June 1, 2016
By Vivian Le
In cities all over the United States, neighborhoods that used to be predominantly populated by black and Latinx communities are now more likely to be homes to young white artists, or rich up-and-coming tech magnates. These neighborhoods, such as Oakland in California, or Williamsburg in New York City, have become “revitalized” through the additions of renovated apartment buildings and upscale versions of local businesses, inviting in new residents.
What happens to the people already living in these communities, though?
Many people are often displaced and pushed out of their homes due to the rising prices of rent brought in by the new residents. Local businesses are often forced to close because they can’t keep up with the new competition – Whole Foods, and Starbucks, and hipster bars that serve artisanal treats on shovels. Soon enough, the families that made their histories in the community and the businesses that employed and served people in the neighborhood through the years are gone – washed away by countless new “helpful” changes.
Couched under the name of “urban renewal,” gentrification is a longstanding, systematic, and deliberate process of uprooting communities, especially those that primarily consist of people of color or the poor. It is based in the same mindset that powered segregationist city policies in the past. Back then, highways were built splitting directly through neighborhoods (often with primarily black residents) deemed expendable by city officials and planners, scattering close communities in all direction; today, it’s businesses and people causing the separating, encroaching further and further into already established neighborhoods and reforming them into an entirely new shape altogether.
Longstanding neighborhoods are now undergoing rapid reinventions, with gentrification stripping away their histories and cultures bit by bit. In New York City, several neighborhoods, such as Bushwick and parts of Flatbrush, are now East Williamsburg and Prospect Park South respectively, named after nearby areas already deemed to be “safe” and “inviting” to entice even more newcomers to move in. In Boston, a neighborhood called Jamaica Plains lost its local affordable supermarket, Hi-Lo, which had been there for decades and specialized in Latin-American fare, after a Whole Foods moved in. In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, which is predominantly Latinx, many businesses, such as laundromats, restaurants, and art galleries, have been forced to move elsewhere because the of the increasingly expensive cost of rent.
Aside from the running out of residents and businesses through a rising cost of living, there have also been more insidious – and violent – changes that have helped to splinter these communities even more. To maintain the standards set by the new residents in gentrified neighborhoods, areas are often over-policed with minority residents being the primary targets of increasingly numerous petty offenses charged to them by the police. In Brooklyn, black and Latino men are often disproportionately arrested for marijuana use and distribution, but when white men do the same, they are praised. It’s troubling when even drug dealing has become gentrified – an innovation, instead of an act of survival.
Even when they are doing nothing wrong, longtime residents can quickly become vilified in the very streets they make their home. Stereotypical beliefs about the black and Latinx community often color the judgement of the new (often white) residents. Alex Nieto, a young Latino man, was shot and killed in the Mission District of San Francisco where he had lived all his life after the police were called by a white couple, who had recently moved into the area. They had felt nervous and were suspicious of Nieto after they had passed by him in the park even though he did not interact with either of them. In gentrified neighborhoods, even the simple act of living can become dangerous for some residents.
Ultimately, gentrification is an act of division, powered by numerous issues (race, class, etc.). It divides neighborhoods – divides longstanding communities of people – and does so under a seemingly progressive mantle. Instead of helping their poor and struggling communities directly, cities are instead looking to cast them out for the rich, the white, the “acceptable.” Gentrification quickly devolves into an “us vs them” situation, unfairly tipped in favor of newcomers, who are backed by institutional power and wealth.
Guilt is common and maybe even fashionable nowadays in the people who benefit from gentrification (the young, rich, and white), but that doesn’t change anything and really only enables the process even more. City officials need to become more respectful about their renovation plans in these areas (ideally working with the residents who will be affected!) or these neighborhoods – these communities of people – will continue to be erased and stomped upon as the cycle of oppression repeats itself all over again.
Vivian Le is currently a student at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in Sociology and Psychology. She interns at the Thomas Merton Center as the digital media editor for the NewPeople Newspaper.