Gentrification Is Not About Race and Class, but Fear of Outsiders

More than anything else, gentrification is about the tension between the mobile and the stuck.
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More than anything else, gentrification is about the tension between the mobile and the stuck.
Charleston's French Protestant Church is one of only two remaining Huguenot churches in America. (PHOTO: AKHENATON06/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Charleston's French Protestant Church is one of only two remaining Huguenot churches in America. (PHOTO: AKHENATON06/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Poverty and prosperity, economic globalization continues to pull apart the neighborhoods of New York City. Albeit nascent, the same forces remake Charleston, South Carolina. Urban gentrification and segregation in the Deep South:

In Charleston, the upper peninsula is swiftly becoming gentrification central, as young, middle-class families move into what were once solid working-class neighborhoods. As they move in, home and land values rise, which means property taxes rise. Soon, what used to be affordable is no longer. Of course, this is nothing new. The same progression has happened all over the city in different places at different periods of time, says Dr. Ade Ofunniyin (or "Dr. O"), who is the founder of the now-closed community center Studio P.S. and a professor at the College of Charleston. "Charleston used to be 70 percent African American not too long ago, in my lifetime," he says (Dr. O is in his 60s). "People were forced out. You had the building of the Gaillard Auditorium — that was a black community. You had the building of I-26 — that was a black community. You had a lot of development that displaced people." ...

... Dr. O is good friends with Kate Nevin, the founder of Enough Pie, but is very clear about the racial issues he believes the organization will have to take into account. And they're big issues, with long histories. "This [racial] sickness, this disease that lives in Charleston — it's generational. We didn't treat it 200 years ago, we didn't treat it 100 years ago, we didn't treat it 25 years ago, and we're still not treating it. We're just moving along." He compares the remaking of the upper peninsula now to the remaking of historic Charleston a century ago. "They wanted to preserve the antebellum, nostalgic sentiments around what Charleston represented and its past so they assembled some artists and poets and intellects to create that. It's the same way that they're being assembled now to create a new Charleston. The upper peninsula — you've got your artists, poets, intellects, and so on. In the same way that the African-American community was not included in the design of historic Charleston, they're not being included in the design of the new Charleston. I can't say that they're not included because a deliberate attempt is being made to exclude them, but if you're not invited to the party, then you're not going to show up at the party."

No one could accuse Enough Pie of trying to exclude anyone from their meetings, but it's probably fair to say they've underestimated the complexities of their chosen region. North Central, for example, has undergone major changes in the past few years, many of which have made life more unpredictable for longtime residents. The Dart library's Odom can speak directly to the changes she's seen. "It's different from the gentrification that's going on in, say, the Eastside," she says. "[Here], homeowners are aging, and the trend has been younger people moving in. They're buying up the houses, but they're not necessarily staying." This creates higher home values and higher taxes, which is putting many people who've lived there for years — many of whom are elderly — in the precarious position of losing their houses because they can't pay the taxes. "It's an incredible tax on the community," Odom says. "There's so much change impacting their truth, what they live day to day."

Emphasis added. Is racism at the heart of the "gentrification" problem? What about class? Among professional geographers, the definition of the term is contested. You know it when you see it. Gentrification expresses class warfare spatially. I think of gentrification as the tension between the mobile and the stuck.

Class upward mobility in place, without people moving into a neighborhood, could displace other residents. Since the upwardly mobile typically move out of poorer neighborhoods, we don't see much of that type of gentrification. But if the newly successful did stay put, would we demonize these gentrifiers?

Conversely, recent immigrant arrivals to the city can displace the rooted without bringing with them higher incomes. They are members of the same class as the other residents of the neighborhood. The foreign born are also upwardly mobile relative to the citizens of the country from whence they came. At a national scale, we don't see gentrification. At a global scale, we most certainly do.

Newcomers, of any class, aren't welcome. Gentrification is not about race or class. It is about xenophobia. A recent article in the New York Times rips to shreds the traditional concept of gentrification:

Boyle Heights has historically attracted immigrants from Eastern Europe, Russia, Japan and Mexico. In the 1960s, it became a hotbed of Chicano activism, and many of the colorful murals over dozens of walls are a vivid reminder of the era. For those moving back now, the idea that they are pushing others out is the source of much consternation. ...

... Whatever the changes are called, poor renters here are likely to suffer, said Leonardo Vilchis, an organizer with Union de Vecinos, a tenant rights organization.

“People want to pretend that their actions don’t have an impact on the people already living here, but when the prices go up, the poor have to go someplace else,” Mr. Vilchis said during a recent discussion at Self Help Graphics. “Coming back is emblematic of some kind of opportunism. We had children going to college two decades ago, but back then it wasn’t cool to live here.”

Emphasis added. Former residents who grew up in this neighborhood left in search of opportunity. Upon return, they are wrecking Boyle Heights. They don't belong here. They are gentrifiers. The Chipsters must die.

The Second Great Migration, after World War II, had its own ironic gentrification:

Migrants to the North did improve their real wages, as Seth Sanders documents in "The Great Migration and African-American Mortality": "Black men in Mississippi in 1960 were earning $14,765 [in 2010 dollars] annually while migrants to the north were earning nearly $28,687." But this was only marginally more than migrants within the former Confederacy made: "What is of note is that migrants within the south earn $28,286 nearly the same level of earnings as migrants to the north." Sanders also found that migration did not improve mortality rates—perhaps because of the persistent effects of early-life poverty, perhaps because of increased housing costs in the North.

Sanders explains that one reason migrants made so much more money were higher levels of education, as a lack of resources and knowledge hindered migration. "One myth they had to overcome," Wilkerson writes, "was that they were bedraggled hayseeds just off the plantation." (White southerners, from the smaller migration out of Appalachia, encountered virtually identical stereotypes in Chicago.) In the later periods of the Great Migration, migrant Southern blacks had not just more education than those who stayed behind, they had more than Northern whites as well.

Blacks who migrated earned twice what blacks made who stayed put. Concerning prosperity, migration trumps race and class. But African-Americans displacing other African-Americans doesn't seem to rate as gentrification. Yesterday's Great Migration from the Cotton Belt to Chicago is no different than those who move from the rural Salvadoran village of El Palón to South Central Los Angeles today. Both fly under the radar when we discuss gentrification as if places develop, not people.