it's not just the "gentrification building" ("blocky, forgettable mid-rises"), it's also a "gentrification fence" (horizontal wooden slats) and a "gentrification font" (sans serif house numbers). These design elements often converge into a sleek, vaguely modern aesthetic that's ubiquitous with neighborhoods in flux, all over the country.

The "gentrification font" recently hit meme status with a tweet from April of this year that showed the number 2815 in matte black, metal signage against the recognizable slats of the gentrification fence. With "this is the gentrification font" as its caption, the image earned upwards of 134,000 likes, and it captured such a common look that one other person posted the same building number in similar signage, but on a totally different facade.

In heavily developed urban areas like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where VICE is headquartered, these metal numbers make buildings clear to would-be tenants, employees, and gig workers delivering app-ordered dinners and Amazon purchases. Since late 2019, the Instagram page @gentrificationfont has posted sightings of the design to a meager following, though its creator recalls jokingly using the phrase as far back as 2015 or 2016. So how did this lettering end up everywhere, and why is it so linked to gentrification?

"I recall knowing exactly what font they were referring to even before seeing a picture because it was already becoming a meme," said University of Arizona professor Jonathan Jae-an Crisman, referring to his first exposure to the term around 2011. "Gentrification font" applies to any stylish sans serif that decorates houses and real estate developments, especially in changing areas. Users replying to the viral Twitter thread pegged it as anything from Avenir to Futura to Century Gothic, which look identical to an untrained eye.

But in response to an inquiry for this story, Crisman immediately identified Neutraface, a typeface based on the work of modernist architect Richard Neutra. This, he said, "is a great irony, because Neutra's whole philosophy was about low-cost, affordable housing with a high quality of modern living!" "Neutra Modern House Numbers" sell for $35 a pop at the high-end if not confusingly named furniture store Design Within Reach.

Anyone who's ever gotten a burger from Shake Shack is familiar with Neutraface: It's the chain’s official font. Type designer Christian Schwartz collaborated with type foundry House Industries to release the design in 2002, and though Schwartz wasn't familiar with the phrase "gentrification font" until this story, he's long noticed the phenomenon. "I've joked about it when I give talks for years: that this typeface was sort of the unofficial-official typeface of luxury condo developments," he said. "Anywhere I would go in the city, there's the typeface enticing me to buy an apartment that I could never afford." (The font in the Twitter meme is not Neutraface, Schwartz said, but "a different set of cast metal letters" of a similar look.)

Unlike most type design projects, which Schwartz called a "slow burn," Neutraface took off quickly. Crisman—who studies the connection between art, culture, and gentrification in cities—recalled the rise of "gentrification font" as part of the post-Great Recession period when people were snatching up cheap houses to turn a "quick flip" with "grey paint, horizontal wood fencing, and adding house numbers using the gentrification font." He described it as part of an aesthetic he called "generic authentic," which attempts to convey a sense of "authenticity" through "classic typefaces, raw materials like wood and cement, and these nostalgic nods to older artisanal craft."

Given that the inspiration for Neutraface was the lettering Neutra used on his iconic buildings in California, Schwartz isn't surprised that it's found residential uses, especially given their style. "A lot of these luxury condo developments are kind of zombie modernism, right?" he said. Through blogs, the growth of Instagram, and magazines like Cereal and Kinfolk, the "generic authentic" aesthetic became the go-to look of cities, Crisman said—so common that "you can go to any city almost anywhere in the world and find a cafe or an Airbnb that is renovated and furnished in precisely this style." (In 2016, the writer Kyle Chayka coined the term "airspace" to refer to this singular aesthetic.)

As critics on social media have often pointed out in reference to the design trends of gentrification, gentrification is not an aesthetic but a systematic process of displacement. According to Lisa Berglund, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University, gentrification constitutes a "change in average income level to more affluent clientele, usually"—a shift in class that's also often tied to race.

But while many scholars rely on quantitative changes to identify whether gentrification is happening—for example, a percent change in a certain demographic over time—Berglund said that cultural shifts, like visual changes, can also lead to cultural displacement. As a neighborhood changes, so does its branding in an attempt to signify that it's "not what it used to be," Berglund said, and to distance it from "whatever baggage people carry with [their] ideas about what a place is, or whether they belong there."

According to Lisa Angulo, a New York-based designer who works on residential buildings and offices, the minimalist look of the gentrification font "shows up a lot when something's renovated." While Times New Roman or Comic Sans might be associated with an "older style," simpler sans serif fonts—like Neutraface—suggest an understanding of modern design trends. "I think recently there is a gentrification model used by designers to attract the eyes of people moving into large cities throughout the US." That's evident in a viral Twitter thread from mid-August that identified similar looking buildings all over the United States.

For younger residents who might be new to city life, don't intend to spend decades in one apartment, and have comfortable financial means, these little indicators of change can be appealing, especially since they often coincide with enticing amenities like common spaces and in-building gyms. "The [gentrification font meme] is a great example that something as simple as a [typeface] can influence a person moving into an 'up and coming' area," Angulo said.

Despite the initial irony he highlighted between the use of Neutraface and Neutra's ethos, Crisman thinks that irony actually falls in line with the trajectory of Neutra's work. "While his philosophy was that design should be for all, his clients were more often than not wealthy benefactors," Crisman said, "much like the same ones who can afford today's homes featuring the gentrification font."

There could be a simpler explanation for the prevalence of the gentrification font: that it's not just the go-to design for buildings in gentrifying areas, but the one that's in style everywhere. The number style referred to as the gentrification font can, in fact, be found on homes even in non-gentrifying areas, as Berglund pointed out.

The same might go for all of those design elements called the "gentrification" whatever: they could just be the look of new construction. As HuffPost reporter Michael Hobbes wrote in a Twitter thread in August, "A lot of low-income housing looks like cheesy upscale condos because everything that gets built now a) has to comply with deranged, hyper-specific municipal design codes, b) is made of cheap materials." To Hobbes, the "outsides of the buildings don't have to change" in order for rents to rise, forcing lower-income families out while more affluent tenants move in.

In any case, a piece of advice Schwartz often gives students is that if you don't like surprises, then you shouldn't become a type designer. Once a design goes into the world, it's just a piece of material for people to work with; still, one of his favorite things about the profession is the unexpected places where his work pops up. "I mean, I'm not necessarily delighted that Neutraface has become the de facto voice of gentrification," Schwartz said with a laugh. "But I enjoy having had some impact on what visual culture looks like now.

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