Gentrification, Pioneers and Gatekeepers

Seen on the street in Chicago.
I’m going pretty easy today, so this will be fairly brief.

Kaid Benfield wrote a piece on gentrification at Better Cities that speaks to the complexities of today’s gentrification battles.  Here, Benfield kind of lays out the battle lines of today’s gentrification controversy:

Surely we haven’t reached the point where making inner-city neighborhoods more attractive to more residents is a bad thing. And does anyone really have a right in the US to keep newcomers out?  Didn’t we have a civil rights movement largely over that very issue?

I get it that we want the rebirth of America’s long-forgotten neighborhoods to lift all boats, not just provide a haven for affluent new residents.  But I find myself stymied when trying to find a balanced solution, since the argument of anti-gentrification forces can all too easily amount to, “I don’t want the neighborhood to improve so much that properties in it become worth much more.”  

 To a fair number of back-to-the-city people, the anti-gentrification crowd seems a lot like the “for whites only” protesters in urban white ethnic neighborhoods circa 1955.  Similarly, urban pioneers are choosing to view themselves much like to minority trailblazers who tried to expand their housing choices.

About the only thing that remains the same from the battles of long ago is the “combatant” names: the people who wish to stay in their present homes could be called the “gatekeepers”, and the potential new residents could be called the “pioneers”.  Beyond that, things are very different.  Let’s list some points to see how:

  • Yesterday’s “pioneers” had incomes that were generally equal to that of people in the “gatekeeper” community; today’s “pioneers” have incomes that are generally far greater than today’s “gatekeepers”.
  • Yesterday’s “gatekeeper” communities had a reliable residential demand prior to the emergence of new pioneers, made up of other potential “gatekeepers”; today’s “gatekeeper” communities suffered from an absence of demand until recently.
  • Yesterday’s “gatekeepers” were fearful of falling property values; today’s “gatekeepers” want increases without displacement.
  • Yesterday’s “pioneers” were seeking new homes in other areas because overcrowding and discriminatory housing practices pushed them to do so; today’s “pioneers” are making a lifestyle choice.
  • Yesterday’s “pioneers” wanted to move into communities with better amenities and services; today’s “gatekeepers” are resentful that today’s “pioneers” are able to obtain the amenities and services they’ve been longing for.
  • Yesterday’s “gatekeepers” had an escape plan if they lost the battle — the new land called suburbia that awaited them and was being constructed in their image.  Today’s “gatekeepers” can escape to suburbia, but they do so often with the knowledge that they are moving away from wealth, not toward it.
One more point I’d add, but not in a bullet point because it is a much more nuanced point.  Yesterday’s “pioneers” were fairly integrationist and assimilationist in their approach to relocation.  They wanted to adopt the same lifestyle of the people in the neighborhood they were entering, partake of the same amenities and services, and blend into the character of the existing community.  Today’s “pioneers” seem less culturally sensitive to the “gatekeeper” neighborhood they’re moving to, and want to bring in the amenities and services that meet their needs and desires.  They want to bring change — indeed, positive change — but it often cuts against the grain of the “gatekeepers”.  
Today’s gentrification battles are different from yesterday’s open housing battles.  
There is a model for helping communities to manage this kind of transition.  It’s a model that I worked on ten years ago, and I wish it was implemented more often.  You’ll hear more about it soon.

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