Tag: washington dc

dcgentrification

The District of Columbia is being sued for gentrification. A lawsuit against DC alleges that “The city is intentionally trying to lighten black neighborhoods.” Gentrification does “lighten” black neighborhoods but the issue is far deeper. Gentrifying neighborhoods are warzones. Gentrification is a battle for physical spaces in cities but in the ultimate sense, a fight to maintain white power and dominance in America. Babies of color now outnumber white babies, who will be in the minority by 2050. Cities are power centers — of government, commerce and culture. To control cities is to maintain white power, even in an emerging majority-minority America. Gentrification is war and black people sit in the crosshairs.

dcgentThe Civil War was launched, in part, because Southerners could not match the electoral muscle of their industrial counterparts in the North. Despite their hatred of Abraham Lincoln the South simply did not have the numbers to beat him, so they fought. Whites today are waging a different type of war in order to avoid being relegated to insignificance socially and politically — gentrification. Illinois has 18 congressional districts, 7 contain some portion of the city of Chicago. The Illinois General Assembly has 59 senate districts, 20 contain some portion of the city of Chicago. All this means over one-third of the state’s political power is tied to one city. To the degree blacks in Illinois — 15 percent of the state population — have enjoyed political influence, it has been a function of our concentration in the city. In 2010 the city was roughly one-third black. A gentrified Chicago erases any reasonable possibility of black political power in the state for at least a generation.

The average white 26 year-old moving into Bronzeville, Brooklyn or Northeast DC may not think of gentrification in terms of war. Black people, however, can’t afford not to. The fate of black America rests on whether or not we are erased from the American city. The viability of white power in this century, conversely, hinges on the ability of whites to populate urban centers. The urgency of the matter has activated a variety of forces against black communities, including the police, financial institutions and the gentrifiers themselves. Consciously or otherwise, these forces are not simply fighting for space in urban centers but the continuation of white power.

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This war is not simply theoretical, it features armed and hostile combatants. When gentrifiers move into historically black neighborhoods they utilize an often lethal force —  we call them police. “There’s some evidence that 311 and 911 calls are increasing in gentrifying areas,” Harvard sociology professor Robert Sampson said in a recent interview with The Atlantic. Neighbor-related complaints to 311 disproportionately originate from gentrifying neighborhoods, according to research done by Dr. Joscha Legewie, a sociologist at New York University, and Dr. Merlin Schaeffer of the University of Cologne. Legewie and Schaeffer found that that neighbor-related complaints (read gentrifiers complaining to the authorities about their new neighbors) to 311 were 26 percent higher in transitioning neighborhoods. Often this takes the form of complaints about music or other longstanding practices in a community but it can be deadly.

Alex Nieto’s body was mutilated by 14 bullets from police. Nieto was shot at the age of 28 because he was a man of color living in a San Francisco neighborhood he’d lived in his entire life — it just happened to be a gentrifying neighborhood. On the evening he was killed, gentrifiers thought Nieto to be suspicious so they called the cops on him; in his own neighborhood. Minutes later Nieto was dead. Nieto’s case just happens to be one of the more “Googlable” ones but we shouldn’t think it unique.

What happened to Nieto is ultimately rooted in a long tradition of whites using law enforcement to police the movement of black bodies, a tradition which gentrification brings into focus. This feature of American life extends at least to The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In essence, law enforcement across the nation was tasked with finding and returning anyone suspected to be a slave. Ordinary white people were empowered and bound by law to police black bodies and control black life. It is in our collective DNA for whites to monitor black motion and use law enforcement to restrict it. It manifests when black men at a Starbucks are arrested for sitting. It first happened to me as a seminary student, when cops were dispatched to question me for the crime of walking. Gentrification only intensifies this dynamic. When an influx of whites suddenly find themselves in regular and immediate proximity to people of color, a war of subjugation is inevitable.

