Gentrification, Displacement, and the Loss of Culture and Authenticity in American Cities
Cities have long been some of the most prevalent locations to find a wide array of diversity and cultures. America’s urban areas each have their own unique charm, and along with that, they have an assortment of locals that give the city a heritage and story. Even so, policies are set into action each day that threaten the livelihood of America’s cities. One of the main culprits that contributes to a city’s loss of heritage, and therefore leading to displacement, is gentrification, which is the purchase and renovation of homes or businesses in urban places. Gentrification leads to displacement of families or businesses that called a city their home long before newer, usually richer residents, decided to take root and build a life on top of other’s already well-established lives. Along with an influx of wealthier citizens, leading to countless people having to leave, gentrification also has an effect on the heritage of an urban area. Imagine a city, teeming with life and culture, all of a sudden sanitized and stripped of any authenticity; gentrification does just that. For years, the word itself has been avoided in urban areas because of the fact that it is so controversial, but it is time its effects on a city are discussed and publicized in order to create better awareness for future towns that may have to undergo gentrification.
Gentrification is not a new, 21st century plan to modernize America; it started after World War II in Europe, as an effort to bring back war-stricken areas. The term first came about in England, but made its way over to the United States in the 1970s (Slater). Back then, the word itself was hardly known or understood, and city-dwelling residents could not think less of it; it was not a problem. Justin Davidson, an architecture critic and Harvard graduate, states that “gentrification can be either a toxin or a balm”. There are two types of gentrification, proclaims the critic, who also holds a doctorate degree from Columbia University; there the rapid and “invasive” type, which leads to increasing prices, but there is also a “more natural, humane kind that takes decades to mature” (Davidson). The latter is what occurred in post-war Europe, and at the time, gentrification was just what the continent needed to get back up on its feet and continue to thrive and prosper. Its rival, on the other hand, is an aggressive form of gentrification, and feeds upon the displacement of others in order to bring in a wealthier middle-class, therefore stripping an area of heritage and replacing older buildings with increasingly expensive options.
Personally, I have experienced this phenomena firsthand, although at the time, I had not thought much of it. Last spring, on a visit to Temple University, I was surrounded by gentrification all throughout the streets of North Philadelphia. I am proud to call Temple my future home, but every visit there is heart-wrenching because I see a tattered area, full of residents that have always called North Philadelphia their home, being overrun by middle-class college kids oblivious to the struggle those around them are enduring. Peter Moskowitz, a New York-based independent journalist, confirms my fears, stating that even though Philadelphia has tried to put a halt on its development into minority neighborhoods, “[the] gentrification they helped initiate has led to a development boom that is ratcheting up tension in the city”. Cecil B. Moore Avenue, to Temple students, is the best place to hang out and grab a bite after class, but to previous residents living in North Philadelphia, the street signifies more than a popular college campus spot: it is the location of a historically black urban neighborhood. Temple has driven residents further apart from their own neighborhood in a frightening way. I, for one, cannot imagine the unsettling anxiety and agitation I would have over losing my home to wealthier businesses trying to commercialize my neighborhood, but that fear is a reality for countless North Philly residents. James Johnson, the top barber at Tommy’s Barber Shop, which is located only a few blocks from Temple University’s main campus, states that there has been a huge change in his neighborhood over the years as gentrification in the area increases, and even though he is happy the area is getting fixed up, the situation is a “double-edged sword”; increased police presence is also noticeable, making many residents feel as though they are the newbies intruding on another town’s heritage (Moskowitz). When I start attending Temple next fall, I will be one of many contributing to the growing problem in the area, and it pains me that countless people are losing the sense of community that everybody should be able to have at home.
The argument of gentrification has long been associated with ‘white flight’, which first started in the 1960s as white families moved out of cities and into suburbs (Semuels). Nowadays, as it is becoming more hip and cool to live in an urban area which offers a wide array of activities and also vaster public transportation, white families are moving back into cities. The problem arises when black communities are overtaken by large contractors and building companies that buy out buildings, renovating them for the influx of middle-class residents. Renovations and an increased interest in purchasing urban property leads to higher rents and home prices, many of which low-income minorities, those originally living in the urban areas undergoing gentrification, cannot afford. Chad Dion Lassiter, a “social worker, lifelong Philadelphia resident and the president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, an alumni network” (Moskowitz), states that, relating to Temple’s gentrification process:
They’re creating enclaves of whiteness. When communities of color can’t come to your library, can’t come to your lawn, when you situate security booths around the perimeter of your campus and keep people out … you’re dismantling a community to create a university as a community.
The sense of separation between white and black communities resulting from gentrification has been a problem for decades. Nearly half a century ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered civic leaders to look into the underlying sources of racial inequality in America; the resulting document was the Kerner Report, which stated white families fled to suburbs, excluding blacks from their communities (Semuels). Nowadays, the tables have turned, with more white families wanting to move into cities, and just as what happened in the middle of the 20th century, black communities are the ones being displaced and excluded. This migration of higher income residents into traditionally poorer urban areas has created increasing fiscal problems for cities (Freeman and Braconi), and therefore, more and more minorities being displaced and having to move from the neighborhoods they grew up in.
