Field Notes From A Gentrifier, Part II: Class, Culture, and Race (and Racism)

This is Part II of an ill-advised series of “field notes” from my experience as an unintentional gentrifier in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider it the purging of my current thoughts on/observations about gentrification, urban economics, class, race, and $3.50 tacos. Three related posts are planned so far. There may be more to come. Or not.

 

One of the reasons gentrification is such a hard thing to talk about is that it pricks our sensitivities to complicated social structures of class, culture, and race. But it doesn’t take long into the conversation to realize that we not only disagree about how these things play into urban development, but also what these things even mean.

Some definitions:

Class-
a :  a group sharing the same economic or social status    the working class
b :  social rank; especially :  high social rank    the classes as opposed to the masses

Culture
the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also :  the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time     popular culture     Southern culture

Race-
a :  a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
b :  a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics

 

Gentrification is almost always perceived as a racism problem. This is evidenced by the fact that people complaining most about gentrification are almost always implicitly (or explicitly) referring to “rich white people” taking over “poor black” neighborhoods. But we know that redevelopment (in both equitable and inequitable ways) happens in all communities and at the hand of white and black people alike.

Yet, still, this is how the conversation usually goes:

Someone (usually a white someone) of influence in an urban development project will speak of the urban community as one plagued by blight and crime. They will point to their plan to “clean up the neighborhood.”

Or someone (usually a white someone) will move into a neighborhood and claim they’re interested in “helping make it better.”

But, instead of hearing the kind hearts of well-intended people trying to make the community a better place, we think they mean “I want to get rid of the poor black people in this neighborhood.”

Now, we know that there are many terrible people in this world, people who are legitimately racist or spiteful or simply ignorant. And they have done terrible things to other people including, but not limited to, taking over entire neighborhoods for their own interests. But let’s pretend for a minute that not all white people with the means or influence to change a community meet the description of Racist Colonizer. Cool? Cool.

Then, let’s be honest about urban blight and crime.

Because those who fight hand over fist to stop gentrification don’t seem to think there’s a problem to solve, but they’re wrong.

Over the past 50(ish) years, our urban communities have seen a devastating amount of economic and social disinvestment. There’s good reason why the urban stereotype is dirty, dangerous, and disenfranchised (I love alliteration). We can argue about why cities became such a dump at the end of the 20th Century (spoiler: racism has a lot to do with it) but you can’t deny it happened or that it was/is a problem.

In the almost ten years I’ve lived in Over-the-Rhine:

In alleys and on sidewalks, alongside your standard littered garbage, I’ve picked up (and properly disposed of) used condoms, used tampons, used heroin needles, and dirty underwear.

I’ve watched a well-dressed young woman drop her drawers and defecate on the sidewalk in broad daylight and then walk away like nothing ever happened.

At least weekly, in full view of my kitchen window, someone uses our alleyway as a urinal.

Human feces appears a couple times a year.

We’ve had 5-6 incidents of theft from our front yard, back yard, or vehicle. Twice it has happened right in front of my eyes by people who acted surprised that I was surprised by their stealing from me.

For a time, someone was hiding stolen electronics in our yard.

I once found a man sleeping under a tarp in our backyard in the afternoon.

I’ve watched countless (literally countless) drug-dealing interactions on and around my street.

I’ve found people passed out on the sidewalk from drinking or doping.

Gunshots. Lots of them.

A man was shot by police within view of my second-story window on a sunny afternoon.

At our old apartment, a woman rang our doorbell late at night and begged for help and said she was running away from her violent boyfriend and could I please save her?

I once woke (with most of my neighbors) in the middle of the night to a woman screaming that she had just been assaulted around the corner and needed help.

Strangers ring my doorbell just to ask for money.

(Oh, golly, city living sounds great, right?)

So, what’s my point in listing these incidents?
I want to illustrate that there are things that happen on a regular basis in mixed-income, dense, urban areas that simply do not happen with any comparable frequency in other places. (Other place have other problems, to be sure.) And that you’re crazy to try and justify and protect these characteristically urban blight and crime issues the same way you’d fight to protect an ethnic food eatery or the right for homeless people to loiter in public parks (both of which I support, btw).

