Friday, November 25, 2011

Racial Issues: Does gentrification have to divide races in the United States?

Does gentrification have to divide races in the United States?

by Chris Wilder

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - Over the last few years, low-income residents of inner-city neighbourhoods all over America have been getting pushed out. As new residents move in, racial tensions sometimes result in cities with a dynamic like that of Philadelphia, where the majority of displaced people are black and the newcomers are mostly white. Although this phenomenon is primarily linked to income levels, when established communities are faced with an influx of people who have different cultures and interests, there is potential for conflict and tension.

Co-operative living, government subsidies, and effective community organising are potential solutions to help overcome these challenges.

The phenomenon described above is called gentrification. In the 1960s, urban geographer Ruth Glass first used the term gentrification, describing how dilapidated properties in working class neighbourhoods were purchased and renovated by middle-class individuals, which eventually displaced working class residents and changed the social character of the neighbourhood.

Lower-income and working-class residents are displaced as building owners renovate to accommodate wealthier new residents and collect more in rent. While improving the quality of properties can be seen as a good thing, this can be problematic for existing renters who generally cannot afford the rent increase and have to move, or for property owners who face increased property taxes and may be forced to sell.

Gentrification creates conflict when new residents are not aware of, or do not respect, the cultural characteristics of the neighbourhood. This was the case when the Third Street Church of God in Washington, DC wanted to knock down buildings on its property to expand its parking lot. Because the church had long been a stronghold in the black community, black residents on the neighbourhood council voted for it, while white council members voted against it, citing neighbourhood preservation.

In another example, in Harlem, black and African drummers have been drumming in Marcus Garvey Park since 1969, but residents of the new luxury co-op across the street complained about the noise and clashed with them. According to a 6 July 2008 article in the New York Times by Timothy Williams, one of the residents sent an email to others in his building suggesting that they “get nooses for every one of the lowlifes and hang them from a tree.”

For long term residents of gentrifying neighbourhoods, episodes like these build resentment and feed suspicion that new, predominantly white residents bring problems.

However, it does not have to be this way.

There are several steps that can be taken to allow neighbourhoods to improve economically without fuelling conflict between new and old residents along what are often manifested as racial lines.

Co-operative living is one way to handle this. Lipscomb Square, a 65-unit co-op complex in Philadelphia, was founded by a group of black Americans back in the late 1970s as the neighbourhood was becoming gentrified. The group obtained a bank loan, secured by the office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to build the complex.

The co-op’s board approves new residents who can afford the relatively low rent for the area. And if someone’s income is greatly reduced for any reason, HUD will subsidize their rent because the agency believes it is in their best interest to keep turnover and vacancy rates low. This is a model that could be replicated across the country.

City, state or federal government could be involved as well. All over Philadelphia, crumbling public housing projects, which used to be nearly 100 per cent black-occupied, are being torn down and replaced with much nicer, affordable, single-family homes. Many of the same people are able to return to the neighbourhood as owners, with the help of government-backed programs, such as the Section 8 Homeownership Voucher Program, which pays qualifying applicants a monthly sum of money based on their current earnings, which can be counted as income to secure a home loan.

Effective community organizing is also an absolute necessity. Community groups can work with the city to alter zoning regulations, develop vacant properties and enforce existing laws that cater to low-income housing.

Cultural and historical aspects of a neighbourhood are often part of what attracts new residents and endears old ones. It is therefore in everyone’s best interest to preserve them.


*Chris Wilder is the former editor-in-chief of the Source Sports Magazine and currently covers race and sports for several publications.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews) Copyright permission is granted for publication.