What is lost when cities gentrify? How can it be preserved?
These photos you see above are from a recent walk I took in the East Village of Manhattan. These are places that are still standing in the face of a massive wave of gentrification that has all but obliterated the East Village as it once was.
Gentrification, for those still unclear, is the influx of affluent, often white, people into an existing low income or working class, often community of color, causing increased rents and changes in the community’s character and culture as well as displacement of residents. It has swept through cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago so much so that displacement and lack of affordability characterize those cities just as much as their landmarks and cultural amenities. In fact, a recent story reported that young people are seeking more “authentic” cities that have yet to be fully transformed by gentrification.
For low income communities of color, the process of gentrification wreaks havoc on their neighborhoods. As one author describes, gentrification is “a systemic, intentional process of uprooting communities and the roots stretch back to the disenfranchisement that resulted from white flight and segregationist policies. Real estate agents dub changing neighborhoods with new, gentrifier-friendly titles that designate their proximity to even safer areas: Bushwick becomes East Williamsburg, parts of Flatbush are now Prospect Park South. Politicians manipulate zoning laws to allow massive developments with only token nods at mixed-income housing.”
This does not happen overnight or by a set of individuals looking for a cool place to live Rather it happens deliberately through a set of policies that get enacted to support change. According to Dr. Lawrence Brown of Morgan State University, gentrification is induced by a set of policies that are racially exclusionary. Such policies include the dismantling of public housing and privatizing public housing (i.e. the HUD RAD program). Gentrification is also induced by eminent domain and mass foreclosures due to subprime lending or reverse redlining. He finds, “Baltimore does this in the following ways; Restricting home sales to students and faculty from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Station North; the city’s Live Near Your Work program which offers up to $36,000 in grants offered by Johns Hopkins for its employees to live in the city; as well as the mass closing & charterization of public schools so that gentrifiers can control public dollars, not have to pay for private school, and not have the same level of oversight & accountability (see Maia Cucchiara’s book Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities). These exclusionary policies unfairly advantage disproportionately white and incoming residents at the expense of disproportionately black and poor current residents, creating an exclusionary corridor in center of Baltimore.
What can be done? One way neighborhoods can be preserved is through through community land trusts, non-profit, and often cooperatively owned, organizations that own and take care of property. Many cities have examples that need to be supported and expanded. See this one in San Francisco and in Boston. Another way neighborhoods can counter the impact of gentrification is by surfacing the stories that are lost in the process of gentrification. Telling the stories of the places that once existed, places that were centers of communities is important as gentrification erases the names and places that once existed in low income communities. The Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia is telling the stories of schools that have closed through the process of gentrification and privatization of the school system.
There are also local groups working to take charge of the decision-making around urban development in their cities. The Baltimore Redevelopment Action Coalition for Empowerment (BRACE) organizes in Baltimore and creates spaces for communities to advocate for community-based decision making in urban planning. United Workers, a Baltimore-based organizing group, does the same. Find these groups in your city and decide what you want your neighborhood to look like, or share a story that got lost when your neighborhood’s demographics changed.