Gentrification is the word of the day. As the wealthiest in this country flock to major metropolitan centers like San Francisco and New York, and the rest get pushed out into the margins, many people are asking, “Am I a gentrifier? Is it bad? Should I care?”
If you are a recent addition to a low-income community of color, you may be asking yourself the same questions. You may have moved out of necessity and want to contribute to your new community without negatively impacting the residents that already live there. The economic forces that drive gentrification may seem out of control and you may fear being labeled a gentrifier in your new home, just for being there. What people don’t seem to acknowledge enough is it isn’t the mere act of moving into a neighborhood that makes you a gentrifier; it’s what you do once you get there. You are not a gentrifier for wanting to help make positive changes in your new home, as long as you work with the people who are already living there to make those changes.
Many people think they can move into someone else’s neighborhood and start making it over as their own, regardless of the folks already living there. Without understanding the culture of their new community, these new residents place value judgments on the neighborhood based on the cultural norms of their former residence. These new residents may not realize some of the things they view as transgressions or violations are actually coping mechanisms for dealing with poverty and racism. They see the drug dealer on the corner instead of a young man trying to support two kids with a felony on his record. They see a homeless person instead of a neighbor in crisis. They see people in the park drinking and arguing instead of a central community meeting place where folks come together to celebrate life and work out their differences with other neighbors.
New additions to the neighborhood may say that this is not their fault, that it's not their responsibility to learn about a new cultural world. They might be asking, "Why should I go out of my way to accommodate their needs when they won't accommodate mine?"
Well, if you're asking those questions, chances are low-income people of color in this country are expected to know your world: the world of wealthy, powerful and mostly white people. They're expected to know everything about that world, lest they come off as uneducated, uncivilized or uncultured. Rarely does it go the other way around. Rarely do people with wealth and power learn about the low-income people of color: their cultures, aspirations and dreams for their own communities.
Moving into a neighborhood that has previously lacked political power and influence, and then using your power and influence to change that neighborhood to favor your tastes,while ignoring the tastes and culture of the people already living there, is categorically unfair. Doing so is what makes a person a gentrifier.
So, here are a few how-to’s for avoiding being a gentrifier in your new community:
1. Smile and say hi to your neighbors when you see them, even if they seem scary or don’t say hi back. Sometimes it takes time to build a rapport and gain the trust of the community. And it's important to remember that in many communities, saying hi is seen as a sign of respect, and not saying hi is a sign of disrespect.
2. Recognize all the people outside of your door as your neighbors, even if they look different from you and live under different circumstances. This includes single mothers with three jobs and migrant workers who might not speak any English, as well as the homeless people who sleep in the park, the drug dealers who sell outside the liquor store, and the prostitutes walking nearby streets. Treating all of these folks with respect and dignity from the beginning will give you later leverage to talk to them about changing their behavior and getting out of the life.
3. Change the way you perceive neighbors by changing the language you use to describe them. Think about the motivations for their actions. Instead of “that illegal immigrant standing on the corner all day” think “my neighbor (insert name here), who happens to be undocumented, stood out in the sun all day waiting for the chance to work so that he could send some money back to his family." See if that doesn’t change your opinion of him.
4. Really think before you call the police. Ask yourself, 'Is this something that can be fixed by a simple conversation? Did a violent crime just happen?' If so, then of course you should call the police! But your neighbor playing their music too loud is not a police issue. Remember many communities have experienced, and still experience, real trauma at the hands of the police. While you may think a person has nothing to fear if they didn’t do anything wrong, an African American may be holding Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and Michael Dunn in their mind. A simple interaction with the police can trigger the collective PTSD from which the entire community may suffer.
5. Pay your taxes with the knowledge that your newly introduced tax base will contribute to neighborhood improvements and increased social programs. Lobby your elected officials to make sure their budgetary decisions prioritize these issues. Vote for progressive tax reforms. Many people take the fact that a neighborhood is rundown as an example of how taxes are not worth paying, instead of recognizing that the lack of a significant tax base is what is keeping substantial changes from coming to those neighborhoods.
