Gentrification And The Rest of Us

Such a loaded word, isn’t it?
Depending on what circles you run in, gentrification can either elicit thoughts of boutique clothiers and unintelligibly-named restaurants or Manifest Destiny and displaced natives.

In my neighborhood, the debate is hot.
Is gentrification the savior of urban neighborhoods or the worst white-on-black crime since Jim Crow?

Concerning the issue in general, I’m pretty sure I’ve come to a few conclusions about it. Among them:

– I believe that, as a whole, economic diversity in a neighborhood is a positive thing that benefits all residents. Development should be encouraged because development diversifies the economic base of a neighborhood and increases economic mobility in residents. (For an interesting study on the difference between economic mobility in a low-income neighborhood compared to an economically diverse neighborhood, read this: City Observatory- A New Look at A Neighborhood Change.)

– I believe that in the City of Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine is an extremely important neighborhood for the vitality and viability of the urban core and the city as a whole. So even though I generally prefer grassroots development, I am willing to entertain the idea that, for such a strategic and iconic neighborhood, it may have been appropriate to “force the hand” of development via City investments and incentives. (To what extent is another question entirely. I addressed it, briefly, in a letter to City Council two years ago.)

– My memories may only be 12 or so years old, but the difference on a mass scale between the OTR neighborhood pre-2004 (when the City and 3CDC started major investments) and today is stark. It is, in many pockets of the neighborhood (though not all), like night and day. Many long-term OTR residents talk about the “good old days” of the neighborhood as if they were completely blind to its blight and decay. I have no doubt in my mind that many of the residents of OTR pre-2004 loved their neighborhood, supported each other, and felt “at home” here. I know some of these long-term residents. I am glad they are here and I hope they stay forever. They are good neighbors but that doesn’t mean it was “a good neighborhood.” There are lovable parts and people in any community, even in places with high vacancy, high crime, and poverty-level income. I believe their strong community bond and sense of co-ownership of OTR existed because of and in response to the immense need for stabilization in a volatile environment, not because they lived together in a model Sesame Street community. Basically, they needed each other.

No one owns a neighborhood and every neighborhood changes over time. This is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s simply the way things are. Unless you’ve got the resources to buy up the whole neighborhood, you are always just a small part of a much bigger picture and will always be vulnerable to having your neighborhood change before your very eyes. White yuppies weren’t the first people in OTR and neither were low-income and working-class African Americans. It is unfortunate and sometimes painful to be the one whose neighborhood no longer resembles the neighborhood you loved, but you are not the first and you won’t be the last.

 

But what does this all mean?
I am confident with my ideological positions about gentrification, but they don’t tell the whole story because the story of a neighborhood is as much (or more) about the people as it is about the quality of the public parks or the crime rate or the bar : resident ratio.

Honest conversations about gentrification flip past ideology pretty quick because the primary opposition to gentrification is rarely ideological–it’s personal. It’s experiential. It’s the feeling a resident gets when he surveys his neighbors or walks to the store in the morning. It’s the contrast between the memories of “home” ten years ago and the reality of home today.

And this is where the gentrification debate gets difficult because, even with a strong ideological commitment to the kind of development it brings, it’s hard to deny the experience of living in a gentrifying neighborhood is… troublesome.

At least it is if you have your ear to the ground.

There are a lot of legitimate frustrations with the way my neighborhood’s major developments have transpired over the past 10 years. Or, I should say, how the residents without power or control in the neighborhood have experienced these changes.

For example:

– Developments have been almost completely driven by outside investment and influence with a lot of placating and patronizing neighborhood input sessions that don’t seem to make a difference.

– The cultural representation of these new developments is distinctly Anglo-centric and high-cost. For such an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood, this is a problem.

– The vast majority of new developments have been entertainment-focused rather than community need-driven. (Boldly illustrated by a new boutique hamburger joint whose slogan is “What the neighborhood needed.” Fantastic burgers; terribly insulting slogan.)

– There is an awfully small group of people holding ownership of a significant portion of the collateral in the neighborhood. These few gatekeepers are, literally, standing between individual residents and smaller, privately-owned development companies designing their own neighborhood. Those who have secured affordable development property (or business leases) have likely brokered a relationship with these gatekeepers. If you’re not in the in-group, you’re out of luck. (As evidenced by the number of business owners opening multiple businesses within blocks of each other while other potentially viable entrepreneurs stand by.)

-Developments have happened so quickly that the infrastructure of the neighborhood simply cannot meet the demands of the influx of visitors to the neighborhood. Case in point: parking. It’s just a joke at this point

-Property values rise. Quickly. Which is great if you have the resources to buy and sell at a whim or if you were just biding your time until you could sell your house at a gain and leave the neighborhood. But for many of us, it means being priced out of our own neighborhood and knowing that, even if we decided to sell for the gain, we’d never be able to come back. The neighborhood has outgrown us. All real estate is now either inflated market value homes or subsidized low-income housing and there is no room for those of us in the middle. (See this and this for more of my very unprofessional opinion.)

 

Basically, when the majority of neighborhood development is done by outsiders (or those who feel like or seem like outsiders) and is done so quickly that there is little room for diversity, community input, and organic growth, the experience of gentrification becomes troublesome. Residents feel like visitors in their own neighborhood.

It doesn’t matter if you are black or white or if you’ve been here ten years or thirty. It’s hard to live in a neighborhood that no longer resembles the one you fell in love with. Or the one that raised you. Losing control sucks, no matter who you are.

My goal is not to minimize the experience of people who may have actually been victimized in some way by gentrification, because I know they exist, but to say that “I get it” and “I hear you.”

And to say that it should be okay to talk about gentrification ideologically, in a way that legitimizes the value of development and economic diversity, but to still honor the personal nature of neighborhood living and the experience of the people living there.

I don’t want to fight gentrification because, in a neighborhood like ours, it was probably necessary. But I want to to fight for a more equitable, viable neighborhood that resembles more the people who live and breathe it each day and less the ones who come for the impossible-to-pronounce charcuterie and aolis.

What would OTR look like if it had been allowed a slower, more organic growth?
Would you still visit?

 

(Just for kicks some day, do a slow walk up and down Vine St., between 12th St. and 14th., then compare it to Main St., between 12th St. and Liberty St., and see the many differences between a quick-growth and slow-growth business district. Which do you prefer? Where would you rather live? Why?)

 

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