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!

 

Parking Permits, Grocery Trips, and The Dream of a Car-Free City

So how, exactly, are we going to pay for the operational costs of our new streetcar system? That’s the question of the age in Cincinnati, isn’t it?

A few solutions seem obvious to me: rider fares, sponsorships, and minimal tax increases in the immediate area (known as a TIF district). Beyond that, I’m not city-savvy enough to even pretend to have any easy solutions.

A few weeks ago, Mayor Cranley made a seemingly off-the-cuff suggestion that the City simply charge downtown and OTR residents a couple hundred bucks a year for a residential parking permit and that those funds be used to operate the streetcar. I’m not going to waste time making judgements about the Mayor’s intent in proposing this solution. Instead, let me offer my perspective on the idea itself.

First, OTR absolutely needs a residential parking program.
This has been a topic of conversation for a few years now as the development in the neighborhood brings more and more non-residents into the neighborhood and as more employees need a place to park during open hours. On a personal note, the difference between the ease of parking four years ago and the situation today is nearly night and day. And with a 600-seat music venue opening around the corner, I’m preparing for a rude awakening for all of us in a few weeks.

The folks at UrbanCincy.com think that the Mayor’s idea is reasonable. (You can read the editorial here.) The basic gist of the editorial is that driving is already subsidized in many ways and that it’s reasonable to begin asking residents to actually bear the cost of their driving habits. They compare the average monthly parking rates in the area to market rates in other cities. And they suggest that this could be implemented city-wide with the funds being used for various developments in other areas.

I’m actually sympathetic to the idea of charging residents for parking permits and, in some ways, I agree with the UrbanCincy.com editorial. But I think there are a few errors here.

We know that the $300 suggested permit fee is hundreds of dollars above the yearly fees in other cities. Some might suggest that the lower fees of other cities are too low and that they don’t even come close to matching the current subsidies. But I argue that, even if that is the case, it’s still unreasonable. It’s unreasonable because it’s asking residents of our city, which is only now catching up to comparably-sized cities to pay exponentially more for the benefits found in cities that are steps ahead of us. It’s essentially asking us to pay 22nd Century prices for 20th Century amenities.

You might say, like UrbanCincy.com, that the $25 a month that it would cost is still significantly lower than the average monthly parking rate (on lots and in garages) in the neighborhood, which is about $89. Well, yes, you’re right. But that $40-110 a month pays for security and availability. My $300 would not guarantee me a spot anywhere near my home. It would simply guarantee a spot somewhere on a “resident-only parking” street in the neighborhood which, with increased meter hours on every other street, might not mean much at all. Heck, we can’t even find the means to enforce street parking restrictions and vehicle-related crimes as they stand now. Do you really think the city is going to work hard to protect my $300 parking space?

Now, if we’re actually suggesting that every resident in every neighborhood with publicly-funded transit (including road improvements) is going to be asked to pay the same fees, I would get behind that. But good luck getting city-wide resident support for a $300 yearly fee to park on city streets. A more reasonable fee that is comparable to other forward-thinking cities seems like a better idea.

Second, the Mayor was quick to suggest that low-income residents of OTR would not have to pay these fees. So, a couple living in a $300,000 condo (that did not already have a safe, convenient parking garage that they are willing to pay for) would pay the $300 fee and then any random resident who can prove they get mail at an OTR address but don’t make enough money to pay the $300 can park for free? Let’s assume that by “low-income,” we mean the standard measurements used for subsidized housing in OTR, which is essentially, those making less than $35,000 a year. (I talked about this more in a recent post about “affordable housing.”) But what about those making between $35,000-120,000 a year? You know, the working- and middle-class residents? There is a reason many of us don’t pay for monthly parking spaces: we can’t afford them.

I’m not one to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, so I’m not willing to write off the whole idea. I do think the City should institute an official residential parking permit program. But I think the rate must be reasonable, attainable for middle-class residents, and must be instituted in all areas of the city where the City is paying for transportation improvements.

Lastly, let me speak from a mother’s perspective.

