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'Good' Gentrification

By King Williams

I often get asked if there’s a scenario where gentrification can be good. I fully understand why someone would ask this question, but the answer is a resounding no.

After a lengthy and ongoing conversation on both my Instagram and Twitter accounts, I was notified about a particular clip making rounds on the Internet.

Over the past week, I’ve been tagged to a recent viral clip from the business podcast Earn Your Leisure. The weekly podcast focuses on Black and Latinx entrepreneurs who are finding success in untraditional ways in traditional businesses.

The clip features black real estate professional, Mr. Chris Ward of Houston, who states that you should gentrify your own neighborhood to save it.

 

This echoes a similar notion from Jay Z this spring at a concert in support of slain entrepreneur and rapper Nipsey Hussle. Our very own T.I. has said something of similar ilk last year during a HOT97 morning show interview.

While I still respect the hustle of what Chris Ward is doing in Houston, what T.I. is doing here in Atlanta and the Earn Your Leisure podcast, this is absolutely wrong. And please for the love of god, do not gentrify your own neighborhood.

Gentrification doesn’t solve issues of poverty, it merely shifts them. The idea of gentrifying your own community is based on good intention but it does reflect a lack of understanding what gentrification is.

These proclamations come from the rise in Black capitalism sentiments of the post-Obama years and the Buy Back the Block movement. Promoting more Black homeownership, Black entrepreneurship and community investment is one I truly support.

But if we are trying to gentrify our own neighborhoods, we would be perpetuating the same negative systems that have hurt us in the past.

It’s here where people must take a hard pause and understand there is a difference between gentrification  and community investment or community reinvestment.

LET’S STOP USING GENTRIFICATION AS A CATCH-ALL TERM

One of the reasons people think gentrification can be good is because they conflate it with community reinvestment. In reality, these are two very different concepts.

Gentrification is a byproduct of feudalism and a cousin to colonialism. It’s hard to have a positive experience when this is your source material. Gentrification by practice will lead to the negative economic, cultural and demographic changes.

Community reinvestment is led by the idea of people before profits. While it doesn’t disregard profit entirely, its priority is that the economic and civil gains are more equitably distributed for everyone.

And before you say it, no, this has nothing to do with socialism, I promise.

$400,000 Condos arriving in East Atlanta Village. An area that is a byproduct of gentrification is being gentrified.
Photo by Kelly Jordan

THE MYTH OF GOOD GENTRIFICATION

When people talk to me about “good” gentrification, they are usually coming from one of three perspectives:
Perspective #1: Get money.

“I’m getting paid, so you could be getting paid,” or “any new development is good, so I shouldn’t feel bad” or…

Perspective #2… This is a good thing.

“Listen __ wasn’t great or it’s not as good as ___, so it needed to be gentrified and you should want this too” or…
Perspective #3… ‘Gentrifying Guilt’.

“I don’t want to be a gentrifier but I want a nice, affordable place to live.”

Regarding “Get Money.”
I understand the hustle, but you need to be honest with yourself. To benefit from gentrification requires participating in a system that will lead to real winners and real losers.

In my experience, when people say ‘good’ gentrification they are speaking from their personal gains or the net perceived good of new things. They never think that this could all happen without gentrification ever coming into play.

Gentrification can only exist if there is a socio-economic disparity to be exploited. Gentrification requires a constant supply of lower-income workers/residents, available space and cheaper land, usually as a result of purposeful underdevelopment.

This is because gentrification shifts the problems of income, inequality and societal issues from one place to another. Gentrification as a solution doesn’t solve anything as it often shifts existing problems.

Regarding “This is a good thing.”
This is when I usually tell people that you can have new investment without gentrification. Gentrification is a choice, but so is purposeful investment.

Investment in communities almost always reflects the attitudes of the statement ‘Get Money’ and this is also when I’d hear a version of one place isn’t as ‘good’ as another.

Your price is right sign on a building on Donald Lee Hollowell Pkwy (Bankhead Hwy)
Photo by Kelly Jordan

“What’s wrong with making things better King?” “Do you want these places to remain rundown?”

This is usually when I have to pause to not say something that would get me fired. What comes next from said person, is a series of statements that justify gentrification as a way to meet that standard of “good.”

Some of which are based on solid comparative logic such as Atlanta’s oversupply of grocery stores above I-20, contrasted with nearly none below it or located disproportionately in communities of color.

But often I find a large number of people who want the same level of consumer choices as found in other pockets of both the city of Atlanta and the metro area. Typically, these people have suburban tastes, with a focus on chain restaurants, grocery store, some version of a shopping mall and national retail brands.

