Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Gentrification East of the River - Economics of it all

(photo from www.danheller.com)

After discussions I had with people today over the nebulous word "gentrification", I've come to accept a few things that I just need to put on the table:
  1. No one knows what the heck it means. I had six different conversations and each conversation led to a different conclusion.
  2. Historically in this country class and race have been heavily correlated. The main reason for this is Black Americans have been disenfranchised since we stepped foot in this country. We were brought here as property, beaten, and treated like animals. Even once we had our "freedom" we still endure decades of Jim Crow laws and redlining. Let's add welfare where mothers could only get government support without a man in the household and then the crack epidemic in the 1980s. The result is generational poverty of black people in urban areas. I bring this up to say the correlation of race and class makes it difficult to have a meaningful conversation about gentrification without acknowledging how we got to where we are today.
  3. There are some people that are using gentrification as a code for "white people moving into a black community." Is the issue really that simple? I think part of the issue relates back to number 2, historically race and class have been correlated in our country. However, I think we do ourselves a disservice by not acknowledging that there are areas East of the River that have a strong black middle class community and there has been an influx of young, black, middle class professionals moving into neighborhoods East of the River.
All that to say trying to define gentrification is a waste of time and energy and it distracts from developing solutions. My group at the East of the River Community Forum on Sustainability decided to move the conversation to a discussion about economic development. Our group discussed the inherent conflict with economic development East of the River. On the one hand, residents want restaurants and retail in an area that is grossly under-served. There is a desire to have economic development so people can eat, shop, and work in their community East of the River. However, there is a fear that economic development will make the area unaffordable to some residents. Long-time residents have watched the changes and displacements that occurred in other parts of the city.

One of the members of my group pointed out that "gentrification comes about because communities are not self-sustaining." Essentially what he was alluding to is that a rising tide lifts all boats in a community if everyone has a boat and no one's boat as a hole in it. The middle class neighborhood of Hillcrest in Ward 7 is an example of a community where everyone has a boat without holes. Hillcrest is a community comprised of homes, townhomes, and condominiums. Many of the long-time residents own their homes outright. Therefore the influx of young middle class professionals into Hillcrest over the last decade has had little to no negative effect on the affordability of the neighborhood for long-time residents.

What happens to the neighborhoods where people who don't have boats or have a hole in their boat? Generally, these are the people that are displaced when the rising tide comes. Our group determined the real important questions are why don't people have boats and why do some of the ones with boats have holes in their boats? We concluded that people are ill-prepared for jobs and at the root of that is a poor education. Before the education reformist jump all over that sentence, let me state that our group realizes that in order for education reform to work, it is our obligation as a community to address the toxic environments and dysfunctional families where some of our children live.

In the next installment, I will delve into the importance of an "all hands on deck" movement as foundation for building the community.

Previous Post in the Series
Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington

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