THis Land Is My Land!
written by Amba Brown
Gentrification is a highly charged word. It carries with it moral weight due to the unquestionable impact it places on both the communities long-term residents and the neighborhood itself as a living organism. Across the world today, people come and go, markets rise and fall, and this very real muddle of movement and immigration is the only certainty. Despite numerous calls to address gentrification over the years, there is still little hope of an end in sight to this tumultuous churn and change. In the meantime, the weight continues to press down and firmly tenses.
So when we try to differentiate between the evil real estate developer and the group of friends just trying to afford to make it in the big city, we realize that we are all in some ways participating in the system. But what is the role of the ‘conscious gentrifier’? That is, how does someone who is aware of what’s going on and doesn’t intend to disrupt, but due to living in their newfound area, fits inside this paradigm? And what is the meaning of the complexities hidden within this privilege?
Humans inherently will always seek out the ‘it place’ to be. Every gentrifier, or anyone living in a new neighborhood for that mater, has social responsibility weighing on their shoulders. How can they lessen their impact or rally for those who have been there for years before them? Ironically, reality can be the most unwelcome visitor if you’re the cause of the same thing you’re fighting against.
The story of change sweeping through a community is thousands of years old. It’s been happening ever since the heyday of Ancient Rome, where historians have reported evidence of smaller shops being replaced by larger villas back in the third century. In other words, gentrification is nothing new. It also certainly isn’t isolated to any one country. Yet, what is new is the rate at which it’s occurring. Across America, the rate of gentrification has accelerated in various major cities over the past decade, most notably New York, Portland, Washington D.C., and Seattle, just to name a few.
Portland exemplifies the classic case of the wealthy and white moving to the new ‘it place’ to live. What were once previously undervalued, affordable and predominately African American neighborhoods became sought out, resulting in increased land value and with it increased displacement. Today, a city like Portland is a predominately white community, where its liberal and local tendencies call for hipsters and young professionals to make the move in search of a locally sourced, artistic, and aesthetically urban life.
Another visible example of gentrification is the impact new tech residents have had on old San Francisco. In a small city of only around 900,000 people, you can actually see the dramatic effects of the dot com boom before your eyes; skyrocketing rents leading to extreme poverty, with syringes and defecation reportedly found on most blocks, leaving the city’s street hygiene being compared with some of the dirtiest slums around the world.
The reality is, these neighborhood concerns are not only isolated to low income earners. Affluent middle class residents of gentrified cities are now also fearing they will be priced out of the areas before too long. Journalists have frequently conveyed the impact corporations are having not only in San Francisco but also in cities like Seattle and New York, as journalist Alexis C. Madrigal commented, “a rich city is great for the rich, but it’s very hard on everyone whose labor is not valued as highly as tech engineers and financiers.” Other cities across America, most of which are substantially larger than San Francisco, must look to how things are unfolding here as plausible concerns for the future.
Tech organizations, globalization, government policies, developers and high-income earners capitalizing on centrally located neighborhoods with opportunistic property values, along with the increasing desire of people wanting to move back into cities, only scratches the surface for explaining hyper-gentrification today.
In a study conducted by UCLA and Berkeley in 2015, they simplified things further by identifying three key factors responsible for driving neighborhood change: the movement of people, public policies and investments, and flows of private capital. A closer look at the ‘movement of people’ component helps us to understand what drives these in-movers. What pushes their decision to relocate to a gentrified neighborhood? Affordable housing prices, interesting culture, authentic community, diversity, and access to city centers, just to name a few.
But gentrifiers aren’t all Christopher Columbus’ of today seeking to explore untapped gems. They also don’t always look like how you think they might. They are not only upwardly mobile couples investing in their hedge funds while buying and renovating their brownstones in Brooklyn. They are also recent graduates with their student loans looming-- sometimes five people living in an apartment at a time. The bottom line is that having more money when moving into an area doesn’t define one as being a gentrifier.
One may claim that a single person keeping to themselves would not make much of a difference. However, in reality, critical mass follows and before too long the area is overrun, overpriced and usually lacking diversity, but somehow not coffee shops or authentically healthy and organic groceries. Global entities like Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Pret-A-Manger continue to claim their corners and create more same-same towns. The over branding of neighborhoods is occurring to the point where you don’t even know what city you’re in anymore; East Coast or West, what’s the difference? The social and economic changes that are brought on by the white, middle-class consumption habits slowly push out locals and pull in hipster friendly and more corporate constructions.
