Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I colonize

Taigi Smith, in the brilliant essay "What Happens When Your Hood is the Last Stop on the White Flight Express" in the book "Colonize This: Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism," describes gentrification like this:

Gentrification: The displacement of poor women and people of color. The raising of rents and the eradification of single, poor and working-class women from neighborhoods once considered unsavory by people who didn't live there. The demolition of housing projects. A money-driven process in which landowners and developers push people (in this case, many of them single mothers) out of their homes without thinking about where they will go. Gentrification is a pre-meditated process in which an imaginary bleach is poured on a community and the only remaining color left in that community is white...only the strongest coloreds survived.

and this...

For poor single mothers, gentrification is a tactic "the system" uses to keep them down; it falls into the same category as "workfare" and "minimum wage." Gentrification is a woman's issue, an economic issue and, most of all, a race issue. At my roots I am a womanist, as I believe in economic and social equality for all women. When I watch what has happened to my old neighborhood, I get angry because gentrification like this is a personal attack on any woman of color who is poor, working class and trying to find an apartment in a real estate market that doesn't give a damn about single mothers, grandmommas raising crack babies or women who speak English as a second language.

Urban gentrification is like global colonization. An advantaged people decide they fancy an area and use their advantages to push into it with, at best, disregard, and at worst, disdain, for the people already living there.The invaders use their might to erase the culture of current residents, and eventually, to erase the residents all together.

I know this, and yet, my feelings about gentrification are ambivalent: a blend of concern and guilt. Yes, guilt. Because I have been an urban colonizer.

Smith describes the gentrifiers of San Francisco's Mission District as "white people--yuppies and new media professionals who would pay exorbitant rents to reside in what the Utne Reader had called "One of the Trendiest Places to Live in America."

...The streets were now lined with Land Rovers and BMWs, and once seedy neighborhood bars now employed bouncers and served $10 rasberry martinis. Abandoned warehouses had not been converted into affordable housing but instead into fancy lofts going for $300,000 to $1 million.

I understand that description and recognize it. But I also know that the gentrification of urban areas can mean opportunity for many working and middle class black people.

Shortly after my husband and I became engaged, we moved into a small, newly-renovated, high-rise condo on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. It was just north of the once prosperous, now blighted, Bronzeville neighborhood, just south of booming development: fancy lofts and condos starting at $300,000 a pop, just west of of the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan, and just east of a sprawling public housing project. We were smack at the epicenter of the gentrification of Chicago's near south side.

Our new home was modest: just a one-bedroom with a tiny kitchen, but it had awesome views of the Windy City skyline. On July 4th, you could watch fireworks all over the city--from the West Side to Chinatown to Grant Park--on our balcony. And if you craned your neck, you could see a sliver of Lake Michigan. We were proud. We owned something, like our parents before us.

My husband, then fiance, had spent years counting pennies and living in a crappy apartment to save up to buy his own place. When we met, I had just graduated from a dusty, old studio apartment, to a larger place. You see, even for folks with good jobs, like my husband and I, property ownership in expensive cities like Chicago is elusive. We worked hard for that little place.

Gentrification brought improvements to the near south side--increased police presence, renovated homes and amenities--that attracted people like my husband and I. We were not, for the most part, six-figure-earning yuppies. We were not, for the most part, white. The residents of my condo association, which included three renovated high rises and two-story town houses, were a mix of up-and-coming professionals, working class retirees and graduate students. The population was mostly black, but also brown, white and Asian. Our enclave was not unique, it seemed to me mostly black folks who were buying the impressive, newly-polished greystones that lined King Drive.

Interestingly, though many of my fellow gentrifiers shared skin color with the long-standing residents of our neighborhood, our cohabitation was sometimes uneasy.

Part of the development of our condo complex included erecting a high wrought iron fence with locked gates that spanned three city blocks.The fence afforded safety and privacy for my fellow homeowners, but barred residents of the housing project to our west from a direct route to some major bus lines, as well as family and friends in a smaller public housing development to our east. The condo of which I was so proud was, I'm sure, to some existing residents, just a new hindrance dropped in the middle of their community.

Rather than walk around my complex, people would break the locked gates, forcing owners to pay for repairs again and again. Or, they would loiter around entrances waiting to slip in behind a resident with a key. Coming home, particularly at night, could be harrowing. Could I enter my home peacefully or would I be greeted by a group of sullen young men demanding to walk in with me?

I was often resentful of my neighbors, who shared my African roots, but not necessarily all of my culture and values. I was resentful of the broken locks and broken glass; resentful of the children with souls seemingly too old for their young bodies, who stood loud talking and cursing outside of the neighborhood dry cleaners; resentful that I didn't feel safe allowing my stepchildren to play in the park across the street; resentful of the men with nowhere to go who tried to "holler" at my not-yet-teenage stepdaughter; resentful of our need to create a neighborhood watch program with citizen patrols to guard against petty vandalism and worse; resentful of the guns fired from the windows of the projects on New Year's Eve and Independence Day and sometimes just because.

I know about the very real economic, societal and sociological factors that created the things that I hated. But I confess that I didn't think about them much. I just wanted my brothers and sisters to do it my way, to want the kind of neighborhood and life that I wanted.

