Gentrification is slowly making the city I live in, inhospitable to me. I live in Detroit, but sometimes when I am out and about in my city, white folks look at me like I’m lost. This is offensive to me on a lot of levels. Looking a little deeper at the problem uncovers some of the root causes.
I am a native Detroiter and I lived here full time until I joined the military. I returned to Detroit for a couple of years after the service, then I moved to Chicago. It just so happens that Chicago was the perfect place to study gentrification and displacement. I lived on the South Side of Chicago in a neighborhood that was adjacent to Hyde Park. I saw all the public housing in this neighborhood systematically emptied and torn down, with residents displaced to nearby suburbs.
I also saw 20 blocks of high-rise public housing torn down. The units were emptied by employing the controversial one strike program. Meaning that anyone who lived in your household had to have a clean criminal or the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) would immediately end your lease. This policy did more to empty out the projects than any other, and though it sounds reasonable, it really was not. Read more about it in the link below.
Family dynamics in poor and underclass households is different from typical family dynamics. In a lot of public housing families, there were large extended families living together. They are not living together in the neat, suburban ways you may be thinking, but there are people literally stacked on top of each other. Imagine the lease holder is a 51-year-old woman, she has 4 adult children, two of which live with her, and six grandchildren living in the unit. If you add in the partners of her children, and a partner for the lease holder, there could be 8 adults and any number of teenagers piled up in that 700 square foot apartment. In CHA, no strikes meant that if any of those folks was convicted of or even charged with a felony, you would use your lease.
The apartments that were emptied were stripped of anything useful and boarded up. When a big enough percentage of the building was emptied, it would be torn down. The former residents of public housing would be dispersed, largely to low income suburbs that had been historically off limits to black people. The public housing was demolished and “market rate” housing replaced it, often with retail. On the first levels of many high-rise public housing buildings were government and social service agencies that the residents could use. For instance, if you lose your EBT card, you could usually walk or take a short ride on public transit to replace it. It can become an ordeal to discover where to go to find help or services and then to actually get there from a suburban location that may be beyond the reach of available public transit.
In short, gentrification is destroying Bronzeville in Chicago, for example. Bronzeville was a large center of black life and culture. When I initially moved to Chicago, my grandfather told me of his visit to the city in the 1930’s. He was a young man from rural Georgia who had seen Atlanta but had never seen anything like the varieties of black folks, black businesses and black wealth in area that “was allowed” to thrive as Bronzeville once did. There are many examples of thriving black areas that were destroyed by urban renewal. They built a freeway thru Detroit’s black bottom and dispersed the residents. Numerous black areas in cities around the country have been likewise destroyed.
These black areas destroyed by gentrification often have some problems; crime, drugs deteriorating housing stock and others. When a neighborhood is targeted for gentrification the perpetrators often cite wanting to improve the community. Did tearing down 20 blocks of high-rise project housing and replacing it with upscale retail improve the Bronzeville (now called Douglassville by slick real estate agents who want to hide the black legacy of the area). In Detroit, we see Cass Corridor become, “Mid-Town,” which is some still more renaming to in order to erase or change the history of an area.
Americans realized they had it backwards when they looked at cities like Paris. The most affluent neighborhoods in Paris are in the city center. As you move out from the city center the neighborhoods become less affluent, until you arrive at the suburban areas where the poorest folks live. In this configuration, there can be unrest in the poor suburban areas, that does not affect commerce, tourism and the quality of life in the city center where the richest people live. America ceded these neighborhoods in the city center to black people and fled to suburbs to build their sprawling ranch homes on a 1.5-acre plots.
White folks tried hard to make suburbs work for them. They moved sports teams from city centers to the suburbs. Two of Detroit’s professional franchises (NFL Detroit Lions and the NBA Detroit Pistons) both moved to facilities in the suburbs but have both moved back to the city center. Detroit’s Cass Corridor (AKA Midtown) aside from being known for crime, prostitution and drugs, was also an area, close to downtown where a low wage worker could find a cheap room or apartment for rent. The area is now too pricey for poor folks, and black folks like me who are in the area are often treated as an undesirable other by the new residents, strolling down the block sipping their nitro brews wearing a “Detroit versus Everybody” t-shirt.
I am not against coexisting and living together, but refuse to be made to feel like an intruder in an urban area that your ancestors ran from after the Detroit 1967 Revolution. Areas that your politicians (L. Brooks Patterson) declared “unliveable” after the election of Coleman Young as mayor in 1974. Now you want to call the police on me, because you feel threatened by my waiting for the bus on Van Dyke and Kercheval?
I am not done talking about this follow me on twitter @Wilkes36