from What Tami Said
Taigi Smith, in the brilliant essay “What Happens When Your Hood is the Last Stop on the White Flight Express” in the book “Colonize This: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism,” describes gentrification like this:
Gentrification: The displacement of poor women and people of color. The raising of rents and the eradification of single, poor and working-class women from neighborhoods once considered unsavory by people who didn’t live there. The demolition of housing projects. A money-driven process in which landowners and developers push people (in this case, many of them single mothers) out of their homes without thinking about where they will go. Gentrification is a pre-meditated process in which an imaginary bleach is poured on a community and the only remaining color left in that community is white…only the strongest coloreds survived.
For poor single mothers, gentrification is a tactic “the system” uses to keep them down; it falls into the same category as “workfare” and “minimum wage.” Gentrification is a woman’s issue, an economic issue and, most of all, a race issue. At my roots I am a womanist, as I believe in economic and social equality for all women. When I watch what has happened to my old neighborhood, I get angry because gentrification like this is a personal attack on any woman of color who is poor, working class and trying to find an apartment in a real estate market that doesn’t give a damn about single mothers, grandmommas raising crack babies or women who speak English as a second language.
Urban gentrification is like global colonization. An advantaged people decide they fancy an area and use their advantages to push into it with, at best, disregard, and at worst, disdain, for the people already living there. The invaders use their might to erase the culture of current residents, and eventually, to erase the residents all together.
I know this, and yet, my feelings about gentrification are ambivalent: a blend of concern and guilt. Yes, guilt. Because I have been an urban colonizer.
Smith describes the gentrifiers of San Francisco’s Mission District as “white people–yuppies and new media professionals who would pay exorbitant rents to reside in what the Utne Reader had called “One of the Trendiest Places to Live in America.”
…The streets were now lined with Land Rovers and BMWs, and once seedy neighborhood bars now employed bouncers and served $10 rasberry martinis. Abandoned warehouses had not been converted into affordable housing but instead into fancy lofts going for $300,000 to $1 million.
I understand that description and recognize it. But I also know that the gentrification of urban areas can mean opportunity for many working and middle class black people.
Shortly after my husband and I became engaged, we moved into a small, newly-renovated, high-rise condo on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. It was just north of the once prosperous, now blighted, Bronzeville neighborhood, just south of booming development: fancy lofts and condos starting at $300,000 a pop, just west of of the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan, and just east of a sprawling public housing project. We were smack at the epicenter of the gentrification of Chicago’s near south side.
Our new home was modest: just a one-bedroom with a tiny kitchen, but it had awesome views of the Windy City skyline. On July 4th, you could watch fireworks all over the city–from the West Side to Chinatown to Grant Park–on our balcony. And if you craned your neck, you could see a sliver of Lake Michigan. We were proud. We owned something, like our parents before us.
My husband, then fiance, had spent years counting pennies and living in a crappy apartment to save up to buy his own place. When we met, I had just graduated from a dusty, old studio apartment, to a larger place. You see, even for folks with good jobs, like my husband and I, property ownership in expensive cities like Chicago is elusive. We worked hard for that little place.
Gentrification brought improvements to the near south side–increased police presence, renovated homes and amenities–that attracted people like my husband and I. We were not, for the most part, six-figure-earning yuppies. We were not, for the most part, white. The residents of my condo association, which included three renovated high rises and two-story town houses, were a mix of up-and-coming professionals, working class retirees and graduate students. The population was mostly black, but also brown, white and Asian. Our enclave was not unique, it seemed to me mostly black folks who were buying the impressive, newly-polished greystones that lined King Drive.
Interestingly, though many of my fellow gentrifiers shared skin color with the long-standing residents of our neighborhood, our cohabitation was sometimes uneasy.
Part of the development of our condo complex included erecting a high wrought iron fence with locked gates that spanned three city blocks.The fence afforded safety and privacy for my fellow homeowners, but barred residents of the housing project to our west from a direct route to some major bus lines, as well as family and friends in a smaller public housing development to our east. The condo of which I was so proud was, I’m sure, to some existing residents, just a new hindrance dropped in the middle of their community.