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.
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.
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.
“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.