Solve Gentrification by Thinking #WeNotMe
Time and time again, we — a species divided by social distinctions — have fallen prey to our ability to spot amongst ourselves the various differences that create turmoil in what could very well be a paradise, a utopia. First coined by Sir Thomas More of Oxford University in 1556, the word utopia was crafted to be a critique of the human condition, a pun on the word’s Greek origins: eu-topos (a good place) and ou-topos (no place). More, in his creation of the word, questioned the feasibility of a place, condition, or possibility in which humans could come together to replace social dissonance with societal harmony. History has been quick to dismiss the idea of a utopia, crying:
Perfection is impossible; man’s vices will always be his undoing even if his virtues outnumber them, for if there exists only one bad apple in a sea of good it will eventually be eaten.
If this is the case and historical precedent becomes the norm, then humanity will have settled for a society in which there exists a societal hierarchy that divides, a division that wounds, and a wound that destroys. If we decide that we cannot go up, we inadvertently chose to go down. But that is not the case; it never was, and hopefully it never will be, because there are always those who strive towards utopia. Muckrakers (Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis), journalists (Ida B. Wells and Edward R. Murrow), musicians (Lauryn Hill and Bruce Springsteen), activists (Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr.), and writers (James Baldwin and Frederick B. Douglas) alike have all successfully fought for one goal: justice. And with each slight conquering of issues ranging from poverty to racism and corruption that stand in the strongest opposition to More’s question, these seekers of justice have moved today’s society towards tomorrow’s utopia.
During a time when American news media has seldom been held in lower esteem by the public, journalists (like the aforementioned champions of the people) are called to strive for a utopia in which truth and justice are available with ethical regards. Throughout the course titled ASCJ 200: Navigating Media and News in the Digital Age, we were asked to focus on one issue to study in depth over the past few months. I chose gentrification because it is an issue that is rapidly spreading throughout the United States and is deeply personal to my upbringing. As a budding journalist, I hope to take what I have learned in this class and my holistic education, and hedge a little closer to utopia. A utopia in which people, that have lived in a community for generations and fostered such rich culture, are not displaced at the convenience of the wealthy.
Because I grew up as a minority in America, much of what I consume and produce paints my experience in this world. My research, DIY projects, and blog posts echo the trials and tribulations of the minority experience in America (especially one that has lost their home due to gentrification), and how one can leverage an understanding of gentrification from multiple narratives to obtain a utopia.
Growing up, I only saw gentrification through one narrative; one in which rich people were bad, and I suffered at their expense. So, this class challenged me to step outside my implicit bias. Now I know that gentrification means a multitude of very different things for different people. It can be a means of improving education and reducing crime, or a detrimental rise in prices and new mix of ethnicity among the neighborhood. I will refer to it as a revitalization and reinvestment causing a relatively sharp increase in rents, property value and prices resulting in actual or imminent displacement of residents. I’ve researched the phenomenon of gentrification in many cities including: San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Berlin.
While piecing together my PSA video, I came across a struggle with gentrification in Venice, just a short metro ride from my dorm. A few weeks ago, Venice residents were pushing back against the rapid growth of Snap Inc. The movement of locals-versus-Snap demanded that the app leave Venice, and used the hashtags #keepveniceweird and #evictsnapchat to spread awareness. I wondered why locals would unite to get rid of a social media company that is so widely used, but I found my answer in an article on Curbed. Snap has taken over spaces occupied by local businesses and even a nonprofit that helps homeless teens called Teen Project. Lauri Burns, the founder of the youth shelter, says that Snapchat “shoved us right out and treated us like redheaded stepchildren.”
Seeing how effective those hashtags were in garnering a turnout and widespread awareness, I thought of a unique hashtag that could remind people it is not just buildings we are gentrifying, it is people. We could all take a step forward on the mission to solve gentrification if we think #WeNotMe. Although there are many viewpoints of gentrification, there is an underlying theme of togetherness from both parties in any solution. Together we can change the stigma of gentrification from a divisive word to one that can unite.
After looking back on the months of research I collected on gentrification, there were prominent facts that helped put gentrification into perspective and understanding. For instance, the Ellis Act, a California law which enables landlords to evict tenants in order to retire or go out of business, was introduced. This was the law that allowed for the eviction of Kai and his family. Newsweek reported that “In 2013, Ellis evictions grew 175 percent from the year before.” Also, “Between 1990 and 2011, the Mission District lost 1,400 Latino households…and during the same period, the black population of the city was cut in half” (Julia Carrie Wong). With the Ellis Act and rising cost of living, affordable rental units have declined. For every 100 “extremely low-income” households in 2012, only 29 affordable rental units are available… and the numbers have continued to lessen. One doesn’t have to look very far to find rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Long Beach, California was recently named the 9th fastest gentrifying cities in America.
Gentrification is a not only a hot topic in the United States, but rather a growing epidemic all around the world. In Berlin, the government is taking action to combat the negative repercussions of it. One of the most effective are the milieuschutz laws, which translates to “social environmental protection.” It is meant to prevent landlords from imposing expensive renovations that would effectively price out current tenants. Today, there are more than 30 milieuschutz zones in Berlin, and more on the way. When grass-roots organizations and the government work together to tackle gentrification, good can be done.
There are also many myths surrounding the topic of gentrification. The Washington Post published an intriguing video on five myths about gentrification. Everything ranging from studies on the relationship between crime and gentrification actually being higher after renovation to the fact that gentrification happens rather naturally. Watch the video here.
In all, stories like Kai, a teenager who faced eviction at the hands of gentrification, show us utopia as ou-topos in the unfortunate reality we face, influencing us to take steps towards utopia as eu-topos. It implores us to take that viral action to ensure that the negative outcomes of gentrification do not become the reality of all, the only narrative told. Just as the champions for change (Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Edward R. Murrow, among many others), we must acknowledge the barriers we face, and take the first, biggest steps towards utopia as eu-topos. We can do this by thinking, acting and sharing the mindset of #WeNotMe.