I helped compile a panel of speakers for a discussion on important issues facing the people of Nashville last year. I was most excited to hear from an African American woman who is the CEO of a transformative non-profit in town. Her organization helps kids from the inner city understand themselves as the valuable children of God. They accomplish this by providing consistent interaction with adults who love them, celebrating the wisdom of God through academic tutoring, and the creativity and beauty of God through training them in fine arts.
Because she is an expert in kids who live in the inner city, she has now reluctantly become an expert-of-sorts in the effects of gentrification on such neighborhoods. She has seen what happens when we decide the profits of one group of investors are exceptional, and more important, than the history, jobs, schools and livability of people who are hanging off the edge of society. She has seen what happens when we decide the comfort level and entertainment needs of the upper class are held as exceptional in a city’s landscape. When homes are destroyed so hipsters can take over a neighborhood and walk to dinner.
As this panel was forming, I asked this speaker to send the title of her talk so slides could be prepared. The organizer, responding to those of us involved, presented her title, “Gentrification, Does the Rising Tide Lift All Boats?”, and then felt the need to clarify, saying, “What she calls gentrification, most of us know as urban renewal.” His response exposes the lack of understanding about the issues that face our cities, and of the changes damaging those in our urban center.
A white, upper class man calls this process “urban renewal” because his notions of “urban” are that those centers were abandoned decades ago, and that only crime, poverty and homelessness stayed behind. This type of thinking comes from a place that privileges his perspective as authoritative, or exceptional, rather than knowing the limits of his experience. This is a chronic problem in much of wealthy white America: If I don’t see it or know about it then it must not exist. A majority culture perspective might sound something like this: Urban centers were dead and dying after we left them behind during the integration movement of the Civil Rights Era. Now that we want to return to these centers, we are only bringing “good” along with us. Hence the term, “renewal.”
At its core though, gentrification is about displacement and renaming. In the same way that the organizer wanted to rename “gentrification” with “renewal,” the magical genteel transformation of a city only happens when “wealth and whiteness” replace “marginalized others.” Wealth and whiteness, since the founding of our country, have a way of overlooking poverty, people of color, and systemic injustice. From a marginalized perspective, gentrification is the result of investors and city officials who have decided the needs of the few with plenty are exceptionally important, while the needs of the many with nothing are not. Gentrification does bring renewal to cities, and an influx of investment and people with money to spend along with it. However, this practice of prioritizing the needs of a few as “exceptional”, and therefore as vital to the city, has some devastating implications:
First, gentrification necessitates displacement. Brown moves out so white can move in. Yes, when homes have been owned by people of color for generations, they are often complicit in selling their own property. However, lest we get on a “their choice” high horse, remember that the vast majority of such sells are below market value and a small fraction of the expected profits when the property is rebuilt or renovated. Further, for many families this is their only asset, and many do not possess the networks needed to demand a fair deal and then to use the windfall wisely. It is also worth noting that many of these folks are relentlessly pestered with multiple calls, letters and visits per week from pressingly eager profiteers. Finally, families who sell or are displaced when their rental or governmental homes are torn down are most often the very people least able to accommodate the changes such a move necessitates.
In my urban—formally perceived as ghetto—neighborhood, there were dozens of small rental homes, multiple bus stops, good sidewalks, 5 churches, a park with a community center, 2 grocery stores, and 2 drugstores within a ½ mile radius. For a family who can only afford low rent or to live in a home paid for long ago, who might not have a car or multiple cars, these assets are not just perks but absolutely vital! Such urban realities are necessary to function for their kids, to get to work, to get by.
When these folks are displaced, they cannot simply move to a new place. When gentrification moves at an accelerated pace due to investors, these families have to move 10-30 miles away to find comparable rent. In Nashville, the communities absorbing such displaced persons do not offer bus lines, neighborhood centers, and walkable grocery stores. Why would they? These communities are far outside the urban center, where such commodities are superfluous. In short, displacement is not just inconvenient or awkward for the poor who no longer recognize their neighborhoods. Rather, it usually initiates a cycle of loss, including but not limited to one’s job, method of transportation, dependable groceries, neighborhood school, community center, and church. It is devastating.
Second, even though this trend might be inevitable, the way in which we experience and even trumpet gentrification has devastating implications because of the speed with which it moves. When one or two white or wealthy families decide to move into an urban neighborhood, they are typically motivated by a few common passions. They often have rejected a life oriented around fear and protection. They often are passionate about pursuing perspectives different from their own. They usually have a love for restoring broken or old things. This process, even if it initiates the eventual displacement of the majority of the original residents, can take decades. And these decades see beautiful, awkward, hard, enlightening integration. Slow, honest relationships with people not like each other. New-found understandings of what neighborliness is. These experiences can undermine the deadly grip that stereotyping has on our society, replacing assumptions based on ignorance with nuanced understandings based on real relationships. Gentrification might indeed still dominate an area, but it takes time, and that time can foster a new foundation to society that will radically change the way we relate to one another.
All too often, our versions of “urban renewal” in no way resemble the painstaking description above. Instead, a handful of investors, armed with profiteering builders and real estate agents, move into a neighborhood like a swarm of locusts. This does not produce slow change infused with knowing relationships; it is rather characterized by entire blocks being knocked down, while fast, tightly-packed houses replace them. And then, as a reward, families with no passion for or appreciation of the urban center and its place as a refuge for marginalized people pay over-asking prices to move into this manufactured version of the American dream. This is not slow gentrification. This is displacing the poor to make room for the rich on steroids. People, their livelihoods, their culture and the one place they call their own in American society is lost in the process.
As a people who say we are committed to the common good, who believe in the power of community, we must examine how our addiction to our exceptionality results in making decisions with no awareness of our impact on others. If we believe all people are created in God’s image, then we must consider those people when we think about where we live, how we make a living, and how we contribute to displacing others.