Well at least we didn’t nearly see a metro Atlanta city nearly gentrify itself via succession during an electoral cycle last fall for a Cheesecake Factory.

Is this really what we want?

Regarding ‘Gentrifying Guilt’.

What I believe people are asking about when they ask for “good gentrification” is equitable community reinvestment, not gentrification.

These people are self-aware of their respective position, and generally want to be ‘good’ residents of their community – meaning they actively want to not be that person, the stereotypical gentrifier. This group tends to be the most willing to actively advocate and educate themselves on the area but also the least likely to know where to start.

 

COMMUNITY REINVESTMENT IS ≠  TO GENTRIFICATION

There is no such thing as ‘good’ gentrification, thats like asking for diet capitalism. It’s the idea that a rebranding of a problematic substance can make the audience feel better for their decisions once they aware of the negative consequences.

Community reinvestment, unlike gentrification, is not a zero-sum game but it will take effort and buy-in from everyone. Gentrification is always avoidable and the biggest barrier to combating it is to decide if we as a society want to.

Community reinvestment is about keeping a place for the old while bringing in the new. The new coffee shop and the old barbershop could both be inhabitants of the same space. New investment does not and should not lead to displacement.

Community reinvestment is simply building upon what currently exists and what its needs are. Rather than trying to make gentrification a good thing, we need to be focused on making this type of growth possible.

King Williams is a multimedia documentary film director and author based in Atlanta, Georgia. King’s documentary “The Atlanta Way: A Documentary on Gentrification” will be released this Summer. He is an associate producer on the upcoming Sara Burns (daughter of documentarian Ken Burns)/Dave McMahon’s 2019 documentary – ‘East Lake’ – on the former East Lake Meadows housing project. King can be reached at [email protected] or @iamkingwilliams on Instagram and Twitter. His number is: 470-310-1795.

4 replies
  1. Avatar
    Mark Jones says:

    I'd love to read something from you on where you provide facts and data on the statements made, in oppose to your biased and very shortsighted opinion. Example A. Okay, I want to invest in the community, because this is what you stated is needed. My investment is that I, along with 25 of my friends, decide to buy homes in a community that have otherwise been abandoned and boarded up. We will live in these homes with our families, and become very active in that neighborhood. We will volunteer at the local school, as well as mentor kids, etc. A year later, those same 25 friends have most likely informed their friends, and now they're also looking to buy in the same neighborhood because hey, we too support community investment. If this cycle continues, it becomes supply and demand, and the property values of other homes increase. Then more investments are made in an area, then more desirable it becomes. You can't run from it. The only way to stop it is to leave the place looking like crap, as well as keeping it unsafe.Report

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    R L says:

    Mark,

    There actually is a way out of it – non-commodified housing. It's true that that issue is inevitable if housing is directed by what's profitable, because capital will flow to the areas where profits can be made – as King said, "if there is a socio-economic disparity to be exploited" [between different desirable residential places]. But it's completely possible to move housing policy out of the sphere of markets and into the sphere of democracy by things like community land trusts, public or social housing, etc… at which point you can improve places without leading to displacement and so on. There are still pitfalls but while there's an inherent tension between capitalist real estate and peoples' need for housing, with decommodified housing it's a solvable policy question, and one which has worked very well in many cases. For example, British council homes (until the 80s or so) or New York's approach to public housingReport

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Mark J says:

    RL,

    I understand your position, but let's discuss in a world of reality, not make believe. Atlanta is not a huh density city. As a matter of fact, the sprawl of metro Atlanta for various economic and social reasons is why Atlanta will never be able to implement any type of market capped housing (rent control). As far as land trusts, that only doable if he property owners are willing to sell, and if the Trust feels that the price is worth the value. Only if they're over spending will those that have accumulated parcels be willing to sell traditionally and fast. If you take communities where the majority of the homes are SFH, what is the answer? What King stated is unrealistic rhetoric for the most part. There needs to be a concerted focus on multi family housing developments, not a focus in areas that are mostly SFH. You get a better impact by doing this in oppose to paying investors for their property.Report

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Maya Hall says:

    Thank you; good read. The new vogue is to deride expressions of fear about gentrification as short-sighted or to gas-light folks who stand against it. Deride all you want, folks. We see it, we're calling out gentrification and we're fighting it.
    Don't speculate on land, homes and neighborhoods the City couldn't be bothered about before.Report

    Reply

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