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Our conversations around gentrification are far too shallow. It is disheartening that longtime black residents are suddenly priced out of communities they’ve called home for generations. It is also a cruel irony that these black residents are generally replaced by well-to-do whites who wanted nothing to do with said communities just ten years prior. But the implications for white power and dominance in a changing America are far more important. Cities have long been beacons of diversity. As these power centers become more monolithic, however, how that power is radiated and exercised could determine the fate of black people for the next 100 years. Another century of uninterrupted white power holds menacing and even terroristic prospects for black people. America’s financial institutions are doing their part to secure that outcome.

*Part 2 Forthcoming*

gentrification

Gentrification is a jedi mind trick where (mostly) black people conclude entire communities have no value, although everyone else can see it. Gentrification is generally unpopular among black people but in fact we bear some responsibility for it. When we refuse to see the value in our communities and others do, that’s on us. I’m tired of hearing black people complain about gentrification while refusing to invest in black communities — even middle class black communities. Real estate is finite and if we don’t buy it, someone will. If we really despise people who are wholly unconnected to the culture of a neighborhood moving in and displacing the population, then damnit start seeing the worth in black communities before everyone else does.

Gentrification — as we understand it — is not completely inevitable. Washington was about 70 percent black just a generation ago but today the city no longer has a black majority. Masses of white people did not come in the night and wipe out the black population. The dramatic loss of affordable housing is significant but the unwillingness of black homeowners to stay put cannot be ignored. The decline in federal funding to house the poor is exacerbating yet black people and organizations — while admittedly challenging — made few sustained, organized efforts to collectively invest in black communities while the real estate was still at giveaway prices. Whether the communities in question were legitimately unsafe or simply decent neighborhoods that lacked desired amenities, many made the choice to walk away.

It is curious that communities we so often deem wholly undesirable are consistently valued by everyone else. It tells me that our valuation is off, in many respects. If a developer can see the potential of a community filled with poor black people, so should we. If investor X believes there is money to be made on a block with 8 homes — of which 4 are boarded up — maybe we should, too. Why couldn’t our churches and local organizations organize families to collectively buy that block and fix up those homes? Why couldn’t families looking for starter homes put their money together and buy multi-family homes before they were swooped up by an investor and turned into swanky apartments that rent for $2,000 monthly? Why can’t our local Urban League and NAACP chapters organize citywide initiatives to pair our people together to buy communities, raise the property values and in doing so attract all the amenities we seek out in other neighborhoods?

I live on the South Side of Chicago now, having recently relocated from DC. Chicago is now in the process of gentrifying in much the same way DC has. But it doesn’t have to be. I live in a condo building that has three units and two apartments on the basement level. The units are very nice — hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances and a secure entry system. The unit directly under me was just recently renovated and it is gorgeous. It is 1,700 square feet and features three bedrooms with two full baths. It is also a duplex unit, a bonus. While such a unit in DC would easily cost half a million dollars or even more in wealthier neighborhoods, that unit just sold last month for $150,000. Seriously, that’s it. The reason is my neighborhood is just outside of the gentrifying zone and while my street is nice and quieter than a street in the city should be, the neighborhood is still quite black and that is a turnoff for many buyers and thus values are suppressed. That unit, while only $150,000 today, will easily be worth 3 times that in 10 years and too many of us will lament that we didn’t simply buy it while it was easily affordable.

To be sure, there are many forces at work far beyond any personal decisions we might make. In far too many places older residents on fixed income are priced out of the homes they own because property taxes have skyrocketed. Even worse, many cities unfairly advantage newcomers. In Philadelphia, for example, new buyers qualify for a 10-year property tax abatement while older residents are often without relief. There are many challenges and yes, organizing as a community is far more difficult than being a private investor with cash who can develop entire blocks overnight (not to mention the federal and local tax incentives many of them utilize). This is not easy but it is not inevitable, either. There are still many communities in cities around the country where property values are very modest. They will eventually be developed, the only question is by whom.

Perhaps you think losing black presence in American cities is not problematic and if so, there’s nothing to worry about. If you do find it problematic, however, there are solutions. We must organize, buy and stay. If you find that too difficult or if you have an aversion to investing in black communities — poor, working or middle class — then please stop complaining about gentrification.