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Gentrification‏ May Save Cities, But it’s Killing Culture

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When I first heard the term “gentrification” used some handful of years ago (I’m from Idaho, OK?! I’m sorry.), I was sure it was a positive thing. I mean, what could possibly be wrong with something that’s also referred to as “urban renewal?” Yes, let’s take a neighborhood that needs improvements and improve it. I pictured some philanthropists in thick-rimmed glasses cutting the ribbon on a brand new community swimming pool. Newly renovated neighborhoods get quirky abbreviated names like “NoMa” (North of Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C.) or “SoBo” (South Boston). What fun!

Thinking I had a thorough grasp on the concept, I started making jokes and references about gentrification in conversation. Based on the twinges and awkward pauses these mentions received, I knew something was amiss. So after doing a little more research and seeing some examples of gentrification, I realized I was talking very lightly about a heavy subject.

According to the first axiom of Urban Economics, “Prices Adjust to Achieve Locational Equilibrium.” Gentrification is the result of more affluent people moving into an existing lower income area or neighborhood. What happens next is an increase in rent, property value, and a change in the overall culture of the affected area. Locational Equilibrium is achieved.

Some argue that gentrification is overall a positive thing. The original residents of the area who can afford to stay get to reap the benefits. However, the fact that any percentage of residents get booted because they can’t afford it means gentrification is, at best, a vice of the affluent first and a solution for the poor second.

So to shine a little more light on a subject that needs it, here are three famous examples of gentrification in the US.

Portland, Oregon

Portland’s Northeast quadrant is now home to some of the most quintessentially hip neighborhoods in the country. However, from the end of World War II to the early 90’s, this area was a vibrant black community. The early 90’s saw an influx of young professionals coming to Portland and setting up shop. According to Governing Magazine, Portland has experienced more gentrification than any other US city in the last 13 years. Specifically, “58 percent of Portland’s lower-priced neighborhoods had gentrified since 2000.”

Recently, tensions arose in the Northeast over what to do with a vacant lot on the corner of Alberta Street and NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. A Trader Joe’s grocery store, which caters to a more affluent customer base, was slated for the spot. However, after hearing outcry from lower income members of the community, Trader Joe’s backed out.

San Francisco, California

The Bay area, which includes Silicon Valley and San Francisco, is the epicenter of the booming tech industry in the US. The tech industry brings with it a high cost of living. For example, the average mobile app developer was paid somewhere between 100-144,000 dollars last year. Many individuals in this industry live in San Francisco and work in Silicon Valley. As an alternative to the regular commute, many tech companies hire private buses to shuttle their workers to and from work. In January of last year, protesters marched down Market Street and blockaded two of these tech shuttle buses. The protesters held signs that said “Warning: Rents and evictions up near private shuttle stops,” “Stop Displacement Now,” and one that simply stated “Fuck off Google.”

In San Francisco’s oldest neighborhood, The Mission District, lower-income Hispanic residents who have occupied that neighborhood for generations are struggling to keep their ground. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, The Mission has lost 2,400 Latino residents since 2000 and people who identify as white are now the majority.

Recently, this video was posted to YouTube about a dispute over the use of a soccer field between employees of DropBox, who had lived in the Mission for a relatively short time, and kids who had grown up there their whole lives. The DropBox employees had paid for a permit that reserved the field, but the kids were unphased and continued to play. This video was an interesting microcosm of gentrification at work.

Another famous gentrified area of San Francisco is The Fillmore neighborhood. Home of the NAACP headquarters and a lively jazz music scene, The Fillmore’s population has been predominantly African-American since World War II. Shortly after it became known as “Harlem West” and was home to prolific musicians like Aretha Franklin, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Marvin Gaye.  However, “urban renewal” initiatives that spanned the latter half of the last century, forced African-Americans out into the Fillmore projects or other areas like Oakland and Bayview-Hunter’s Point.

For a great first hand account of gentrification in The Fillmore, take a look at this article from Gawker.

Brooklyn, New York

Williamsburg, once an industrialized area, started closing factories around 1980. By the early 2000s, artists and young professionals attracted by low rent costs began moving in. Soon after businesses began catering to the more affluent demographic. In 2005, New York City officials implemented a controversial rezoning law which, among other things, turned the former industrialized waterfront into a residential area with 40-story luxury apartment buildings. According to Fusion.net, Williamsburg saw home values climb 470 percent from 2000 to 2013.

Bushwick, an area of Brooklyn to the east of Williamsburg, has recently been seeing an influx of the young artsy types that changed the face of Williamsburg. Bushwick is home to a diverse group of longtime residents who are fighting back against gentrification. Specifically, they’re voicing opposition for laws that allow landlords to raise rent by 20% after a property is vacated. These laws effectively incentivize “evicting longtime residents.”

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Early last year filmmaker Spike Lee was in the news for ranting against Brooklyn gentrification during a Black History Month speech. Lee, who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1970’s, was responding to a question from an audience member who asked about the positives of gentrification. Lee’s argument cuts to the core of why anyone arguing for the benefits of gentrification is misguided: “… why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every motherfuckin’ day when I was living in 165 Washington Park.”

Gentrification is difficult to combat because the higher property taxes that come from higher property value help the city fund municipal services. So the motivation for cities to safeguard their current residents isn’t always there. The closest thing I’ve ever experienced to gentrification is the handful of Californians buying up lakefront property in my hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho. So I don’t claim any expertise on the matter. However, it doesn’t take an expert to see that gentrification isn’t a solution to improving overall quality of life. The influx of affluent people may provide a valuable facelift to certain cities, but at the expense of the city’s culture — and the people who make it.

photo credit: Joe Mud via Flickr, cc.

REED PARKER likes writing, playing banjo, and telling bad jokes. He once stayed up all night looking for the sun. Then it dawned on him. Follow him on Twitter: @reedparker87
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