Social Frays: Gentrification

As Brad and I are looking into our options for moving to Chicago, we have had a lot of good discussions about gentrification. This all started when we were listening to a segment from This American Life where a Lawndale (yes, the Lawndale we want to move to in Chicago) resident complained about gentrification in the area, specifically noting that she could tell that Lawndale was gentrifying because of all the white people walking their dogs. And I thought, “Wait. I am white. And I have dogs. So if we move to Lawndale, will the residents just see me as one of those people.”

Wikipedia describes gentrification this way:

Gentrification, or urban gentrification, is a term applied to that part of the urban housing cycle in which physically deteriorated neighborhoods attract an influx of investment and undergo physical renovation and an increase in property market values. In many cases, the lower-income residents who occupied the neighborhood prior to its renovation can no longer afford properties there.

The last thing that I want is to be a part of a movement that is forcing low-income residents out of their homes and into areas with even higher rates of poverty and crime. There are, however, lots of different viewpoints surrounding the issue of gentrification. Some people say that by bringing in businesses and wealthier homeowners, the economy of the neighborhood is improved: people can find more jobs, schools improve, crime decreases. Often times, the government provides grants and low-cost loans so that current residents can move into newly built/remodeled houses or condos. On the other side, as I originally said, many of the residents are forced to move to a new neighborhood because they cannot afford the higher rent or property tax.

This history of gentrification all begins with the creation and design of cities. Many of the neighborhoods that are currently being gentrified were originally built for the middle class and blue collar workers. The idea behind cities in general is to create a lot of housing and public services for a large concentration of people who are intimately involved in the local economy. After the end of Word War II, with greater number of people owning cars, it became less important to live near one’s work. Suburbs were created, and with them, the phenomenon of white flight.

Starting in the ’70s and ’80s wealthy young adults of all races began rejecting the suburban sprawl for the appeal of the city. Their return is gentrification. This is the position Brad and I find ourselves in: we know that we want to live in the city rather than the suburbs. That kind of lifestyle, closeness of resources and neighbors, and public transportation appeal to us. We also know that we don’t want to isolate ourselves from lower-income neighbors. We would like to live in a lower-income neighborhood in order to be an active part of that neighborhood. We don’t want to separate ourselves from the poor. But we also don’t want to be seen as part of the problem that is increasing poverty for our neighbors.

The best solution may be living in the neighborhood and fighting for quality, low-cost housing. The Lawndale Christian Development Corporation builds low-cost housing for Lawndale residents. The Stevens Square Community Organization has built $70,000 lofts in Minneapolis. I don’t think adding a Gap and Starbucks to Lawndale is going to help much, but change can happen if so-called gentrifiers truly become neighbors.

More about Gentrification:

Flag Wars: a PBS documentary about gentrification in Ohio

There Goes the Neighborhood: a book about racial and social tensions in four Chicago Neighborhoods

Gentrification a boost for everyone: a USA Today article discussing whether or not gentrification really forces large numbers of people to leave their neighborhoods

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