Gentrification: It’s More Than Just The Rent Being Too Damn High
Gentrification is a global phenomenon that generates mixed popular sentiment. Many minority and low-income communities believe that gentrification strips their communities of its organic culture, displaces residents through disproportionate rents and housing prices, commercializes its history, and brings white people whose very presence sparks the influx of public and private investment that would not otherwise have been placed there. It is also those same new white residents who are likely to use those public and private investments, mainly in policing and security, to the detriment of those same minority and low-income residents.
Conversely, others feel that gentrification is an incendiary term with a pejorative connotation when in fact it is robust community & economic development in disadvantaged communities; which is, both, a recruitment and retention tool for residents (read: taxpayers). Gentrification, at its core, is a community and economic development strategy that seeks to rebuild and grow economically-depressed communities through large scale mixed-use housing developments and commercial space. Subsequently, this strategy intended to diversify communities by attracting young, professional, white adults and families into black and Latino communities. These young, professional, white adults would grow a family, improve the quality of life through the public services and private investment in those neighborhoods, and increase the tax revenues for municipalities.
I believe it is both. I see both sides but I’ve lived the gentrification process in Cleveland as a black man; and, through that experience, I know the foreshadowing signs of gentrification — Starbucks, Whole Foods, mixed-use housing developments, dog parks, charter schools, and microbreweries. Dog parks, charter schools, and microbreweries represent recreation, education, and small business, respectively. These are three areas are arguably the most important facets of gentrification, which is typically thought in a housing lens. As a millennial, I understand the evolving needs of my peers, and in order to consider settling somewhere long-term and raise a family a community must have a good school system, access to quality public spaces to sustain a wellness-based lifestyle for oneself and their children, and it must foster a locally-driven economy with small businesses and local entrepreneurs. I want to focus on those last three examples and their direct relationship to race.
Recreation and the use of public spaces is vital to a successful gentrification process as it is typically done under the pretense of transparency and opening up historically insular minority neighborhoods to whites and others. This is achieved by creating non-traditional, multi-modal access into these communities for new people like bicycle lanes and pedestrian-friendly walkways. In addition, new parks, communal spaces (i.e., amphitheaters, pools, bike trails, etc.), or pet-friendly spaces are created as well to promote wellness, healthy living, and community. These things are all wonderful and should be in every community regardless of race or socioeconomics; unfortunately, that is not the case. Many communities, before they are gentrified, suffer from a lack of programming of available green space, an overall lack of accessible green space, and lack the resources to foster sustainable healthy living practices for children and adults. There is a death of accessible pools for minority and low-income communities which undoubtedly contributes to the low swimming competency rates among minority groups. Recreation is an avenue for building vibrant communities, just as long as those communities are not poor and black.
Education and quality school districts have and will always be arguably the top reason for a young families with children to move to a neighborhood. Currently, we know more young adults and young families are moving to gentrifying neighborhoods; but, those urban public school districts are often low-performing or failing due to historic underfunding, lack of resources and supports, low community engagement, crime, and other socioeconomic and health & human services factors. This is primarily because the neighborhood and school district overall largely serve minority and low-income students and families. However, as is evident on Cleveland’s West Side, public school districts are offering gentrified neighborhoods numerous top-performing charter school options, numerous school type options (i.e., magnet schools, single-gender academies, vocational schools, etc.), and building new school buildings. The new public school buildings are usually the result of school closures and consolidations where many of the old buildings are left in disuse or sold to charter school networks. These charter school networks like KIPP & Breakthrough Schools are becoming the primary vehicle of education in low-income and minority communities. Unfortunately, this is not always a positive because there are lower accountability measures for charter schools, lower credentialing standards for educators in charters, stricter disciplinary standards for students who are usually sent back to their neighborhood public school, and sometimes those students are behind their peers academically. In Cleveland and many other cities, this educational gentrification is a coordinated strategic plan between the school districts and municipal government as part of the gentrification strategy. It is based on racial factors.
Gentrification is known for its high-end commercial chains like Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Starbucks, and more; but, gentrification is also known for its industry-specific small business growth. Stereotypical gentrification-based small businesses are microbreweries, jewelry/boutique shops, vegan or fusion cuisine bistros, head shops (a whole story can be done on the racial disparity of the decriminalization of marijuana), juice bars, co-work spaces, resale thrift store (when you can just go to TJ Maxx or Marshalls), and more. In Cleveland, microbreweries are the small business of choice, but how many people are really drinking all of this beer. These locally-owned small businesses are part of the millennial wave of buy local community reinvestment. The problem, along racial lines, is that these businesses
1. Do not often attract minority shoppers (theme and price point);
2. These types of business generally require substantial upfront capital which is a prohibiting factor for minority and low-income entrepreneurs;
3. These businesses, along with high-end big box retailers, often displace or eliminate established minority businesses in the community;
4. The new small businesses, unlike those minority-owned businesses, derive their clientele from outside of the neighborhood which puts long-term stress on them to find a location that is favorable to their clientele (read: eventually leave neighborhood and space remains vacant);
5. A lot of these small businesses don’t provide essentials but high-end amenities — the communities need banks, credit unions groceries, florists, butchers, etc.;
6. A lot of these businesses do not hire from the local community for true community reinvestment;
7. A lot of these small businesses don’t support the community outside of their business via little leagues, festivals, etc.; and,
8. A lot of these small businesses are the same ones that profile minority customers or call the cops on them. Small businesses are great for the local economy, but only when it represents, serves, and reinvests in those local communities.
I have attempted to make the case that gentrification has significant racial impacts on minority communities when examined under the lens of recreation, education, and small business. These areas have a history of institutionalized racism that permeates in the form of gentrification similar to redlining in housing. So, next time you see that dog park, or charter school, or microbrewery, do not just ask when did that get there, but also ask how does this serve and impact me and all resident of my community?