I entered the Washington Post’s America’s Next Great Pundit contest a couple of weeks ago. I did not make the list of top 10 finalists, so the country will have to keep reading here to my punditry for a least the next little while.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed writing this opinion piece on gentrification. Take a look.
One Love. One II.
Are newly opened Starbucks, pedestrians with designer sunglasses, and big box retailers symbols of revitalization or the death of a neighborhood? Culturally speaking, it’s a funeral.
Neighborhoods become cool because of their history. History trumps gang wars, drug havens, and panhandlers when it comes to earning the “up and coming” title. Think Harlem. Its history as the Mecca of early 20th century black creativity made it a cool place to live despite the effects of its crack epidemic.
The model for capitalizing on the cool is simple: 1) buy a house, 2) renovate it, and 3) quadruple the price. This ensures that new, more attractive people will move in and manifest the coolness. The problem is that when black and Latino people are displaced, so are their memories, values, and relationships.
Revitalization brings us shiny new stores and unfamiliar neighbors. Unfortunately, new stores don’t mean new friends for our sons to play football with or our daughters to jump rope with. They also don’t mean new friends for our veterans to play dominoes with at the VFW.
What’s left are neighborhoods without souls. Gentrification has a way of inducing schizophrenia upon a place. A block that was once filled with locally-owned, locally-supported, complimentary businesses is now stuffed with unrelated chains fighting for attention. Cohesive cultural scenes become disjointed commercial conglomerates. Aimless neighborhood development does give at least one gift: bad traffic.
Neighborhoods can be made safer and redeveloped without economic displacement. This happens when capital investments are targeted toward strengthening communities rather than supplanting them.
We need less overpriced lattes and more family-owned restaurants. We need fewer high-rise, low-quality condominiums and more streets where everyone knows everyone else’s names. We must build on the genuine relationships that made our neighborhoods what they are, not break them apart and auction them to the highest bidder. Now is the time to double down on building America up in ways that celebrate the rich histories of every corner, of every neighborhood, everywhere.