As much as I’m sympathetic to the young urbanist agenda for car-free, rail-strong cities, it’s important to remind everyone that a strong urban core must make room for families, not just empty-nesters, yuppies, and the childless creative class. Joel Kotkin who is always good at upsetting people with his views on urbanism, said it perfectly in a City Journal article a few years ago:

“In California, particularly, state and local officials push policies that favor the development of apartments over single-family houses and town houses. But by trying to cram people into higher-density space, planners inadvertently help push up prices for the existing stock of family-friendly homes. Such policies have already been practiced for decades in the United Kingdom, making even provincial cities increasingly unaffordable, as British social commentator James Heartfield notes. London itself is among the least affordable cities in the world. Even middle-class residents have been known to live in garages, converted bathrooms, and garden sheds.

“…Ultimately, everything boils down to what purpose a city should serve. History has shown that rapid declines in childbearing—whether in ancient Rome, seventeenth-century Venice, or modern-day Tokyo—correlate with an erosion of cultural and economic vitality. The post-family city appeals only to a certain segment of the population, one that, however affluent, cannot ensure a prosperous future on its own. If cities want to nurture the next generation of urbanites and keep more of their younger adults, they will have to find a way to welcome back families, which have sustained cities for millennia and given the urban experience much of its humanity.” – “The Childless City”

But, why does this matter? What is the correlation between parking and families?
Well, let me speak from personal experience: the logistics of raising a family in the city can be really hard. Particularly when you have to consider transporting multiple bodies and nightmares like unloading a trunk full of groceries with three kids in the car and no available parking spaces.

My children and I have definitely adapted to a semi-pedestrian lifestyle, can go days without hopping in a car, and are accustomed to walking a few blocks from car to front door. And my kids know no different. So, many of my childless friends think I should just get rid of the car and save myself the $300 and the bother of finding a convenient place to park.

It’s that simple, right?
Oh gosh, I wish it was.

Maybe for a family with 2 or fewer children; maybe with no family to visit in the suburbs and across the country; maybe without my husband’s side-work that requires complete mobility; maybe in a city that isn’t surrounded by hills that only an olympic cyclist could pedal with kids in tow; maybe in a city where ZipCar had vehicles that would actually fit a family (or even mentioned kids or carseats on their website!!); maybe in a city where any of my closest friends were actually willing/able to live in the urban core where we could walk to see them rather than drive.

But I digress.

Look, I’m not complaining. I knew what I was getting into when I decided to stick it out here, kids and all. So, let me clarify: I don’t think that true, urban living is ever truly “convenient” in the modern sense. And I believe, completely, that anyone can adapt to a pedestrian lifestyle which becomes more convenient in many other ways. But I think making car ownership an impossibility for so many of us, based on its cost alone, means cutting off a demographic that is too valuable to the city to lose.

There are some magical places in the world where a large family can live in the urban core without a vehicle–and without a $250,000 income. (Seriously, you’ve heard of this woman, right?) But we don’t live in one of those places. We live in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is still struggling to rally residents around the thought of a simple commuter lightrail line. Heck! It’s taken years to coerce one of the country’s largest grocers to open a legitimate urban-platform store in its home city!

Our urban ininfrastructure is far, far behind, my friends.
We may get there some day and I hope I’m here when we do. But we are not there yet.
And if we think that charging a few thousand residents $300 a year to park on city streets is going to usher our city into the next era of urban renaissance, we are wrong.

I think our attention needs to focus more holistically on creating a livable city for everyone–all incomes, all demographics–where people don’t just come for $10 hotdogs, but can actually live and shop and raise kids and open businesses in the same place where the Symphony rehearses and the Reds play.

This is the kind of city I want to build.
Not one for the elite; one for my children.
And a $300 parking permit might not seem like a huge deal in the entirety of the transit issue, but it’s just one more example of how the urban middle-class of our city may be destined for extinction.

And, if there is no place for the urban middle-class in Cincinnati, then maybe I’m in the wrong city.