12. Final Project Article

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.

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10. Research V

To date, there is not a comprehensive strategy to combat gentrification in at-risk neighborhoods across the nation. Gentrification can mean 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.

After weeks of study on gentrification, 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 looked into the phenomenon of gentrification in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Berlin. Yet, there are so many cities, outside of the aforementioned, that face the same obstacles. Boston, Massachusetts is one of them.

In Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation’s post titled “Home Matters!” includes various policies, drawn from recent studies and articles, that could mitigate gentrification in Roxbury and other gentrifying neighborhoods in Boston.

Some of the policies included, “Aggressively build[ing] middle-income housing… Reduc[ing] or freez[ing] property taxes… and creat[ing] a stabilization [that] prohibit[s] large-scale luxury development in at-risk neighborhoods.” All of which are tangible policies that could be implemented in Boston (and the nation at large) with the union of community organizers, citizens and government intervention.

But this should not be unique to just Boston. Rather, we should all take the steps to move into our communities as neighbors, not gentrifiers. But how?

Here is a list of things you can do:

  • Respect the history, culture and locals in your neighborhood.
  • Get to know your neighbors as people.
  • Make socially conscious purchase decisions, and support local business.
  • Invest time and/or money in community focused organizations.
  • Whichever side of gentrification you are on, make an effort to bring this dilemma to the forefront of local and national government officials.

Then maybe those policies could be the comprehensive strategy we need to combat gentrification.

 

8. Research IV

Can We Control Gentrification ?

First come the techies, then the cranes. As the kamikaze pilots of urban renewal begin, developers will follow, rents will rise, the creators will move on, and the pre-existing community will be kicked out with them.

(Next City 2014)

Such is the accepted narrative of gentrification, a term first coined more than 50 years ago by the German-born British sociologist Ruth Glass to describe changes she observed in north London — but it is a phenomenon that has been at the heart of how cities evolve for centuries.

(Next City)

Gentrification is a slippery and divisive word, vilified by many for the displacement of the poor, influx of speculative investors, the destruction of neighborhood authenticity; praised by others for the improvement in school standards and public safety, the fall in crime rates, and the arrival of better infrastructure.

Many people, including myself, often wonder if there is a way to find a happy medium between the two oppositions.

Recently, The New York Times reported that Berlin is trying to regulate what has elsewhere proved to be unstoppable: gentrification. Over the past decade, people have poured into Berlin, attracted by its affordability, cultural wealth and free-spirit. This is a similar phenomenon in San Francisco, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, and many more cities across the United States.

(Gordon Welters for The New York Times)

(Gordon Welters for The New York Times)

Berlin underwent very similar housing spikes as America as well. Recent figures released by the German Property Federate show that prices on residential real estate in Berlin grew by 94% from 2010 to 2017, while rents increased by only 40 %. This gap seems to be widening, but Berlin’s grass-roots resistance and government intervention are making a difference. A new regulation will actually create an undue burden on property owners and give everyone the opportunity to live there. 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.

(Next City)

This research changed my perspective on what can be done to tackle the negative outcomes of gentrification. It is not tangible or just to keep people from moving in, but it is important to work together to create housing that doesn’t displace current residents and culture. If we can do that, maybe in some time gentrification won’t carry such a divisive connotation.

7. Research III

Gentrification is Rather Rare

Dramatic changes are playing out across parts of urban America, making many neighborhoods hardly recognizable from a relatively short time ago. A new class of more affluent residents and companies are moving into underinvested and predominately-poor communities. Then, development follows, typically accompanied by sharp increases in housing and living prices. This displaces longtime residents and much of the pre-existing culture. The aforementioned scenario is typically described as gentrification, and I researched what policymakers and governmental data reports on this growing dilemma.

Governing analyzed Census tract data for the nation’s 50 largest cities. The study shared that gentrification greatly accelerated in several urban cities, nearly 20% of neighborhoods with lower incomes. In 2000, this statistic was only at 9%. More, I found that gentrification is actually pretty rare nationally, with only 8% of all neighborhoods studied experiencing it. That was a surprise to me! Yet, it is understandable, it seemed more prevalent because I’ve always lived in a city highly affected by gentrification.

In all, I’ve noticed that governmental data reports seemed to distance itself from any study that wasn’t grounded in logical sense. For instance, the studies examined concrete prices and statistics related to the income, but didn’t try to quantify the loss of culture that comes from gentrification as well.

5. Research II

Is gentrification good or bad? 

(Library of Congress)

My view of gentrification has always been tainted by my experience. It was the reason why my family and I was forced to move out of our cozy apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco. So, I’ve always held an inherent bias towards the aforementioned question. Yet, I have used this class and opportunity to really uncover the facts, myths and inner-workings of gentrification.

The Marriam-Webster dictionary definition is:

(noun) gen·tri·fi·ca·tion \ jen-trə-fə-ˈkā-shən\

the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents

The bare definition may seem very simple, yet the concept is much more complex than mere renewal and displacement. It is a term thrown around a lot, but it’s often oversimplified as a kind of neighborhood revitalization.

Stacey Sutton, a professor at Columbia University, thinks much more deeply about society’s common misconceptions around gentrification. In an enlightening talk, given in November of 2014 at TEDxNewYork, urban planning scholar Stacey Sutton shares the true costs of gentrification.

A main component of Sutton’s underlying thesis was awareness and consciousness. Many people move into neighborhoods or universities that have rebuilt and displaced natives. For instance, University of Southern California’s new housing and shopping complex, The Village, is no exception. But I have come to realize that it is more than living in an area that gentrified a neighborhood; it’s what one does once they get there.

If you come into someone’s home, do you immediately start rearranging it and moving furniture in?

No, of course not. You get to know each other, decide if you get along, and, once the host has decided you can stay, you ask politely where to put your stuff.

Why don’t we act with the same type of common courtesy when it comes to neighborhoods?

3. Research I

Gentrification: (n.)

  1. The rehabilitation and settlement of decaying urban areas by middle-and high-income people.
  2. What happened to my home in the mission

Gentrification is a phenomenon that strikes very close to home because it was the reason why I lost my home as a child. Growing up, my family and I lived in an apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco, but were forced to move out of the area once tech industries and big businesses prospered.

Buzzfeed featured a teenager named Kai who also faced the same struggle with gentrification in the Mission. He took the audience on a tour of his neighborhood, and showed just how much it changed since his family was evicted. From the immense loss of culture to the sharp division between the natives and newbies, Kai shared his personal experience with gentrification. His tour was interwoven with various facts and statistics.

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).

Furthermore, I chose this Buzzfeed short on Kai as my first form of research because as I was rummaging through the abyss of information online, I seldom found a perspective of someone that had recently faced it (let alone around my age). For example, The Dictionary of American History doesn’t depict any negative connotations until the last paragraph (and nothing like the aforementioned statistics). So, it was refreshing to hear from a story that I could connect to, and see Kai stand up for the neighborhood he loves.