For years I swore off the neighborhoods I grew up in. I was cautioned about them as a child and as a young adult I felt no different. A recent (and reluctant) visit, however, revealed the once crime-infested streets had completely transformed. Quaint coffee shops now lined the Brooklyn sidewalks along with wine bars, beer gardens and Japanese restaurants with names I dare not try to pronounce—a far cry from the Kennedy Fried Chickens, takeout Chinese spots and bodegas that once lined the blocks. As I strolled, I crossed paths with everyone from Rastafarians to Black sisters with lush fros, from White couples on bikes to Latino children frolicking on their front steps. It was like some sort of racial utopia.
I stopped a White man in his late twenties and asked what he thought of the neighborhood. “Oh, it’s great! They’re a lot of people like me and you—a lot of yuppies,” he said. I noted the unifying “me and you” but also the way it was simultaneously inclusive and exclusive. It was the first time I’d ever been called a yuppie (young urban professional)—which clearly separated “us” (me and the White brother) from the less “affluent” inhabitants. But as far as I had known, “yuppie” and “gentrification” were dirty words. I thanked him for his time and continued to survey the neighborhood. Other residents (of all shades) confirmed the neighborhood “had gotten so much better.”
I couldn’t help but wonder why “better” was synonymous with “whiter.” There wasn’t anything wrong with the White faces that now resided in the community. But why did it take White residents with presumably higher incomes to have more police patrolling the streets or healthier food options like juice bars or organic markets?
While gentrification can be considered progress and development, it’s primarily so for those of us who can afford it. The truth of the matter is that gentrification cannot be spoken about without addressing displacement. As rents go up, poor residents get pushed out. Areas that were laden with drugs and violence—that were avoided like the plague—are now hip and up-and-coming.
Tension always seems to arise when it comes to the movement of more affluent settlers (typically White) to or from not-so-affluent neighborhoods (typically Black). When gentrification wasn’t the issue, it was “White flight” (Whites fleeing communities when more Blacks moved in). It raises the question of whether a racial utopia can ever truly exist.
Some studies argue that while the higher cost of living sometimes ousts poor residents from gentrifying neighborhoods, the increase in jobs, safety and improved neighborhood upkeep encourage them to stay. Research found a resident’s chances of being forced to move out of a gentrifying neighborhood are only 0.5% greater than in a non-gentrifying one. Critics, however, argue that these studies underestimate how many people are actually displaced as a result of gentrification.
Proponents of gentrification suggest that neighborhood demographics change primarily due to high turnover rates (over five years, about half of all urban residents move). More affluent people tend to move into these neighborhoods simply because they can afford it. Lance Freeman, an associate professor of urban planning at Columbia University, calls this “succession” as opposed to “displacement.” Freeman and other researchers also found that these neighborhoods often have vacant or abandoned housing so there’s no need to evict anyone in order to accommodate people who want to move in.
Whether or not society has this inflated view of the harm gentrification actually does to communities and its residents, it’s clear that this resistance originates from fear. Individuals worry about no longer being able to provide for their families and are concerned about losing the familiarity of their neighborhood.
To alleviate these concerns we must insist the government continually create affordable housing and more jobs. New business owners must also seek to hire local residents. Policymakers can propose legislation that requires developers to make a percentage of their properties affordable. Additionally, we can demand equitable development, which emphasizes the advantages of mixed-income communities and empowers residents. Residents (both newcomers and natives) can also organize grass-roots efforts to ensure that landlords and property owners are not exploiting tenants.
In a true utopia, we wouldn’t have to wait for affluent Whites (and Blacks) to move in before living conditions improved. These needs would already be addressed. In a true utopia, there would be no “them versus us” mentality, which only perpetuates antagonism and resistance to more integrated communities and exacerbates the notion of a threat.
Before I was ever considered a yuppie, a buppie or whatever you want to call it, I was a Caribbean immigrant. Before I attended an elite high school and college, I was an overcrowded New York public school student. And to this day, those things are just as much a part of me. WE must come together to ensure that none of US are overlooked.
Because regardless of how much a community’s demographics changes, you can’t change people’s perceptions…or maybe you can.
For information about promoting the availability of affordable housing, visit the Department of Housing and Urban Development.