from Neighbors Project
by Kit Hodge
I read articles and blogs about gentrification every day thanks to my daily search for Neighbor News articles, and I have come to the conclusion that most people are at a loss for how to have a constructive conversation about gentrification. If people from different walks of life in a neighborhood can agree on what’s actually going on in their specific neighborhood, then they have a much better shot on working together towards a common solution. If they can’t even talk about what’s happening without confusing or infuriating each other, then there’s little hope. So I have put together some rules for talking about gentrification:
1. Be as specific as possible. Gentrification is a complicated process that impacts different neighborhoods and cities in different ways. The demographics of gentrification vary significantly.
The gentrifiers may be White, Asian or, yes, Black people in their 20s and 30s. They may cause the opening of locally-owned boutiques, chain stores, big boxes or farmer’s markets. They may be moving into dense areas or former warehouse districts or bungalow areas. It may be the upper middle class moving into a middle class area or artists moving into a low income area, or students into a diverse neighborhood. The people moving in may be from the suburbs, other parts of the city, other parts of the country, or immigrants from around the world. They may bring cars, but they also might prefer bikes and public transportation. They might want a Starbucks, or they might fight harder than anyone else to prevent a Starbucks from opening. They might be mostly single, or mostly young families. They might like hip hop or they might like country.
The folks already living in the neighborhood may be from families that have lived in the area for a few generations, or recent immigrants. They may love the neighborhood or they may be looking for a way out to a better life. There may already be thriving retail, or there may be almost nothing. The dynamics of an immigrant hub are very different from that of a emptied out former industrial area. Up to 25% of Americans move every year, which means that your neighborhood is constantly changing. There is likely a lot of diversity among people in your neighborhood; in particular, home owners and renters are impacted very differently by gentrification.
Yes, it’s true that the groups that are forced to interact in a gentrifying neighborhood are likely different in some way. But don’t assume that the differences are universal across the city or country. Being specific about exactly who is interacting in your neighborhood will make it more likely that you will be able to understand and act on the specific challenges facing your neighborhood.
2. Get your history right.
I see a lot of posts and articles in which people blithely declare that certain groups have “historically” dominated the neighborhood. It may be that certain groups have indeed been in the neighborhood for a while, but they were likely preceded by a completely different group, and so forth and so on back to the dinosaurs. And everyone has had beef with each other. The point is, don’t fall into the “this neighborhood belongs to that group” trap since it’s a) false and b) counterproductive to actually doing something to ensure that people who identify with that group can indeed continue to feel at home in the neighborhood. I’ve also seen artists occasionally claim that they “made” the neighborhood. This is obviously offensive and overblown rhetoric to be avoided.
3. Look at the push and pull factors.
Believe it or not, some people in your neighborhood want to move for reasons that have nothing to do with gentrification (though population changes can accelerate their move). For example, longer-time residents may be near retirement age and eyeing a comfortable community in a warmer climate, decimating a large portion of the older population in the neighborhood. Younger, newer residents may be feel the pull of the exurbs once they have kids, ensuring a cycle of 20-somethings that never quite seem to grow up. Working class residents may be eyeing a traditional suburban home and car-based lifestyle as proof to themselves and their friends that they’ve made it. Locally-owned stores may close because of a death in the family, or because the owner wants to retire or because it’s never made any money. Being honest about who wants to stay, and how to help them to stay, will make you more successful at truly fostering a diverse community.
4. Be realistic about the extent of the impact.
One coffee shop or one condo building does not gentrification make. Media and bloggers are especially guilty of claiming that relatively small changes in the neighborhood constitute total gentrification. Don’t let your frustration with other parts of the city or larger problems, however real and upsetting, like racism or a downturn in the art market make you quick to find problems in your neighborhood. I especially hate the “and now everyone’s moving to Jersey City” claims; they rarely jive with the actual demographic patterns. Being realistic about the impact, including who is actually moving into any of the new housing created in the neighborhood, will help you win more support from people who want to work with you.