6. Remember low-income communities and communities of color may be suffering from hundreds of years of historic trauma, and this trauma is very fresh in the minds of most people of color.
7. Recognize most of the perpetrators of crime have also been the victims of a system you have most likely benefited from disproportionately.
8. See all of your new communities' problems as opportunities for growth, creative problem solving and entrepreneurship. Refuse to complain about a problem unless you are willing to play an active, communal part in the solution.
9. Donate and/or volunteer at local organizations that build solidarity and add capacity to low-income communities of color.
10. Shop local and small. Go to the dive bars, hole in the wall restaurants and small mom and pop shops as often as the upscale restaurants, swanky bars, and boutiques.
11. If you are opening up a business, make sure your prices are within reach for the majority of people in the neighborhood you operate.
12. Hire locals, low-income folks, people of color and people from a variety of backgrounds. Take a chance on someone with low experience, but high potential. Hire someone who has been formerly incarcerated. Train some folks. Forgive them for not understanding the ins-and-outs of the workplace as quickly as you would like. If it doesn’t work out, clearly explain to them why and suggest some job training organizations that could help them develop the skills they need for the next job.
13. Recognize your new home has a very unique and vibrant history and culture, and you were attracted to this location because of the energy that is already here. You should be here to add to that history and culture, not to erase it. Remember, while it's a good start to support hole in the wall restaurants, you don’t gain culture simply by eating a burrito. You gain culture by engaging in a real and meaningful manner with the person who makes the burrito.
14. If you can, give to crowd-funded campaigns that support local projects. Encourage low-income folks to launch their own crowd-funded campaigns to help them go to college, get their car fixed so they can drive to work, buy a suit they can wear to an interview, or get a computer so they can pay attention to all that is going on in the community. Invest in your neighbors’ well being. A neighborhood where everyone’s needs are met is a safe neighborhood.
15. Identify your privileges. We all have them. Having a privilege is not necessarily the problem—it’s what you do with that privilege that counts. As an Afro-Latina woman, I am not who you would traditionally consider "privileged." However, I do have some privileges in this society over people who have darker skin, less education, a less respected job or less money. When I am in situations when these things act in my favor, I use my privilege to enrich myself and the people around me. I mentor people. I try to find jobs and internships for people of color. I teach people how to navigate city services. I know whatever success I gain, I didn’t gain it on my own. I have a responsibility to the community that has facilitated my success to be a resource and asset to those people still trying to make it.
16. If you create a neighborhood organization, make sure the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the group is reflective of the neighborhood. Actively recruit members who have differing perspectives. Find translators that can help facilitate the recruitment and retention of non-English speakers. If there is another organization working in the neighborhood, ask them what they are doing and how you can help, not the other way around.
17. If you plan any major projects in the neighborhood, make sure you do active outreach, and seek the opinions of all your neighbors. Put in the extra effort to build a consensus and make sure your project is in line with the existing community's goals.
18. Engage with the government and advocate on behalf of policies that benefit all the residents of your city, both those born and raised there and recent transplants. Support affordable housing, education funding, re-entry services, job training and placement programs.
19. Learn all that you can about the culture and history of your new home. Don't assume that just because positive changes haven't come to the community, that the community doesn't want change. They do. They just lack the financial means, political savvy and/or free time it takes to make it happen. Asking your neighbors what's been done before and what they want to see now can lead to neighborhood improvements that are inclusive of all perspectives—and your neighbors will be happy to finally get the help they need to make the improvements they've likely been dreaming of for years.
20. Fall in love with your new community, both for what it is and what it could be. Give your new neighbors the benefit of the doubt. Ask them how they'd like to be treated. Don't be afraid. Be nice to each other. Build community and understanding.
A similar article appeared in Oakland Local.