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You Can't Get Out of Being a Gentrifier, but You Can Fight the System

Gentrification is baked into our housing system. Good deeds won't get you out of it.

by Gretchen Brown
September 1, 2020 | Our Future

The Craigslist listings for rentals in Minneapolis' hottest neighborhoods say they're "up and coming" or "trendy." Northeast Minneapolis has lots of breweries. South Minneapolis is close to lakes and restaurants. 

They don't mention the structural inequity in these neighborhoods — the gentrification that has been spreading across the city since the beginning of the millennium.

They don't mention that by moving there, you're part of the problem.

According to one analysis of U.S. Census data, 39 Minneapolis neighborhoods gentrified between 2000 and 2015.

During that time, the city also built a new light rail system, baseball field and football stadium. Part of the city's warehouse district neighborhood near downtown was rebranded as the North Loop

This reinvestment brought middle class folks into downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Economic, political and social pressure

The word gentrification, broadly, is used to describe the movement of capital back into disinvested areas. It's also about the influx of people — middle class, often white — into these neighborhoods.

Home values downtown increased over 100 percent between 2000 and 2015. The city's northeast and south sides also saw home values increase drastically.

Neighborhood change isn't always a bad thing. Growth isn't bad.

But longtime residents often aren't able to stick around to reap the benefits of it. Gentrification is linked to both eviction and homelessness, as home values and rents rise. 

As gentrification has increased in cities across the country, the U.S. has also seen poverty increase in the suburbs as poor folks are pushed out of gentrifying working-class neighborhoods.

So how could Minneapolis, a city which has long viewed itself as a progressive bastion of the Midwest, promote such inequitable change?

For one thing, progressive doesn't mean equitable. The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May illuminated the racism and racial disparities that still exist in the city. 

In the Twin Cities metropolitan area, the median Black family earns half of what the median white family does. The Black unemployment rate there was double the white unemployment rate before the pandemic.

Minneapolis ranks among the most rapidly gentrifying cities in the country, just behind Portland, Oregon and Washington, D.C.

As much as folks know that gentrification has negative effects, it's sometimes hard to attach that word to the neighborhoods they know. It can be even harder to view yourself as a gentrifier, the force behind the change.

There's this concept in social psychology called moral self-licensing: doing one good thing makes you feel OK doing something more problematic down the road.

You might say this concept is at work in the well-meaning white person who moves into a gentrifying neighborhood.

But that word — gentrifier — really has nothing to do with your intentions at all.

"You can be crying yourself to sleep as a gentrifier with your good motives," said John Joe Schlichtman, an urban sociologist and associate professor at DePaul University, and author of the book Gentrifier. "And it's still going to be exerting economic, political and social pressure on a neighborhood."

To be passive is to be racist 

Just like racism, gentrification is structural. It is tied into the very way we build cities, how we value residential land based on exclusivity. In this system, homes aren't cultural artifacts, they're investments for future profit.

But that structure is held up by individual actions.

"If we are inheriting a structure of injustice, then our positionality within that structure of injustice is going to either work against that structure or give that structure inertia to be durable and sustain the way things are," Schlichtman said.

This doesn't mean that you can "good deed" your way out of being a gentrifier. You can't undo gentrification by shopping at your local bodega instead of Amazon, or the local restaurant down the street instead of Chipotle. 

These are "good neighbor" acts. They're not creating any structural change.

Similarly, you also can't get out of being a gentrifier by tiptoeing around instead of being part of the community.

a gentrifying neighborhood. REWIRE PBS Our Future gentrifier
The word gentrification, broadly, is used to describe the movement of capital back into disinvested areas. It's also about the influx of people — middle class, often white — into these neighborhoods.  |  Credit: Adobe

"If your feeling is 'I'm not going to participate in that, this is their neighborhood,' then why are you living there?" Schlichtman said.

There's no such thing as existing in a space passively. To be neutral is to be racist, said Henry Louis Taylor Jr., a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University at Buffalo.

"It's a moral responsibility. You can accept it or reject it, but that responsibility does not go away," he said.

You either fight against gentrification, or you're part of the problem.

Tools for the fight

Gentrification can be deadly in more ways than one. The South Minneapolis neighborhood where George Floyd was killed has, too, been gentrifying over the past 15 years, with home values up 40 percent.

There is a link between gentrification and over policing. When white folks move into a gentrifying neighborhood, they often engage in cultural warfare in the form of calling the police, often for low-level complaints like noise. In this way, they become an extension of the police force in their community, which can have deadly consequences. 

Lawyers for the family of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman killed by police in ‎Louisville, Kentucky, say her apartment building was targeted for gentrification.

Fighting against gentrification means not only refusing to serve as an extension of the police force, but also working with your neighbors to become truly culturally diverse — meaning that the cultural practices of other groups are given primacy within the space.

"You can fight for the establishment of land trusts that will disrupt the existing housing market and create opportunities for groups to develop low-rent housing units," Taylor said. 

"You can fight for inclusive zoning laws that further diversify the area. And you can make a personal commitment that you're not there in order to increase your wealth by buying a house at one price and selling it at another. Or by engaging in what I call fake heterogeneity, where you retain all the cultural symbols but get rid of all the people."

Of course, all gentrifiers had a choice whether to move into the neighborhood. They chose to be a gentrifier, for one reason or another.

But even if you're not technically a gentrifier where you live, you're still responsible for upholding the system elsewhere. As a resident in an exclusive, all-white neighborhood, your very existence is contributing to the devaluation of other communities.

You're still accountable, Taylor said.

Aside from legal and economic tools used to fight against gentrification, there are cultural tools. A new protest movement is rising across the country in response to changing cities.

Activists are rallying against gentrification in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Chicago and Austin, taking to the streets to tell their own stories.

"Applying cultural pressure and saying, 'This is where you're living in case you don't know and in case you don't care,'" Schlichtman said. "That's important too, and that might be the most powerful pressure of all."

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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