Living in my gentrifying neighborhood was a daily struggle between my intellectual understanding of racism, economics and marginalization, and my visceral desire to protect a way of life that I saw as "right" from one that I viewed as "wrong."

Mary Pattillo, professor of sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University, studied the black middle class in "Black on the Block: the Politics of Race and Class in the City" (University of Chicago Press). In the book, she focuses on North Kenwood-Oakland (NKO), a Chicago neighborhood that has been gentrified by black professionals who, she says, operate at the center of complex urban politics. Patillo discussed the relationship between black gentrifiers and their neighbors in a question-and-answer session related to her book:

Your book points out the complicated relationship that the black leadership in NKO has with less well off neighbors.

Yes, class schisms continually challenge attempts at racial solidarity. But those class tensions are greatly mitigated by the residents' recognition of a shared history of oppression and the lingering effects of racism today. The gentrifying black middle and upper classes tend to be more grounded by upbringings and socialization in more humble black surroundings. They recognize the short shrift that African Americans have been given by the wider society and, for example, continuously insist that black construction workers be included in neighborhood building. A deep sense of racial responsibility is the most important distinguishing feature of black gentrification relative to white gentrification.

Yet, class differences cause fissures that put great stress on racial solidarity.

Yes, for example, black leaders in NKO have called for the demolition of public housing and have been critical of the lifestyles of working-class and poor neighbors -- including loud barbecues on a public boulevard and porches and fixing cars on the street.

Those attitudes seem to reflect middle-class values everywhere.

Yes, they do. But partially what I want to do with this book is make people aware of the economic rationales that contribute to differences in class behavior. People don't barbecue on Drexel Boulevard because they want to be flamboyant. It has a lot more to do with not having their own backyards. Their lifestyles reflect the realities of stratification. Renters and public housing residents are particularly vulnerable to the discriminating tastes of newcomers. And the differences have to do with capital resource status -- employed versus unemployed, homeowner versus renter, etc.

What are the larger consequences of those class tensions?

In general blacks in increasing numbers have moved into schools, institutions and occupations from which they were once barred. They have alliances with powerful white elites and can consequently dominate more marginal groups. While the black leadership is more able and definitely more willing to deliver resources to black communities in need, they also are more able to translate distaste for certain class-related behavior into action that hurts poorer blacks.

How do such class biases play out specifically in North Kenwood-Oakland?

North Kenwood-Oakland offers a microcosm of boundary making among African Americans. Black newcomers are moving into the neighborhood and aligning with some old-timer homeowners to resist the building of public housing and reinforcing attempts to control the behaviors of low-income neighbors in and out of public housing. Many established poorer residents have been displaced and those left behind are supervised and disciplined consistent with new residents' desires. That begs the question: For whom are we developing these neighborhoods?

More...

Even Taigi Smith, once a victim of gentrification, became an urban colonizer:

I don't want them to take over my San Francisco neighborhood, but five thousand miles away, in another state and another community, I "am on the front lines of gentrification," as a neighbor so politely put it. when I come home at night and see the crackheads loitering in from of the building next door, I realize I may have switched sides in this fight. When I dodge cracked glass and litter when walking my dog, I realize that this neighborhood really could use a facelift and that the yoga center that just opened up on the corner is a welcome change from the abandoned building it used to be.

Parts of my Brooklyn neighborhood are symbolic of what the media and sociologists say is wrong with "the inner city." I live on a block where the police don't arrest drug dealers who peddle crack in broad daylight, where young black men drive around in huge SUVs but barely speak grammatically correct English, where I see the same brothas every day standing on the street corners, doing absolutely nothing. They don't hustle or harass me, but instead politely say "hello," as if they've accepted me. I feel strained by my situation. While I am intimately aware of what is happening to my new enighbrohood, I feel powerless. I've been in Brooklyn long enough to know that although it is not the most savory neighborhood, it is a community where people feel connected, where the old folks know each other, where neighbors still chat. But sometimes I feel like telling the young men on the corner, "Get the hell off the street! Don't you see that life is passing you by? Don't you see this is what they expect you to do? Don't you see they're moving in and in a few years, you're going to have to get out?

And so, I am ambivalent about gentrification. I reckon it is both a blessing and curse to urban neighborhoods and the people who live in them.

When my husband and I moved to another city three years ago, we looked at homes in gentrifying areas and then chose to live in the suburbs. My stepson was moving with us and it was important for us to find a safe neighborhood with good schools. He wanted a dog and dogs need spacious fenced yards.

As I read over what I have written here, I realize that maybe I am one of those middle class blacks folks are always talking about. Did I abandon my community in favor of something easier? I say this even though my suburban neighborhood more closely resembles the way I grew up than my old, urban haunts. There is an unspoken belief, I think, among the larger black community, that discomfort with the culture of inner-city poverty is denial of one's blackness, and that pursuing the advantages of middle classness means selling out. I don't think that is true.

Nevertheless, I struggle.

I struggle with my feelings for my former inner-city neighbors. I struggle with my decision to live in a mostly-white suburb. I struggle under the weight of my guilt.

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