This is Part II of an ill-advised series of “field notes” from my experience as an unintentional gentrifier in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider it the purging of my current thoughts on/observations about gentrification, urban economics, class, race, and $3.50 tacos. Three related posts are planned so far. There may be more to come. Or not.
One of the reasons gentrification is such a hard thing to talk about is that it pricks our sensitivities to complicated social structures of class, culture, and race. But it doesn’t take long into the conversation to realize that we not only disagree about how these things play into urban development, but also what these things even mean.
a : a group sharing the same economic or social status the working class
b : social rank; especially : high social rank the classes as opposed to the masses
the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time popular culture Southern culture
a : a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
b : a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics
Gentrification is almost always perceived as a racism problem. This is evidenced by the fact that people complaining most about gentrification are almost always implicitly (or explicitly) referring to “rich white people” taking over “poor black” neighborhoods. But we know that redevelopment (in both equitable and inequitable ways) happens in all communities and at the hand of white and black people alike.
Yet, still, this is how the conversation usually goes:
Someone (usually a white someone) of influence in an urban development project will speak of the urban community as one plagued by blight and crime. They will point to their plan to “clean up the neighborhood.”
Or someone (usually a white someone) will move into a neighborhood and claim they’re interested in “helping make it better.”
But, instead of hearing the kind hearts of well-intended people trying to make the community a better place, we think they mean “I want to get rid of the poor black people in this neighborhood.”
Now, we know that there are many terrible people in this world, people who are legitimately racist or spiteful or simply ignorant. And they have done terrible things to other people including, but not limited to, taking over entire neighborhoods for their own interests. But let’s pretend for a minute that not all white people with the means or influence to change a community meet the description of Racist Colonizer. Cool? Cool.
Then, let’s be honest about urban blight and crime.
Because those who fight hand over fist to stop gentrification don’t seem to think there’s a problem to solve, but they’re wrong.
Over the past 50(ish) years, our urban communities have seen a devastating amount of economic and social disinvestment. There’s good reason why the urban stereotype is dirty, dangerous, and disenfranchised (I love alliteration). We can argue about why cities became such a dump at the end of the 20th Century (spoiler: racism has a lot to do with it) but you can’t deny it happened or that it was/is a problem.
In the almost ten years I’ve lived in Over-the-Rhine:
In alleys and on sidewalks, alongside your standard littered garbage, I’ve picked up (and properly disposed of) used condoms, used tampons, used heroin needles, and dirty underwear.
I’ve watched a well-dressed young woman drop her drawers and defecate on the sidewalk in broad daylight and then walk away like nothing ever happened.
At least weekly, in full view of my kitchen window, someone uses our alleyway as a urinal.
Human feces appears a couple times a year.
We’ve had 5-6 incidents of theft from our front yard, back yard, or vehicle. Twice it has happened right in front of my eyes by people who acted surprised that I was surprised by their stealing from me.
For a time, someone was hiding stolen electronics in our yard.
I once found a man sleeping under a tarp in our backyard in the afternoon.
I’ve watched countless (literally countless) drug-dealing interactions on and around my street.
I’ve found people passed out on the sidewalk from drinking or doping.
Gunshots. Lots of them.
A man was shot by police within view of my second-story window on a sunny afternoon.
At our old apartment, a woman rang our doorbell late at night and begged for help and said she was running away from her violent boyfriend and could I please save her?
I once woke (with most of my neighbors) in the middle of the night to a woman screaming that she had just been assaulted around the corner and needed help.
Strangers ring my doorbell just to ask for money.
(Oh, golly, city living sounds great, right?)
So, what’s my point in listing these incidents?
I want to illustrate that there are things that happen on a regular basis in mixed-income, dense, urban areas that simply do not happen with any comparable frequency in other places. (Other place have other problems, to be sure.) And that you’re crazy to try and justify and protect these characteristically urban blight and crime issues the same way you’d fight to protect an ethnic food eatery or the right for homeless people to loiter in public parks (both of which I support, btw).
But, what does this have to do with racism?
Well, I didn’t give you any indication whether the people involved in these incidents were black or white. And I can promise that it’s a nice, healthy mix. So my bigger point is that the desire to “clean up the city” it not about getting rid of black people. For most normal residents, it’s about simple quality-of-life things like making the city a place where kids and moms and old men in wheelchairs don’t have to dodge human feces while traveling down the sidewalk.
And for someone to call a white person a racist because they’re willing to say people shouldn’t crap in public is like saying that public defecation is somehow related to being black, which is a flat out, evil lie that should offend all of us.
So, okay. Maybe I’m right.
Maybe gentrification isn’t really about race.
But then what is it about?
It’s about class and it’s about culture.
And class and culture are more complicated and are issues of justice and personal responsibility and values, which means getting at the root of what actually makes us different from each other. So I understand why we would rather make it about race. We are not responsible for our race or ethnicity. Even a marginally ethical person can and should be ideologically offended by racism. But we all get personally offended by criticisms of our class or culture.
If you ask me–which you didn’t, except that you’re reading my blog so you kinda did–the real gentrification conversation is less about what race of people are moving in or out of a neighborhood and more about
a) how to build a community where there is mobility between social and economic classes, facilitated through our means of housing, educating, socializing, and employing our residents and
b) how to design the community so that the cultural landscape (food, art, aesthetics, etc.) is truly representative of all the residents in the community, not just the new ones with money.
But where does that leave us?
I am a young, white, middle-class urban dweller. I may feel powerless at times in my neighborhood but, compared to some of my minority or lower-income neighbors, I have great influence. So I (and my peers) need to be pressed on these two questions. And we need to hold community leaders, investors, and developers accountable to them.
But we can’t have these really important conversations across class and cultural lines if we can’t, first, agree that there are some things about our shared community that none of us should be defending.
Some things are simply uncultured and class-less–
Things like heroin.
And stealing my kid’s bike.
And crapping on my sidewalk.
(Possibly) later in the Field Notes series:
How to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis
My $13 Box of Macarons