There seems to be a naivety that keeps playing out in history--the belief that there is no need for further change after one’s ideal modifications have been met. The state of contentment is undoubtedly subjective, and in the same respect, gentrification is relative. What is old, and perhaps comfortable for one, is also at some stage in fact new and challenging to another.
The Brooklyn Barclays Center (which opened in 2012) and Manhattan’s High Line (which opened in 2009) are some recent landmarks around New York City that stamp gentrification. But these two icons mark vastly different examples. Both types of gentrification are equally damaging to ecosystems in their unique way. The former, relating to the issue of displacing citizens in residential areas, as can be demonstrated by the influx of white people in Brooklyn. And the later, a dramatic transformation of a public space that adjusts the soul of a neighborhood. A quick comparison of the New York’s Soho neighborhood in the 80’s to what it is today demonstrates this. Old abandoned buildings once full of artists have now lost their edginess to a new beloved neighborhood worth billions of dollars. Now, even more recently on top of all this, March 2019 saw the opening of Hudson Yards, an 18 million square foot development on the West Side, again altering the city’s social landscape. So at what cost to the community is this new go-to Instagram worthy destination for tourists?
Herein lies one of the key issues brought to light by gentrification. That is, the imbalance of land being regarded by society at large for its market yield above the importance of an authentic, or spiritual relationship with the land for its intrinsic value. Where along the line did society’s connection with our land fall so out of place? To the point now where for many, even grasping such a concept as not owning the land is almost out of reach.
An explanation of the origin of the term itself may help. The term gentrification was first coined in 1964 by sociologist Ruth Glass when describing the social changes she observed in London. The poor were being pushed out of their neighborhoods by the upper classes, or the gentry. Glass claimed in her book, London: Aspects of Change, “Once this gentrification starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.” Today, gentrification is widely understood as the process of rebuilding a deteriorating community by the middle or upper class, which often results in the displacement of the earlier, usually less affluent residents. It’s not surprising such a term was born in a society where categorizing individuals within a labelled class system is kosher.
So in turn, the word gentrifier is unmistakably referring to the people moving into these new areas. Understanding the beliefs, emotions, and viewpoints of a gentrifier, on the other hand, is extremely complex. In Gentrifier (2017), a recent book written by gentrifiers themselves, John Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill, categorizes gentrifiers into six stereotypes: Conqueror, Colonizer, Competitor, Capitalist, Consumer, and Curator. A classification system useful in lumping people together based on the different factors which lead to their move. The clusters range from the extremes, individuals who intend on taking over, aka ‘the conqueror’, to those who aim to assimilate into an existing community, aka ‘the curator’. Perhaps the addition of another 20 plus words to this list wouldn’t go astray in fleshing out the many gaps in between. For instance, ‘Immigrants’ moving to an ethnically centered hub, or the ‘Art-lovers’ moving closer to the scene. Then there are the ‘Students’ seeking out an affordable place to live and study, or the ‘Escapers’, leaving their homes in search of belonging because their homes never really felt like home in the first place.
Despite ones intentions when moving into a new area, their internal experience remains extremely individualistic. Some feel they’re adding value while others carry guilt, some feel they’re forced into an area by their backgrounds or financial situations and blame the various forces greater than themselves, while for many their involvement doesn’t even cross their mind. No matter the feelings brought up by the move, grouped together they are the new residents. Often creating an ‘us vs them’ mentality despite any good intentions. Sure it’s not the goal to kick out the neighbor, but the fact is their mere presence can lead to this outcome. These displaced neighbors are generally people of color and low-income earners. At the end of the day, this is the crux of another social justice issue. American rapper Killer Mike explained, “People tend to think of gentrification in terms of race because it’s presented that way, and I think it’s presented that way because in poor cities that’s what’s really going on.” But gentrification isn’t always a matter of black and white.