Along with urban residents losing their homes and the sense of pride they once had in their neighborhoods, local businesses are also being threatened by gentrification. Alan Ehrenhalt, Governing Magazine’s senior editor, calls 2015 “the year the neighborhood store suffered a mass extinction”. Many of the businesses closing their doors are situated in popular neighborhoods, as these are the most-desired by incoming residents (Stokols), and as property rents increase in sought-after areas, so do commercial rents, and traditional, family-owned businesses are pushed out by larger chain stores. The Small Business Jobs Survival Act, or SBJSA, should be implemented in order to combat gentrification in urban areas (Moss); the SBJSA was created by TakeBackNYC, a direct action political organization seeking protection for small business owners. Another approach that should be implemented throughout urban American cities should be a law from San Francisco, that allows, under certain circumstances, “neighborhoods to vote on which chain stores can locate in the area” (Ehrenhalt). As gentrification continues to push upon small family-owned businesses, commercial giants are taking over, resulting in loss of the authenticity that so many local businesses brought to an area. Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor and 2014 lieutenant governor candidate, refers to this as “high-rent blight” (Ehrenhalt), while others call this phenomenon hypergentrification, which is more excessive and rapid than its counterpart, and is called the modern version of gentrification.
While an increasing amount of residents and businesses are displaced, gentrification is also taking a toll on public schools, many of which have had to close down as cities ‘modernize’ and make room for white communities. Growing up in a stable and nurturing environment where one feels comfortable and accepted is important for the development of children, and those stripped of it may begin to feel as though there is no place where they truly belong. For Ellington Turner, a seventh-grader in a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood in Washington, D.C., the news that the school he had been attending since he was a kindergartener, Macfarland, was closing, made him and his mother break out in tears; MacFarland was one of 15 public schools in Washington D.C. scheduled to be closed following the 2012-2013 school year (Rosenblat and Howard). Washington D.C. was one of the first historically black neighborhoods in America, but as more middle-class, predominantly white, families are moving into the area, former residents are noticing a change in the atmosphere. Daniel del Pielago, the education organizer for Empower DC, a group specializing in rallying for community causes, believes the increasing amount of school closings is “part of the bigger picture of what’s happening here in the city and among cities around the country that have high populations of people of color where neighborhoods are rapidly gentrifying” (Rosenblat and Howard). The influx of middle and upper-class families no longer want to send their children to public schools, many of which have only 2% to 3% white enrollment (Rosenblat and Howard), and in response, public schools are shutting down and being replaced by pricier, private schools. It is not fair for any school-aged child, through no fault of their own, to have to lose his or her neighborhood’s school in order to make room for private schools that are more expensive and exclusive, and therefore, gentrification must be reevaluated since it is having such a large impact on America’s urban youth.
In order for change to be made regarding gentrification, the public must stand up to large organizations conducting the change. It is too easy for Americans to turn a blind eye to the problems countless individuals are facing in urban areas. Andrew Stokols, a global urbanization and geopolitics Harvard graduate states:
We talk about gentrification, it’s pros and cons, the tensions, contradictions, etc.
But under all of this there is the uncomfortable subtext of fear and race… But we also enable it and desire it: young people in New York, or in San Francisco aren’t about to give up their trendy cafes where they can set up their laptops and connect.
In the 60’s it was “turn on, tune in, drop out”. Now it’s plug in, sign on, tune out.
While yes, gentrification can have a positive effect on cities by rejuvenating them and bringing back their vitality, such as what happened in Europe during World War II, it is also a dangerous mechanism leading to a sanitized nation stripped of heritage and culture. It is important for people to understand the importance of rallying for a cause. Organizations such as TakeBackNYC are taking the right initiatives to fight against the larger problem at hand. Change will not be able to come about in urban areas if people are not willing to fight, and Jeremiah Moss, the author of the popular blog Vanishing New York, states that “New Yorkers need to take back their city”. All urban residents need to take back their cities.
In its early stages, gentrification was viewed as a balm that was able to heal war-tattered cities and restore them to the great wonders they once were; nowadays, it leads to more harm than good. While the city itself looks glorious, with brand-new, shiny buildings and the most sought-after stores on every block, it lacks authenticity. America’s greatest cities are nothing without their heritage. Gentrification also displaces an urban area’s initial residents, many of which are low-income minorities, in order to make room for middle-class families drawn to urban life’s many adventures and newfound ‘hip’ culture. Small businesses take a beating too, and as rent in seemingly cooler neighborhoods increases, prices become too high for families to pay in order to keep their business going. Lastly, gentrification has a huge impact on urban public schools. Many end up being shut down as residents are displaced, which leads to enrollment going down. Through no fault of their own, minority groups and urban areas’ initial residents are losing their homes in order to make room for communities with higher incomes. Fairness and equality is at an all-time low in America, and gentrification needs to be put to a halt in order for coexistence and acceptance to once again reign in American cities.