But, what does this have to do with racism?
Well, I didn’t give you any indication whether the people involved in these incidents were black or white. And I can promise that it’s a nice, healthy mix. So my bigger point is that the desire to “clean up the city” it not about getting rid of black people. For most normal residents, it’s about simple quality-of-life things like making the city a place where kids and moms and old men in wheelchairs don’t have to dodge human feces while traveling down the sidewalk.

And for someone to call a white person a racist because they’re willing to say people shouldn’t crap in public is like saying that public defecation is somehow related to being black, which is a flat out, evil lie that should offend all of us.

So, okay. Maybe I’m right.
Maybe gentrification isn’t really about race.
But then what is it about?

It’s about class and it’s about culture.

And class and culture are more complicated and are issues of justice and personal responsibility and values, which means getting at the root of what actually makes us different from each other. So I understand why we would rather make it about race.  We are not responsible for our race or ethnicity. Even a marginally ethical person can and should be ideologically offended by racism. But we all get personally offended by criticisms of our class or culture.

If you ask me–which you didn’t, except that you’re reading my blog so you kinda did–the real gentrification conversation is less about what race of people are moving in or out of a neighborhood and more about

a) how to build a community where there is mobility between social and economic classes, facilitated through our means of housing, educating, socializing, and employing our residents and

b) how to design the community so that the cultural landscape (food, art, aesthetics, etc.) is truly representative of all the residents in the community, not just the new ones with money.

 

But where does that leave us?

I am a young, white, middle-class urban dweller. I may feel powerless at times in my neighborhood but, compared to some of my minority or lower-income neighbors, I have great influence. So I (and my peers) need to be pressed on these two questions. And we need to hold community leaders, investors, and developers accountable to them.

But we can’t have these really important conversations across class and cultural lines if we can’t, first, agree that there are some things about our shared community that none of us should be defending.

Some things are simply uncultured and class-less–
Things like heroin.
And stealing my kid’s bike.

And crapping on my sidewalk.

 

 

 

(Possibly) later in the Field Notes series:

How to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis

My $13 Box of Macarons

Stay tuned!

 

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Field Notes From A Gentrifier, Part I: How I Became The Enemy

Thus begins an ill-advised series of “field notes” from my experience as an unintentional gentrifier in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider it the purging of my current thoughts on/observations about gentrification, urban economics, class, race, and $3.50 tacos. Three related posts are planned so far. There may be more to come. Or not.

 

In 2005, I moved to Cincinnati from Elgin, Illinois. My first job in town was as a bartender/barista at a place called Kaldi’s on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine.

I knew that Over-the-Rhine had a reputation. I knew it had a history.

I knew to hide my bartending tips in my sock on the way to my car at night. I knew to make eye contact with the people I passed on the street. I knew that the storefronts were mostly empty after 6pm every night. And I knew that it wasn’t necessary to pay the parking meter most nights because cops didn’t give a rip about parking in OTR.

I knew that the produce at the Vine Street Kroger was never up to par and they didn’t sell organic milk.

I knew that Over-the-Rhine was thick with racial tension. I knew this because if I told the man from the street that he could not use our bathroom at 11:48pm on a Thursday night, he would call me a racist.

I knew Over-the-Rhine was a dark and moody place to be.

But I also knew it was alive with a steady current of creativity and strength and survival. I knew that its residents knew enough about all sorts of things to not be afraid to be out at night like everyone else was. I knew that the stories in the news were always only half-true.

I knew that Over-the-Rhine was more than dark and moody.

But I swear that I did not know it was the next big thing.

We got married in 2009 and our first apartment was a large loft north of Liberty in an old brewery building. There were a zillion building code violations and my mom probably cried the first time she saw it.

Our apartment smelled like hotdogs on Saturday mornings from the soup kitchen next door. There were cockroaches in the bathroom. There were rats. There were beer and dog piss leaks through the floorboards of the apartment above us. There was no real heating system. There were drunk neighbors. There were loud knocks on the door and the buzzing of doorbells at all hours of the day/night by people walking past. There were drug dealers perched on our stoop–literally–every day.

The landlord may as well have lived in Cambodia the way he cared for the place. Every good thing about that apartment was done with our own hands and our own money.

