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Wednesday
Mar222017

Gentrification Isn't the Problem

By Marlin D. Paschal


 

A couple of days ago a friend and fellow Pickaninny posted an article on Facebook titled The Hidden Systems at Work Behind Gentrification. The author of the article argued gentrification is not the random migration of latte drinking professionals in search of trendy urban lofts, but a corporate conspiracy to displace the poor and change the urban landscape into a soulless enclave of high-priced real estate. After reading the article, I suspect the musings of this author are consistent with the criticisms of both amateur and professional nostalgist. Unfortunately, I believe much of the criticism is levied by folks that are more concerned with reminiscing about the past than helping disadvantaged citizens create a viable future.

 

A couple of really good articles were published over the last couple of years challenging the conventional wisdom around gentrification – one in the Atlantic and the other in Slate. Both articles suggest the occurrence of gentrification is rare and its negative impacts overblown. The authors further argue the phenomenon we associate with displacing low income residence is largely relegated to the so called super cities like New York, Seattle and San Francisco. Affordable housing for everyone (particularly for the working class) is a problem in super cities, but that has largely to do with the rapidity of rental price increases – which is an exception rather than the rule for most parts of America.  

The contemporary literature and my own observations suggest the counterintuitist are right – especially concerning the plight of poor black communities. If poor black communities are transformed at all – it is usually via an influx of Hispanics or the arrival of other displaced immigrants. Put another way, recent college graduates, yuppies, entrepreneurs, and young bohemians are NOT flooding into the hood, until the hood has already been terraformed by other industrious pioneers. This is certainly true across the rustbelt and many areas in the Deep South.


I grew up in the East St. Louis area, which is an exurb of St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. East St. Louis is predominantly black, very poor, and it is littered with cheap real estate. But it isn’t under any imminent threat of gentrification, despite its rather attractive river front location and proximity to St. Louis. In truth, I believe many of the residents in East St. Louis and the surrounding area would welcome many of the changes a gentrified community might offer, such as safety and sustainable economic growth. Instead, I think the real concern with locals is how do you bring the positive values associated with gentrification without driving up real estate prices and radically changing the feel of the community. Quite frankly, change is unavoidable - as the community’s outlook improves it will inevitably become a more desirable place to live. Desirability attracts new people and new people change the fabric of the community (and raise the price to live there).

 

Some change, like soulless commercialization (i.e. mom and pop killing superstores, ugly strip malls, etc.), is counterproductive, but other forms of change bring much needed progress (i.e., competitive schools, art houses, local markets, etc.). The primary problem with inner city communities (like East St. Louis) is the prevalence of large concentrations of urban poor. The reasons these pockets exist is partially due to a history of racism and overt discrimination, but that is not a good reason to curtail the flow of gentrifiers. Whatever the case, the challenge for poor predominantly black urban enclaves is attracting people who are more concerned with creating a community than making a quick buck.

 

And therein lies the problem. Who are these people and how do you draw them in? Are we talking about the influx of black hipsters, colored yuppies, or maybe black tycoons like Oprah and Jay Z? I’m not exactly sure what the new arrivals might look like, but I do not think the solution rest with simply attacking gentrification. Instead, it starts with asking what do we want these communities to look like and who will be there to make it happen?

 

I think this means advocating for a gentrification that cultivates a collective sense of vision amongst the residence in a community and attracts the right kind of creative souls to the places that need them the most. As to the latter point, I think gentrification would be much less of a concern if the gentrifiers were black people returning to restore predominately black communities and preserve artifacts that should matter to black people. That’s not what usually happens, but it is very powerful when it does (see NYT article of 4 black artist saving Nina Simone’s birth home). Simply put, gentrification isn’t the problem, but it can become one if it's reduced to a political buzzword. The point of this article is to make some effort to think beyond the buzz and more about the politics.       



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