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GENTRIFICATION: Urban White Allies’ Most Prevalent Failure

Before beginning a discussion of gentrification, I must note the complex nature of the subject as well as the fact that race and racism contribute to—and are arguably the cause of—all gentrification. There’s no ignoring that.

This discussion is not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive, as such an examination would not be feasible using this limited written medium. I am still working through my thoughts on how racial allies might best address the harms of gentrification. I hope you will too.

Finally, I must state clearly and unequivocally: Gentrification is not a good thing. It is not merely a benign revitalization effort. And people should stop discussing it like it is. I hope this piece will make clear why statements like “I’ll be looking forward to the time when that neighborhood is gentrified so I can explore apartments there” are wildly problematic.

what is gentrification, really?

Mainstream discussion of gentrification often refers to it in neutral, at times even compassionate, terms. Many consider gentrification as a positive, large-scale revitalization effort. Other outlets go as far as to defend gentrification and its “positive” results.

Forbes contributor, Pete Saunders has boiled down the basic definition, which is useful for purposes of this discussion: “the movement into a formerly deteriorating community by middle-class or affluent residents.”

Saunders continues, giving examples of gentrification from the perspective of a long-term inner-city resident: “See a Starbucks or Whole Foods move into a neighborhood? That's gentrification. Find out that a house sold for an exorbitant amount or that rents at some building doubled? That's gentrification. See bike lanes added to your street, or a rack of bike-share bikes pop up near a busy corner? That's gentrification.”

While Saunders’ definition alludes to the racial implications of gentrification, it remains conspicuously race neutral and focused on socioeconomic status. An examination of gentrification that fails to consider race and racism and instead focuses only on socioeconomics necessarily erases gentrification’s fundamental deliberateness and intentionality, giving a pass to white gentrifiers whose individual actions contribute directly to black and brown harm.

Philadelphia’s historic Divine Lorraine Hotel, abandoned and uninhabited. Copyright Johnathan S. Perkins

Philadelphia’s historic Divine Lorraine Hotel, abandoned and uninhabited. Copyright Johnathan S. Perkins

Once the racial implications become part of the assessment, however, the term “a formerly deteriorating community” can be read as a euphemism for “a black community,” and the terms “middle-class or affluent” as euphemisms for “white people.” Much more often than not, that’s the racial reality.

A more accurate addition to the mainstream definition must include acknowledgement that the transition of low-income city neighborhoods into middle-class neighborhoods utilizes metrics that are deemed acceptable by the new, mostly white, residents. These outcomes, particularly as they relate to not only the racial history of the subject neighborhood, but also its racial and cultural future, are vital to an honest and fulsome understanding of the issue. I need to make something abundantly clear. Gentrification, as it exists today, is not aimed at revitalizing and improving neighborhoods in order to benefit the current residents. It is not philanthropic. It is not giving. It is taking.

Gentrification is the continuation of historic theft of black homes, businesses, economic capital, and local culture, resulting in the forced displacement of black and brown people, many of whom are generations-long residents.

It is the continual utilization of historic and institutionalized racist housing and urban planning policies. The process often results in positive outcomes for the new white residents, at the expense of the black and brown residents already occupying the communities at issue.

The Problem

Gentrification is a widespread mechanism through which white supremacy operates, however cloaked in the legitimacy of community development and revitalization. Such a so-called revitalization of struggling black and brown communities is problematic in large part because of its outcomes: developers buy and redesign inner-city residential and commercial spaces, replacing them with higher-end businesses and homes.

As a result, young, white, middle- to upper-class professionals move into the formerly-black and brown communities, knowingly or unknowingly contributing to the increase in property value in the communities and pricing out the previous occupants.

Gentrification redefines communities based on the standards and preferences of the largely white developers and residents, who have no previous relationship with the neighborhoods or the black and brown people who reside there.

Gentrification is happening in all major U.S. cities and in many of the mid-sized and smaller cities as well. It is a deliberate initiative, motivated solely by profits and fueled by the desire of mostly white professionals for quality, affordable accommodations (often accompanied by significant tax abatements), located conveniently within resurging cities.

Real estate developers seated atop the Divine Lorraine, shortly after receiving approval to renovate the space into luxury condominiums, restaurants, and internal gardens. Copyright Jeremy Marshall 2015.

Real estate developers seated atop the Divine Lorraine, shortly after receiving approval to renovate the space into luxury condominiums, restaurants, and internal gardens. Copyright Jeremy Marshall 2015.

The question for racial allies remains: Will you participate in gentrification, and to what extent?

From my perspective, racial allies have two clear options.

Option 1: Don’t Take Part in Gentrification

This option is obviously the least-harmful and the right choice, morally. Simply put, those who do not desire to take part in gentrification should do their best to avoid doing so.

Such a decision will require a deliberate effort on the part of would-be real estate and business developers to identify the negative consequences black and brown people will likely suffer as a result of the so-called revitalization decisions.

Despite my convictions with respect to this option, it seems unrealistic. The problematic practice is already too widespread within the real estate development and business community for such a turnabout.