It was like the Wild, Wild, West.
We were newlyweds.
The rent was $650.

By this time, I was working at a non-profit doing community organizing types of things around the city and I had insight into the things “moving” in Over-the-Rhine. They had been in the works for a few years. There were big-time investors involved. There were things like development strategies and tax incentives at play.

But, honestly, it all happened so quickly.

While we were busy learning to be married and then having kids and working at our jobs, things were changing around us. We were like the proverbial frog, boiled alive in the pot.

Vine Street.
Washington Park.
Conversations about something called “a streetcar.”

We wanted to buy a house in the neighborhood because it was our neighborhood, not because we wanted to capitalize on someone else’s loss. The only person we (personally) displaced was a man who wanted to sell his house so he could move across the country to be nearer to his kids.

Sure, we knew it was probably a good investment. Sure, we knew that OTR was going to “improve” in the next few years. But it was still a gamble. And investing in Over-the-Rhine, in general, was still a calculated risk.

I didn’t think I was the bad guy.
I was just a young, idealistic wife and mother.
We wanted to plant some roots in a neighborhood that needed more stability. We wanted to start something, build something. And it seemed like there was space enough for us here.

I tell this story because it’s important to know that people–low income, high society, black, white, and everything in-between–move where they move for all sorts of reasons.

Because we can afford it.
Because we like the way the house looks.
Because our family lives there.
Because we can walk to work.
Because we want to make a good investment.
Because of the quality of the schools.
To start our first business.
Because we’re new in town and it’s all we know.
Because it’s time to downsize.

Or we move because of a bunch of reasons all mashed up together.

Most people moving into “gentrifying” neighborhoods don’t move there to cause trouble. They aren’t trying to displace long-term residents or raise the rent next door. Often times, they (like we did) think they can help make the neighborhood better for everyone through their investment and community engagement.

But that’s not the way things usually happen, is it?

It’s only a matter of time before I just blend in with all the 30-something Friday night bar hoppers. And then it doesn’t really matter how I got here, does it? All that matters is that I’m young and white, that I like eating macarons, and that my house has (at least) doubled in value since we bought it seven years ago.

Suddenly, I’m the enemy.

Sometimes I still feel at home in Over-the-Rhine; sometimes I don’t.
Sometimes I feel great about my investment in the neighborhood; sometimes I feel guilty about it, like my very presence signifies economic injustice.

All that has happened in my neighborhood in the past 12 years and all of my thoughts and feelings about it are too much and too many to share here.

Gentrification is a real thing. Affordable housing is a real concern. Equitable development is, indeed, an urgent matter. We need to be honest about how these issues affect the most vulnerable among us. But we also need to acknowledge that few things are as simple as “oppressor vs oppressed.”

The conversation about the issues facing my neighborhood and others like it need to be stripped of their unfair guilty-by-association politics so we can see each other as neighbors and friends. And that requires telling the stories about how we got here and why we want to stay. We are, after all, real people making real life decisions about how we invest our time and our money and our family life for the sake of our communities.

A community is a living eco-system and the parts all affect each other. There are both intended and unintended consequences of those decisions on the people around us. We need to be honest about how diversifying a neighborhood (socially, economically, etc.) will affect the quality of life as a whole. And we need to be honest about when the positive consequences outweigh the negative and vice versa.

Case in point:
The grocery store now sells organic milk.
But our old apartment now rents for $1800.

 

 

 

 

(Possibly) later in the Field Notes series:

Class, Culture, and Race (and Racism)
How to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis

My $13 Box of Macarons

Stay tuned!

 

Welcome to the Neighborhood

I’ve mentioned before that a lot of people give me the ol’ “Oh, I’d love to move downtown, but…”

“… but we love our kids’ school.”
“… but my husband/wife would never do it.”
“… but we don’t want to leave our perfect house.”

Etc.

So, then, what drives a family to actually pick up and move to the urban core? More than that: what motivates them to not just rent for a year to “test the waters,” but jump in head first and invest in a longterm residency by purchasing a property and then launching an entrepreneurial project to boot?

Let’s find out.

Meet the Bethunes.

