Gentrification and naivite

Gentrification is a phenomenon of neighborhood change. Higher-income people, drawn by inexpensive housing, move into lower-income areas and gradually raise the economic base until the original low-income residents can no longer afford to live in their community. Affordable housing units are redeveloped into condominiums and market-rate apartments, and once-stable populations are displaced. Learning about this process, and witnessing its effects on neighborhood residents, was the catalyst for my involvement in Uptown.

Before working in Uptown, my knowledge of gentrification was limited to the theoretical. I knew what sparked gentrification (wealthier people moving into lower income neighborhoods, creating an influx of restaurants, shops and businesses); I knew it resulted in displacement (because there is no way poor people can afford to pay the rents landlords demand of the wealthy); but, for me, it was not a tangible phenomenon.

When I heard, therefore, about Jay Michael, and his system of purchasing affordable buildings, converting them into market-rate condos and leaving former residents to fend for themselves without resources or assistance, I was shocked.  I had never connected gentrification with a calculated development agenda. It had never occurred to me that someone could plan to systematically take over a neighborhood without giving a thought to all the people who would end up homeless. Before Uptown, I was naive.

I am white. I had a comfortable upbringing. I am educated. I have never worried about being denied services or rights due to my race or social standing. Although I work hard for my successes, my life has been implicitly entitled. In the scope of neighborhood demographics, I will always be the gentrifier, not the gentrifiee.

Still, Michael’s blatant disregard for humanity incited me. During my interviews with residents of Lawrence House, one of Michael’s many new buildings in Uptown, I met a woman who had been displaced by multiple landlords before moving to Lawrence House. After seven years of stability, she was forced to again uproot her life and move so that the wealthy could live in her building.

Michael is not the only gentrifying developer in Chicago but his rapid and prominent elimination of affordable housing on the city’s north side (eight buildings between 2013 and 2014) makes him an almost mascot for the problem.

Gentrification, in theory, leads to better neighborhoods with greater economic stability for all residents. In reality, it increases opportunity for the wealthy while cementing instability into the lives of the poor. Gentrification creates fissures in vibrant communities, leads to concentrated poverty in economically depressed (and therefore affordable) neighborhoods, and propagates the myth that rich and poor should not mix.

But what is wrong with a neighborhood in which the rich must confront the precariousness of their own wealth by living side-by-side with the poor? A neighborhood where those with fewer economic resources can enjoy the clean streets, increased safety, and ample amenities associated with moderate to high-income areas? Where are all residents are given respect?

Diversity not just of race but of income is the keystone to vibrant, sustainable communities. Pricing out the poor by unilaterally increasing the price of rent, food and other local expenses does not solve poverty or ameliorate the expenses associated with subsidizing housing, healthcare and food, it only shifts the burden of these issues to the state or national level. Low-income people do not evaporate simply because their shelters are destroyed.

In future posts, I will explore gentrification in terms of my observations, research studies on its consequences, and its portrayal in the media. Please let me know your questions, outrages, experiences regarding gentrification in the comments below.

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