The same option is also available on the individual consumer level, though. Indeed, a shift in consumer preference is the only way real estate developers may shift their strategies. If consumers desire to avoid participation in gentrification, homeowners and renters shouldn’t purchase or rent homes in neighborhoods at the beginning or in the midst of a black-to-white demographic shift. More directly, if individuals wish to avoid contributing to gentrifications’ harmful outcomes, they should refuse to move into new neighborhoods if their move is likely to cause or contribute to the displacement of the black or brown people already living there.

I have found, however, that most people, even those who claim racial allyship, are too fiscally self-centered (read: selfish) to pass up the affordable accommodations gentrification provides.

Not everyone, though. Not the most committed racial allies.

I asked white community activist and member of the Los Angeles chapter of White People 4 Black Lives, Liz Sutton, about her recent decision to refuse gentrification in the context of a move to a new neighborhood. She explained:

“As someone [originally] from a seriously segregated area and a very white town, I have a lot of feelings around living in an area that’s predominantly white. But after a lot of discussion and energy and thought and consultation with close black and brown friends it became clear that this was the better option than living in an area that might feel better to me personally in terms of diversity but would for sure be displacing someone. None of these decisions will ever feel completely right, but I’ll be thinking critically about as many possible sides as I can come up with, anytime I move, for the rest of my life.”

I share Ms. Sutton’s decision-making process not to hold her up as some sort of white savior, but to provide an answer to the common “well, where am I supposed to live?” refrain, I hear from so many well-meaning white urbanites.

Admittedly, for some, the decision to refuse to participate in gentrification might cause genuine difficulty. It may make things less convenient and more expensive (e.g., this decision might require living with a roommate in an area that may previously have been considered too expensive). But remember, refusing the benefits of white supremacy will require action that will feel like negative consequences.

An examination and refusal of gentrification, a primary manifestation of white supremacy, is vital for those white people who seek to relocate to neighborhoods, risking the displacement of black and brown people.

White racial allies must make every effort to dismantle harmful racial systems and at the very least, not contribute to them, within their daily lives.

Option 2: Participate in gentrification (but try to do as little harm as possible)

Cities are cool again. When I was attending high school in conservative Lancaster, PA county in 2000-2004, people literally gasped when I told them I was moving to Philadelphia for college. City life was considered risky and dangerous. Since then, that mindset has largely dissolved and transformed into a fascination with urban life and a desire to dwell in cities.

Millennials’, in particular, desire for affordable housing, balanced against our college debt, play a major role in this shift, and real estate developers are taking advantage of that.

There is no magic bullet that will comprehensively address the problem of gentrification. My best efforts have led me to a series of questions and considerations that I hope white gentrifiers will bear in mind as they take part in the harmful process.

If you consider yourself a racial ally and have decided that you must, for whatever reason, reside in a neighborhood where your presence will displace black and brown people, you should take time to examine that choice:

  • Why must you reside in this community?

  • Was the decision made for financial reasons?

  • Does your financial stability outweigh the harm ultimately inflicted on the black and brown folks you are likely displacing?

If you’ve already taken part in this harmful process or know that you ultimately will, all I can plead is that you try to do as little harm as possible. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the neighborhood you’re moving into historically inhabited by black or brown people?

  • Are you aware of the larger racialized systems at work, generations before your arrival?

  • Was this a neighborhood to which black people were relegated, due to redlining or other overtly racist policies or practices?

  • Did black businesses once flourish in this neighborhood?

  • Are you conscious of the effects your presence will likely have on the community, social, financial, cultural, or otherwise?

As white people who claim to care about black and brown people move into neighborhoods currently occupied by those folks, try to bear in mind the following practical points, in addition to the everyday anti-racism actions they should be striving to carrying out:

  • Remember that you have a choice of where to live. You are choosing to move into the new neighborhood and potentially displacing black and brown people. Many folks do not have such flexibility and mobility.

  • Take note of the social posture you’re taking, as you enter the neighborhood as a new resident. Your social posture and the interactions that stem from your arrival should be shrouded in respect, deference, and consideration.

  • Introduce yourself to the people already residing in the neighborhood.

  • Be friendly. Perhaps more friendly than you normally would be.

  • Be respectful. Perhaps more respectful than you normally would be.

  • Understand that the current black and brown residents have no obligation to be friendly to you—and in fact, if history serves as a guide, have every reason to be wary and even upset with your presence.

  • Approach your relationships with the established residents as one of teacher-student.

  • Learn about the history of the neighborhood. Strive to preserve and respect it.

  • Support black businesses in the neighborhood, even if it may be less expensive to support Amazon, Trader Joe’s, or Blue Apron.

  • Pay attention to how your presence—particularly your whiteness—may be received by the black and brown folks already living in the neighborhood.

  • Pay attention to how you’re relating to the black and brown people who may have lived in the neighborhood for generations.

Remember, white people have the option of never really thinking about race issues, not to mention their own race. They are given the privilege (if we want to call it that) of never really examining what it means to be white in America.

Now is the time to examine that.

One of white supremacy’s most widespread goals is establishing white is the norm in this country. If you feel you must take part in the displacement and general harm of black and brown families with deep ties to their community, all I can ask is that you try your hardest to be conscious of the larger issues at work and to try your absolute best to not let whiteness transform the community, using whiteness, white comfort, affordability, and preference as the metric.

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