When I met Levi Bethune, it was a brief “Hey, a friend told me I needed to meet you!” kind of moment. We had a few mutual friends who knew that, among other mutual interests, we both a) had a few kids and b) were into living downtown. Heather (his wife) wasn’t around at the time and I wasn’t sure when we’d run into each other again. But over the course of the next few months, I connected with Heather online and we started spending time together. It’s been a pleasure to know them through this exciting time for their family.

The short version of their OTR story is this:

Man lands a job in Cincinnati.
Man and wife sell their house and move to Cincinnati, with children in tow.
Man falls in love with OTR.
Wife begins to, as well.
The property hunt begins with strict parameters and, therefore, little hope.
Craigslist yields a magical buyer-seller relationship.
Rehab loan.
Permits, permits, more permits.
Hold-ups.
Construction begins.
And here we (well, they) are now:

Simple Space. Have you heard of it yet?

SS-Bethunes-Emily

The Bethunes (with friend/Simple Space partner Emily) via impulcity.

 

You see, what started as a small “what if we moved downtown?” inkling has grown into a full-on family business endeavor. And what could have been a simple rental unit or renovated single-family home is set to become an exciting community resource–a space for entrepreneurs, artists, party hosts, etc. to stretch their legs in a prime location but with a low-stress, short-term commitment.

You can read more about Simple Space itself at the above link. I’d rather focus for a second on what it’s like to be a woman/wife/mother who takes the leap from renting in the first-ring suburbs to committing long-term to the urban core.

What would drive a woman to move her family into OTR?

Well, I asked Heather a few questions to find out.

Whose idea what is to move to Over-the-Rhine?

“Initially, it was Levi. He had the pleasure of riding his bike around and through downtown on a near-daily basis to get from Northern Kentucky (where we currently rent) to his office at Longworth Hall. He was “romanced” by Cincinnati in this way… getting to experience all the alley ways and historic architecture up close and personal, interacting with people enough to start to recognize faces & names… it did something for him. He’s always loved cities, and Cincinnati has such a wealth of history, feels established and yet… isn’t overwhelming. Instead of being intimidating as big cities often are- Levi felt welcomed and in turn wanted to be a part of what’s happening in the heart of the city. Once he realized how he felt about it, and why, we started being more intentional as a family about spending more time downtown and in OTR. We wanted to see how our kids would respond to the urban atmosphere and also, of course, if I would love it as much as Levi did. And I did. Though my experience and perspective isn’t identical to his, I truly love Cincinnati and sense that I will only grow to love it more. I am drawn to cities for their intricacies and smart uses of small spaces. I love the creativity that cities can draw out of it’s inhabitants. I can’t wait to be one.”

Can you remember a moment when you realized “Yes, I want to live here?”

“I think I had several of those moments walking down a street with Levi and the kids on a beautiful day. That (alone) will do it.I am also completely in love with the architecture of OTR. I remember the first time I started to really look at the spaces above the store fronts and realize, “People live there! What must that be like to be able to just walk out your front door and go to ____ (wherever we had just come from)?” I know that’s a bit of a romaticized view but I think that’s okay. As with anywhere you live, you have to be a bit dreamy-eyed about some of it to balance out the challenges it poses (for instance, living in suburbia and having to load all your kids in a gas-guzzler to drive to ANY place you want to go because there is nothing but a mailbox within walking distance of your front door).”

What are you most looking forward to about living/working in OTR?

“Walking to as much of our everyday living as possible. Off the top of my head: parks, library and little shops like the shoe repair or hardware store. I’m also excited to be near the hub of public transit – especially the streetcar. Once that’s in it will definitely expand our borders and make it very easy to shop at Findlay Market and enjoy the riverfront more. I’m also really excited to own again. We bought our first house in Virginia only a year before moving here, and since selling, we’ve rented. We’ve never owned a building and commercial space before, so I know we’ve got a lot to learn. But I’m excited to do that and to be a part of the story of Over the Rhine.”

Would you like to know more about the Bethune Family and their new creative child, Simple Space? “Like” them on Facebook and, if you’re so inclined, you can contribute to their Indie GoGo campaign. (Don’t worry. Donations go specifically to the commercial event/retail space, not to outfitting their private residence.)

Welcome to the neighborhood, Levi and Heather!