Cities have long been considered the ultimate manifestation of humans. The intricacy of infrastructure, the engineered layout of roads, the beautiful design of antique houses. There has never been a more elaborate construct save for space travel. But the nests that we have built with the intricate systems for survival and comfort sometimes become abandoned because of sprawl, or because of undesirable conditions. Sometimes you just give in and walk away. For the last half century this has been happening across American urban cores. Yet now there is a renaissance for return, for gilding the neglected lily, an opportunity for re-use and a return to our urban roots.
The mere mention of “gentrification” should carry a trigger warning. What was once considered a racist reversal of white flight and class warfare, gentrification has now reaped huge benefits for the early residents of these neighborhoods. The idea that somehow poor neighborhoods become influxed with yuppies and their money is a bad thing is based in an emotional response and not economic facts. Let’s examine the upsides: a lowering of crime rates, an increase in property valuation and property tax, resulting in improved public resources and better local amenities, new dining and entertainment options, and a quixotic and ethnically diverse blending of varying socio-economic walks of life. The original poor and ingrained population does not always move out. In fact they usually stay for the duration, to reap and enjoy the awards of this supposed evil gentrification. If they were fortunate enough to have owned their homes they have likely tripled their original investment, if not multiple times over. This financial upside runs counter to the usual gripe that non-white neighborhoods lack for investments.
Gentrification brings money and people into historically depopulated neighborhoods. Without this influx the neighborhoods that have been historically labeled “poor,” will remain just that, poor. The blending of the lower income and minority populations with the bearded hipsters and deep pocket empty nesters brings a charming integration that provides for a boosting to the economy. The implied narrative that poor people should live with other poor people, and rich whitey should live with other rich whiteys is a segregationist impulse. Any assault to the status quo can be blamed on the evil gentrification. When the displacement of the poor, and their forcing out of the neighborhood, does not happen the result is their reaping of the benefits. The newly arrived suburbanite Diaspora bears the burden of new costs, like renovation, increased property tax, and investment in local small business. Jobs are created and the local economy can thrive even in the face of annoying millennial cheap chic. You know, that perfectly executed disheveled aesthetic that must be denied at all costs.
Opposing gentrification can sometimes be seen as nothing more than a glorified virtue signaling, a NIMBYism against white culture and hipsterdom. The addition of avocado toast to the cafe menu is nothing to fear as it is a trend and will be gone soon enough, making room for the next new Whitey craze. In other words, Becky’s brunch is not something institutional but rather it is as fleeting as the cool factor of her college tattoo.
Words bring with them emotion. Switch out “gentrification” with “renaissance” and what do you feel? The American cities that have been in decline for over half a century deserve any and all attention we can give them. Buying into the dream of urban sprawl just brings longer commutes, housing that lacks charm, four car garage McMansions, and a heightened and paranoiac sense of keeping up with the Joneses in the form of steroid-like retail therapy on the big box level. When we turn our gaze from the suburban horizon back to the local street we can affect change. The charm in the disfunction and the challenge to polish the patina only so much, to restore only to a point, to leave less of a footprint and more of a contribution. When gentrification is done right it can be a serum to what divides us as a nation. Race, politics, religion, poverty and neglect. A coexisting done right survives for the long haul and resets us to our original settler mindframes of city building and integration. It is as if we have come full circle on the experiment of the American city and the reason it feels comfortable and familiar is because we have been here before.