Gentrification: Critic or Culprit?

Ever catch yourself walking down the block in your neighborhood reminiscing on what it used to be and side-eying all the new cafes, restaurants and shops that’ve popped up? Ever then catch yourself later hitting up that coffee shop to get some work done or grab a snack after a long day? We, as people of color, have this nuanced relationship with gentrification in which we tend to talk about all the negative aspects while proceeding to consume the products put forth by its existence in our neighborhoods.

The question in the title is posed largely for those of us who grew up in pre-gentrified, low-income neighborhoods, went away for school, got decent jobs that put us within a  middle-class salary range, then came back to our neighborhoods or similar ones throughout the country looking for a reasonably priced place to live and sense of community.

We agree that there is a problem with the increasing cost-of-living in our neighborhoods driving out residents and companies that can no longer afford to reside there. I’m talking about the slow removal those fabrics of the community: the Crown Fried Chicken, Chinese spot, laundromat, liquor store, KeyFood, ethnic food market, corners stores, etc. Like a loose string from a stocking, the community slowly begins to unravel, but I can’t help but do a double take at the new brand with which that original fabric is being replaced. There is nothing wrong with having nice things, but what do we do when our Bed-Stuys, our Harlems, our Northeast DC’s are becoming too expensive to live in? When the black mecca of NY is now the home of the WholeFoods and the Starbucks? We find ourselves enjoying easy access to brie cheese and chai lattes while acknowledging that our own mothers are at risk of pushed out to the margins along with the neighborhood’s culture, like some doodles on a piece of paper rather than the crucial content.

It plays out a little something like: Mr. B’s corner store is gone, but I’ll check out the hair studio that they replaced it with, *checks prices*, never mind. What about the Jamaican Grill? My mom’s friend who owns it used to hook me up. Nope, gone. I guess I’ll see what vegan food tastes like instead. Nah, let me hit up this cafe. OOOhhh, this isn’t too expensive and it’s pretty, I’m definitely coming back. *Takes a step back* you know what, this isn’t all bad. The block is looking rather nice these days.

In order to get to the bottom of this nuance, let’s revisit the definition of gentrification. Investopedia defines gentrification as, “a process of urban renewal wherein a neighborhood or city develops economically so that original residents are displaced. It is often defined by an influx of wealthier residents and businesses, resulting in an increase in property values.”

So as consumers of this new real estate and it’s products, have we moved from critic to culprit?

Economically, it is possible to be a black or poc gentrifier if we fall into the aforementioned definition by simply being a wealthier resident moving into a lower-income neighborhood, which eventually results in increased property values. The thing is, this could also be seen as the growing of the black  or poc middle class, particularly if one is making moves to own property as opposed to renting it. As access to an affordable higher education and job opportunities increase, many of us are sliding on into higher tax brackets and there is no reason to apologize for that. Many of us do not have generational wealth to fall back on, therefore moving into neighborhoods with prices that allow you to save, pay off loans, help out your family financially, while flourishing within your own independent lifestyle often seem to be the only option.

Culturally, it is not possible to be a black or poc gentrifier. Coming back to a place and coming into a place are two different things. The African proverb and mindset, “It takes a village,” was not lost in the Atlantic Slave Trade. These up-and-coming neighborhoods, the ones no one was looking at years ago are still our village, our hood, our community. It is still the place where you learned to ball, where you won (or lost) your first fight, where you had your first kiss or broke curfew just to kick it. It’s still where the candy lady held you and the crew down and your aunties (play or real) would snitch on you at any given moment if they saw you acting a fool in the streets. It’s still where you had your church cake walks, summer block parties, 4th of July bbqs. By coming back to a once familiar place with some more money in your wallet, you exist as an example to younger kids that your lifestyle is a feasible reality and that this neighborhood is nothing from which you need to run away. By returning your new revenue to the old hood, you remind the old heads that their sacrifices were worth it and you will carry on a legacy of supporting the community that raised you. Unfortunately, the spirit of community has never stopped the spirit of colonialism.

Yes, colonialism. We’ve been here before, you know, when you’re minding your own business in your own land and some folks show up and “re-district,” set some new parameters both physically and culturally that either result in one ending up displaced, on a boat or in a cell.

The truth is, we are not entirely mad at gentrification. Who doesn’t like easy access to brie cheese?? Again, we’re allowed to have nice things. Unfortunately, with gentrification those nice things come with a downside that hits close to home (literally).  While we cannot stop gentrification, we can work to preserve some of that original fabric, particularly as people who can relate to those being driven out but have the privilege of not having that obstacle to deal with.

A neighborhood in Brickton, PA  has gone about black gentrification in ways that preserve the culture of the community and creates opportunities for investments by recruiting black middle-class residents and encouraging homeownership and entrepreneurship. Individually we can do more research, attend town hall meetings and voice our concerns, vote in local elections for leaders who desire to preserve the community and develop it in a way that does not disenfranchise. We can also convince policy makers to require incoming businesses to hire a percentage of local residents. The Small Business Jobs Survival Act in New York works to restore economic equality to local business owners by setting forth policy that: protects business tenants from unreasonable lease demands, reduces job loss that is caused by excessive rent, provides the type of stability that can lead to business expansion and promote economic growth while limiting illegal extortion from landlords. On a more tangible, humane level: mentor a young person in your neighborhood, dust off your cleats and coach a team, tutor, attend a career day, hoop with the old heads, worship in the neighborhood. 

While the idea of black or poc gentrification is a sign of a growing middle-class that looks like us and not something that poorly impacts the well-being or culture of our neighborhoods, that does not absolve us from engaging with the community to preserve the genuine fabric of our neighborhoods. Gentrification will not come to a screeching on our behalf, but we can improve without displacing. This requires our voices to be apart of the building process....or as my dynamic community engagement professor used to say, “Nothing for us or about us without us.”

 By: Naa-Shorme, Creator of Write to Live 

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