Gentrification becomes grey when the people moving into the areas are people who have already been displaced themselves -- the arrival of first generation immigrants. Can they too be categorized as gentrifiers? This ties back into gentrifiers not being inherently evil. Los Angeles reportedly houses the highest immigrant population in the country. Certainly this changes community dynamics. From a top-level look at this international movement, first generation immigrants have been found to place financial pressure on governments, while second and third generation immigrations have been found to contribute to government finances. Do financial figures such as these act as a useful gauge in making decisions around the movement of people (from in country or out of country), or companies, such as giant tech companies choosing their next headquarters?
At what point does the impact on individuals within the community, or the gentrified themselves, outweigh the financial gain of the greater city? In Spike Lee’s 2014 rant during a lecture at the Pratt Institute in honor of Black History Month, he commented on the notion there was a good side to gentrification. His comments shed an extremely raw insight on behalf of the angst of the gentrified, “You can’t just come in when people have a culture that’s been laid down for generations and you come in and now shit gotta change because you’re here? Get the fuck outta here. Can’t do that!”
Lee has advocated against gentrification over the years, shedding light on its issues through film. Such as his 1989 movie Do The Right Thing, where he portrayed whites invading Brooklyn, and also his recent television series, She’s Gotta Have It, which showcases the effects new white neighbors have on a black community. Despite his efforts, being brought up in a well-off Brooklyn family and his financial investments around Brooklyn, has led to even Lee receiving backlash and accusations that he, too, has contributed towards gentrification; claims Lee strongly denies.
There are also various other resources out there today hoping to educate gentrifiers and prevent a privileged mentality. Articles titled, “20 Ways Not To Be a Gentrifier” and “How To Be Less of a Gentrifier” share advice on how to embrace your community, chat with your neighbors, buy local, and respect the existing diversity. How to use open communication tactics to include people in change discussions so different viewpoints can be considered. On a macro level, various suggestions have also been proposed to create policies that would enable long-term residents to share in the benefits of gentrification. Encouraging the community to be part of the changes taking place, implementing progressive policies, programs and financing tools to protect residents from displacement pressures, such as rent control and land taxes to support locals and ultimately ease the social conflict on the ground.
English artist Benjamin Clementine famously said, “This so-called gentrification, it can never be stopped.” As much as some would love a ‘stop now’ switch enabling them to lock a community at a point in time, before it becomes overrun by expensive coffee shops and fancy co-ops, it is simply beyond control. Take Florida for instance, and its frustrated residents feeling priced out in their now overrun and overpriced beach houses that are worth millions of dollars. Real estate soaring in a once slow seaside town. But what about the owners before them, who the current residents originally bought their shacks off of? When real estate comes into fashion people seem to deny there was ever a time before their arrival. With the only constant being the inevitably of change, it would be naive not to accept it.
However, there is a drastic difference in the ways transformation can take place. First, there is the reality of living in an ever-changing society, one which grows and changes organically. Then there are instances of abrupt disruption within a society that can occur through corporate decisions or individual greed. Take for instance the decision of a company to place their headquarters in a city, like Amazon in Seattle, or the introduction of Hudson Yards, a whole new faux city placed within a city in Manhattan. Regardless of who lives in a community, the wish for change for the greater good should always be a priority. A community with low crime rates, access to transport, education, supermarkets, and safe public spaces should be on the agenda for all. This desire to look out for the greater good of others again raises the question: how can the gentrifier play a role in creating a new way forward? What do they value and how do they act out these values? How can they begin to think more critically about this process?
Insights of the gentrified, like those shared by Spike Lee, are helpful for us as social observers, to understand what’s going on. But, unless this is something experienced first hand it’s not something to authentically comment on. For the middle-class citizens who have found themselves in an aha-moment reading this, processing ‘I am a gentrifier’--it is now time to be mindful. It is the responsibility of the conscious gentrifier to think and act. Instead of blaming, brainstorming. Instead of weighing in on the positives and negatives, hearing others stories by listening, without always needing a solution there and then. Being culturally sensitive and curious to all pieces of the puzzle is a start.
The conversation surrounding gentrification is very much stuck in an endless cycle of blame. Evidently, the gentrified can blame the gentrifier, the gentrifier can blame themselves, and or greater forces for bringing them there, and then it all spins right back around on itself. But as privileged individuals, it’s not about finding who is to blame. Instead, it’s about acknowledging one’s role in this social issue and embracing the ways of the more conscious gentrifier. In the end, it is not having the privilege that is the problem; it’s what we do with the privilege that matters.