In Pursuit of Equitable Change

When it comes to gentrification, doing the right thing requires finding common ground that thoughtfully considers the needs and concerns of new neighbors and long-time residents.

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This residential Brooklyn neighborhood is the site of the proposed $4 billion Atlantic Yards project, which some residents fear will destroy the neighborhood, while others welcome the change and hope it will bring long-awaited gentrification to the area. (AP/Kathy Willens)
This residential Brooklyn neighborhood is the site of the proposed $4 billion Atlantic Yards project, which some residents fear will destroy the neighborhood, while others welcome the change and hope it will bring long-awaited gentrification to the area. (AP/Kathy Willens)

Gentrification is a difficult subject to discuss civilly and publicly.

For some people, such as filmmaker Spike Lee, just the mention of the word is blasphemy and a reason to launch into an expletive-filled discourse on the ills wrought by hipsters with rat-dogs on leashes and yuppie moms with baby strollers displacing residents in his old Brooklyn neighborhood.

“I grew up here in New York. It’s changed,” Lee said in February during a Black History Month lecture at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, an art, design, and architecture school. He continued:

And why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every [expletive] day when I was living in 165 Washington Park. … The police weren’t around. When you see white mothers pushing their babies in strollers, three o’clock in the morning on 125th Street, that must tell you something.

Conversely, some people see value in the infusion of coffee shops, yoga parlors, bicycle lanes, and two-bedroom condos into communities long pocked by neglected buildings and empty urban lots. What was once a storefront business serving poor folks in the community or a home for generations of poorer, inner-city residents is now a gathering place for wealthy newcomers, breathing vitality and taxes into formerly overlooked or ignored areas.

“We’re finding that the financial health of original residents in gentrifying neighborhoods seems to be increasing, as compared to original residents in nongentrifying, low-priced neighborhoods,” Daniel Hartley, a research economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, told NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

Pointing to a recent Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland study, Hartley said the bank looked at credit scores of original residents and found that they went up—regardless of whether they rented or owned—compared with residents who stayed in nongentrifying neighborhoods. “There may be these kind of side benefits to gentrification that we’ve been less focused on, that can actually help the original residents of the neighborhood,” he said.

Both critics and proponents have valid points. Critics are justly concerned about the impact on individuals; proponents see the economic benefits to a larger society. Isn’t this, in the meta-sense, the nature of political struggle?

Perhaps common ground in the debates surrounding gentrification might be found in a reshaping of the argument. Instead of an us-versus-them situation, what might communities accomplish if all parties recognize the inevitable: Nothing stays the same forever. American cities are ever-changing. No matter how you view it, for good or ill, gentrification is merely the process by which change takes place in the old neighborhood. It’s inevitable.

When viewed thusly, the natural question ought to be how might places—such as Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Cleveland, or any of the hundreds of U.S. cities where gentrification is roiling the passions of residents across racial and class lines—produce equitable neighborhood change.

The key word in the preceding sentence is “equitable” because nearly everyone favors change that benefits them. While poor residents don’t want to be forced out of their homes, they don’t want to live in communities of concentrated poverty either. They want to be able to afford to live in their homes when prosperity comes.

Similarly, young and affluent urban dwellers living in communities that have been ignored by local governments and powerbrokers aren’t all evil or racists who want to change the charm or customs of their new neighbors. In fact, for many, the appeal of homesteading in new and trendy places is the psychic reward for being able to rub elbows with a diverse community.

So how do these groups find common ground? To be perfectly honest, I don’t know and am unaware of many, if any, places where stable and harmonious community changes have occurred. But I believe it is possible and worthy of greater public efforts. We need to understand and share insights into the myriad of forces and motivations that produce neighborhood change, which few seem to fully comprehend. What’s more, the nation needs to see the success stories of communities that are successfully experiencing equitable change. So far, these are in woefully short supply.

An ongoing return to the back-to-the-city movement is gathering strength and seems an entrenched, future-forward trend. If urban planners and policymakers continue to do little to understand and adjust our efforts, there’s a fearful likelihood of greater inequality in our cities.

Now is a prime opportunity. Our nation’s poor neighborhoods must inevitably change.

As the Obama administration is rightly focusing a national spotlight on income inequality by helping cities fight poverty through the “Promise Zones” initiative, it behooves policymakers and civic leaders to expand this vision to include how inequality creates disastrous outcomes for families and children trapped in poor neighborhoods.

President Barack Obama said it clearly when announcing his Promise Zone initiative that “a child’s course in life should be determined not by the zip code she’s born in, but by the strength of her work ethic and the scope of her dreams.”

Allowing market forces to displace poor Americans from one place to another is not the solution. But a potential way forward to achieve that lofty goal will require the nation to engage in a robust and honest effort to improve our poorest communities by making them a welcoming place for all.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)