I remember going home to Detroit one summer to visit family and being met with a place I didn’t recognize. My family and I went downtown one night, per usual, hoping to chop on some Coney Island or Greek cuisine and couldn’t help but notice it. That “it” was the sea of white folks in a Detroit that statistically is pretty damned black. I mean 82% black. I admit to feeling unsure about it. In one breadth it was nice to see a bit of diversity and in another I couldn’t help but feel as if my city was losing a little bit of its cultural fabric.
This change, both refreshing and unusual, led me to beg the question: what’s really going on?
The answer? Gentrification. According to PBS.org, gentrification is defined as “the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rent and property values, and changes in the district’s character in culture.” Just like in practice, that definition is complicated and even a bit enigmatic. This leaves gentrification in the love it or hate it category of social and economic sensations. On the one hand, rising property values is advantageous economically. The higher the property values, the likelier businesses are to move into the gentrified neighborhoods, inspiring consumerism, which provides the capital for more businesses to come in, thus creating an economically sound landscape. Furthermore, higher property values means homeowners are able to sell their homes for higher prices, which further encourages economic growth.
The problem comes, however, when the question of who benefits from these economic advantages is brought up. The majority of the time it’s the wealthier individuals that move into these neighborhoods who benefit, leaving the native residents, who are often black and poor, on the outskirts. Eventually, because of the rising housing and rent prices, these natives are pushed out of neighborhoods they’ve known all of their lives.
And when they are not pushed out, the aforementioned “changing cultural character” is not always a welcoming or comfortable facet of this phenomenon. Imagine waking up in a place that you don’t recognize and doesn’t really recognize you.
Some also praise gentrification for its decreasing of crime, but this hasn’t been explicitly proven; the opposite has actually been reported. Loud music, block parties, cookouts, flooded basketball courts are all staples in inner city communities. These same past times may not be as welcomed to those gentrifying neighbors, creating social gaps, a breeding ground for crime to grow. If you don’t understand your neighbor, you may not know your neighbor, which makes it easier for you to commit a crime against him or her. Additionally, individuals who gentrify these neighborhoods are often wealthy, making them easier targets for robbery.
But this crime goes both ways, specifically when it comes to those who police gentrified communities. Take the case of Alejandro Nieto; he was wrongfully killed by police officers that were called by gentrifying white neighbors who considered him, born and bred in the community, as a menace. And this is likely not the first or last occurrence, even if it doesn’t end in death. When “outsiders”, who are typically middle class and white, move into these neighborhoods, a needless fear ensures simply because he or she doesn’t understand the culture.
So, why do inner city residents allow it? What needs to be done in order for the positive aspects of gentrification to flourish, leaving the negative aspects as myth?
Some say the answer is in allowing the gentrified communities to have a say in the structure of their changing neighborhoods. Not necessarily saying who moves in, but more so how it’s being done. Starbucks is great. Fancy boutiques are nice. And everyone knows that the food deserts that typify these low-income neighborhoods are desperately needed. But, residents who have affordably lived in their neighborhoods pre-gentrification should also be able to afford the luxuries that gentrification offers, or at least have more affordable options available. This means that mom and pops stores, community centers, and other services should remain, continuously serving the community that has established the gentrified neighborhoods. Socially, this means that both natives and gentrifies should make concerted efforts to truly get to know each other and each other’s motives.
In the end, change is inevitable. This is especially true for decaying neighborhoods, which become that way for a myriad of reasons that are too complex to cover in this article. They still demand change though.
However, does it take upwardly mobile, often white, people moving into inner city neighborhoods to make them more livable? Does this same phenomenon always have to result in native residents being pushed out?
What are your thoughts?