At the end of my street is a tiny German/Mexican eatery that serves a combination of tacos and bratwurst with differing results. When it opened, it replaced a dingy taco place that had not changed its recipes since the 1950s. The first weekend the new establishment opened, my sister and I sat at the bar with an older Hispanic man and his son who had walked over from the nearby apartments. We paid $10 each for a drink. We chatted a bit, drank our beer, and considered the overpriced tacos. It didn’t take long to realize that this new establishment in our neighborhood wasn’t built for its neighbors.
I’ve shared this story with friends, and we’ve listed off other things we’ve noticed on our block - the delicious pizza place that took over an abandoned auto garage, the scattering of densely-built townhomes replacing worn apartment buildings, and rent increases that almost double to what we had paid a couple years earlier. We fear that our neighborhood will change beyond recognition. We fear that those in our communities who are most vulnerable to change will suffer because of it. We talk about the big ideas of gentrification and displacement, and at some point reality feels too big and we feel powerless.
Despite our negative views of gentrification, what many of us experience is a more subtle, nuanced version, in which not every change is bad and, there aren’t any obvious heroes or villains.
As an urban planner, I work with communities across the United States to design the future of their neighborhoods. I find that urban planners and community members alike grapple with whether low income and minority residents will be displaced when a neighborhood is “revitalized” or restored.
It’s difficult enough to define gentrification, let alone find the tools to prevent it.
The reality is sometimes it is not big, bad corporations moving into a neighborhood, or careless landlords kicking low-income and minority families out of their homes. More often than not, it’s policies put into place decades ago that allow for changing development patterns, dramatically rising housing costs, and a lack of affordable housing and strong neighborhood institutions.
What we do know is that gentrification and displacement disproportionately impacts communities of color.
As planners and academics, we look at early predictors of gentrification documented in neighborhoods all over North America - in San Francisco, Brooklyn, Charleston, and Echo Park (to name a few). These predictors rely on big data that is not always accurate or up-to-date, and include the percentage of low-income residents, non-college educated adults, renters, rental prices rising higher than county rates, and access to a train station. But big data doesn’t always predict future trends.
While it might seem that luxury coffee shops, art galleries, and high-rise condos signal coming gentrification, the wheels of displacement happened long before we see the signs in our communities.
As in my neighborhood, once we notice neighborhood change, we are often a decade too late to stop it. In a situation that feels so big, it’s easy to feel powerless. As a 30-something white woman living in a majority Hispanic community, I have to consider how my presence in my neighborhood affects my community. I have found six practical and thoughtful tips to engage in this in my neighborhood:
Acknowledge any privilege.
If you can pay rent or buy a house in a neighborhood post-gentrification, are able to enjoy its amenities, or are not typically judged negatively by others based on your physical appearance or identity, you have privilege that many of your neighbors may not have.
Get to know your neighborhood history and culture.
Oftentimes, people move to neighborhoods for their culture, history, architecture, and availability of low-cost housing. Neighborhoods have a rich tapestry of history and culture, but without really learning about it, you could end up replacing a vibrant community with a superficial version of what it means to you.
Listen to the voices of your neighbors, and don’t speak for them.
If there is one thing that’s become increasingly apparent in the last few years, it is that being a “voice for the voiceless and the oppressed” actually marginalizes and erases voices that need to be heard. Get to know your neighbors, join a neighborhood group, and step aside for them to speak and to lead (remember tip one on privilege).
Let yourself be uncomfortable.
Most, if not all, of our world is designed to make us comfortable. But the anger or frustration that your neighbors feel about their changing neighborhoods is based on their lived experience. Be sensitive and allow yourself to feel the discomfort.
Invest in community-focused and community-run organizations.
If you want to invest your money or time into your neighborhood (And you should! It’s the best!), make sure you are giving directly to the community and following their lead. Communities know who they are, how they do things, and what they need better than anyone else (including you!). And they should have the power to direct these efforts.
Question tactics and measures that address community “safety”.
One of the strongest data points for indicators of gentrification and displacement is increased 911 calls. It’s not necessarily that the neighborhood had become more dangerous, it’s that newcomers (often white, and/or often middle or high-income) see signs of danger or nuisance, while others just see their neighbors. In every community I work in, residents of all ages, backgrounds, and creeds want a safe community. But “safety” can mean different things to different groups of people.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed with the reality of gentrification, but this isn’t a call to shame or guilt. We have the opportunity to align our choices with our values and vision for the world we want to live in.