Oh, NOW You Want To Talk About Gentrification

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Gentrification is all the rage right now. There are new (and really good) books being released on the subject, neighborhood groups have formed to address it, and it’s a hot button topic for just about any news week, which is saying a lot considering current presidential antics. And yet, in an odd and karmic twist, the conversations are almost exclusively white.

Here is what I need you to recognize about gentrification: by the time most of you realize what’s happening, it’s too late to do anything about it.

Much of the real power to affect change in development and its crass cousin gentrification lies almost solely under the purview of local-level government. Your city is likely being re-routed, gutted and redrawn because the federal government no longer supports city-level development in areas like housing the way it used to. Forced to turn their cities into revenue generators, the people who run cities – mayors, city councils, and major businesses and institutions – eject people of low or no income out of areas where more profitable tax gains can be made with a different population and new development goals.

By the time you have your town hall meeting about gentrification and new urban crises, you’re already many years past the point of being able to change anything. And let’s be clear: in 2017? Shame is not a viable political strategy.

The problem of gentrification is all long game, and whatever solutions exist to address it are equally long term. And between raising enough awareness of the crisis; educating people on the outcomes; resetting value systems to accommodate people out of empathy and kindness; realigning and installing political maneuvers and representation; and then actually having people with clout convince developers, business and institutions to not drive poor people out of their homes, raze their culture, and otherwise shuffle them to the furthest reaches of city bus lines; we’re talking years and years of reactionary work trying to develop solutions that are largely unfunded, widely untaught, and too little too late in most cases.

If that all sounds defeatist, it should. You probably can’t stop gentrification once its rolling in your town. Sorry.

So instead, let us talk about why the people who have traditionally done the gentrifying suddenly seem to care. The answer is dreadfully obvious: the gentrifiers are being gentrified and it turns out gentrification sucks no matter who it happens to.

I was listening to an NPR show on this subject yesterday. The host of the show was interviewing the author of a new book about the “new urban crisis”, which is basically when white people who used to be hip gentrifiers find themselves surrounded by development they didn’t ask for, that is changing the area they moved into for specific purposes, and is basically making what was a cool area a little too white for their taste. (Hey, white people’s words, not mine. I can’t tell you how many white people I come into contact with who bemoan how “white” their neighborhoods have become, which I find endlessly entertaining.) The host mentioned how she used to live in German Village years ago but now she couldn’t afford to live there, and how she thought that really exposed how bad the problem is. I mean, when you, as a well-to-do white person, can’t afford to live in a historic urban enclave, what has the world come to?

The whole argument reminded me of the new heroin epidemic-that-used-to-be-a-crime movement. When white people start feeling the effects of a problem, then the problem becomes real. Never mind the hundreds of (in my town) Columbus-based black families that were rolled out of the Short North and Olde Town East and Fourth Avenue, or the poor people left to languish in Franklinton and Linden and the south side for generations. (Feel free to plug in your formerly black neighborhoods with fresh white enclaves.) None of this was an issue until white people who moved into and colonized those areas a couple of decades back had to contend with replacing their old charm neighborhood watering holes with ironically retro video game bars and gourmet pizza shops.

Let’s get this much straight: most of the well-meaning people wanting to talk about gentrification now don’t care about gentrification. They’ve been living off the largesse of gentrification for years. They care about being shuffled out of the new gentrification, which is really more like the development they tried to sell us on when they moved in the first time. Now that it’s happening to them, they want to talk about it.

(FYI: It’s too late for you, too. You just don’t have to move into an apartment complex in Whitehall or the east side because a hipster thought your favorite independent family restaurant would be a nice spot for a gourmet microbrew. You may not be able to afford a hundred year old cottage with cobblestone streets, but you were never at risk of living in a Dickens novel.)

There is also an uptick in versions of this conversation with institutions as well, which usually take a different tact but represent an almost identical concern as the one posed by the newly gentrified. The problem, as defined by institutions, largely uses words like “culture” and community” and “diversity” (although this last one less so these days, as it’s become a red flag for cultural naiveté and political obtuseness). They concern themselves with trying to appear invested in these things when really, most of them struggle to gain any purchase in either generating culture or creating buy-in from large segments of under-represented communities.

Much of this institutional impenetrability is unavoidable because many foundations, service organizations, and arts centers have historically been used to shore up the machine of civic industry and whiteness. It can be dangerous to sell yourself as a community-based or civic concerned entity and not reflect or have any meaningful engagement with half of the city you operate in.  How does a 30 or 50 year old institution aimed at, say, expanding and reinforcing local culture convince anyone – especially funders – that they’re hitting the mark when their staff is almost entirely white, their funding comes almost exclusively out of white communities, their spokespersons are white, their programming and initiatives are drafted and launched with white sensibilities in mind, and all of this is marketed through white outlets to presumably white audiences?

If the conversations about how to better engage “non-traditional” communities and “real local culture” around you seem a little desperate, it’s because they are. They’re not looking to fix gentrification either. They have a different job. Their job is to make what gets gentrified still look cool. Their job is to market whatever passes for culture in a city, and in some cases, support it. But their job isn’t by and large to create it. And when they look like they’re not tapped into the culture of their city, bad things happen, usually to their bottom line.

Gentrification can only survive so long without investing in culture. When a city develops without genuine cultural considerations, it ends up building the suburbs, just closer. And there have been at least two generations of white gentrifiers in my lifetime spitting on anything that smacks of suburban conformity. And yet, here comes another chain coffee shop.

Critics of gentrification often use the destruction of existing culture as a popular defense against the kind of predatory development that has always personified the issue. As it turns out, it’s not just the destruction of existing culture we should be concerned about. We must also consider how paving over culture makes it impossible for new culture to flourish. And I don’t care if you are the most capitalistic grinder on the block, here’s some math you should keep in mind: it costs more to import or pretend you have culture than it does to just make space for what culture there is. Nature may very well abhor a vacuum, but there ain’t no plants on the moon. Or culture, for that matter.

Beware of the fashionable introduction of your demise into the agendas of the privileged. The privileged can survive the things that caused your demise when the fashion of protest wears thin. Addressing a problem is not a solution to a problem. When they parley, it’s another day. When we parley, it’s another life. Those of us who will remain under the thumb of our respective oppressions when the conversations are over must be honest about which battles we’ve already lost, and which ones we’re willing to trade another life for just so we can say we played nice with people who only now have discovered they might have skin in the game. Maybe.


2 thoughts on “Oh, NOW You Want To Talk About Gentrification

  1. I think I actually oppose gentrification because it means I can’t afford where I need to live for work, even though I chose that neighborhood to live in specifically so as not to be a gentrifier in the black and latino neighborhoods of my city (which I guess makes me self-segregating, because you can’t fucking win, can you?) I guess my only moral course of action is to go back to homophobic small town with no jobs, where I can suffer valorously rather than damage more worthy groups of people by moving within 100 miles of them.

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