Thursday, April 5, 2007

The inaugural gentrification post

So I've been hesitant to write about this from the get-go--despite knowing that it is an absolutely unavoidable topic given our situation--because I know that it is a sprawling, heated subject and because I am honestly overwhelmed by its layers and history. I'm talking, of course, about gentrification.

Here's the Wikipedia entry for "gentrification:"
Gentrification, or more specifically urban gentrification, is a process in which low-cost, physically deteriorated neighborhoods experience physical renovation and an increase in property values, along with an influx of wealthier residents who typically displace the prior residents.

I don't bring this up because I'm coming from a defensive place. I don't seek pats on the back and encouragement, "Oh you guys aren't gentrifying, Whitney." I'm simply trying to open up a discussion about what's inevitable and what's not when two young, white kids buy a house in a predominantly Hispanic and black neighborhood.

And let's be totally honest here too: we're not from the neighborhood. I grew up in suburban Amherst for the majority of my childhood, and Steve lived downstate. I've got a lamp from IKEA in my bedroom, too.

I also won't say that we didn't move into the neighborhood with an idea to improve it and I think maybe in here lies the crux of the gentrification question. Herein lies the unexposed racism, the misguided good intentions—the real sticky stuff.

I find myself talking about our plans for the house and our desires for the block differently depending on with whom I’m speaking. I tell my family members that of course I want to see our property values rise and that it’s really an up-and-coming neighborhood. I hear myself using words like “pioneer,” as if I’m some sort of savior out there in the ‘hood dealing with shit that thousands of poor and disenfranchised people have been dealing with for years.

Other times I’m less ambitious, it depends on the audience.

The truth is that I don’t have any sort of conclusions about our situation and the larger question of gentrification except that it is a complex tangle of racism, classism, and institutionalized disinvestment. I can’t decide if I’m fighting it or joining it—maybe both.

Bring on the discussion, this is just the start as I will write more soon. Thoughts?


sarah said...

Definitely a sticky situation. I'm currently living in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) where closed factories are , daily, being converted into loft spaces, not to mention the new buildings that are being erected in place of those that were not sufficient for conversion. Everyday the prices of rent and daily goods seem to be going up and displacing the polish immigrants who have long inhabited the area. The same goes for so many parts of the city.

I can't speak for Buffalo, but I know that here, "safety" is always an issue. When I was looking for a room, I ran into a (white) girl who had been living here for years. We were discussing the good and bad areas to be living. Her "key" advice to me was to avoid any place where I was the only white person. Interesting, right? In a city where everyone is shades of brown. Even here were are taught that non-european ethnic neighborhoods=crime. I can't say that I've been able to avoid that fear that's been taught to me, but I try to avoid it.

Whitney - Do you feel you're making the neighborhood "safer"?

--sorry for all the quotes


Emma & Eilidh said...

Hey Steve, I love the website. It's not quite as good as but it's a pretty good second.

Laura said...

I understand your concern but I don't quite see where the racism is in what you're saying...

There are certain neighborhoods in New York City where being the only white person was, in the 70s and early '80s, actually very deadly, whether you were living there or just passing through. That is a reality that is not in itself racist.... A lot of neighborhoods that are "shades of brown" do tend to have higher crime because of institutionalized racism, but to recognize it as such (i.e."dangerous") is not racist, IMO.

Anonymous said...

Hi Whitney,
What is the alternatives to gentrification? White people stay put in their own neighborhoods or can move only into wealthy black areas. Without gentrification interrogation can only occur when black or brown people move. That hardly seems right. Integration is a good thing. Economic displacement is a bad thing, but it hardly seems right to address it by somehow limiting the good that occurs when neighborhoods peacefully integrate.
I love the pictures and the news updates.