Should we aspire to gentrification?

By Common Consent has a post up right now about LDS architecture – a side interest of mine.  Someone made a comment about how an LDS chapel, generic though it may be, ‘gentrifies the neighborhood’…. as if that is a good thing.  And I immediately cringed, commented a couple of times, and then realized I should take my thoughts to my own space rather than hijacking the BCC thread.

Now, I’m not sure it is categorically a bad thing.  Nor, as a comment later in the thread points out, am I convinced a single meetinghouse actually carries that much weight in a housing market.  But I immediately bristled at the idea that we should be rallying around plunking chapels down as a gentrification tool.

I think the commenter makes a common mistake in thinking of gentrification as a turning over in housing/building stock/quality instead of a turnover of communities/people.  In one of the courses I teach, we spend a great deal of time discussing gentrification.  I do it because it is a central community and housing theme in urban planning circles; I also do it because invariably the communities that half of the students want to choose as their term projects are quickly gentrifying ones. But it is a tricky topic linked to a much larger housing debate about poverty concentration and its social implications.

Anyhow, I show a film called Flag Wars, a Point of View film, which is set down the street from where I once lived. It is a fascinating film, apparently now available to stream on Amazon and sometimes shown on PBS.  The extras on the website are also, if a bit dated, really good.   For those of our more conservative LDS readers, I will warn that on occasion the language is a bit rough (although not awful) and the central theme relates to the gay-lesbian community; you may want to preview before watching it in front of your kids.

The film allows me to make a couple of points:

(1) Gentrification is about displacement of people in terms of class NOT race, ethnicity, or (in this case) gender preference. But, because class and race are so intertwined in the US, certain racial communities suffer the brunt of gentrification.

(2) Gentrification does not always make the area feel safer.  There are several comments in the film about how the neighborhood began gentrifying, the crime was actually LESS prevelant.  Further, the conflict between the two different classes can often increase the stress of the neighborhood for long-tenured residents.

(3) Improving the housing stock does not necessarily improve the community.  In fact, the pressure it puts on housing prices results in displacement of the most vulnerable.  Displacement usually means dispersion of the community and thus tears it apart.

(4) Housing/code violations are a complaint driven process.  If you think that ‘cleaning up the neighborhood’ by forcing your neighbors to ‘take care of their property’ in this manner is ideal/ethical/whatever, you are wrong.  EVEN IF THE BUILDING/NEIGHBORHOOD IS HISTORIC.  It comes from a place of privilege including access to resources (specifically real estate loans and capital) that many people of color have flat out been denied for years.

I could go on.  And I could write about what little we know about how to avoid gentrification.  But I can’t because I have to go pick my son up.  Let’s just suffice it to say that run down neighborhoods are problematic but they hold real communities; gentrification is, by definition, the breaking-up of those communities.  And I’m super uncomfortable when someone suggests that placing a building that helps a tiny minority of that community is a good thing because it looks nice.  Placing a nice building in a poor neighborhood does not necessarily give the residents more access to nice (or even desperately needed) resources.  And it leaves out the part where it might eventually lead to massive displacement/disbursement of the current community.  Blah.

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2 responses to “Should we aspire to gentrification?

  1. nat kelly February 11, 2012 at 11:58 am

    I’m glad you’re writing about this, because gentrification is a complicated issue that I have had difficulty understanding.

    For example, I am white, but poor, and live in my city’s “Chinatown”. After moving into what I thought was an awesome apartment, I noticed that almost all the residents of my building are also white. And that almost everyone else in the neighborhood is an immigrant from East Asia. I also discovered that the rents in my building are quite a bit higher than other buildings in the neighborhood.

    Now I’m suspicious. Is my landlord only renting to white people? Is the fact that I’m paying this higher price contributing to rising housing costs in the neighborhood as a whole? Did I unwittingly benefit from racist/classist policies that are gentrifying this neighborhood?

    I want to live in diverse areas. I just feel so much more comfortable in my own skin when there are people of many different backgrounds around me at the parks, grocery stores, bus stops, and coffee shops where I live. But am I causing harm by being there, because I’m white? Is my skin color, and my willingness to pay/being duped into paying higher rent costs going to mess things up?

    I want to live there. But I don’t want to cause harm. Bleh. Like I said, it’s complicated.

  2. Nicole February 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Thanks for commenting Nat. This was certainly an off the cuff rant but has important implications – glad you found it useful. Go watch that film!

    You are describing something often referred to as being an ‘urban pioneer.’ We have the same guilt over in our family. We tend to purchase homes or rent apartments in edgy neighborhoods; we need the price break AND we appreciate the diversity. And I always wonder to what extent I’m contributing to the demise of the neighborhood. And then I feel guilty. It is tough.

    In response to your worries, I don’t think that contributing to diversity equates to gentrification. But contributing to diversity as you use flip houses and make a buck off a historically undervalued neighborhood is textbook gentrification. Some might argue that by being in a position to pay a bit more than the average rent in the neighborhood for your building is a similar mechanism through the landlord. Again, complicated.

    Another example: demanding that the long-tenured residents adhere to our (white, aspiring to upper-middle-class) social values. Sure, it is well documented that blight lends itself to a lack of social capital, etc because of perceptions of safety – but don’t you dare come in with historic ‘codes’ and ‘standards’ and tell minorities that their bright, but not historic, purple house is out of compliance. Or that they can’t have 3 cars in their driveway. Your norms might not be their norms. As long as theirs aren’t terribly dysfunctional, you need to be supporting them retaining theirs.

    Mostly, I think it has to do with respecting the pre-existing community. You need them to have more say than the newbies. Nothing wrong with being involved in a neighborhood group… but make sure you are inviting the minority and long-tenured neighbors, you know?

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