The pioneers who started the gentrification process have contributed significantly to the activation of gentrified neighborhoods, but are often overlooked in top-down urban governance strategies. We studied the core participants, who were avant-garde café owners, in the initial stage of the commercial gentrification of Mudan Street in Changchun, China. By participatory observations and in-depth interviews, we closely investigated the statuses, behaviors, and preferences of the early gentrifiers, their contributions to block revivals, and the impacts of urban renewal policies on the gentrifiers themselves. Our conclusions are as follows. Most early gentrifiers were young and highly educated. They started the process of gentrification by youth culture production, which exhibited idealistic operating behaviors, such as the decoration of shops, creation of cultural atmospheres, and organization of cultural activities. They were the pioneers who drove bottom-up block renewal, reshaped traditional blocks into youth cultural consumption centers, and stimulated commercial vitality. However, commercialization was followed by soaring rents and increasing business competition that have forced many pioneers with low economic capital to leave. Furthermore, urban governance has had strong impacts on block renewal and gentrification. Inclusive management has promoted bottom-up neighborhood renewal, whereas arbitrary management has quickly destroyed the cultural landscape and business atmosphere, thereby accelerating the displacement of the pioneers. This study provides new evidence for gentrification theories, and offers a practical reflection for urban governance by constructing the profiles of early gentrifiers and discussing the paradox of gentrification in the context of urban China.
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