By King Williams
Last week, multi-hyphenate rapper and entrepreneur, Jay-Z performed at the recent grand re-opening of the historic Webster Hall performance venue in New York City.
During his set, he took time to address the murder of Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle in a brief freestyle that took off on Twitter, and was widely discussed on daytime talk shows.
Nipsey Hussle’s long-term vision of Crenshaw was development by and for the district, and his legacy has inspired many people to re-evaluate how to improve their own communities.
By employing the formerly incarcerated, purchasing entire shopping plazas, seeing federal government-listed opportunity zones as a tool for combating gentrification, or building a branded “smart” clothing store to celebrate Crenshaw without irony or appropriation, Hussle was able to uplift his community. By spearheading the public art initiative Destination Crenshaw, which tells the history and culture of the black experience in the neighborhood, Hussle helped the others view Crenshaw as a place of pride.
Nipsey Hussle knew Crenshaw’s struggles were similar to many places facing gentrification, where plans are made in neighborhoods without community advocates, capital and cultural competency.
Which leads us back to Jay Z’s comments.
“Gentrify your own hood before these people do it.
Claim eminent domain and have your people move in.
That’s a small glimpse into what Nipsey was doing.
For anybody still confused as to what he was doing.”
So before we get into this, let’s make a few things clear:
Gentrification is about power, it’s very complicated and – generally speaking – historically negative. And Jay-Z, like many people are confusing gentrification, with… well… Everything.
A quick note – I’ve been working in the field of educating and documenting gentrification in Atlanta since 2008. I am currently revamping an older documentary of mine called, “The Atlanta Way: A Documentary on Gentrification.” I’m an associate producer on the upcoming PBS documentary on the rebuilding on the East Lake Meadows housing projects, and I’ve spent the last 11 years lecturing, advising and educating people on gentrification.
Let’s get this out of the way now…there is no such thing as ‘good gentrification.’ Period. Add to that list, ‘genteel gentrification’, ‘positive gentrification’ and anything else that makes gentrifiers feel good about themselves.
Jay-Z’s statement implies there is some type of “good” gentrification out there, which simply isn’t the case. But instead of getting caught in the semantics, let’s unpack what gentrification means and what better practices look like.
The root of the word is gentry, specifically the landed gentry (the “haves”) of feudal-era England, but it comes from an older French word ‘gentrise’ meaning ‘of noble birth.’ “Gentrification” as a term didn’t take off, though, until London-based sociologist Ruth Glass used it in 1964.
Glass coined the term to describe the changes she was noticing in the changes of middle-income people moving into the more working-class industrial districts of London. It was this observation by Glass that has morphed into the definition referenced by people today, which I find both helpful and limiting.
It doesn’t surprise me when Jay Z tells the crowd “to gentrify your own hood before they do it.” The meaning is well-intentioned but there are better ways to frame this. I believe Jay Z’s is really getting at is revitalization and community reinvestment, not gentrification.
Gentrification can only happen if there are two unequal sides.
Gentrification can only happen if there is any opportunity to be exploited.
Gentrification is a product of economic incentive and government policy.
Gentrification can lead to displacement.
Gentrification is a feature, not a bug of the marketplace.
Community reinvestment is planning as a counterbalance to gentrification.
Community reinvestment involves improvements for current residents, not future ones.
Community reinvestment requires community involvement and feedback.
Community reinvestment is proper growth planning for everyone.
Community reinvestment isn’t tax breaks for companies to move in, it’s helping companies already within the community thrive.
The problem with most large scaled community reinvestment strategies is that governments are looking more for a big name like Elon Musk, Mercedes-Benz or Walmart to be bringers of change. In more equitable situations, though, it’s been the Nipsey Hussle’s advocating for investment in their communities.
We can avoid gentrification by reinvesting in the people who live and work here already. People who already have a firm grip on what can work and are more likely themselves to be place-keepers instead of place-makers. But it will take time, and more importantly, it will take real effort.