Gentrification: If You can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em

As a woman of color who grew up in an unmistakable “hood” in Boston (one of the fast-becoming least affordable cities in this country), friends and family who live in the inner city are part of my circle of friends. As developers big and small start noticing under valued neighborhood due to rising costs and decreasing space in the more desirable parts of town, the vilification of gentrifyers on my Facebook timeline is becoming a weekly occurrence.

My friends and I who grew up in the types of neighborhoods people in college made fun of us for being from (“do you have a bulletproof vest? Haha”) are now watching bike-riding, latte-drinking, kale chips-eating, Lulu Lemon-wearing hipsters shun long commutes, downsize and seek culture in some of the few the places our moderate-income families could afford decades ago. In fact, what makes it more comical is knowing the history of Boston. It becomes laughable when we see these people flocking back to pay $650-700k for a 3-bedroom walk-up condo in the same area their parents fought so hard to get away from after schools were integrated. Many times, on their way out, families would sell at a loss just to get rid of a property in an “undesirable” area as soon as the demographic change became obvious. Today, these same children, who needed protection or a “better” environment, are back and paying $2,000 a month in rent for a 2-bedroom 1-bath on the same block. We are looking at white flight all over again. Except, this time, the flight is coming from the opposite direction.

On the surface it would make sense why people would be upset. Taxes are going up, your landlord is raising the rent and the local businesses are becoming less affordable as aging community pillars, who can’t convince their children to take over, are forced to sell to a new comer who opens a concept snack bar that only sells $10 smoothies and $5 avocado toast. But if we think about it critically we have to agree to share some of the blame.

I understand the reality of economic disparity and the ever increasing gap it creates. I know that poverty is a difficult cycle to break, as it requires more than hard work, because it is not simply a by-product of laziness. In an inherently biased system designed to favor the rich, malign the underprivileged and support segregation in all forms, the less fortunate must be multi-talented to succeed. They have to remain stoic in the face of discrimination and underestimation. They have to face people who think less of them on a regular basis and leave each interaction with their self-esteem intact. They have to learn to do things to get them ahead in life on their own, that they couldn’t learn from their parents (managing personal finances, learning to invest, navigating the tax laws to their advantage). I get it. I’ve been there. But there are enough ‘hood success stories to demonstrate that it is not entirely impossible to achieve greatness in the face of adversity. So I have a question. Not for those who struggle still and haven’t been able to do better, but for those who have. I guess my question to all you now successful former hood dwellers: why didn’t YOU revitalize your neighborhood?

I am guilty of the same thing you are. As soon as I had enough for 20% down I moved. Not just from the neighborhood. I left the city altogether for another city in the same metro area. I couldn’t get far away enough from my old neighborhood. The parking situation during snow emergencies was a nightmare. The cat-calling as I walked home from the train station was constant. It was a food desert and I had to drive 10-15 minutes to the nearest reasonable grocery store (compared my current town, where I have 3 grocery stores, including a Whole Foods, within 15 minutes of my house). Crime of all kinds and severity was rampant. There were no dating prospects. What did I do to improve the neighborhood? The same thing the rest of you did: nothing. I took my money, my tax base and my upwardly mobile status to another area that contributed nothing to my upbringing.

You were in the neighborhood before the hipsters arrived. You had the advantage of being a local guy/gal done good and having their trust, but you didn’t buy there. You declined the offer to take over grandma’s house, because it’s in the stigmatized part of town, and are dismayed when auntie sells it to a nerdy looking fast-talker in a cheap suit who renovates and sells for triple the price.

Gentrification is not overnight. It is slow moving and takes time. Did you pay attention to who is moving in, both in terms of residents and businesses? Did you watch how many homes are being converted? If you did, it wouldn’t have taken long to realize you were sitting on a gold mine. And while you may not have the same opportunities as Mr. Developper to buy out the whole block one home at a time, you could have held on to what you already had. You could have been a landlord to at least one of those kids whose parents thought they were too good to go to school with you. But you left. In part because you actually began to believe that doing well meant you too were becoming to good for the ‘hood.

I did too. So what gives me the right to get on a soap box? I’m buying back. I’m looking for my investment opportunities in the neighborhoods that are well on their way to being gentrified but not quite done. My search is taking me on the block of over-priced gleaming condos where people with messenger bags walk home from the train station after work, head buried in iPhones posting “#urbanarchitecture” on Instagram. But I’m hunting for the ones that haven’t been renovated yet and will be giving my business only to the locals. I’m formulating my plan, you should too. The suburbs aren’t dying but people don’t get married at 21 anymore, and they need a place to live until they get married and can no longer avoid yard work. There is time.

If you’re mad about gentrification, here’s some advice: buy back or shut up.

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