Gentrification is the kind of thing you know when you see it, and that’s not nearly as dodgy as it sounds. A 2019 study released by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) shows that almost half of U.S. gentrification happens in only a handful of cities: Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. Yet the process grafts so easily onto any given area that in nearly any city, investment in one neighborhood can be a harbinger of evictions to come in another.
Gentrification is a rat king of developers, city officials, community elitism, and police forces all tied at the tail; a gourmand 10 stories tall that devours platters of small businesses, devalued homes, and collateral lives, sopping up the gravy of surrounding culture and belching its dismissive approval. Every city it encounters becomes an ouroboros of vanishing institutions, willfully obtuse debates, and finally, a regurgitation of the very culture it destroyed to begin with.
And so, in 2018, a church that was founded by free Black and freed slaves and sat in the capital of the country had a baptism, an altar call, sang, prayed — and then closed its doors. Gentrification did in 20 years what Reconstruction, the Great Depression, and Jim Crow could not in 100.
Course I: Hors-d’oeuvres
Most conversations about gentrification start off in fog, lit only by gaslight. One side says, “You’re pushing me out of my home.” The other responds with talk of safe dog parks and bootstrapping one’s way to the affordable housing promised land. These are dishonest conversations, led by those seeking to avoid charges of colonization. Such defenses of the process hit the table in small portions: a new streetlight; a bus stop that finally gets a metal bench; a fresh segment of sidewalk. Each is a small enough morsel that it won’t ruin your appetite for the rest of the meal. Sure, you can argue over a sidewalk’s intentions — call it a beard or a civic feint to cover something else coming down the pike — but the aftertaste will be bitter. It is hard to argue with a fresh sidewalk, perfectly pitched for wheelchair access, the luxury model even pimpled with raised rubber mats for easy traction. Who doesn’t want mindful walkways in their neighborhood? Wheelchairs are an equal opportunity mode of conveyance, used in the housing project and the suburb alike. All God’s children need ramps.
What kind of person doesn’t want good sidewalks?
Course II: Salad
Because of the many ingredients it contains, displacement is a deceptive and canny dish. Its lettuce base interspersed with tucked-in layers that explode with regional flavors. In Detroit, it is a stinging bouquet of blight and arson, while in San Francisco, exorbitant property values have over-salted the ethnic gumbo of areas like the Mission District, its traditionally Hispanic population dropping from 60% to 48% since 2000.
Displacement is an easy enough dynamic to point out: Your rent multiplies in a seeming attempt to oust you from the premises, or the building you’re living in is suddenly sold out from under you, and now you must live where you can afford, with little consideration for what you desire or what serves your needs. Want to live in a good school district? Want to grocery shop somewhere with more nutritional range than a bodega? You should have found a job that paid 10 times more than you currently make, not had that second child, or finished college despite the accompanying crushing debt.
You could live here if only you were better.
Course III: Appetizer
Gentrification doesn’t start with new coffee shops. It starts years, even decades before, with displacement, neglect, blight, and over-policing. Each of these blows are how you tenderize the meat: Pounding the neighborhood shank until the tendons of safety and services begin to break down. Whack: broken window policies. Whack: perennially broken streetlights. Whack: tax abatements that underfund your schools. When the devaluing of property sets in, the meat is almost ready to be cooked.
In 1880, the first congregation of the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ was formed in what would become the historic Shaw neighborhood of Washington D.C. Originally serving as a base for Union camps that took in escaped slaves, the area would later brim with Black achievement and become a beacon of cultural pride. The church proper was built in 1928 and was a hub for civil rights activism, housing people during the 1963 March on Washington. When King was assassinated in 1968, Shaw erupted. Duke Ellington ran its streets. Carter G. Woodson lived and died in Shaw. Through all of that, the Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ stood. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Then, though, the cost of living in the area rose to the point that the church could not sustain its congregation. People literally could no longer afford to live near their house of worship, and faith without works is dead. And so, in 2018, a church that was founded by free Black and freed slaves and sat in the capital of the country had a baptism, an altar call, sang, prayed — and then closed its doors.
Gentrification did in 20 years what Reconstruction, the Great Depression, and Jim Crow could not in 100.
Course IV: Entree
Here is what I need you to recognize about gentrification: By the time most of you realize what’s happening, it’s too late to do anything about it.
Much of the real power to affect change in development (and gentrification, its crass cousin) lies almost solely under the purview of local government. Your city is likely being rerouted, gutted, and redrawn because the federal government no longer supports city-level development the way it used to, especially in areas like housing. Forced to turn their cities into revenue generators, the people who run cities — mayors, city councils, and major businesses and institutions — eject people of low or no income out of areas where more profitable tax gains can be made with a different population and new development goals. By the time you have your town hall meeting about gentrification and new urban crises, you’re already many years past the point of being able to change anything. And in 2021, shame is not a viable political strategy.
Gentrification survives on its slow, methodical metabolism; whatever solutions exist to address it must be equally long term. You need to raise awareness of the crisis, to educate people on the outcomes, to reset value systems in order to accommodate people out of empathy and kindness. You need to realign and install political maneuvers and representation. And then, then, you need people with clout to convince developers, business, and institutions not to drive poor people out of their homes, raze their culture, and otherwise shuffle them to the furthest reaches of city bus lines. All told, we’re talking many years of reactionary work trying to develop solutions that are largely unfunded, widely untaught, and in most cases still too little, too late.
It’s a lot to swallow, but you probably can’t stop gentrification once it rolls into your town. Sorry.
Course V: Dessert
Culture is the icing of gentrification. Sure, you can make a cake without it, but there’s no cake that the right icing cannot improve. If a city can convince you that living there is awesome, then you will move there, stay for a certain number of years, and generate either tax revenue or business opportunities — which, in turn, attracts the next tier of folks in the pyramid scheme to move there, and the cycle continues. This model is sustainable, but runs the risk of bursting if some new trend or act of God (like a pandemic) happens.
If you want to go for the blue ribbon in gentrification, you need culture.
Culture is like spitting gasoline into the Mad Max supercharger of your city engine: It accelerates everything. When your city has genuine, historic culture, everybody in the city can contribute to it, which means a natural level of investment a city can capitalize on. Try imagining New Orleans without Mardi Gras or Memphis without Beale Street. Everybody in the city is participating (for one reason or another), from the mayor to the busker on the corner. When culture is part of the pie, everyone is invested in the city’s success.
Critics of gentrification often use the destruction of existing culture as a popular defense. That may be the most ironic twist on the whole menu: Gentrification brings its own culture, it’s just a culture that can be controlled.
But it’s not just the destruction of existing culture we should be concerned about. We must also consider how paving over culture makes it impossible for new culture to flourish. I don’t care if you are the most capitalistic grinder on the block, here’s some math you should keep on a front burner: It costs more to import culture than it does to just make space for what culture there already is. If you make culture the crust of your pie rather than the sugar dusting on top, everybody wins.
Let us stop talking about gentrification like it’s a good thing in disguise. Let’s stop talking about it like it’s about sidewalks. Let’s stop talking about gentrification like it’s random, and that city officials don’t have a hand in it. Let’s stop talking about gentrification like it’s about nice things versus unruly house parties. Let’s stop talking about gentrification like it doesn’t take lives and swallow culture whole. Let’s stop talking about it like it’s new, like it isn’t destroying something just because what comes after is delicious or pretty. Let us not dress it up as a good thing with a bad rap and always see gentrification for the insatiable and gaping maw it is.