The Slow March of Gentrification

At this point in your life (ie, sentient enough to pick up a Motif) you’ve heard a joke about hipster kids and their expensive coffee, artsy style and love of underground music. A common part of that joke is the young, white rich kids moving into neighborhoods whose culture tends to lean more toward black or Hispanic, creating niche areas in the previously ‘non-desirable’ neighborhood and kind of taking over. This is the sour subject of gentrification — almost always a joke on the lips of the people privileged enough to not be affected. But, what is gentrification, and why is it an issue? A few white kids taking over a block or two can’t be that bad, right?

Outside of “Portlandia,” this issue is not to be taken lightly. Gentrification is the displacement of people of color or people of low income from a neighborhood in which they previously were the majority. The jokes about hipster kids couldn’t be further from the truth. Most displacement happens when property owners start renting exclusively to white college students. And as the culture of the neighborhood starts to fall apart, businesses start to fail. As rent hikes remove people of low income, owners start to make an effort to make houses look more desirable, finally getting those gutters replaced or giving the house a new paint job, to attract people who can afford higher rent. And while owners sprucing up may look like a good thing, the problem is who they are doing it for.

New businesses move in to replace failing ones. Puppy daycares and cupcake shops start to pop up, and then the real trouble begins. By this point, new home buyers start to make the most drastic change to the area by creating a divide. Most neighborhoods in this type of situation have a single street where the ‘nice area’ ends and the ‘hood’ or ‘ghetto’ starts. Let’s pause here. Hood and ghetto are dirty words. If you have a high school education you know where the word ghetto comes from. It refers to the forced segregation of Jews to fenced-in blocks during the Holocaust. This is economic segregation. Let that sink in.

Systematic oppression is rampant, and gentrification is one of the cornerstones of the issue. But try asking a member of a young white family if they think they are part of the problem. 

I interviewed four people (all of whom declined to be identified) in a Providence neighborhood that has strong opinions about gentrification. The people from the gentrified side of the neighborhood agreed that gentrification was bad, but thought they were not part of the problem because their “best friend is black” or “I voted for Bernie, because I’m not an idiot.” Literally a few blocks away, a shop owner apprehensively spoke with me due to my skin color and gender. She said things like, “The community here used to be stronger, but white people wanted the park.” And of the massive new loft conversion right next door to her shop, “The new building is nice, but no one from there shops here.”

If the people on the shiny side of the neighborhood are so supportive of neighboring people of color and their culture, why don’t they shop in their shops or eat at their restaurants? Why do local neighborhood associations put bocce courts in the park, but don’t refurbish the playground used most often by children of color? The issue here is racism. The young families and college age renters are creating a hard line in the sand by showing people of color that they tolerate them, but do not want them in their neighborhood.

Whether you live in a clearly gentrified area, or a neighborhood in which there is no line because the culture never existed or has been erased, it’s time to step to the plate. Talk to your neighbors, shop in the little corner market, talk to parents on the playground who aren’t like you. Desegregate.

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