This series explores the truth about America’s culture of dependency: that it is driven by the antiquated ideology behind an economic system that no longer works in the favor of the people.
I recently was having a conversation with a friend who was talking about moving to New York. I asked where he would want to live and he said Harlem. I laughed and he asked why. I told him that it was funny to me to here people say that because I grew up in NY and I remember when Harlem was not a place you wanted to live in NY. There were parts with music and arts that people might frequent but people didn’t aspire to call Harlem home. Now, Harlem is chic. We also talked about the similar pattern happening in Brooklyn and in the SouthEast area of Washington, D.C. These places normally relegated to majority Black and lower middle class residents is suddenly booming with expensive condos and studio apartments thanks to gentrification.
In many ways gentrification is perceived as something desirable and beneficial to a city. Conversely, to anyone who lives or has lived in a lower income community the word gentrification is like saying Raid to a roach. It carries the implication that the people who currently call these areas home will be physically exterminated from their homes and the community that once was will no longer exist.
Spike Lee commented on his thoughts about gentrification in a recent talk at Pratt Institute.
The Cost of Gentrification
Objectively speaking gentrification is about the influx of wealth into a previously low economic area of a city. This usually happens through government investment in the communities development through the renovation of buildings and homes which helps to draw people with higher household incomes. This creates a silent battle for those individuals who already live in the community.Those who already live in the community must choose between staying and allocating more of their household income to housing and cashing out to move on to neighborhoods that are more affordable. In this dilemma lies the sinister nature of gentrification.
Gentrification wears the mask of positivity in that it declares that a neighborhood will be better. The neighborhood will look better, there will be more and better police protection of the neighborhood, property values will rise, better stores and businesses will be attracted to the area, and the city will obliterate a sore spot. It is a fact gentrification does do this. But at what cost?
The cost of gentrification is a loss of the community and culture through disregard of people. These communities draw the attention of the city because they are decrepit sore spots of dilapidation. However, they draw the attention of people because despite whatever crime or violence may exist, these areas have a sense of community. These areas have a culture. For instance Harlem was a draw for wealthier individuals because of its history of artistic culture. Once the violent crime impassioned inhabitants were pushed out, no one had to speak about the dangerous aspect that once existed.
Gentrification implies that the people who live in these communities are the reason that the neighborhood could not and did not thrive. The truth is they the lack of income flowing into the neighborhood crested a people who found a way to survive in it (maybe through crimes and acts of violence). Gentrification implies that geography and buildings contain culture. But culture is appropriated and cultivated by people. The removal of the people who are rooted in the community will most certainly erase the culture.
One of the reasons gentrification is an insulting act for people who live in the communities being gentrified is because it is an extension of the city’s blatant disregard for them and their lives. The lack of economic power equals the lack of political voice. These people were left to carve out a life for themselves amid whatever deteriorating conditions. After years of survival the city suddenly pays the communities some attention and decide to invest in developing the community but with disregard for people there who clearly cannot afford the expensive new homes and no plan is put in place to allow them to. It, again, for these people is do or die: pay more or get out.
The Unspoken Truth
So, why did it take this great influx of White people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!
– Spike Lee
The most largely avoided aspect in the conversation about gentrification is race. I’m sure the mainstream argument would be that this isn’t about race it’s about economics. However, in this era in America and for the last few decades race has been racially coded with economic terminology. We don’t have to call them niggas if we call them ‘urban,”ghetto,”hood.’ We don’t have to call them predominantly Black/Latino neighborhoods if we call them ‘ghettos,”lower income,”projects.’ We don’t have to say their inferior if we quote lower college graduation rates, higher high school drop out rates, higher prison populations, and a greater presence in drug and violence related crimes.
In this current time there is no way to speak about American economics without a consideration to race. Certainly there are White people that are poor and love in these very same communities. For this reason I would never be so sensational as to use terms like ‘war on Black people.’ But I’m also not delusional enough to believe that simply because there are few White casualties in these acts of discrimination that the predominant race populating these communities is Black/Latino and those lives are the center of the disregard.
The problem is that these communities – because they have no wealth- have no voice. They are disregarded. There is very little empathy for people who live in lower income neighborhoods. Public opinion in support of the American Dream – which is more of a delusion – insist that these people are in their station in life because they are stupid, lazy, or uneducated. Public opinion says that they should stop whining about living in poverty and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. I ask, how the hell can they afford the boots??
Higher income middle class persons who could and should stand beside and support these communities are conditioned to view them (despite only a few degrees of separation) the way the mainstream does: as unwanted sore spots filled with society’s leeches. The upper middle class buy into the hype about gentrification: that it is about community improvement and wealth creation in lower income areas. This justifies their indifference and makes them feel powerful and wealthy. There is nothing the upper middle class wants more than to be closer connected to the upper class with as much distance from the lower class in geography and ideology as possible. This dynamic effectively neutralizes the radical support that these communities need to survive.
If we continue to buy into the illusion of gentrification and do not protect and support these communities, we are in fact assisting in their destruction. When a community is destroyed so is it’s culture and it’s history that even those in the upper middle class probably have some connection to (a generation or two in their family history).
These communities do need and deserve some ‘revitalization’ but not at the cost of the culture and lives that already exist. They deserve to be made whole and left in tact. As long as gentrification, as it operates now, continues we will continue to see a disparity in economic life in cities because the wealth being created does not benefit or remain in the racial groups or social classes that it first affects. Those people get a one time lottery ticket that forces them to another area of the city that is just as problem ridden as the one they left. Only now they don’t have their history and sense of home that they spent years creating. In essence they begin the cycle of surviving at the poverty line all over again. And since the people are the community, the community is not helped by gentrification; they’re merely shoved under a rug until they become a problem worth noticing again.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man